Washington D.C., Sept. 4 – “I am more than just one leg. I am a woman. And I am a woman with a disability. Standing forthright in power unapologetically. So, when I show up, I show up authentically. In that space, consistently,” expressed Donna R. Walton, the moderator, as she opened a panel on intersectionality at a daylong summit on the future of Americans with disabilities.
When sharing her story, Walton set an inclusive and frank tone not only for the discussion between the panelists of various backgrounds but also for all those present in the room. The summit, “From Washington to Hollywood and Beyond: The Future of Americans with Disabilities,” was sponsored by RespectAbility, a national nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities. The event consisted of panels on education, employment, media representation and intersectionality. During the day, two key journalists, Judy Woodruff of the PBS NewsHour and Joe Shapiro of NPR were presented with excellence in journalism awards for their coverage of disability stories. During the panel focused on intersectionality, the panelists, prompted by their experiences, spoke about the intersection of disability and other identities and their jobs.
Invisible Disabilities in the Workforce
Kaity Hagan, Stephanie Farfan and Clarence Page all served on the panel. Each is a person of color who publicly discloses that they also live with a disability. Each also addressed times when they spoke up about having a disability and/or needing an accommodation in order to perform at their best, but also when they remained silent on their disabilities.
Greater understanding of disabilities requires everyone to participate in conversations and in action, but the nature of a disability—whether it is invisible or visible—and other identities play into whether a person with a disability always “shows up.” Showing up means being present and showing up takes various forms. For instance, an employee can voice concerns on the lack of an accessible entrance for a venue, and an employer can change the event location due to the lack of accessibility.
Clarence Page, an African American Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune, has ADHD, an invisible disability. “I didn’t know I had [ADHD] because it wasn’t invented when I was a kid,” said Page. Since learning he has ADHD, Page never has had to disclose it until he chose to do so in his book Showing My Color: Impolite Essays on Race and Identity.
Page also credits his ADHD for part of his attraction to and success with daily journalism: “One of the joys for me is that I get up in the morning. Head to work and it’s a clean slate. You don’t know what news is going to be breaking that day. There’s a big story. You got to go out there figure out what it is and become an instant expert in it. Gather all the information you can and put a story together by deadline time. Once you’re past deadline, got it turned in, you can forget about it…There are certain professions where you can turn a disability like mine to your advantage.”
Visible Disabilities in the Workforce
In contrast, Stephanie Farfan, who is a Little Person and a Latina woman, relayed the story of her first job interview. “This older lady comes into the room and she looks at me and her eyes get really wide and she whispers, ‘Oh.’” After the woman challenged her ability to do the job, Farfan, not knowing about accommodations, declared her competency before walking out. She showed up authentically.
On her limited choice to disclose or not, Farfan said, “I very much lean into it, and every day I thank God or whatever higher power there is, maybe even my mother, for giving me the personality that I have. So, I have this disability that I can’t hide, and I don’t want to hide necessarily.”
Likewise, Kaity Hagen, who identifies as Deaf/hard of hearing, queer, Vietnamese and a woman, has been unable to hear a professor’s lecture because the individual refused to use the mic and has been left behind during fire drills; therefore, she emphasized the need for accommodations in classrooms and public safety trainings.
But what of self-disclosure and self-advocacy in personal spaces? And can self-advocacy take a less vocal form?
Like Page’s ADHD, Hagen’s deafness is in a way invisible. But rather than tell her friends to put on the captions for a movie, she “sits silently.” For Hagen, the silence serves as a reminder.
“It’s kind of a way I’m like [saying] hey friends, hey family, if you don’t turn the captions on, if you don’t look at me when you talk, I’m not going to be a part of your conversation. I’m not going to be a part of your world.”
Being silent is not a way that she would recommend, but one that asks everyone to be conscientious of different abilities and how these differences interact with other identities.
For instance, sometimes people do not participate in conversations as expected because they cannot read the social cues. Vera, one of the attendees at the panel, shared how during a job interview she initially did not respond to the hiring manager’s jokes because in her West African background being quiet and respectable is a way of showing respect to one’s elders. But halfway through the interview, Vera realized, “If I don’t joke back and kind of take the posture that he’s taking, I’m not going to get this job.”
She got the job, but as someone who has physical and mental disabilities, Vera recognized that the interview is an employment hurdle for “some candidates who are on different aspects of the neurodivergent spectrum. They can’t pick up on those social cues; even though they have the skills to be able to do the job, they may not necessarily make that same type of impression in the interview.” In the job interview, the hiring manager may have conflated silence with incompetence. In other domains, the actions of people with disabilities often are misconstrued depending on the ethnicity of the individual, for example, whether they are people of color.
