“I am visible. I have worth. I can succeed.”
My name is Ketrina Hazell. I am 26 years old and the daughter of immigrant parents. I am made of what I consider my three magic powers: I am a woman; I am Black; and I am uniquely made. I was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at nine months old and use a wheelchair for mobility. My parents had no idea what cerebral palsy was at that time. My parents were born in the Caribbean, St. Vincent and the Grenadines. In the West Indies disabilities are not visible and they are viewed with a sense of shame. It is also not accessible for people with disabilities, so let’s be real!
Growing up my disability was always something I viewed as “the big picture,” and this became the reason I felt invisible or not included in things especially in school. Now it’s like I am Black too, so which one is the problem!? I often would ask,
“How can I be so big yet so small?”
When I was younger I was very shy. My mom, dad, sister and brother were the only ones that heard my voice. Even my close family members would just get a simple “Hi” and “Bye”. My mom always said, “little girls are not supposed to be seen in order to be heard,” but eventually somehow I broke my silence, and that was the start of my dreams becoming a reality.
Eventually as I became a teenager, I began to face different phases in accepting my disability because I just wanted to fit in. I would escape into greater things such as writing. I started my very own website to write my story, express who I am, and just find some way to make a difference in the world. I began to find my voice and my dreams were coming true. When I was only 13 or14 years old my mom would say I “graduated at the mouth”. That day I realized I had an eye for change. I would write letters to my middle school principal about how I was not included in my 8th grade senior trip because they didn’t ask, let alone take the opportunity to get an accessible bus for me to go. They didn’t even have the audacity to ask if my dad could take a day off from work to take me on the trip.
When I got to high school the students with disabilities only had class on the first floor. In my local community, and probably throughout NYC, not many of the public schools are wheelchair accessible (with elevators and ramps), though progress is being made. And students with disabilities have very few schools to choose from, especially if they have a physical disability like me. The majority of my day I spent in a classroom the size of a closet with no windows. And when it was time for physical or occupational therapy, there was no dedicated space for those activities — they took place in a restroom! When I felt I was not receiving proper services, I would tell my mom as well as sending letters to the supervisors. I felt so invisible during my high school years. We never went on trips or were included in anything. My name was even forgotten to be called at the award ceremony that I was invited to. I ended up rolling alone to receive my well-deserved award. I was an afterthought — invisible.
In my senior year I didn’t receive a proper transition plan. I was told that since my physical disability required more support a day-hab program would be best for me. Despite graduating in the top 10 of my graduating class as the only student in a wheelchair, they still had low expectations for me due to having a disability. This was the change I needed to be in the world.
I grew up until this day in Brooklyn, NY which is known as the “hood” or the underserved community. Our administration and our teachers didn’t even expect my peers to make it very far. We never really had a chance as a whole due to the “stigma”. We live here because it’s where we grew up, where most of us were born. It wasn’t our choice, but what our parents could afford and what we were offered. My surrounding neighborhood such as Brownsville only has 32% children graduating high school with a diploma. Thirteen percent received their bachelor’s degree.
As I was only given one path to my future, I knew that I had to speak up to get the things that I truly wanted, earned and deserved. I was not given support in finding employment. I was not given advice on how to apply for college. They closed the door on my opportunity before even offering it to me. I always knew a job was what I wanted. The first door and only door to open for me was the opportunity to go to college. I made the best out of it with full force of advocating for myself with the support of my parents. In the fall of 2013 I enrolled in Kingsborough Community College where I began to not only feel included but also accepted. I started to realize my intelligence and my true capabilities. I realized after all of the years that I was taught less in special education than I would have been in general education.
From that moment on my life took off into advocacy where I never imagined finally getting a seat at the table. In 2014 I served a two-year term on the Youth Advisory Council for Special Education. In 2016 I created a self-advocacy group Voices of Power. In 2017 I traveled for an international mission trip to my parents’ home country to not only see family, but to enlighten on disability in a positive light. In October 2017 I earned the title “Ms. Wheelchair NY 2018” with the platform to bring self-advocacy into schools and make them more inclusive. This opportunity blossomed me into a motivational speaker, speaking to self-advocacy groups, schools, galas, girl scout groups and many more. I am also on the developmental disabilities planning council, the post-secondary advisory council, and the Access-A-Ride Paratransit committee here in NYC.
In January 2020 I became a self-advocacy lead with the Regional Centers for Workforce Transformation. I educate direct support professionals and individuals with disabilities on the core competencies, NYS Code of Ethics, educating families and professionals on the transition from school for students with disabilities. I share my story to empower others and recently started developing a disability champion mentor program to support students with disabilities while they navigate transition and life. I hope to add a section to the program to support youth in underserved communities who need mentors too with the support and partnership from SUNY Albany.
Did you know only 1 in 3 people with disabilities have a job and I am one of them? In June 2020 I graduated with my associate degree in liberal arts from Kingsborough Community College here in Brooklyn, NY. Did you know only 6% to 7% of students with disabilities graduate college? In July 2020 I became a part of RespectAbility’s National Disability Speakers Bureau.
I want to bring to light the importance of mental health. Not only looking at this in terms of a label, diagnosis or other judgements but also in light of a person’s disability and color. I would love for mental health to be acknowledged because we all need support. We need that space where we can just talk to a person about their day, life, goals and dreams — someone simply to believe in us and see us as an individual and help us find the tools to reach our full potential. This is especially important for those with cerebral palsy dealing with depression and isolation.
For that reason, in January 2021 I began taking courses at Fowler International Academy’s professional coaching “We Live Without Limits” program. I am now a certified life coach specializing in coaching people with and without disabilities, parents who have a child with a disability, and those in the underserved communities, especially youth. I can’t wait to build my business.
Many people with disabilities live in poverty, and that can be to a point beyond our control the fear of losing our benefits. It can keep us stuck or we can grow. As a recent college graduate, I am at that point where I want to build my future. I want to publish a book, start a business, a nonprofit and some other things, but my fear is keeping my health care benefits. Where do I start and what do I do?
I recently was selected to participate in the Shirley Chisholm Women’s leadership circle through a local organization in my community called Central Brooklyn Economic Develop Corporation. By being a part of this inaugural cohort, the goal is to support inspiring/aspiring women in shaping the future of the Black and Brown women in business and serving the local communities to empower us to become entrepreneurs and enhance our leadership skills. The program also focuses on self-care, physical and mental well-being, relationship-building and business development through different local organizations led by women as well.
“You don’t make progress by standing on the sidelines.”