This month I interviewed Vilissa Thompson about her work as the founder and CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization that promotes self-advocacy and empowerment among people with disabilities. Thompson is a Licensed Master Social Worker from Winnsboro, SC. As a disability rights consultant, writer, and advocate, Thompson is a prominent leader and expert in addressing and educating the public and political figures about the plight of people with disabilities, especially women of color with disabilities. She has been featured in the Huffington Post, NY Times, Buzzfeed, Bitch Media, Upworthy, Black Girl Nerds, and The Atlantic, among others. Thompson created the #DisabilityTooWhite viral hashtag that addressed the lack of diversity within the disability community and how a lack of representation impacts disabled people of color and their ability to feel fully included and accepted within the community. She also established the Black Disabled Woman Syllabus, a resource that has garnered much attention and praise from those within academia and the disabled community for its focus on the experiences of a very underrepresented group.
Melancon: What are the motivating factors behind your creation and the mission of Ramp Your Voice?
Thompson: I created Ramp Your Voice in 2013 to bridge a gap I saw—the lack of voices from disabled people of color, particularly Black disabled women. I had begun blogging a year earlier from the social work perspective and saw that disability was a topic few bloggers tackled effectively. I thought, why not combine my educational and life experiences to give a unique and much-needed perspective? Looking around the disabled community at that time, I did not see many Black advocates of color with blogging platforms. I am not afraid of being a “first,” so I took it upon myself to create a niche to tackle issues that concerned me. On Ramp Your Voice, I have discussed a myriad of topics—sex, dating, religion, politics, racism, education—all of which have allowed me to be viewed as a well-rounded writer and voice.
The mission of Ramp Your Voice is simple: be the space where disability issues are discussed from an intersectional, personal lens. Taking on controversial topics is a challenge I have long accepted, and being known as unafraid to speak the truth (even when it meets resistance) aligns with my values professionally and personally.
Melancon: Ramp Your Voice is impressive for many reasons, including its intersectional advocacy. Could you address this and, more specifically, the unique challenges that confront black women and people of color who are differently abled?
Thompson: Receiving support and encouragement from Black disabled women for the past four years has been the motivation I needed to continue my advocacy work. Though my advocacy work is for the uplifting of all disabled people, Black disabled women are the primary group I seek to empower. I adamantly believe that when Black women are supported, protected, valued, and given opportunities to thrive and be visible, we as a society benefit from their actions and empowerment. In the disabled community, Black disabled people and other people of color have been purposefully left out of our history books and their presence in the movement is downplayed. That erasure misrepresents who participated in our movement and prevents disabled people of color from having figures to look up to and use as examples to resist the “-isms” that try to tell them who they are and what their capabilities are (This was the catalyst for my viral hashtag #DisabilityTooWhite). Giving space for disabled people of color, and Black disabled women specifically, to tell their stories their way and shatter the invisibility shield that has existed for so long, drives me every day. On days when I am angry about the injustices committed against us, it is their voices and faces that energize me to keep going.
Melancon: Ramp Your Voice is simultaneously personal and political, as evidenced transparently in both its scope and services offered. Was this intentional and, if so, why are these approaches so important?
Thompson: Mixing personal and political perspectives was indeed purposeful. I wanted to humanize the disabled experience for those who may be unfamiliar with our specific issues and challenges. Humanizing us weakens the misconceptions, prejudices, and biases about who we are. When you read my writings, I want you to come away knowing how a disabled person lives and thinks and to remove inaccuracies about our value and worth. The best responses I have received are from professionals who stated that my work has impacted how they interact with disabled clients and community members. The blog articles I write and services I offer explore what society thinks disability is and turn those ideas on their head in a direction that is accurate and effective for becoming better allies/supporters/co-conspirators for the community.
On a personal level, this approach has been validating. Creating my blog allowed me to share my thoughts about areas that interested me (such as politics, sexuality, dating) and give a peek into my struggles with juggling multiple identities. Sharing my anger, pains, and joys in embracing being a woman who is Black, physically disabled, a wheelchair user, a little woman, and hard of hearing and finding space and community in the process were unexpected occurrences that strengthened my presence and advocacy.
