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#WOCwD Matter!: My Presentation about Women of Color with Disabilities at the SC-NASW Spring Symposium

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Last week, I attended the SC-NASW 2016 Spring Symposium in Columbia, SC, and was a presenter at the conference.  This year’s theme, “Our State in Crisis:  Social Work Forging Solutions,” touched on many emotional and controversial subject matters that affected the Palmetto State within the last year.  Presentation topics and panel discussions ranged from racism, colorblindness, domestic violence, politics, the flood relief efforts that occurred in the state in October 2015, advocacy efforts on the state and national levels, and a host of other issues that were important for helping professionals to be aware of and learn how they could be a part of the change needed to push our state and profession forward.

My presentation was one of a few that touched on racial issues, and why the disparities should be on the minds of social workers, and what can be done to eradicate the inequalities.  I was quite stunned that SC-NASW would host such sensitive topics, but with all of the racially-charged events that occurred in South Carolina in 2015, it was not surprising that racism and race relations would be spotlighted in some way, shape, or form.

My Topic – #WOCwD Matter!:  Social Work’s Role in Empowering Women of Color with Disabilities

This was my second time presenting at this conference; the first time I presented was in 2014, when I gave an overview of the challenges disabled people faced both nationally and statewide.  This time, I decided to narrow my focus and discuss the gender- and racially-specific obstacles disabled women of color faced, and ways social workers can empower this population within their individual practices and in their communities.

For my presentation, I took a historical approach in explaining why the lives of disabled women of color, with a particular focus on disabled Black women, mattered.  I covered how enslaved disabled people were viewed and treated during slavery, and how this was the beginning of the devaluing of disabled Black people in America.  I then conversed on the systemic barriers that disadvantaged this group in the 20th and 21st centuries, such as discriminatory practices in healthcare and education, law enforcement interactions and incarceration rates, and lack of employment opportunities.  Providing multi-historical lens allowed me to dive into why and how disabled Black women are grossly underrepresented in areas that affected not only their healthcare, but also their ability to progress confidently socially and economically, and improve their quality of life in the same manner as their disabled white counterparts and non-Black people of color counterparts.

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Me reading a slide to my audience during my presentation. (Click image for better view.)

What pulled together my presentation were the personal accounts I read to my audience that shared the struggles disabled Black women faced in combating racism, sexism, and ableism that impacted key areas of their lives.  I also shared a bit about my own plight to illustrate that these struggles are universally experienced and could no longer be ignored.  These personal stories allowed for a “humanness” effect to occur; it is one thing to hear someone tell the facts, but it is quite another to be able to put a name and/or face to those realities that we may not be familiar with.   

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Me reading the stories disabled Black women shared with me about their struggles with juggling a triple jeopardy status. (Click image for better view.)

I also went into how social workers can empower disabled Black women and other women of color by being conscious of their own privileges and biases that may be transferred during their professional interactions with this population.  I also shared how the social work profession could address the systemic barriers that affected women of color, and what practitioners could do within their own work when they left my workshop that day.  

The Responses Received

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Me engaging with my audience during the questions segment of my presentation. (Click image for better view.)

My audience was very engaged during the whole presentation, especially when we did an activity about recognizing one’s privileges and oppressions so that a “self-inventory” could be taken of what we bring to the table when we work with marginalized groups.  At the end of the presentation, commentary surrounding how it was important to reshape the misperceptions and ideals of what disabled people can do and not stymie their ability to grow and be included in our society were huge takeaways for many.  For those in the audience where disability hits close to home, due to their work or personal connections, hearing me reiterate the rights and full inclusion of disabled people made them realize that their stances on disability rights were aligned with the vision and voices of advocates like myself.  After the presentation, I had a few attendees come to me and share their personal stories about advocating for their loved ones or clients, and the frustrations they felt when they saw how inaccurate beliefs impeded the self-esteem and abilities of those they knew.  I urged each attendee who shared their accounts with me to keep fighting and being allies to those they knew and to the collective community, and to reach out to me if they had someone who could benefit from my advocacy work.  

How This Presentation Empowered Me

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Me talking to my audience during the presentation.

Discussing the plight of disabled women of color, specifically disabled Black women, empowered me because this was the kind of presentation I have been wanting to conduct since I created Ramp Your Voice! almost 3 years ago.  I finally had been given the opportunity to discuss what I felt and knew were important to share with my colleagues, and it validated the unique focus I have within my advocacy work.  I plan to expand on this topic further by digging deeper into the triple jeopardy status disabled Black women face, and how professionals (social workers and others) can truly be effective when working with and addressing the needs of this population.  

Final Thoughts

Being at the SC-NASW Spring Symposium was another wonderful opportunity I had the privilege of being a part of this year.  This moment energized me to seek out organizations and conferences where I can speak on this topic as a presenter and as a public speaker.  

If you know of any entities or conferences that may be open to hearing about the experiences of disabled women of color in America, please reach out to me at Vilissa@rampyourvoice.com.  

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

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