“What comes first for you, your race, gender, or disability?” This question has always perplexed me when posed because I enter the room and I came in the world as all three. I was born a beautiful Black baby girl with Spina Bifida. Before I even entered the world these structures, and others, impacted how I would experience this life. My race, gender, and disability are labels that were assigned to me at birth. So, it’s strange and somewhat cruel when I’m asked as an adult, which one’s do I pick over the others. However, what’s really being asked of me is, “Whose side are you on?” The answer of course is, “Mine.” I’m on my side. Hence, to be more of one aspect of me and less of another would suggest that I should be at war with some part of myself, and I am not doing that. There are too many people and systems seeking to destroy bodies like mine, and I am not going to help them.
I grew up in a majority Black subsidized housing community for low-income families in Germantown Philadelphia, PA. After birth I began being regularly treated at a Spina Bifida clinic, which by age 3 enabled me to be easily funneled to a private preschool and charity for children with disabilities called Easter Seals. After East Seals I was enrolled in a public school for children with physical disabilities from Kindergarten until 12th grade. By high school I was what they used to call “mainstreamed” in a general education public school for girls for part of the day. So already in my earliest life stages, my race, class, gender, and disability had determined where I lived and where I would attend school. All of these institutions, my neighborhood, and my schooling have largely influenced my world view and personal identity.
Fast forward to freshman year of college, I found myself attending the predominately white Penn State University. The public school for children with physical disabilities I attended for most of my 17-year-old life served about 400 racially and ethnically diverse students, which paled in comparison to Penn State that served over 40,000 of which a small percentage were students of color and an unknown number were people with disabilities. Suddenly people with disabilities were especially absent in my daily life, as no one with an (apparent) disability attended a class with me, and I encountered very few in the hallways. Most interactions I had with people with physical disabilities were through awkward and often seemingly reluctant meetings (on their part) on the university paratransit vehicle.
At Penn State I found comfort in communities of color when I needed affirmation, a feeling of belonging and a break from the daily micro and macro aggressions from encountering the dominant white culture that permeated every aspect of life on that campus; however, I didn’t have a similar space when I needed a break from ableism. There were few opportunities to meet and connect with other people with disabilities. Worse yet, to manage stigma, many people with disabilities avoid interacting with members of the very group who can understand their experience and help them manage it the most: other people with disabilities. The implications of this tendency can be even worse for Black people with disabilities because we are marginalized within a marginalized group and hence tend to be more isolated than white folks with disabilities.
Despite the attitudinal barriers, I did befriend a few other people with disabilities during my time at Penn State; however, they were all white. I soon noticed significant class and race privilege differences between us. Most of the white students with disabilities that I knew really loved their Penn State experience and felt a part of the university community in a way that I never did. While we commiserated a lot about the lack of accessibility to various buildings and events etc., generally once they were accommodated, they expressed that they could maneuver the culture and space just as well as most other students. This was not my experience because even once I was accommodated, there was an added layer of race and class that needed to be accounted for and managed. Hence, I never became close friends with any of the white people with disabilities I encountered in college.
Socializing with my predominately nondisabled Black peers in college was not easy either. Often the events organized by multicultural student organizations were in spaces that were not accessible. I struggled with challenging this tendency. I understood the social and economic constraints that students of color were more likely to encounter when finding a place to safely gather and have a good time. For example, none of the Black fraternities or sororities had their own houses like the white fraternities tended to. In addition, because of racism predominately Black parties were more likely to be heavily surveyed by police, so we needed social locations where we would be least likely to be harassed. Hence, a predominantly white residential area may be less welcoming to a loud house full of Black students than an apartment on the noisy college strip. Finally, less accessible spaces are just cheaper and in more abundance. Because of these race-related barriers, I was more willing to compromise on my access needs and find ways to contend with the access barriers to predominantly Black parties. Friends were on standby, prepared to carry me up or down stairs, folded up my wheelchair into cars, and provided a place for me to sit on the dance floor.
Still, I can’t let my Black community off the hook quite that easily. Experiencing ableism in the Black community is painful, jolting, and confusing. Being told by administrators at a prominent HBCU that my accommodation request to move a lecture to a wheelchair accessible event space was an unreasonable one that unfairly inconvenienced everyone else, was difficult. In the Black community, most are not conscious of the oppressive belief that disabled people are inferior members of the community and really should not be active, visible parts of it. If the old saying is that children are to be “seen and not heard,” then disabled people are considered to be “unseen and unheard.” We are treated as if somehow our presence slows down the progress of the rest of the community that really matters. We are treated as if we should accept our fate as less than for the good of everyone else. Worse yet, many of us believe this. These messages about disability are present in the dominant culture, but they have even more profound implications for the Black community, which is already struggling for upward mobility.
Experiencing oppression in one community does not mean that one cannot contribute to oppression in another community. We live in an intensely ableist society, and that fact is no less true for Black people than it is for anybody. However, the history, implications, and function of ableism in the Black community are different than in the white community or other communities of color. Hence, ableism is a culturally specific, historically contextual phenomenon. African Americans’ disability is largely constructed in relationship to the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and the racist violence associated with them. This history includes medical, scientific, and labor exploitation as well as the overall othering of Black bodies. These practices and the beliefs that informed them produce disabilities and health disparities in our communities. Today, African Americans continue to experience higher rates and worse consequences of disabilities. These include being more likely than their white counterparts to be further segregated in special education, placed in the prison industrial complex, or worse, killed by the police or otherwise institutionalized as a consequence of their disability. African Americans also tend to benefit less from disability policy even though they have the greatest needs.1 For these reasons and more, Black people experience disability as not only limiting in the conventional ways it is assumed to be, but also as a reminder of racist oppression and/or as perceived evidence of racial inferiority. Hence disability in the Black community is as much born out of racist, class, gender, and other systems of oppression, as it is a natural part of the human experience. The association of disability with racism is what makes it harder for Black people to identify with not only disability pride, but accessing disability related resources that would otherwise help them.
It is important for the Black community to realize that disability is not solely a consequence of racism or an outcome of violence or inequality. However, even when these are the case, regardless of how our disabilities are acquired, there is so much we can do to survive, thrive, and live full lives. Disability is a part of the spectrum of human difference, and of Black variance. Black people with disabilities have contributed significantly to Black life and culture. The resilience, ingenuity, and talents of Black people with disabilities need to be highlighted, uplifted, celebrated, learned from, and replicated. Black communities which contend with so much, can little afford to be ableist, much less oppressive in any other way. Replicating dominant attitudes towards disability will only serve to further marginalize us.
- Miles, A. L. (2019). “Strong black women”: African American women with disabilities, intersecting identities and inequality. Gender and Society 33 (1) 41-63. ↩