Alexis Toliver's activism started as a result of where she grew up: Wasco, California, a small agricultural town whose population is more than 75 percent Latino. "Most of my best friends were Mexican or El Salvadoran," she remembers. "Their parents worked extremely hard. I saw how poorly immigrants were treated and it really bothered me. The economy is dependent on their labor, yet they're treated without human decency. Interacting with these amazing people is how I first became interested in labor movements."
Toliver graduated at the top of Wasco High School's class of 2011, then moved to Baltimore, Maryland, to attend Johns Hopkins University on a full scholarship. She majored in neuroscience, with minors in bioethics and music (she plays the trumpet and French horn). Today, she's a neurobiology researcher at Harvard Medical School with plans to get a Ph.D. at Brown University.
But there's more to her story. Toliver is also autistic, and has dealt with depression and social anxiety. "I am a black, disabled woman that fights for all forms of justice," she says.
She chose neuroscience because of her specific demographic. "In the black community," Toliver explains, "we have a bad habit of treating disabled folks as Other. When I was younger, I would ask about a person and be told that they were 'special' in a euphemistic manner. After reading more into particular disabilities, I developed more questions."
So far, her brain research has been useful in helping people who've had a stroke regain their ability to walk. "Our goal was to apply the motor-adaptive concept of dual learning to a complex behavior, such as walking," she explains. Her study's results introduce the possibility that using multiple rehabilitation techniques within a single training session could help "alleviate multiple deficits at once in patients with complex gait impairments." She also studies the spinal cord interneurons that mediate touch perception, about which little is currently known. "I've been working with my lab-mates to gain a better understanding," she says.
Eventually, Toliver plans to go to graduate school to study autism—she's especially interested in finding the neuronal correlates and cause of Asperger's. "Society has this odd notion that autism needs to be cured," she says. "I honestly think that it will take a person with autism to find the 'cure' to autism, so that the world understands that autism doesn't need to be cured."
Most of Toliver's advocacy these days deals with the fact that "disabled folks are systemically silenced, murdered by police, electrocuted, stigmatized, and constantly subjected to violence by the able-bodied." Her activism got more specific when she started to acknowledge the intersectionality of racial justice and disability justice while she was involved with the Black Lives Matter movement.
"My little brother is a 12-year-old black boy," Toliver says, observing that Tamir Rice, too, was 12 when a police officer shot and killed him while he was playing with a toy gun in an Ohio park. "We have to fight like hell to make living conditions for black children better," she says. "We have to fight like hell just so black children can be children."
"I grew more into disability activism after realizing that I was fighting everyone's battle but my own," Toliver continues. "I would fight for reform to aid homeless folks, yet the organizations I worked with often ignored the fact that many homeless people are disabled. I was constantly fighting against police brutality and racism, but the leading organizations in that struggle are ableist and erase the victim's disability from the narrative." So she joined the National Black Disability Coalition, and co-founded the Harriet Tubman Collective, a group of black, disabled activists.
There is already widespread outrage about the police killings of black people—many Americans know that black Americans are more than twice as likely than white Americans to die by police gunfire, and that unarmed black men are five times more likely than unarmed white men to be shot and killed by the police. But a quieter fact, and one that Toliver wants more people to know, is that at least a third, and up to half, of people killed by police are disabled.
When Toliver realized that black people with disabilities are much more susceptible to being treated violently—and that when police kill them, they're more likely to be called simply "black" than "black and disabled"—she committed herself to telling these victims' full story.
"I'm proud of embracing Asperger's," she says. "I hid the syndrome for years because disability is highly stigmatized. Once I became vocal about being disabled, a lot of people reached out to me and informed me that it helped them."
As a child, Toliver wanted to be a doctor. She decided against it when her psychiatrist told her that being a physician wouldn't be a "good fit" for her because of her social anxiety and Asperger's—a statement that deepened Toliver's depression. "Meanwhile, this physician was being paid well to enact ableism," she remembers. "That's when I realized that it wasn't the field for me. I knew I was capable of becoming a doctor, but this experience made me question the true role of physicians under a capitalist structure. I realized that I'd rather change the system than partake in it."
Instead, Toliver has set clear goals for herself, in addition to figuring out what causes Asperger's: "Find a way to provide opportunities in STEM for disabled people of color after attaining a Ph.D. Mentor disabled scientists of color. Abolish the word 'special' in the black community. And abolish the stigmatization of disability in science and all of society."
From her upbringing alongside immigrants in Wasco to her medical research at Harvard, Toliver has never been one to let inequality slide. "Once you become conscious of injustice," she says, "you must work to end it. Otherwise, you become the oppressor."
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