There’s a unique invisibility that comes with being black and disabled. Looking to see yourself in the world can feel like standing in a room made of one-way mirrors. Every way you turn in the hope that someone sees you, you realize that they can only see themselves. While more representations of disabled people have been coming to movies and film, they are mostly of white men. And, when black disabled people look to black filmmakers and productions for any sliver of hope that they see us, there is nothing.
What’s worse is that often in your work, disabilities and illnesses are symbols of generational institutional and societal bias, and still we as disabled people do not get the opportunity to tell our own stories. We are taught from a young age to “protect our own,” and “support our own,” but when it comes to casting or collaborating with “our own with disabilities” there is nothing. (It even feels wrong to write this criticizing black artists at all)
I find myself in a uniquely painful place when it comes to black people cripping up to either use disability as character flaws or to play characters that could have provided black disabled people with opportunity. I so badly want to joyously celebrate your accomplishments because I know what it took to get to this point, but it is always bittersweet. Celebrating black films and representation while knowing there is a serious lack of black disabled people feels like I am being told to wait my turn.
I know our history, black history, but I wish you know how often it intersected with disability—how very often the black story is the disability story. We are among the most likely to experience it in our lives due to institutional bias, racism and lack of access to healthcare. This is nothing new and a story that deserves to be told to reflect both our past and present. You can’t talk about police brutality without mentioning 30-50% of victims of brutality are disabled. We cannot address sexual assault in the black community without talking about how 83% of disabled women are assault victims. And, we can definitely not make any progress dismantling mass incarceration without the realization that prisons are our largest mental health facilities.
All of this knowledge coupled with the everyday reality of racism and ableism (and at times sexism and homophobia) is deadly. That’s where representation really matters. We not only want to tell our stories, we must do so to save lives. Lives of children not unlike our own lives bullied and ostracized not only because of race but disability and there is no where to look to for hope.
I appreciate the apology that Ms. Nyong’o issued on using disability to express her character in “Us.” To be honest, it was more accountability than disabled people are used to when it comes to disability in the media. I would implore her to speak with disability advocates and devise a way in which we can come together and be authentic and inclusive in our storytelling—not just demanding representation in a white world, but exploring diversity within the black community itself.
And, while I want for this to happen, know this: I take after my ancestors. I do not wait for everyone else to show me the path forward, I push ahead. In the absence of a way forward, I make my own. You taught me that.