Activist Cori Frazer speaking at Netroots Nation 2022
Cori Frazer, the co-founder and executive director of the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy, participates in Dobbs and Roe: Queer, Gender-Expansive Visions for Abortion Care at Netroots Nation 2022. (Photo: Caya Berndt/NPI)

Wel­come to the sec­ond install­ment of NPI at Net­roots Nation 2022, a spe­cial lim­it­ed pod­cast series record­ed live from the David L. Lawrence Con­ven­tion Cen­ter in Pitts­burgh. NPI staff jour­neyed to Steel City this past week to par­tic­i­pate in the nation’s largest annu­al gath­er­ing of pro­gres­sive activists.

As part of our con­fer­ence cov­er­age, we’re bring­ing you a series of con­ver­sa­tions with key move­ment lead­ers and elect­ed officials.

In this install­ment of NPI@NN, we’re hon­ored to be joined by Cori Fraz­er, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor at the Pitts­burgh Cen­ter for Autis­tic Advo­ca­cy. Press play below to lis­ten to the audio, or read the tran­script below.

Listen

Read the transcript

(Note: this tran­script has been edit­ed light­ly for clarity) 

CAYA: Wel­come to NPI at Net­roots Nation ‘22, a spe­cial lim­it­ed pod­cast series from the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute record­ed live from the David L. Lawrence Con­ven­tion Cen­ter in Pitts­burgh, Penn­syl­va­nia! I’m your host, Caya Berndt. We are so glad to have you with us again. For this install­ment, we are excit­ed to be joined by Cori Fraz­er from the Pitts­burgh Cen­ter for Autis­tic Advocacy. 

Wel­come to the pod­cast, Cori! 

CORI: Thank you Caya.

CAYA: Would you mind start­ing by telling our lis­ten­ers… tell us about who you are and what you do? 

CORI: I’m Cori Fraz­er; my pro­nouns are they/them. I am a mul­ti­ply dis­abled, non-bina­ry licensed social work­er here in Penn­syl­va­nia. I am the co-founder and exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Pitts­burgh Cen­ter for Autis­tic Advocacy. 

I do a lot of work both local­ly, statewide, and nation­al­ly, to address dis­par­i­ties faced by peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, par­tic­u­lar­ly neu­ro­di­ver­gent peo­ple, but we have worked with any dis­abled per­son who needs basi­cal­ly any kind of sup­port. If we can fig­ure out how to do it, we try and make it happen.

I also do con­sult­ing work, jus­tice work, and work with researchers and school dis­tricts. How­ev­er we can use mutu­al aid and crit­i­cal and rad­i­cal social work, and jus­tice frame­works to make the world a more sur­viv­able place for dis­abled folks, we try to do it. 

CAYA: What led you into your own advo­ca­cy jour­ney? How did you get start­ed on this path? 

CORI: I often say the first action that I led was a Day of Silence back in maybe 2007 or 2008 in my rur­al con­ser­v­a­tive high school. I was a queer kid, I came out when I was like six­teen, and in a place where peo­ple weren’t queer, that’s obvi­ous­ly never…

CAYA: That’s nev­er a fun time.

CORI: So, you know. I fig­ured it out because things weren’t right. And I don’t like it when things aren’t okay and peo­ple are being hurt. 

And I kind of… I moved away. I moved to Pitts­burgh for col­lege and got involved with work with Planned Par­ent­hood. My first year of col­lege was also the year that Occu­py hap­pened here in Pitts­burgh. I was very involved with cam­pus wom­en’s orga­ni­za­tion at col­lege. I still iden­ti­fied as a girl. I did a lot of work, sort of around sex­u­al assault on cam­pus­es… and I don’t know, a lot of dif­fer­ent issues that came up in my life around trans rights. 

When the Uni­ver­si­ty of Pitts­burgh was being sued for expelling a trans stu­dent for using the wrong lock­er room, and they had this pol­i­cy where trans folks were sup­posed to present their birth cer­tifi­cate to use the bath­room, like…. I don’t know. My lived expe­ri­ence led me to be involved in a lot of things. 

And then, right after col­lege, I was diag­nosed with autism. 

I real­ly was­n’t in a posi­tion to work in the main­stream work­force. It was­n’t some­thing, with my dis­abil­i­ty, that I was real­ly able to handle.

