by Staff Writer Torrel Miles
It is a threadbare veil of understanding that separates us from our daily routine and utter helplessness. We are molded from childhood to expect a certain cadence of behaviors that lead to completing a goal, such as the way we brush our teeth every morning in order to maintain a healthy smile to the way we open a door in order to prevent it from slamming into our face. We unconsciously pride ourselves on our ability to perform these actions as they are the nuances that keep our lives running towards whichever goals we may set. When I acquired a disability at age 25, an age where most of these nuances had been mastered, I sobbed into my shirtsleeve the first time I struggled with tying my own shoe. It suddenly became a Herculean task: I had to sit, pull one leg up to rest my foot on the other knee, and shove a shoe over this unresponsive foot. The nuance here is that we utilize leg muscles and gravity to push our feet into our shoes, barring the odd ill-fitting shoe. However, my shoes fit perfectly. The sudden realization of the loss of that nuance became the first of many that overwhelmed me like a crashing wave.
As the years slogged on, I would come to discover the breadth of my loss in its entirety. The most damning revelation of them all would be when I fully awoke to the changing of my “normalcy.” Those little behaviors that assist us with our life’s aims were now different for me and I no longer fit into society’s “normal” category. I could no longer fit into a crowd and disappear. I was now the man in the wheelchair, and a Black man at that. I could no longer associate with the same vigorous, thrill-seeking friends. With society being largely inaccessible to assistive devices, I was now an obstacle, a burden to take from point A to point B. I could no longer see myself in works of fiction, whether on page or on screen. The lack of representation of people with disabilities in media is staggering, and when we are represented, we are never the hero, only the pitiful cripple. To add insult to injury, my complexion furthered the divide, as now in predominantly white spaces, I felt like the special token, a minority twice over. I remember my first forays into the public eye, included in focus groups and promotions to check off two boxes of inclusion and show that, yes, we do care for people of color and the disabled. Amongst my own people, I became a pariah. Family members and Black friends, ignorant of disabilities shunned or coddled me. The stigma of disabilities and mental health still weighs heavily within Black culture like a soaked quilt, its patchwork blocking all enthusiasm to be perceived as equal and still capable.
One night, I came to a mental crossroads, and two signs stood before me. One, named Acceptance, pointed towards the direction often traveled, its footpaths worn and littered with the crushed ambitions of those who came before me. These were the ones who wouldn’t bother with trying to be recognized, either preferring social invisibility or unable to physically or mentally make the choice. They retreated into the mold society had set for them, collecting SSDI checks, staying home in jogging pants. If these individuals happened to be Black or a person of color, they allowed the stigma within their own communities to shackle them to a life of comfort. The other path, Resistance, had few trail markers and fewer travelers. Understandably so, for this path subjected them to ridicule and derision that came in the forms of either verbal or unconscious bias. It gave them barriers, like economic inequality and legislative cuts to funding for independent living. For Blacks and people of color, the path was beset with promises of affirmative action and tokenism. After enduring everything I had gone through (the mental, physical, and societal transformations that altered me to my soul), I could only think of those unable to choose for themselves as I pushed my chair down the perilous path of Resistance. I would hear them. I would see them. I would be their champion.
Indeed, after I became familiar with my new day-to-day facets of living, I began to rebuild myself into someone who could revolutionize the way the city and its citizens saw people of color and disabilities moving through their communities. In order to do that, first I had to become educated on societal living with a disability and then I had to get involved. Currently, the city I live in, Tulsa, has a walk score of around 39, which ranks it as the 34th most walkable large city in the United States. Walkscore.com declares that Tulsa has “minimal accessible public transit and most errands require a car.” Our city’s fascination with large corporations who plan to set up shop here to create job and investment opportunities will remain just that, a fascination, until the city first improves transit on all fronts for all its residents. Around the state, the 2015 data from the American Community Survey, provided by the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services reported that 24.5% of Oklahomans aged 16 and over with disabilities had jobs compared to a whopping 66.9% of people without disabilities. Most employers, in general, are focused on profits. Enacting inclusive hiring practices and creating workplace accessibility often makes their heads spin at the construction costs, even though many companies can apply for grants to assist with the rebuilding. A study from Rutgers University reported that 10.3% of elected officials either serving in federal, state, or local government have a disability. That’s nearly 3,800 people making decisions for the 49 million people with disabilities living in the United States. Amongst the independent living non-profit community, where 51% of the people on their boards must possess a disability, there is a saying: “Nothing about us without us.” This statement should apply to every sector of society. There is a severe underrepresentation of people with disabilities in social, employment, and government structures. This will not change until public perception changes. Personally, to begin to learn about changing public perception of people with disabilities, I had to start with my own community.
Black people in America, either unconsciously or consciously, take pride in our resilience. I believe that we inherently possess unbreakable wills from centuries of brutal, and oftentimes inhumanly, violent oppression from the hands of slavers, white supremacy, and vile politicians over the centuries. I was Black before my back was broken, and because I am Black, I know that my back is still strong. However, Black culture’s treatment of disabilities is still plagued by naivete and apprehension. We regularly create spaces for other minority groups and in these same spaces often forget to include a ramp or signs with braille. Mental health prioritization is finally beginning to see an emergence amongst Blacks no longer solely relying on the traditional comfort of prayer, but extending into professional and personal mental health checkups. Although I am glad to see mental health being addressed within the community, we still avoid physical health, self-care, and understanding physical differences. Most times, I still feel like my disability comes before my African genes in Black circles, as now I am in a wheelchair and in a completely different minority altogether. I am still Black and still subject to racism of all forms. Becoming somewhat well-known as a disability advocate in Tulsa after helping establish a Disability Etiquette program that reached over a thousand attendees in an endeavor to educate businesses about employing and accepting people with disabilities, I took my activism back to my home minority. I participated in community enrichment events, protests, and town hall meetings. I wanted above all to lend my voice to the fight for social and racial justice, but part of me also wanted to give credence to my race’s resilience. I wanted Black children with disabilities to see me and feel that they too could make a difference, no matter what their physical limitations may be.
Moving through both worlds has given me a clarity I would have never achieved had I never been paralyzed from the waist down. The realization that people see me in a way I would’ve saw a Black man in a wheelchair, or anyone with a disability for that matter, had I not experienced it firsthand has given me perspective and patience. My patience is not infinite, however, and occasionally I am irritated by the lack of progress economically, politically, and socially for individuals with disabilities. I am still sometimes treated differently within the areas I inhabit, business and personal. I’m still subject to the odd stare or intrusive question. I am still perceived as a statistic, a condition, invisible. Within white spaces, I am still exposed to the rainfall of tokenism and charity. Within Black spaces, I often find no shelter. However, this is the path I chose once the veil was torn down for me. I will be Black and paralyzed for the rest of my life. My fight for the acceptance, equality, and equity in all spaces for minorities and people with disabilities will continue until my life ends.
Photo credit: Derico M. Green