Great Expectations: The Key to Black Disabled Excellence

If you have ever been one of my educators and have not met my mother, consider yourself to be one of the best. My mother has always been my fiercest advocate when it came to equality in the classroom and as such was constantly at the heels of my teachers to make sure I was being challenged like the other kids. IEP not being followed? Here comes mom. Excluding me from class activities? Prepare to meet mom. Other children not being reprimanded for making fun of me? There she is. It got to the point where when my mother became an educator herself and was looking for teaching positions in the school district that I once attended, school officials were reluctant to hire my mother because of her reputation. My mother’s advocacy may have ruffled some feathers among the way, but I understood that her actions came from one idea: she had great expectations of both my teachers and me and no one was going to get in the way. She’s the reason why I never questioned whether I would graduate high school, but what to wear under my cap and gown. Not whether I would be able to attend college, but which of the nine who accepted me I should choose. And now, not whether I should attend the American University of Paris’ graduate degree program, but how I’m going to have time to schedule Louvre excursions in between study sessions.

It was my mom I was thinking of when I heard David Johns, Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, ask a room full of disabled black kids “What do you want to be when you grow up and how can we help get you there?” The brainchild of Lauren Mims, Assistant Director of the Initiative, the Summit on African American Youth with Disabilities, held July 26th, sought to pass the mic to disabled black children and give them the opportunity to highlight their goals and accomplishments while addressing the hurdles they have and will face along the way.

The crowd of future chefs, neurologists, engineers, writers and pediatricians for their part weren’t exactly shy in expressing their needs and trepidation. A future neurologist noted how frustrating it was to have teachers ignore her educational plan and change their teaching method without consulting her or her parents. The future chef spoke about being held back for two years due to his school’s noncompliance with his plan to address his ADHD, and, how he was made to blame for systemic problems that led to even more learning difficulties. And, in a particularly sobering moment, an engineer in the making asked how he could prevent his behavior caused by autism from getting him shot by police. These kids face an uphill battle in reaching their goals both from the fact that policy change to improve the lives of African Americans often doesn’t address disabilities and from disability advocacy rhetoric that is just now becoming racially inclusive (see #disabilitysowhite).

So what can we do as people who have been in their shoes? It’s simple: be visible and foster diversity within the disabled community. It didn’t go unnoticed that there were several disabled adults in the room including Rebecca Cokley, Executive Director of the National Council on Disability and Maria Town, the White House’s Disability Community Liaison. What filled me with pride, though, was that a majority of them were people of color. At the risk of sounding like a hashtag, representation matters. Even I became teary eyed when keynote speaker, Claudia Gordon, Chief of Staff at the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs for the Department of Labor, made no apologies for her deafness and gave the entire speech in ASL with the assistance of an interpreter.She spoke about how deafness and living without many resources may have made life difficult, but the expectations she had for herself never wavered or lessened. As a kid, there were very few black women with disabilities I could look to, and those I was closest to passed away. The kids in the room may have been way more put together than I was at their age, but even so, it was joyous to watch them interact with men and women who represented the future of their journeys. They are well prepared for whatever comes their way, and should they encounter any hurdle that seems insurmountable, they have great support, and they have us.


To learn how to support disabled African American students, click here.

For more on the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans follow them on Twitter or visit their website.

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