First Steps in Advocacy
By Imani Barbarin
Standing at the front of my fourth-grade classroom, the speech I had practiced with my parents was liable to fly out of my head at any second. Each year, since I was old enough to stand on my own and do so, I made a speech to my class about my disability. It was an easy way to decrease the sheer number of questions I was peppered with each day by other students – but it also made it easier to justify to my teachers why I would need the various accommodations my parents and I would request each year.
I was always a kid who loved school. On my first day of kindergarten, I remember waking up at 5am to excitedly inform my parents they were running late. For disabled kids, school means so much to us. It is the place where we are finally among peers, where we get to grow and learn with our classmates, and it is the first place where we receive accommodations. Within my household, my parents also made sure that school was the first place where I learned to advocate for myself.
From an early age, my parents taught me that I would have to work much more diligently than those around me just to survive; more so to thrive. As a Black disabled girl, I would need to prove myself to everyone around me and take up the space entitled to me no matter the insistence from others that I was “too much” to have around. I was to always know how to advocate for myself even to those who had authority over me – that included my teachers. For most of my educational career, I sat alongside my mother in IEP and 504 plan meetings. She was my backup; I was not hers. At each opportunity, my needs and voice were to be centered.
I was fortunate. My schools were, for the most part, supportive of this, but every so often a teacher would center their own discomfort over my desire to be included. In middle school, a teacher would not let me participate in home economics because my crutches made me a “type of dirty that could never get clean.”
When it comes to being black and disabled, racism and ableism are so intricately intertwined that in the moment you cannot tell which is which. For many Black families, the denial of disability within themselves, their children, or their family members is an act of survival. One of two scenarios emerges in this situation: either they have no choice but to address the disability and dive headfirst into staunch advocacy and preparation to live in an ableist and racist society; or they must work around the disability, forgoing official diagnoses and supports in order to escape the stigma. Many choose the latter.
Teachers are so much more than educators. Often, they are the first people to recognize disabilities in children and offer support to families. Still, it is important to evaluate the ways in which race may inform how families address their student’s diagnoses. Teachers have the potential to be either the first line of support to a family or the very first person outside of their personal circle that stigmatizes it, thus setting the tone for years to come.
Standing in front of the classroom that day in fourth grade certainly wasn’t the most comfortable moment in my life, but it set the tone needed for a life of self-advocacy. