Black Women with Disabilities Need More Support than Just Financial Aid

by Kwanzaa Imani

Being a black woman with a disability is a lonely endeavor—particularly if you’re like me, with a disease coded as being exclusive to “minorities,” and therefore not plastered across billboards, funded by races, and publicized to the country as an important illness. I was born with sickle cell anemia. To a younger me, it felt as though not even other black people knew of its existence. Because of this, I would wish I could trade my disease for one of the more “popular” ones like leukemia, because people would know I exist and know how to fix me. But what I discovered recently is that this sentiment is not just my own, nor is it exclusive to sickle cell patients (Sicklers). As it turns out, black women with disabilities in general are the least aided and supported in the country. And while some of you may not be surprised by this, it did come as a surprise to me.

Now, this might seem obvious in retrospect. After all, if black women suffer from the compounded oppressions of both racism and sexism, surely adding ableism would make our lives even more difficult. And it does. But when there’s a lack of community, and you sincerely feel alone in your suffering, it’s easy to forget that this is a universal and systemic issue that needs to be addressed.

Why black women feel alone in our disability is a culmination of multiple cultural issues. One study uncovered the disabled black woman’s belief that other African-Americans don’t know she exists, as well her inclination to present herself as fully functionally as possible. This means asking for less help than she needs, faking her way through pain or other suffering, and taking on more than she should handle. These are all things I have seen or done myself. The goal is to avoid being a burden to others and, of course, to feel independent, which is invaluable to our mental and physical health.

It’s a double-edged sword. Yes, we should demand that our peers educate themselves and become aware of diseases, but how can we blame them for underestimating our struggles when we fail to visibly present them?

With that said, openly suffering by no means addresses or fixes all issues that black women with disabilities face. Between white people literally believing that black people are magic (and therefore impervious to feeling pain) and the “strong, independent black woman” stereotypes, there’s not much room for people to believe that black women can suffer in the first place. And if a black woman is impervious to pain, why would anyone help her? It seems ridiculous, but even when a black woman with a disability doesn’t internalize these toxic beliefs and tries to reach out for assistance—professional or otherwise—the roadblocks become so petty and consistent that it’s hard to distinguish which prejudices she’s facing and when.

Any black woman who’s been in an emergency room can attest to this. Black people in general are faced with longer wait times, overcrowding, and lower quality of healthcare compared to all non-blacks. But having sat with other Sicklers in discussion of our healthcare experiences on multiple occasions, what I’ve noticed is that black women especially had complaints about their experiences in the emergency room, particularly in regards to dismissal by the ER staff and the perception that we’re inherently hostile.

This is extremely disabling to the black woman’s ability to push for proper treatment. Because while I can lay in a hospital bed and listen to a white woman scream for attention for five minutes straight, the moment I protest my mistreatment I’ve been coded as an “angry black woman.” Whether you as a black woman are calm, loud, angry, eloquent, or otherwise, it’s difficult to have your input respected by a medical professional. And, as I’ve discovered in listening to the experiences of non-Sicklers, this is not only true in the emergency room, but in healthcare as a whole.

So the black woman with a disability is not properly cared for—despite her want and need of being acknowledged as a human being who suffers—because she’s perceived as inherently invincible and angry. But these aren’t the traits associated with us that I find to be most disheartening. Truly, one of the greatest enemies to a black woman with a disability is the perception that she is lazy. This stereotype is actually a token of ableism all on its own, and we often see it used as an argument against governmental aid programs like Social Security, disability income, special scholarships, and educational/employment accommodation. It’s even the backbone of questions such as, “Why do handicaps get special parking spots?”

Added to how we’re viewed by racism and sexism, the lazy stereotype becomes a whole different monster. A black woman who lives with a disability and explicitly decides on self-care isn’t taking care of herself; she’s watching TV when she could be working, or surfing the internet when she could be doing housework. If she’s the kind of woman who knows how to hide her pain—or perhaps one of the ones who rejects assistance when it is offered—she will be perceived as though she’s wallowing in self-pity or exaggerating her disability, whether she’s articulating her pain or not. It’s a hurtful assumption to make, as most people with disabilities period will express a desire to be self-sufficient, pursue jobs, and contribute to society. But the black woman in particular is more than likely already working more than she should be—and yet, she’s often faced with the assumption that she’d rather not work at all. And, exhaustingly, black women with disabilities of all kinds have reported having this problem with everyone they encounter: bosses, co-workers, peers, parents, and significant others.

Combatting these stereotypes is not a singular issue with one easy solution. First and foremost, differently abled black women need empathy from the people who support them, which starts at a base level with visibility. We need the protesters out there fighting for black lives to acknowledge the black women with disabilities who have been slaughtered alongside our able-bodied brothers and sisters. We need to see commercials about our diseases, as well as black women included in existing campaigns for depression, cancer, and other more well-known diseases and illnesses. We need to see ourselves in books, TV shows, articles, and PSAs.

Of course, disabled black women will also need to learn not to bear the disability all by themselves. Yes, this means being more honest about our symptoms, but it also means acknowledging ourselves as an existing community of people who are being underserved as a whole—not just an individual basis. Being represented will naturally help with this issue, as would acknowledgement by the rest of the black community. Because it’s well known that even the able-bodied can’t change much on an individual basis, but with widespread support, the demand for improvement becomes significantly more realistic.

Yes, black women with disabilities need more aid—and that goes far beyond money.

Photo: Shutterstock

Kwanzaa Imani is writer, musician, and sixth-year Poetry major at the University of Texas at Dallas who happens to have Sickle Cell Anemia. She enjoys rated-E-for-everyone hobbies, critical analysis, and continuing her education. Find her at kwanzaaimani on Tumblr.

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