In fifth grade, I was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a heart condition that makes it difficult for my heart to pump blood through my body the way it should. This changed the course of my life forever. By the time I was 11, I had received a heart and kidney transplant, turning me into a person living with limited mobility and chronic illness—a person living with disability.
For years, I despised being disabled. I’d hide my heart transplant scar by rarely wearing any clothes that showed my chest. I lived in fear of people discovering my transplants because I saw the pity in their eyes once they learned the truth. But eventually, I got tired of concealing my existence as a black woman with a disability. The world was already doing that for me.
Being a disabled black woman essentially makes me invisible to much of society.
Every year during BET’s Black Girls Rock! Awards, my eyes are glued to the television. I’m always stunned by the great leaders who take the stage and remind us that black excellence often starts with the contributions of black women. From former first lady Michelle Obama to the founders of Black Lives Matter and musical visionaries like Janelle Monae and Missy Elliot, these women have all inspired me in their own way. But I’m still waiting to see an honoree who looks like me: not only black but using a wheelchair, too.
Black Girls Rock! has celebrated at least one person with a disability before; 2017 honoree Haben Girma is a deaf and blind disability rights lawyer. But there is so much stigma and misperception specifically around my wheelchair that I’m still holding out hope of seeing an honoree roll across the stage one day.
This extends way beyond awards shows, too. Can you envision a black woman in a wheelchair playing a lead role as an attorney, doctor, politician, or love interest in a blockbuster film or hit television series?
Although it’s not always easy, I’ve learned there is an unmatched beauty in being a disabled black woman.
In the summer of 2011, I interned in the White House under former President Obama’s Council on Women and Girls. I was invited back to serve on the White House Disability Liaison’s Disability-African American Kitchen Cabinet, which was essentially a group of trusted advisors who could give feedback on important policies.
While there, I met powerhouse disabled black women like former White House disability liaisons Taryn Mackenzie Williams, who has the gastrointestinal condition ulcerative colitis, and Claudia Gordon, who is deaf. They showed me that making yourself visible in this world as a disabled black woman requires a special kind of strength. I wanted to be right there with them, which is why I’ve become a vocal advocate for disabled black women.
However, I still have days where I don’t feel so strong.
Here’s how I tap back into my disabled black girl magic when I lose sight of the power that comes with my intersecting identities.
I remind myself that God didn’t make a mistake on me.
I can't tell you how many sisters have tried to pray away my disability. This pity contributes to the sense of worthlessness I’ve felt at some points, because when people constantly send the message that you're “less than,” it's difficult not to begin believing it. But God didn’t make a mistake on me. I don’t need to be repaired or fixed. Reminding myself that I’m whole helps me counteract those feelings.
I tell myself that there is a beauty in disability, not in spite of it.
Too many men have seen me and exclaimed, “Damn girl, you’re too pretty to be in a wheelchair!” This isn’t flattering. It’s telling me my wheelchair should make me less desirable, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
Similarly, a former boss once thought he was paying me a compliment by saying, “You’re not disabled.” My response? “That is not up to you to decide.” It’s not only that there’s nothing wrong with being disabled—I’m proud of it, too.
Saying I'm proud to be disabled is usually met with shock, confusion, and opposition. But we disabled black women owe it to ourselves to recognize our greatness, even if the world doesn’t.
I accept that I’m going to need to work harder to prove myself, as unfair as it is.
Black women living with disabilities deal with the triple-headed monster of racism, sexism, and ableism. I’ve recognized that I will have to work exponentially harder than most other people to achieve my goals. I’ve faced judgment on every front, but I use that to my advantage.
Most people underestimate wheelchair users, women, and people of color. So, I boss up, put my wheelchair in drive, and prove them wrong, playing on their ignorance as I climb the ladder to success. (I often joke that I’m a silent threat on wheels.)
I remind myself that I'm in a position to help others.
I founded the education nonprofit Project ASCEND to help young black women and disabled youth get to college. In 2011, I started with a $ 500 college tuition refund check and a dream. In Project ASCEND’s first year, we surprised five African-American girls with college scholarships. To date, we've distributed over $ 15,000 in scholarships to black and disabled college students. If the world is going to make black women and disabled people work harder to reach their goals, I’m damn sure going to help as much as I can.
I perform self-care by journaling and surrounding myself with supportive people.
Sometimes I wish the doctors who repaired my heart could develop a similar cure for emotional heartbreak. Being disabled in an able-bodied world is tough, not because of my disability, but because of how much of the world treats me. Journaling is crucial for me to have space to unpack my feelings.
I also make sure to build friendships with other disabled black women. In addition to meeting in person, disabled black women are connecting on the internet through mediums like the Divas with Disabilities Project and Women on Wheels.
These friendships are some of the most intimate and profound in my life because of our various shared lived experiences. But I’ve also chosen to end some of those friendships when necessary. It’s heartbreaking and tough since our community is so small, but it’s the right choice for me.
“Self-care can mean making sure that you’re not surrounding yourself with people who aren’t supportive of you,” Stephanie Johnson, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist at Catholic University, tells SELF. “The company you keep [is] very important.”
I remind myself that I come from a long line of powerful, black, disabled changemakers.
If you look hard enough, you will see how disabled black women have touched the world.
Sojourner Truth, a legendary orator who had a hand disability, lit the flames of modern feminism through speeches about women’s rights and the abolition of slavery. Harriet Tubman freed hundreds of slaves while living with seizures and narcolepsy. Fannie Lou Hamer, who had a limp, championed civil rights and coined the iconic phrase, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Born legally blind, feminist writer Audre Lorde used her experiences with cancer as inspiration for various essay collections. After being raped as a child, Maya Angelou, who taught us why the caged bird sings, experienced years of selective mutism (a disorder marked by an inability to speak in certain situations).
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker attended Spelman, a historically black women’s college, on a disability scholarship as a result of being blind in one eye. Former Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordan mentored future leaders while coping with the effects of multiple sclerosis.
Halle Berry, an Oscar-winning actress, is partially deaf in her left ear due to domestic violence. Simone Biles, the number one gymnast in the world, has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
There is no limit to the potential of disabled black women who use our disabilities as our strength, taking on the world and bringing justice to a society devoid of equality. We are not a mistake. We are not a tragedy. We are disabled black girl magic.
Ola Ojewumi is a writer and a community organizer based in Washington, D.C. She is the founder of the global education nonprofit organization, Project ASCEND. The Clinton Global Initiative, MTV, Intel, Glamour Magazine, and The Huffington Post have praised her charitable initiatives. Ola is a graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park and a champion for higher education in marginalized communities. Follow her on Twitter @Olas_Truth.