By Vilissa Thompson, LMSW
I am Black.
I am physically disabled.
I am a woman.
It has taken me almost 30 years to embrace all of my identities at the same time.
Growing up, I never felt fully included within any of the three groups. Being in a wheelchair made me stand out in the Black community like a sore thumb – people were friendly, but never knew how to approach the “little disabled Black girl in the chair.” In school, I was in mainstream classes, & was dubbed “the smart disabled girl.” This meant that I was separated from the other disabled children in my schools because I wasn’t “like” them; I was treated as a super cripple – cute, sweet, well-mannered kid who was incredibly smart despite being in the chair. And as a girl, the boys didn’t date me – they didn’t want a disabled girlfriend, but thought that my crushes on them were funny.
Within each identity, I had battling roles to overcome: felt outcasted as black and disabled; to those able-bodied I was the “right” kind of disabled that allowed me to not be seen as “useless;” and I wasn’t deemed attractive or dateable by the boys I liked. However, there were dynamic moments and connections that reshaped how I viewed these identities, & how I grew to love the woman I saw in the mirror.
The first was the fact that I was incredibly fortunate to have been raised by a Grandmother who acted as a buffer for me against the ignorance – my Grandmother loved me unconditionally, and I knew this with every fiber of my being at a young age. She was my carer, my advocate, and I was (and still is) the apple of her eye. The bond was further strengthened by the fact that I had part of her name, which is something she adamantly wanted that my mother obliged. That connection, plus her love for me, showed me that I was loveable, special, and valued, even in a society that tried to say otherwise. It was her example that taught me what being a Black woman was about, and as I grew into my own womanhood, I used her as a model for what I could become, but as a disabled version.
In addition to having my Grandmother’s unwavering love, I learned what I was good at: excelling in my classes, and writing. The praise I received as a honor roll student soothed the exclusion pain I felt in school – I was “good” at something someone my age was expected to be, and I liked the attention I received from the adults, and enjoyed watching my able-bodied peers get envious that the “girl in the chair” was better than them. In a twisted sense, these strengths laid sturdier bricks onto the foundation for my self-esteem and confidence as I navigated an ableist, ignorant world.
Though those bricks solidified the foundation, they also made me feel like a unicorn: there were not a lot of disabled people of color around me in my classes. The attention I received for doing well in my classes was positive, but it also created pressure for me to be “perfect.” I knew that I was representing two main groups of my identities, being disabled and black. Because there were not many of us in these settings, I knew that I couldn’t “mess up” or misbehave as other students (plus I knew what would happen to me at home if I did… Grandmother did not play when it comes to acting up in school). I have always felt a sense of weight from the identities I carried; I never thought of it as a burden, but having eyes on me and knowing the opinions of others about my existence was the burdensome I felt.
It was when I ventured off to college that I began to meet other disabled people who understood my plight, and who also carried the unicorn weight I held up. Those friendships allowed me to see that my life mattered greatly, and so did my voice. Though I enjoyed my friendships, I noticed one thing: I had not befriended many disabled people of color, or women of color with disabilities like myself. Not having individuals who understood the unique challenges of being of color and disabled left a gaping hole that needed to desperately be filled.
It was not until 2013 when I created my self-advocacy organization that I finally began connecting with disabled people of color, and finally, disabled women of color. Being of color is a huge part of who I am, that exceptionally grew in definition when I undertook African American Studies (AAMS) in college to learn more about my history as a Black American. It is only fitting that connecting with disabled Black women, and other minorities, would make me feel complete in this experience. What I found from meeting and befriending these women was that we were all desiring to meet each other, and struggled to find women who looked like us in the disabled community, in our schools, and in our communities. They shared similar issues with feeling accepted in the racial group they were members of, struggled with embracing their sexuality and femininity, and worried about finding a partner who would love them – basically all of the matters I had been concerned about all of my life. Connecting with each other had a powerful effect on validating our struggles and achievements. These are my disabled Sistas – no other friendships come close to what I experience when I reach out to them. They “get” me, and have closed the hole that previously existed. I finally felt accepted for who I was as an African American disabled woman because I saw other women who looked just like me – I no longer felt like a unicorn, or an outcast.
The triple jeopardy hand I have been dealt with in life has not been easy by any means, but quite frankly, I would not change it either. I am proud of the reflection that stares back at me in the mirror; I am fearless, I am strong, and most importantly, I am perfectly imperfect. The experiences I endured along the journey to embracing my three identities greatly shaped how I view and interact with the world around me – I would not hold the strong levels of compassion, understanding, and empathy I possess if I was not born the way I am. My differences are my strengths, not weaknesses, and at almost 30, I understand that to be fervently true. I am strong enough to live this life because it is who I am meant to be.
When I go out into the world, I hold my head up high because I have no reason to doubt my worth – I am fearlessly and unapologetically me.
About Vilissa Thompson
Vilissa Thompson is a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) from Winnsboro, SC. Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization focused on promoting self-advocacy and strengthening empowerment among people with disabilities. Being a Disability Rights Consultant, Writer, & Advocate affords Vilissa the opportunity to become 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. Being a disabled woman of color herself, sharing her life experiences, and tales from the women she has encountered during her advocacy work, has empowered her immensely because it validated the struggles and successes she endured in her young life.
Ways to connect with Vilissa:
Twitter: @VilissaThompson & @RampYourVoice
Do you want to participate in #RepresentYourStory? Share your story of self-acceptance at email@example.com, or fill out the #RepresentYourStory questionnaire! Read more about #RepresentYourStory here.