And com­ing at that from the same kind of per­spec­tive, think­ing about pow­er and oppres­sion, I start­ed work­ing with the autis­tic self-advo­ca­cy net­work to do work here, and as they moved away from a chap­ter mod­el, I moved into lead­ing my own orga­ni­za­tion. Well, I say mine, but it’s ours. Our com­mu­ni­ty’s orga­ni­za­tion to real­ly give autis­tic peo­ple self-deter­mi­na­tion and a voice here in Pittsburgh. 

CAYA: You were part of a pan­el here at Net­roots — it was called “Dobbs and Roe: Queer, Gen­der-Expan­sive Visions for Abor­tion Care.” And in it, you talked about some of the ways that the repro­duc­tive rights move­ment and abor­tion rights have left dis­abled peo­ple behind. Can you tell us a lit­tle bit more about how that has shown up in your work? 

CORI: So, La’Tasha Mayes was also part of the pan­el, and La’Tasha brought up the Hyde Amend­ment, as well as some of the leg­is­la­tion in Penn­syl­va­nia where Repub­li­cans in the gen­er­al assem­bly have tried to cod­i­fy that same kind of Hyde Amend­ment, [where] Med­ic­aid dol­lars can’t pay for abor­tion care. 

While I think it’s impor­tant to rec­og­nize that most dis­abled peo­ple get Med­ic­aid, a large piece of that pro­gram is there specif­i­cal­ly because cor­po­rate insur­ance gen­er­al­ly does­n’t care or cov­er a lot of those things, in terms of like, atten­dant care, the kinds of ser­vices like…community and reha­bil­i­ta­tion, and those sorts of things, which means that right out of the gate, abor­tion care is not acces­si­ble because Social Secu­ri­ty ben­e­fits that dis­abled peo­ple hope­ful­ly get, and not every­body gets because it is a real­ly sort of unjust and dif­fi­cult sys­tem to nav­i­gate. Like it’s only, I think, around $800 a month? 

So just like, finan­cial­ly, abor­tion becomes out of reach.

CAYA: That’s not very much to live on at all.

CORI: It’s not! There is no place in the state that you can get an apart­ment for that, let alone live. So, finan­cial­ly abor­tion becomes out of reach. 

But then there’s also… we’ve seen specif­i­cal­ly tar­get­ed attacks on abor­tion from the per­spec­tive of dis­abil­i­ty where the Repub­li­cans in the Leg­is­la­ture intro­duced bills to make abor­tion ille­gal in the case where a fetus is pre­na­tal­ly diag­nosed with Down Syn­drome. So the ter­mi­na­tion of fetal Down syn­drome is an issue, right? We see there are few­er peo­ple with Down syn­drome being born than there ever have. In some coun­tries, there are zero.

And this is a jus­tice issue, because peo­ple with Down Syn­drome are peo­ple, and the con­ver­sa­tion about the worth of these peo­ple’s lives and their right to live in the com­mu­ni­ty and have full lives is real­ly…. how­ev­er peo­ple with Down syn­drome are also peo­ple with rights, and most peo­ple with Down syn­drome, if they choose to par­ent, their baby will have Down syndrome.

And if they don’t choose to par­ent and become preg­nant, they should also have the right to abor­tion. So we can’t use dis­abil­i­ty and devel­op­men­tal dis­abil­i­ties, like Down syn­drome, and kind of this con­cern trolling, to lim­it that. 

It’s an impor­tant con­ver­sa­tion where many peo­ple who get the pre­na­tal diag­no­sis, the doc­tor might nev­er even offer them any infor­ma­tion about what it means to raise a per­son with Down syn­drome, what it means for that poten­tial child’s life, and they just go straight to termination. 

That’s a prob­lem. Lim­it­ing the auton­o­my of the peo­ple car­ry­ing the preg­nan­cies does­n’t solve our soci­ety’s abil­i­ty to actu­al­ly val­ue the lives of dis­abled peo­ple. Espe­cial­ly, and we did­n’t talk about this, but in Penn­syl­va­nia, our ser­vices for peo­ple with devel­op­men­tal dis­abil­i­ties to live ful­ly in the com­mu­ni­ty, we have a wait­ing list of over 12,000 people. 

