To celebrate Black History Month this February, Easterseals Southern California is excited to share a blog post written by Andraéa LaVant, a disability activist and trailblazer. Andraéa is also a disability consultant for Easterseals Southern California.
Just a few years ago, the idea of living authentically was simply an aspiration. While outwardly, I did a pretty good job of being open about aspects of my identity – particularly my disability – there were still so many parts of me that were seeking approval; approval that I’d honestly been seeking since I was little girl.
Growing up in the Midwest (or what I like to call the Semi-South, since Kentucky borders Tennessee and has some pretty great sweat tea), I didn’t have anyone in my life that validated my full existence as a black, physically disabled girl. At home on television, the ‘90s were a great time to witness black female representation, with shows like A Different World and Living Single. However, none of the characters on those shows had disabilities.
At church, a consistent gathering place for black community, I was not only the sole disabled child for many years, but I was also made to believe that my disability represented brokenness that required healing. Finally, in my schools I was often either the only or one of few physically disabled students in general education classrooms. No matter how much my parents told me I was fine just as I was, I did everything I could to ignore my disability because I didn’t have any visible representation of a positive black disability experience.
In college, I continued with this mindset. Even though I began developing friendships with disabled people, including my roommate who was also a power wheelchair user, I didn’t have any pride in this identity. In fact, I’m now quite ashamed to say we often went around saying we were “not like other [disabled] people” because we didn’t want to be grouped in with a community we associated with negative stereotypes.
When I began my career in Washington, D.C. my perspective began to shift. As I aimed to live independently, I struggled to navigate through public health systems to arrange personal care services so I could go to work each day. From public transportation to accessible housing, some days felt like nightmares trying to ensure my needs were met.
As this was all happening, I was also introduced to people that could help guide me towards the support I needed to live out my dreams of freedom. This included the legendary Judy Heumann, a disability rights icon who led the charge toward many monumental advancements for disabled people, and Deidre Davis, an unsung black disabled trailblazer. Meeting women like these coupled with my own research of the disability rights movement quickly fostered a sense of pride in me that burgeoned on.
By the time I left D.C. more than 11 years after I’d arrived, I had become a staunch disability advocate. I spoke everywhere from Capitol Hill to inner city picket lines about the rights of disabled people to live full, quality lives wherever they wanted to live them.
While this strong pivot from childhood to adulthood was admirable to many, I still found myself wanting to be seen and validated. Not only did I desire this from people in my inner circle, but I more importantly wanted it from society-at-large, especially the media. I still was looking for someone out there to demonstrate that I mattered…that I was worthy of experiencing joy and fullness of life.
Shortly after experiencing my moment as the first black, physically disabled woman to be featured on the red carpet at the Oscars for my impact work in the film Crip Camp, people began reaching out to me. And not just any people – black disabled women began to contact me. They applauded me for representing them. They supported me for supporting them.
And then, it hit me! I was the person I’d been waiting for. I was the black disabled woman I always wanted to see. I didn’t need mainstream society to validate me. I could validate myself. I didn’t need anyone else to tell me I was important, that my needs were valid and worthy of being met, or that I deserved a beautiful life. Thus, I accepted it as my duty to be fully and authentically me. Even if just to bring solace to the little black disabled girl that still lives inside me.
To learn more about Andraéa LaVant and her work as a disability consultant and activist, visit her website.