Have you ever felt like a bad disabled person? I definitely have, and even more so in light of recent events. Let me elaborate. By “bad,” I mean not fully understanding or researching the extent of your community. My spinal cord injury was acquired, so I feel like it makes sense that I would have done background research on the community I was forced to be a part of, and I did, but it took me awhile – and as it turns out, I missed some pretty crucial aspects.
We are all aware of what is happening in the United States and globally with the Black Lives Matter movement. We are watching, participating in protests, donating, or maybe staying on the sidelines. As a white disabled person, I understand that I still live behind a wall of privilege, so I have been researching how to be a better ally. A lot of my personal education has been specifically around Black Americans with disabilities, and the movements that led up to this point. I wanted to understand their struggles more. I personally believe that practicing intersectionality is a crucial way to support others, by understanding how different identity markers can affect the experience of a person we can better help, learn, and adapt. As I was reading different articles, and engaging via social media, I realized that even though I share in one identity marker – having a disability, I did not understand or even really know the struggles that Black disabled people are experiencing. I realized I had neglected to educate myself fully.
For me an important starting place was understanding how disabled people as a community have benefited from the movements that were started by Black individuals. Disability Rights Movements have mirrored or followed the structure given to us by Civil Rights Movements. As early as the 1930s, during the Harlem Renaissance era, the first disability movement was paved by the leadership shown from Black Americans at that time. As the culture began to shift to include Black influences, other minority groups became empowered to stand up against discrimination – cue The League (a group of disability rights advocates in New York) and their effort to fight against workplace discrimination. As Black people demanded equal rights, fair treatment, and an end to harmful stereotypes, disabled people followed suit in demanding the same. It takes an initial group or a leader to pave the way to change, and that’s what people of color did for the Disabilities Rights Movement.
It’s also important to understand how the intersection of disability and race impacts one’s daily experience more than you would think, and I’m ashamed that I hadn’t taken the time to consider that. I wanted to share some SCI specific facts I learned:
- Black individuals have a higher risk of developing an SCI/D than a white person.
- A study also found that when you compare races and spinal cord injuries/disorders, people of color experienced longer hospitalization stays, more days of poor health, and more health complications directly following their injury than Caucasians.
- After acquiring an SCI and dealing with the initial medical complications, when searching to find a job, whites were more likely to be employed post injury when compared to Black individuals.
These findings, in addition to many others, are due to systematic differences. This includes educational opportunities and income that we know are impacted by race and are also influenced by institutionalized racism and implicit or unconscious biases – these coupled with the stigma of having a disability can make for a difficult life experience.
I believe that we can always learn more and educate ourselves on topics that we might not be familiar with, and I am happy that I started to uncover this topic for myself. Learning more about our community gave me a larger volume of information that I can share and advocate for. As people with physical, visible disabilities, we know what it is like to be judged in an instant. We know that complete strangers make a snap judgement due to circumstances we couldn’t control- this is why our voices should support other groups experiencing discrimination and oppression.
As so many powerful leaders of color have helped pave the way for our communities’ rights, let’s be there for them during this time. For me this has looked like doing daily research on issues that the Black community faces, such as mass incarceration, the school to prison pipeline, police brutality, and other forms of blatant discrimination. I have been reading Black scholars and books/articles on white privilege. Platforms such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime have released movies and documentaries that are helpful in explaining issues that Black people are facing and have faced. By engaging in self-reflection and education, I have learned so much crucial information – this allows me to be a better ally, advocate, and more compassionate human. I encourage you all to never stop learning and growing, this fight is far from over.
My name is Madisyn Hess and I am 20 years old. I am currently a junior at Christopher Newport University. I am completing my undergraduate degree in Psychology and I hope to pursue a Master’s degree in Occupational Therapy. I am a T-10 paraplegic, and I have an adorable service dog named Oxford. In my limited free time, I love to watch movies or TV shows, occasionally “bingeing” them (whoops), and I enjoy trying new restaurants as well as new types of food. You can find me dancing, singing, or trying any adaptive sport I can!