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The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: The Self-Described Queer, East Asian Disabled Person Devoted to Defending Anyone on the Margins

We canvassed the world of the social and behavioral sciences, looking for rising stars whose careers promise to make a lasting mark. We'll be profiling the top 30 throughout the month of April.


(Illustration: Graham Smith)

(Illustration: Graham Smith)

Lydia Brown was born in Suzhou, China. As a one-year-old, she was adopted and brought to live in Melrose, Massachusetts, where the population is more than 90 percent white.

Brown calls herself “a queer, East Asian disabled person,” an identity that defines her work. Brown is autistic, and has devoted her life to defending anyone on the margins.

“As a transracial, transnational adoptee into a white family as well as the beneficiary of access to higher education, I can navigate white spaces with much more fluency than the vast majority of people of color,” she says. “I find myself tasked with the urgent responsibility of providing allyship with darker-skinned people of color who face much more pernicious forms of racism than I ever will.”

Brown notes that it is extremely rare to find someone in a leadership role who has multiple marginalized identities: “You are allowed to be disabled and LGBTQ, or disabled and racialized, or disabled and low-income, but not more than one,” she says. “The problem is that most of us live at those intersections.”

"[A]s long as disabled people can be involuntarily sterilized, paid mere cents per hour, arbitrarily locked up for indefinite periods without any due process, [and] denied life-saving medical treatment for no legitimate medical reason ... my work is not optional. It is necessary."

For her, being an activist is about basic human rights: “For as long as disabled people can be involuntarily sterilized, paid mere cents per hour, arbitrarily locked up for indefinite periods without any due process, denied life-saving medical treatment for no legitimate medical reason, electric shocked in the name of treatment, sexually abused with impunity, and murdered by their own parents with few legal consequences, my work is not optional. It is necessary. If I am capable of doing anything to reduce suffering and violence, then it becomes my responsibility.”

Brown, who is about to graduate from Georgetown with a degree in Arabic, wrote proposed legislation when she was in 11th grade. Working with Massachusetts congresswoman Katherine Clark (then a state senator), Brown introduced a law to require that all of the state’s police officers get trained on how to interact with people with autism and other developmental disabilities. The bill is in its third iteration and will be re-filed next year. Brown later served on a subcommittee for Massachusetts' special commission on autism.

When, in 2012, she found out that a nine-year-old autistic boy named Chris Baker was “disciplined” by a teacher who—more than once—stuffed him into a tightly closed duffel bag and left him in the school’s hallway, calling it “therapy,” Brown wrote a petition to Kentucky’s Mercer County School Board, demanding policy change. More than 200,000 people signed, and Brown’s petition became national news.

Today after completing her second term as Georgetown’s first undersecretary for disability affairs, she’s working with faculty to propose a new disability studies minor, is teaching the disability portion of a new class about diversity, and developed a resource guide to empower disabled students.

She has testified before the Food and Drug Administration—as well as the Massachusetts legislature and that state’s Department of Developmental Services—against electric shock and other abusive “therapies” used on people with disabilities. Last year, an article she wrote about behavioral interventions was published in a collection edited by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture. She’s written for the Washington Post and Tikkun. She has organized protests in Washington, D.C., and Boston, and put together a disability-themed lecture and performance series at Georgetown. She co-founded the Washington Metro Disabled Students Collective, which hosts well-attended community forums. And she’s developing an anthology on autism and race (working title: All the Weight of Our Dreams).

For her work on behalf of disability justice, Brown was invited to the White House in 2013, where Barack Obama honored her as a “Champion of Change” for disability rights.

“Disability and disabled people are everywhere,” Brown says. “Yet while many people would at least acknowledge the existence of some form of racism or sexism, few people, even those who would otherwise identify with progressive movements, are even aware that there is something like ableism.”

And, she points out, there are very few people who are openly autistic doing public policy work. “Our community suffers from a crisis of representation,” she says. “Anywhere you go, you will find non-autistic parents, non-autistic researchers, non-autistic clinicians, non-autistic service providers, non-autistic teachers, non-autistic policymakers, and non-autistic journalists talking about autistic people and issues that affect us directly, but without us.”

She hopes that her activism will prevent someone from hurting a disabled child, student, or client, she says, “so that the number of new names added to the annual list of disabled people murdered by family or caregivers will finally dwindle instead of grow.”

“I believe that we are called to strive for love and justice,” Brown says. “These two ideals are the natural and necessary complements to each other. We must try to breathe love and seek justice in everything we do.”

We’ll be publishing profiles of this year’s list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 throughout the month of April. Visit this page every day to read about another young person who is making an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we make it our mission to cover every day at Pacific Standard.

A version of this year’s list is also available to subscribers as a feature in our May/June print issue. For more from Pacific Standard on the science of society, and to support our work, sign up for our email newsletter and subscribe to our bimonthly magazine. Digital editions are available in the App Store (iPad) and on Zinio (Android, iPad, PC/MAC, iPhone, and Win8), Amazon, and Google Play (Android).