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#BlackDisabledGirlMagic Series: Heather Watkins, Disabled Writer, Mom, & Community Leader

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Image of Heather Watkins, light-skinned Black woman who is standing in front of a off-white colored door. Heather is smiling directly to the camera, and is wearing a black-and-white multi-striped top with black pants. Heather has her hands placed on her hips, which are in a relaxed pose.

As we continue with the #BlackDisabledGirlMagic series, we have seen the various perspectives about the lives Black disabled women live and our worth shared in our own words. If you have noticed, I have asked each woman the same questions; this was purposeful. Though we all share the same identities of being Black, disabled, and women, we exist and interact in this world from different lens. Those differences are influenced by our upbringings, disabilities, ages, geographical location, educational and professional backgrounds, and so forth. Black disabled women are not a monolith, and that is what I wanted to highlight during Women’s History Month. We may encounter similar battles, but our views on life, our bodies, and survival are greatly individualized, as it is for everyone else.

Heather Watkins is a blogger, disabled mother, community leader, and dear friend that reside in Boston, Massachusetts. Heather has become an older sister to me and was one of the first Black disabled advocates I befriended. Heather’s voice in the community is important because of her life experiences and ability to see people beyond the surface.

I am honored to share Heather’s words and life outlooks with you all:

VT:  Tell us about yourself.  

HW:  Born, raised, and educated in city of Boston. I’ve had Muscular Dystrophy since birth, and started using mobility aids, i.e., cane and occasionally a wheelchair depending on the day, energy level, event, venue etc., a little over 10 years now since my 30’s. I am a mother of a young adult daughter, guardian of nephew with a cognitive disability, and caregiver for one of my parents. Something I’m fond of saying is that you can be in need of care, a caregiver, and a community-builder and so many of us exist in that continuum, especially women of color. Redact our bios and you reduce our contributions to our communities when you narrow the scope using the lens of limitations, as it relates to disabled folks.

 

VT:  As a proud parent, what does it mean to be a Black disabled mom?

HW:  Since disability permeates every aspect of your life, it definitely affected my parenting. I credit having a disability with enhancing my parental skills; particularly because I gave careful consider to all of my life choices, was probably hyper-aware of how I responded to challenge, and what kind of legacy I would be leaving for my daughter.

As a Black disabled mom, I was concerned about providing an example of how to be in the world since we don’t have a lot of examples mirrored in the mainstream. It was important to me that the blueprint was intentional and well-thought out, but without pressuring her to become a miniature version of myself. I wanted her to feel empowered and confident to forge her own path, even at the risk of me not always agreeing with her decisions. Black disabled women often have to be self-validating and self-congratulatory since we are scarcely, if ever, seen in the mainstream in meaningful ways that portray us as actualized beings. I wanted to foster that confidence dialogue early with my daughter and practice what I was preaching also. Parenting is challenging, and parenting with a disability adds another dimension.

 

VT:  What is it that you do?

HW:  As a disability advocate, I really love sharing insight from lived experience and helping inform public policy on the handful of boards and councils I’ve been honored to serve on. I also write as both an outlet of my creativity and extension of my advocacy. My perspective has been shaped and self-awareness expanded by the exposure to many other disabled folks of all stripes who’ve contributed to that awareness. It’s an evolution that has benefited me in many ways I’ve never dreamed, and I learned to widen the lens of disability experience past “overcoming” to encompassing. I’m grateful for that organic transformation. And I really love the learning exchanges, innovative ways of thinking, and adaptive measures that lead to policy changes and aha moments. A lot of my work and focus is centered around disabled POCs, especially WOC, and most especially Black women.

 

VT:  What are the obstacles Black disabled women face in society?  In our disabled community?  

HW:  I think of a lot of our challenges are in not receiving validation that would come through support and amplification of our stories and profiles. There are so many of us who exist in the community and celebrity circles, but disability gets erased from our identities. This is particularly because disability is viewed as negative and through the medical model and a condition that needs “curing.” It’s not seen from comprehensive views where it’s incorporated in who we are in meaningful ways that are contributive not reductive. We need to be mirrored in mainstream with the awareness of our disabilities as identity-markers, not indictments. That commonality binds us and helps build community. Imagine my surprise when I learned only a few years ago that Harriet Tubman and Fannie Lou Hamer were both disabled Black women – I never learned that in school!  

