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Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s “The Future Is Disabled” Should Be Required Reading

I have grown increasingly nihilistic for several years when I think about the world’s future. As a queer disabled person, I have often felt like I was watching a horror film, screaming “don’t go in that room” at the screen and knowing someone was definitely about to go in. First, Trump was making unbridled white supremacy, ableism, and transphobia socially acceptable (Trump and his beliefs were not new to the US, but his presidency emboldened those filled with hate to share that hate more openly). There was an endless string of police violence and murders of mostly disabled Black people. Interminable attacks and violence on trans people. Hospitals rationing care and deciding whose life was worth saving, with disabled people on the bottom of the list. Anti-vaxxers and the anti-maskers — and these people weren’t just on the fringes. They were people I know, flagrantly disregarding the science that was keeping high-risk people like me safe.

Lately, it feels like my community is screaming into the void, begging people to keep wearing masks because it is saving our lives. It feels a lot like people want us to die. I started thinking that if people can’t be bothered to wear some paper on their faces to save lives, then there is no way we will ever manage to address climate change. Saving the Earth requires much more complex and difficult transitions.

I started to feel like the part in The Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” where they repeat “no future” until the song ends. Then I was sent a copy of Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s new book The Future is Disabled.

Piepzna-Samarasinha is “a nonbinary femme autistic disabled writer, space creator and disability and transformative justice movement worker of Burgher and Tamil Sri Lankan, Irish and Galician/Roma ascent.” My partner introduced me to Piepzna-Samarasinha’s work as I grappled with my chronic illness diagnosis. It served as a framework for reimagining myself and my body through this new lens. So generally, I am excited to read anything by Piepzna-Samarasinha. Still, this book was already boldly challenging my beliefs on the front cover, making it hard to get started. When I did, it was like the wave of anxiety, fear, and anger building in me found a space to be released.

Autostraddle readers likely know there’s often particular shared language, culture, and understanding when marginalized community members communicate with each other. It comes with its slang and shorthand. When I talk to another disabled person, especially a queer disabled person, it often feels like there is a shared understanding that comes with shared lived experiences. Piepzna-Samarasinha’s new book is like getting a behind-the-scenes look at that experience and language. It starts by laying out all the ways BIPOC queer disabled people have been harmed, erased, or killed over the last several years and the trauma that comes with those experiences.

I read most of the book with the help of the assistive reading device on my phone. A robotic Siri voice brought Piepzna-Samarasinha’s words to life (an experience the author calls out in the book and reimagines — what if this accessibility feature was nice to listen to?). Despite the robo-voice, I found myself frequently yelling at my phone in agreement: “YES, EXACTLY!” Piepzna-Samarasinha was putting into words the feelings and pain so many folks in the disability community have been struggling with. But this book is much more than an airing of grievances.

Piepzna-Samarasinha beautifully describes how disabled people — especially BIPOC and queer disabled people — have been caring for each other, keeping each other alive, and fighting for justice, as well as how these skills and models can create the future. The book delves into the importance of disabled joy and pleasure, unapologetically claiming these things without feeling the need to justify them to an ableist world. One of my favorite lessons of the book is the concept of a diversity of tactics, which Piepzna-Samarasinha applies not just to organizing (though that’s equally important to disabled people who may not be able to march in the streets) but to ways of providing care. Piepzna-Samarasinha shares their grief for disability justice leader Stacey Park Milbern, who passed away in 2020. Piepzna-Samarasinha dreams that they are talking to Milbern and asking how their disability justice work will continue now. In the dream, Milbern tells Piepzna-Samarasinha to make soup with chicken thighs in their freezer, because making soup that can provide food, warmth, and comfort to the movement counts.

Piepzna-Samarasinha effortlessly weaves stories of pain and loss with examples of how queer, disabled, and BIPOC people are already working as a community to support each other. They share the immense grief that comes with a pandemic that mainly kills BIPOC disabled people but also the importance of helping people through grief and the fact that more people are becoming death doulas to provide care and peace to people at the end of their life. They share an example of an access rider they use to book readings and other events and how setting out accessibility needs upfront makes it a clear priority. I think this is a lesson every in-person event could benefit from understanding.

Together, each chapter adds more detail to a vision for the future that is ultimately hopeful. This hope doesn’t necessarily come from solutions to end injustice. It acknowledges that the pandemic, systemic violence, and climate change will only create more injustice and cause more people to become disabled. The hope comes from the knowledge that even in the face of injustice, the community will still care for each other — even if it’s imperfect.

After reading The Future is Disabled, I feel more hopeful, and I think you will, too. I want to shout through a megaphone that everyone needs to read this book, because this text is one of the tools we can use to make it through the next several decades. If you are disabled, reading it will feel like therapy because unearthing the traumas our community has dealt with in recent years is painful. Still, it’s also a relief to feel less alone and like someone understands what you’re going through as you remain isolated in your COVID-safe bubble. If you aren’t disabled, I urge you to read this book. I think it should be required reading for anyone who works in organizing, education, human resources, or anyone who wants to be an ally to disabled people. The future depends on it.


The Future Is Disabled by Leah Laksmi Piepzna-Samarasinha comes out tomorrow, October 4.


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Katie Reilly

Katie is a disabled queer writer, creator, and activist who spends her days fighting online misogyny, hate, and disinfo and her evening playing with her dog, designing for her Etsy, reading 5 books at once, or collecting too many kinds of tea. Find her across social media at @imkatiereilly.

Katie has written 10 articles for us.

14 Comments

    • On an iPhone, there’s a feature called speak screen. After you turn it on from settings and accessibility, slide two fingers down from the top. This works for people who need periodic assistance reading but don’t use a screen reader. I use a screen reader called voiceover

  1. thank you so much. this means a lot a lot a lot. I was really fucking nervous writing and releasing this book and have been stressed aboutb whether I got it right- so witnessing that you had an experience that, thing thing did address some of the huge disabled despair means a lot. also just so folks know, the audiobook is out in november (I recorded it last month but got sick and it pushed the launch of it back a bit.) AND Sandy Ho from Disability Intersectionality Summit is working on a reading guide which will be out by end of the year- I’ll post about it when it is out.

  2. I have this one on hold at the library right now (I’m #14 on the list!) and I’m looking forward to reading it.

    One question for people who have already read it: Is it as jargon-y as Care Work?

    I’m part of a disability-themed online book club where we read books in English, but about 75% of the group are people who are fluent but not at an academic or dominant language level. We’re always looking for work that centres disability justice, but when we read Piepzna-Samarasinha’s Care Work a couple of years ago (and also Shayda Kafai’s Crip Kinship earlier this year), one thing that kept coming up was that the perspective was brilliant, but the language used was confusing for anyone who isn’t moving in Anglophone Disability Justice circles. English isn’t my native language but it is my dominant one, and even I found the language confusing at times. Sometimes in a good perspective-challenging way, but often in a genuine “I don’t know what these words mean in this order, in this context.”

    I completely understand and respect the need and desire to challenge the language of systems in power, so this isn’t meant negatively. Not every book is for every person, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m just wondering if this one is a little more accessible from a language-use perspective.

    Thanks in advance to anyone who knows!

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