Many of those peo­ple will not get ser­vices in the com­mu­ni­ty in their life­times. We have seen law­suits because peo­ple who have been com­plete­ly acquit­ted of charges, and who have devel­op­men­tal dis­abil­i­ties, have been held in jail for months because there are not ser­vices or place­ments for them in the community. 

And the answer to this can­not be remov­ing repro­duc­tive rights. It has to be valu­ing the lives of liv­ing peo­ple with disabilities.

CAYA: So it almost seems like they’re tak­ing this issue and using it to advance their agen­da, when that real­ly isn’t the issue at all, it’s that they’re not valu­ing these lives in the first place and not invest­ing in them right now. 

CORI: Cor­rect. We are not tools for rhetor­i­cal argu­ments. We’re humans.

CAYA: That’s real­ly pow­er­ful. And I think one of the things that came up for me dur­ing the dis­cus­sion, we touched on this as well, is that deny­ing the bod­i­ly auton­o­my of peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties is real­ly, real­ly dan­ger­ous because those are peo­ple who are real­ly, real­ly vul­ner­a­ble to things like sex­u­al assault. 

I think that you had said that there was a pret­ty big per­cent­age of dis­abled peo­ple who were at risk for that sort of thing, right?

CORI: Yeah. The Arc did a study a few years ago now, and the results were that… and they only looked at bina­ry gen­ders here, but they said that 80% of women with devel­op­men­tal dis­abil­i­ties would be sex­u­al­ly abused five or more times by the time they turned eigh­teen, and 60% of men with devel­op­men­tal dis­abil­i­ties. First of all, we have to address this. We have to address why are vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple with devel­op­men­tal dis­abil­i­ties being put in these situations. 

And part of that is sex­u­al edu­ca­tion, and the refusal to acknowl­edge peo­ple’s com­pe­tence as human beings and giv­ing peo­ple the abil­i­ty to be sexual. 

Because peo­ple with devel­op­men­tal dis­abil­i­ties, and I say this as an autis­tic per­son, have the same range of sex­u­al­i­ty and asex­u­al­i­ty as every­one else. 

If you don’t have access to safe sex­u­al­i­ty, you are at much high­er risk of being sex­u­al­ly vic­tim­ized. Like­wise with sex edu­ca­tion, we know that sex edu­ca­tion is a pro­tec­tive fac­tor in sex­u­al abuse, but we exclude peo­ple in life skills class­rooms, peo­ple in seg­re­gat­ed edu­ca­tion, peo­ple with sig­nif­i­cant dis­abil­i­ties from sex edu­ca­tion, and we’re just putting peo­ple at more risk.

We put peo­ple at more risk and we are also, at the same time, lim­it­ing peo­ple’s abil­i­ty to make an informed choice about a result­ing preg­nan­cy, if that were to hap­pen. If we lim­it peo­ple’s access to abor­tion… there have been cas­es… there have been sev­er­al in Cana­da, but I’ve seen one even here in Pitts­burgh, where a young woman, with intel­lec­tu­al dis­abil­i­ty bad­ly want­ed to par­ent her son, but she need­ed sup­port right now. 

I don’t believe there is any state in the Unit­ed States that con­sid­ers par­ent­ing an “activ­i­ty of dai­ly liv­ing” or an “instru­men­tal activ­i­ty of dai­ly living.”

That means that Med­ic­aid waivers don’t cov­er the sup­port to do that. Which means when peo­ple with sig­nif­i­cant dis­abil­i­ties who need that lev­el of sup­port have chil­dren, they are either put in kin­ship care with a fam­i­ly mem­ber or they’re removed and put in fos­ter care. When they have lov­ing par­ents who just need the sup­port to care for them, like at the same, it’s very frus­trat­ing that we have this twofold thing here where dis­abled peo­ple are nei­ther allowed to end an unwant­ed preg­nan­cy or keep a want­ed child. 

CAYA: It’s almost like once you have a dis­abil­i­ty, phys­i­cal or men­tal, the default per­cep­tion of you is “inca­pable.”

