Chanelle Wimbish Research Assistant 37, College Park, Maryland T6 Paraplegia
At the Intersection of Being a Black and Disabled Woman
Having lived at the intersection of being a Black disabled woman for close to 11 years now, I regularly experience various injustices. Since I am part of both of these marginalized groups, sometimes I don’t know if the injustice is due to my Blackness or my disability.
I live in fear of being physically harmed or verbally abused. Once when I was in the parking lot of Whole Foods in Providence, Rhode Island, a white man verbally assaulted me for parking in between two spaces. When I told him there were no more accessible spots and I needed room for my wheelchair, he said that I shouldn’t be out if I have to park like that! This is a perfect example of “ableism.” Who knows if his issue really was just my parking job, or the fact that I was Black and disabled and a woman, but it made me both infuriated and sad. I had every right to be at that store to collect my groceries, just as he did.
Three years ago, I was at a restaurant in Chicago, Illinois, that would not seat our group of 10 Black people, claiming they didn’t accept “large groups” and that they were near closing time. It left me wondering if they did not seat us because we were Black or because we had two wheelchair users in our group. When I looked around the restaurant, I knew we were being discriminated against, as there was a large group already seated. It was quite appalling to experience and was maddening that we had to find somewhere else to eat when we wanted to eat there! Ironically, recently an article came out in one of the Chicago papers about stories of racism from patrons and employees of this restaurant. There was my proof that this restaurant turned us away due to our Blackness.
As I reflect on this country’s Constitution and how it only accounted for those who looked like our founding fathers, I realize that every other group of people that are not white males were not considered. Think about the number of acts and amendments that have thankfully been passed to include women, and Black people, and persons with disabilities. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, but didn’t cover disability.
It’s truly shocking to me that even 30 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, I still experience inaccessible public spaces. How can a restaurant have an accessible parking spot and ramp into the restaurant but not have an accessible bathroom? How can a restaurant claim to be accessible but have one step outside, or its only no-step entrance be in the back alley amongst the trash?
Just as with the Black Lives Matter movement that is fighting for racial equality and justice, the fight for equal access and justice for all people with disabilities is also a tiring but necessary fight. Whether Black or disabled, we are all human beings and deserve the right to live in a world free of iniquities amongst our white brethren.
Photo by Loren Worthington/WorthingtonVisuals.com
James Senbeta Engineer and Athlete 33, Philadelphia C5-6, T7-8 Spinal Cord Injury
Hint: It’s Not the Flu
My first experience with being Black with a SCI/D came with trying to be diagnosed. I was about 16 or 17 years old when I bruised my spinal cord at C5-6 and T7-8 in a sports accident and lost partial control of my legs. When I complained about a burning sensation across my torso and around my upper abdomen, I was ignored. Spinal taps showing elevated antibody count and EMGs showing weakened responses were disregarded.
I became sick with flu-like symptoms on my 18th birthday with Malice at the Palace as the last thing I could remember before passing out. The next morning, I could not move anything below my first row of abs, and it all became completely numb. I went to more neurologists with the expectation that they would treat the problem but wound up being considered crazy when their hypothesis didn’t pan out as to the cause of my issues.
I had to go see a psychiatrist for proof that I was not making up my symptoms and came out with a diagnosis of moderate depression. A new set of physicians had the willingness to review my medical history and actually research possible causes. It’s rather amazing that it took years to receive the official diagnosis of trauma-induced transverse myelitis.
Benched While Black
I initially went to the University of Missouri where I studied civil engineering and played on the wheelchair basketball team. During my third year, the coach kept changing the offense every week. When I explained to him that the ever-changing plans were leading toward stagnation on the floor, he got upset, questioned my intelligence and benched me. When another teammate proceeded to do the same, he was rewarded with a co-captaincy. Yet when the team was in a deep deficit due to full court presses, I was immediately dragged off the bench to help salvage games and keep them somewhat competitive. At the end of that semester, I fell into a depressive episode, left the team and flunked out of school.
Eventually I rebounded and transferred to the University of Illinois to pursue a degree in agricultural and biological engineering due to its renewable energy systems specialization. While there I joined the wheelchair racing team, initially as a way to stay in shape, but I ended up turning into a Team USA athlete. But being on the U of I team allowed me to realize I was dealing with individuals who, despite their disabilities, displayed some of the greatest examples of white privilege. It is a sport where you need to have money coming in to be successful, and so many come from upper-middle class families whose parents helped pay for the equipment and other fees necessary to compete.
Job Hunting While Black
The worst of what I’ve experienced in terms of being Black is employment. The thing about being an engineering student while Black is that in all of your classes you’re either the only one or one of very few, and that still does not prepare you for your outlook in terms of trying to get an internship or full-time position as a Black engineer. I stayed in athletics strictly because I had a hard time obtaining an internship before and after graduating with my bachelor’s degree.
It took me participating in the Rio Paralympic Games, at least two years after graduation, to receive an offer for an internship. In most cases, hiring managers and talent acquisition personnel hire not by what a candidate knows but whom they know, unless you bring something extraordinary to the table. This is usually reinforced by the makeup and experiences of those individuals. Most companies, including those that boasted “Black Lives Matters” after George Floyd, will hesitate to hire anyone that does not look like themselves. I’m thankful for the opportunities I have received, but if I have to rely on hiring managers who are actually looking for talent and potential and not just a cultural fit, my options are far slimmer than others’.