Melancon: What have been some of the obstacles and triumphs in your consciousness-raising efforts and work for justice and equality for people of all abilities?
Thompson: Reshaping the way the Black community views disability in general and how we interact with those of us who are disabled has been a welcome challenge. Our community is considered to be accepting, but we do harbor ideas about disability that stem from the medical and not the social model of disability. Shifting our mindset from a pity framework to one that sees disability as part of the diverse human experience is a priority for me. I am not a tragedy because I am in a wheelchair, nor am I an inspiration because I am living my life. Calling out how toxic views of disability can damage disabled members means that ignorance can no longer be the excuse—if you read my writings and the stories of disabled Black people, you can no longer proclaim that we do not exist. We will not be forced into the back room in family homes anymore; we are out here thriving, surviving, going to school, creating businesses, having families, getting married—doing all the things you do and take for granted. In many ways, these actions are “newfound” freedoms, many given to us legally in stating that we have a right to be integrated and included in our communities. Black disabled people have always been here, and we are not going to be hushed or pushed aside because of your discomfort about our appearances or the ways we engage with the world.
Meeting and befriending other Black disabled women is the lifeline to my work. Being told that my voice matters and that I have given them a voice is humbling. Their affirmations keep me grounded and help me remember who matters—them. No one has my back, front, and side like Black women, and they support me each day. To them, I am indebted, and for them, I give my all.
Melancon: What was the impetus for your “Black Disabled Woman Syllabus“? What did you seek to accomplish with it?
Thompson: White people, particularly those disabled, constantly “demanded” to know why I centered Black disabled women in my work. They were the motivation behind the Syllabus. I am unapologetically Black, and being Black has influenced my life journey in ways I cannot dismiss. When I look in the mirror, I see Black first, then a woman, and lastly disability. When I go out in the world, they see a Black woman in a wheelchair and make assumptions about my humanness and abilities without knowing my name. Being multiply and visibly marginalized has shaped me in ways that I did not realize until I became an advocate. The erasure and invisibility of Black disabled people, and Black disabled women specifically, led me to this work—why wouldn’t I prioritize us in my activism?
The Syllabus encompasses works that shed light on what it means to be Black and disabled in America and abroad. To my knowledge, there was nothing similar. Finding writings, books, and artistic works that center the Black disabled experience is like a needle in a haystack—they exist, but you have to dig to unearth them. Many who consider the Syllabus an important tool are in academia; some wished such a compilation existed when they were doing research about Blackness and disability. As a researcher myself, I aimed to make it easy for anyone who wanted to teach themselves about the experience to have a living resource, meaning that it will grow as significant new pieces are added.
When a white person “demands” to know why I do what I do, I have something to give them. I can proclaim: I compiled the knowledge—take it upon yourselves to educate yourselves.
Melancon: How can folks get involved as supporters? What advice would you have for allies with regards to the fight to dismantle barriers for people with disabilities?
Thompson: Allies/supporters/co-conspirators need to check their own privileges, biases, and prejudices when it comes to disability. You cannot join forces with us without undoing and unlearning the ableist ideas about disability that permeate our culture and society. Not doing this work will cause you to create harm towards us; it is simply irresponsible to not first gauge your understanding of disability and possible problematic frameworks before you try to align yourselves to our movement.
Once you take ownership of those problematic views, you must take the key step that allies consistently fail to do—listen to disabled people. You cannot call yourself allies if you do not listen to the people you seek to support. Disabled people are the experts on this human experience—not parents, teachers, caregivers, or professionals. We have a rich culture and history that have value and deserve to be respected and learned, as with any group. We are not a monolith—we are diverse by disability types, but that diversity is greatly influenced by our other identities as well. Most importantly, as an ally, learn when it is appropriate to step up and when it is important to be in the background. In other words, “stay in your lane.” Know where that is and tread accordingly.
There is so much work to be done to ensure that systemic barriers are eliminated and that the largest minority group in the U.S. and globally has access to the support, services, and opportunities we deserve and have rights to possess. Listen when we tell you what roles we need you to take to tackle barriers and obstacles that stymie our ability to merely exist, be valued, and live. You will never be successful if we are not involved in every aspect of your efforts.