Also, learning about disability as part of our identities would fill in gaps in understanding in terms of treatment disparities and response to what impacts our health and wellness. Too many of us devote so much time to caregiving and far too little time to self-care because we have no solid support system to alleviate and distribute some of that work. It concerns me that many of us might be crying on the inside and crumbling, spackling and stepping, and existing in this continuum until we have no more to give. My paternal grandmother, matriarch of the family, had a “hidden” disability of diabetes and heart disease and was a powerhouse who short-circuited at 68…gave far too much of herself away.

 

VT:  How can our community support/uplift Black disabled women?  What does that look like for you?

HW:  Raising our profiles, amplifying our stories, and reaching out to disabled sisters through conversations that meet people where they are in terms of how they internalize their disability. This is important because it takes many of us from communities of color longer to self-identify as being disabled/having a disability because of culture, family, religion, stigma, etc. We also need to create more support networks inclusive of disabled sisters.

 

VT:  How did you come into your Black disabled womanness?  What struggles have you experienced, and are still conquering?

HW:  I came into my womanness through a lot of self-inventory and rooting out bouts of ableism. I realized I hadn’t thought of myself in wholeness and had only concentrated on the areas I was limited in. It was that lens that clouded my judgment and kept me from seeing myself as my own brand of fierceness. I had been doing something very damaging, which was comparing myself to my non-disabled sisters, and seeing myself as “broken.” I was using a negative worldview when in fact I was just another way of being in the world with her own set of metrics for success. When the comprehensive view is considered, you realize that although you have limitations, they are viewed in context and less as earmarks of failure. This view aligns with facets of the journey and there’s something so freeing about that. So, when I now proudly self-describe as “Black disabled woman,” know that it’s on purpose and I come into that full-bodied knowledge boldly…fedora pulled forward and staccato-strutting.

 

VT:  What does it mean to be a Black disabled woman in America?

HW:  It means that you are multi-marginalized and more than likely experience a myriad of daily micro-aggressions and mistreatment in some form or another. It means that you have a wealth of perspective pulling double and triple duty and may live in lower social economic status at or below the poverty level. It means that you are probably undervalued and overwhelmed and most likely disconnected from a supportive network that includes other disabled sisters.

 

VT:  If you could tell your younger self anything, what would it be?  

HW:  I would tell my younger self that everything you are and experience will be to your benefit in the long run. I know it may not seem that way nor feel like it, but trust me, the range of experience and emotions are what you’ll need to develop empathy and listening skills. You are going to be part of exciting initiatives and projects, and meet some fabulous folks; get ready and prepare to be wowed and wonder how they fly below the radar.

 

VT:  For the Black disabled women who may read this, what words of wisdom/love would you want to share?  

HW:  Please know that we exist and matter, that our voices have value, that our skills developed over the course of our lives are indeed transferable to many settings and useful to public service, if that is a desire. Do feel emboldened and practice sitting in your wholeness, seeing yourself as solid and not fractured from the truth of who you are − self-determined, having agency, and body-autonomy. And by all means, try to connect and be open to build community with your disabled sisters!

 

VT:  What’s a little known fact about you?

HW:  When I was 16 I fell down a flight of basement steps and broke my jaw which had to be wired shut for 2 weeks. Yeah, I don’t recommend that but I did lose 8 pounds, which I didn’t mind! On a lighter note, I love to dance in my seat, sometimes I think in rhyme, have lil’ bit of skill at writing a mean rap verse, and still write in the air since I was a child which helped with penmanship and creativity!

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Final Thoughts

From reading Heather’s interview, you can easily see the spirit and and wisdom she has to bestow upon those she meets. Heather is one of the few women in our community I seek advice from, and it is because I know she will keep it real with me, and her words stems from a place of love and support. To learn more about her writings and advocacy, you may read her blog: Slow Walkers See More. You can also find her on social media: Twitter: @HWatkins927 & LinkedIn: Heather Watkins.

Next week, we will meet another disabled advocate who speaks steadfastly about the racism and erasure that occurs within the disabled community. It is this person’s work that made me aware of the problematic nature of disability history; her voice ignited the fire within to correct those wrongs within my own work.

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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