Jason Hurst Self-employed/Mortgage Broker 45, New Orleans C5-6 Quadriplegia
I Am Not a Lab Rat
Sometimes, I’ve felt like a lab rat, literally! The first thing that many in the medical field see is a Black man who has been shot. Immediately, they have formed an opinion that he must be a drug dealer or gang member. On more than a few occasions, I have had to qualify my situation. I was home from college, visiting friends. My being injured in a drive-by shooting was strictly an accident. I was in a house, minding my own business, when gunfire erupted nearby.
Several studies over recent years have confirmed the persistent bias among medical students, and in some cases their seniors, regarding the differences in Black physiology versus white, particularly in regards to pain tolerance. And I experienced this personally from one particular nurse during my last stint in the hospital. It is an idea that harkens back to people like Thomas Jefferson and his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” as well as Dr. Thomas Hamilton, who performed horrific experiments on Black slaves in an attempt to prove how much more tolerant they are of pain and that Blacks have thicker skin than their white counterparts.
While in the hospital, I suffered from open wounds and a bone infection. I was experiencing extremely rough bouts of automomic dysreflexia and severe headaches as a result. I was in excruciating pain and was given morphine by my doctor. However, one particular nurse refused to give me the prescribed morphine, but instead gave me Motrin whenever I requested my pain medicine. She asked me why I needed it, even though morphine was the medication prescribed by my doctor. This same nurse would subsequently bombard me daily with her anti-Obama comments while he was running for office. And she would force me into racist litmus tests by asking how I felt about Louis Farrakhan.
Let Each Movement Be Its Own
The disabled community is a sleeping giant for sure. Most people spend about seven years of their life disabled — whether due to old age or some other disability. But the Black experience in America is unique to Black people and unlike anybody else’s experience. I cringe even when I hear it compared to the Native American experience because as bad as their experience was, we were a part of that too. Many people don’t know that Native Americans kept us as slaves, also. Historically, when we have attached other struggles/movements to that of Black people, it served to delegitimize the Black experience. For that reason, I tackle the two separately.
Kris McElroy Artist and Advocate 35, Eldersburg, Maryland Multiple Disabilities
Black Lives Matter: My Experience
As the noise grows in the midst of historic national conversations about race, discrimination and police brutality, I am reminded of my own history and trauma around these conversations and my struggle to find space and inclusion within them:
• A history that showed me as a Black child I would be called “crippled n-word” and “retarded n-word.” Teachers continually kept me after or sent me out of class because my tics, tremors and coping mechanisms were seen as “disruptions” when I was being mocked and bullied and hurt because I didn’t know how to fight back.
• A history that showed me as a teen and young adult that I was seen as a “suspicious” person sitting on a curb. Someone would call, and the police would come and question me about who I was, what I was doing and was I drinking or on drugs because of how my speech was slurred and stuttering.
• A history that showed the police interrogating me during the SAFE Exam following a rape. It felt more like I was the perpetrator as they asked me “how my disability impacted my ability to fight back” followed by having me “demonstrate by acting out what happened.”
Engaging in conversations about Black Lives Matter/All Black Lives Matter continuously shows me, as a Black man with disabilities, that basic barriers still exist. These barriers exclude my full participation in events, opportunities and conversations because accommodations cannot be provided, or the location is not wheelchair accessible. And if it is wheelchair accessible, I find myself navigating conversations and challenging stereotyped reactions by people calling me an inspiration, a hero and more before I even have a chance to introduce myself. I have to fight to have my voice heard.
These conversations are mixed in with memories of all those other times I got stuck maneuvering between furniture while people watched but didn’t offer to help or when I fell and had to crawl to something I could use to pull myself up from the ground as crowds walked by me and no one asked if I was OK.
These experiences made me feel so small. And without the strategies and tools to navigate them, they had a grave impact on my mental health — mental health already impacted by previous trauma.
I know I need to share my experience. I need to protest. I need to continue to call and fight for change. I need to express my value, and I need to express that All Black Lives Matter, period. We need to work to create a society that shows this in action at every level.
Stefan Henry Businessman and Inventor 31, New York, New York C5-6 Quadriplegia
Fighting to Rise Above the System
To be honest, I’m lucky. I was one of the few people able to experience lifestyles outside of my own. I had friends like George Gallego, Manny De La Cruz and Alex Elegudin who swooped in and chose to mentor me in the ways of living my life as someone with a disability and as a man who essentially can only be dependent on myself.
The truth of the matter is, most Black people don’t.
We don’t often have people coming into our neighborhoods and choosing to guide us through the ins and outs of life. Even when you search for a higher level of education, private school is normally too expensive to afford, and public schools only teach enough to get you through tests. They don’t teach you about personal finance or wealth creation. They teach you how to work a job.
Assuming you get through the school system, as a Black person you probably won’t get a job in your field because someone with a whiter name is a “better fit” for the company. You can try to build a business, but the banks will refuse to give you loans outside of predatory ones that make you pay twice as much as the loan costs with a higher interest rate because you are unexplainably a “high financial risk.” You go through this just to get home where cops are parked on your block waiting to give out tickets for petty offenses like being in the park after 10 p.m., jaywalking and “acts of aggression” such as asking questions. You are repeatedly getting ticketed to the point where you are too broke to pay your rent. However, you suck it up because the alternative to accepting the ticket is essentially death by the hands of the police, either in or outside of your house.
That’s what Black Lives Matter fights against. We fight against systemic racism. Right now, we fight to stop police brutality. Whether through abolishing the police (which I’m only for if another form of law enforcement is presented just as quickly as the police are gone) or defunding the police (which is a reallocation of funds to social services that can handle nonviolent issues in the community), we need to support Black Lives Matter. Everyone needs to remember that when we set a standard, then we can build off of it.
The Americans with Disabilities Act was able to be created because Title VII existed from the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Let’s all remember that helping each other helps everyone.