Disproportionality: Different Outcomes for People of Color with Disabilities
Invisible disabilities frequently are not diagnosed in children of color. During the panel, Walton, the Founder and President of the Divas With Disabilities Project, a digital campaign aimed to support women of color with disabilities, shared data on how people of color with disabilities are disproportionally affected in employment and education. Schools suspend African American children with disabilities at a disproportionally higher rate than other students, with 1-in-4 African American boys and 1-in-5 African American girls receiving suspensions.
“Through an awareness of intersectionality, we can better acknowledge and ground the differences among us,” Walton said, therefore provoking changes with the individual in mind. In her book Shattered Dreams, Broken Pieces, Walton describes how living at the intersection of her disability and identity as an African-American woman led her to work with these marginalized communities.
Page saw the lack of accommodations in schools with his own son who also has ADHD and who, before the assistance of a special needs counselor, was made to sit in the back of the classroom facing away from the teacher. After speaking with the counselor, Page’s son was moved to the front of the room, which allowed him to pay better attention in class.
For many of the 1,199,743 black students (K-12) with disabilities in America today, 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. African American students with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by suspension in schools, with more than one in four boys of color with disabilities — and nearly one in five girls of color with disabilities — receiving an out-of-school suspension.
Studies show that when students miss too many days, either for being truant or just being absent, they get so far behind in class that it can lead to them dropping out of school. As documented in Disability & Criminal Justice Reform: Keys to Success, this can lead to the school-to-prison pipeline. Today there are more than 750,000 people with disabilities behind bars in America. Many of them do not have high school diplomas, are functionally illiterate and are people of color.
Sometimes disabilities remain out of sight because of stigma in a community. Farfan spoke about how in the Latinx community, there is a tendency to “hide a child with Down syndrome, with any sort of visible disability, any physical difference. And even when you have an invisible disability, it’s never given the attention that is necessary to sort of become better.” But this was not the case for Farfan whose mother believes in mental health awareness and had Farfan, as well as her siblings, see a therapist during their childhood.
While studies show many people within the Latino, Hispanic and other communities hide their invisible disability due to negative stigmas, some celebrities are using their voice to share their stories, educating people about both visible and invisible disabilities. They are defying the statistics and have remained highly successful with their disabilities. Notable examples include actresses Cristina Sanz, Gina Rodriguez, Michelle Rodriguez and Salma Hayek; artist Frida Kahlo; singers Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez; nonprofit founder Jeison Aristizabal; and Professor Victor Pineda.
Likewise, there are members of the African-American and Black communities serving as role models, making a big difference in setting high expectations for youth with disabilities. Harriet Tubman had Epilepsy, actress Halle Berry lives with diabetes, business leader and Shark Tank superstar Daymond John, champion boxer Muhammad Ali and comedienne Whoopi Goldberg are dyslexic, lawyer Haben Girma is Deafblind and Stevie Wonder is blind. Like Clarence Page, Olympic champion Simone Biles and pop star Solange Knowles have ADHD.
However, Walton also points out that while there are many celebrities of color with disabilities, the African-American and Black communities, as well as the Hispanic and Latino communities, do show gaps in certain areas and many of those now famous celebrities had to once also deal with just as many stigmas as people who are not famous. Many famous people of color are not necessarily the voice and champion of the disability movement; they disclose their personal battles in “rare” interviews but we don’t then later see them on the platform championing disability and civil rights, especially after an injustice has been depicted in our media.
The people mentioned above are candidates for RespectAbility’s #RespectTheAbility campaign, which will continue to shine a light on individuals with disabilities who are not only succeeding in their chosen careers but bringing issues of concern within this community to the forefront.
Expectations for Success
When family and friends negatively influence personal development, one’s self-determination can account for the difference in expectations and even outcomes. On her academic success, Hagen said, “I held the bar higher than how my parents and friends held it.” She advises other youth with disabilities to do the same.
According to the CDC, approximately one-in-four adults living in the community have a disability. Additionally, disability impacts every demographic group and it is important to address how people with multi-minority status can face double discrimination. To create a more inclusive environment requires the efforts of not only people with disabilities, but also people without disabilities – to show up unapologetically whether that be in the Latinx community, in the Black community, in the LGBTQA+ community or the myriad of spaces in which we intersect.