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Close up of Halle Berry smiling for the camera

Halle Berry: Living with Disability While Taking a Stand against Domestic Violence

Halle Berry headshot smiling facing the camera with gold hoop earrings

Halle Berry

Halle Berry is much more than a sex symbol; she is a fighter who lives with disability.

The best dressed actress is an advocate for ending violence against women, an advocate for individuals with disabilities, and has been fighting for virtually her whole life.

The Cleveland, Ohio native was raised by a single mother along with her sister after her abusive father abandoned the family.

“When I was a girl and my mother had the s–t kicked out of her, her self-esteem moved onto me,” said Berry.

Berry’s career began as a model. In 1985 she won first runner up in Miss USA and became the first African American Miss World entrant.

Just four years later, Berry was diagnosed with Type One Diabetes, meaning that her body does not produce insulin. “I fell ill – dramatically – when I was on the TV show, Living Dolls, in 1989. I felt I needed energy but I didn’t even have a minute to pop out and get a chocolate bar,” she said. “I didn’t really know what was wrong.”

She was diagnosed after spending seven days in a diabetic coma and woke up in the hospital.

According to the American Diabetes Association, “about 1.25 million Americans have type 1 diabetes and an estimated 40,000 people will be newly diagnosed each year in the U.S.”

In 1991, Berry scored her first major movie role. She was cast as Samuel L. Jackson’s drug-addicted girlfriend in Spike Lee’s critically acclaimed film, Jungle Fever. In the years following this, she appeared in, Losing Isaiah (1995), Why Do Fools Fall In Love (1999), X –Men (2000), and Monsters Ball (2001) to name a few.

In 2002, Berry was awarded an Oscar for her lead role in Monsters Ball. She is the only African American actress to have received the award.

However, while Berry’s career was skyrocketing, she was hiding the turmoil that which she was facing in her personal life.

In 2004, the actress revealed that she had been with numerous partners that had physically abused her, one so badly that it caused her hearing loss.

“It was only when I was in an abusive relationship and blood squirted on the ceiling of my apartment and I lost 80 percent of my hearing in my ear that I realized, I have to break the cycle,” said Berry.

She later revealed the identity of one of her abusers. It was her costar from the critically acclaimed movie Jungle Fever, and former boyfriend, Wesley Snipes. He had hit her so hard that she had lost the ability to hear in her right ear.

“I want women to stand up and break the silence and get rid of the shame and the fear and find a way to stand up for themselves,” said Berry. It was because of her experiences that she began working at the Jenesse Center, a domestic violence intervention and prevention program. She has done work with the center for more than 15 years.

Today, not only is Berry an immensely successful actress and mother but she also is extremely open about her life with diabetes as well as the incidents that caused her to lose most of her hearing.

Fully one-in-five Americans have a disability and polls show that most of them want to work. Yet 70 percent of working-age Americans with disabilities are outside of the workforce.

There are more than 5.6 million African Americans living with a disability in the U.S. Only 28.7 percent of working-age African Americans with disabilities are employed in the U.S. compared to 72 percent of working-age African Americans without disabilities.

There are six million students with disabilities receiving services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and 1,199,743 of them are African American/black. Overall, only 65 percent of students with disabilities graduate high school compared to 84 percent of students without disabilities. However, only 57 percent of black students with disabilities graduate high school compared to 74.6 percent of black students without disabilities. Role models such as Berry make a big difference in setting high expectations for youth with disabilities.

For many of the 1,199,743 black students (K-12) with disabilities in America today, however, the deck is stacked against them. Frequently “invisible disabilities” such as ADHD are not diagnosed and students do not get the supports they need to achieve. Frustrated, they can act out and become suspended. Studies show that when students miss too many days, they get so far behind in class that it can lead to them dropping out of school and entering the school-to-prison pipeline. Today there are more than 750,000 people with disabilities behind bars in America. Indeed, half of all women who are incarcerated in America have a disability. The majorities of them do not have high school diplomas, are functionally illiterate and are people of color.

Role models such as Berry make a big difference in setting high expectations for youth with disabilities. People with disabilities of all backgrounds can be amongst the highest achievers on earth. Harriet Tubman had Epilepsy, actress Halle Berry lives with diabetes, business leader and Shark Tank superstar Daymond John is dyslexic and Stevie Wonder is blind. Each of them is a positive role model for success.

Our nation’s economy is strongest when it is inclusive of the value that diverse talent brings to the workplace. Berry is defying statistics as one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood and has indicated that her career will not be slowing down anytime soon.

Meet the Author

Julia Wood
Julia Wood

Julia Wood is a Communications Fellow at RespectAbility and a senior at Emerson College. She is not stranger when it comes to advocating for people with disabilities. Growing up she advocated for her sister who had Mitochondrial Disease and Leukemia. Previously she volunteered for "Buddy Ball” and “Make-A-Wish.”

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