CORI: Cor­rect. That’s a con­ver­sa­tion I think that we have a lot, about how dis­abled peo­ple are either seen as being so non-dis­abled as to be abled or to be neu­rotyp­i­cal and able-bod­ied, or so dis­abled as to be inca­pable [of] doing any­thing. And the real­i­ty is, dis­abled or non-dis­abled, we all fall some­where dif­fer­ent on that spec­trum every day, and very, very rarely on either end of it. 

CAYA: That’s real­ly, real­ly valu­able because it’s because every­thing’s a spec­trum and by putting peo­ple as able, not able, inca­pable, not capa­ble, it just leaves these huge gaps in care where maybe some peo­ple just need a lit­tle bit of sup­port and that’s it. That’s all they need to live those rich, ful­fill­ing lives. 

CORI: Or a lot of support. 

CAYA: Or a lot of support! 

CORI: Humans, you know, that is part of our lega­cy as these inter­est­ing ani­mals, is that there is evi­dence, going back tens of thou­sands of years, of us car­ing for each oth­er, and mak­ing room for bod­ies that work differently. 

But we’re not doing that because it costs money. 

CAYA: We are approach­ing time here, so a cou­ple of final ques­tions for you. What more could advo­cates and activists, and espe­cial­ly peo­ple in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty… what more could they be doing to reach out and include dis­abled peo­ple in these conversations?

CORI: So one of the things… this piece varies by state, but here in Penn­syl­va­nia there are two class­es of peo­ple who can’t vote. They are peo­ple cur­rent­ly incar­cer­at­ed for a felony — cur­rent­ly — and peo­ple who, dur­ing guardian­ship pro­ceed­ings, have had their right to vote specif­i­cal­ly removed by a judge. 

This hap­pens very, very rarely. I have not actu­al­ly encoun­tered a case of this. That means the vast major­i­ty, includ­ing peo­ple, under guardian­ship and peo­ple who live in insti­tu­tions can vote. So there’s this whole block of peo­ple that nobody’s talk­ing to because they assume we are inca­pable or assumed to be inca­pable of mak­ing deci­sions, of hav­ing hard con­ver­sa­tions, of being interested.

So I think if we’re talk­ing about Democ­rats, maybe we could engage Demo­c­ra­t­ic, dis­abled peo­ple. We also need to talk about Med­ic­aid waivers and home and com­mu­ni­ty-based ser­vices. And, first of all, mak­ing ade­quate bud­get allo­ca­tions, to these ser­vices; the sec­ond, actu­al­ly mak­ing sure that these social safe­ty nets meet peo­ple’s needs. Like in Penn­syl­va­nia, we don’t have full ser­vice dental.

Den­tal ben­e­fits basi­cal­ly cov­er clean­ings and extrac­tions, which then lim­its peo­ple’s abil­i­ty to get gain­ful employ­ment. It means peo­ple are more reliant on painkillers, which means peo­ple are gen­er­al­ly more dis­abled by pain. 

So we have actu­al­ly think about the unin­tend­ed con­se­quences of the aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures that the Democ­rats have bought into, as well as actu­al­ly pro­tect­ing dis­abled peo­ple’s rights. The Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act is old­er than I am, and I’m thir­ty-one. It is still not ful­ly enforced any­where. And it does­n’t have any mean­ing­ful teeth because, like civ­il rights leg­is­la­tion that is enforced by lit­i­ga­tion by mar­gin­al­ized peo­ple… it’s almost point­less, almost.

We need pro­tec­tions for dis­abled peo­ple that have some kind of teeth, some kind of abil­i­ty to pro­tect the right to be ful­ly engaged and access the world. 

CAYA: Thank you very much. That was Cori Fraz­er. I will include the web­site for the Pitts­burgh Cen­ter for Autis­tic Advo­ca­cy in our post on the Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate. Stay tuned for more upcom­ing fea­tures on Net­roots Nation 2022!

For NPI, I’m Caya Berndt.

About the author

Caya is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor based out of Spokane, Washington, writing about Lilac City politics, the Evergreen State's 5th Congressional District, and related politics. She previously hosted the inaugural episodes of NPI's PNWcurrents podcast. She works at the Unemployment Law Project and is a graduate of Central Washington University, with a bachelor's degree in liberal arts and sciences. Caya also has a minor from CWU in law and justice.

Adjacent posts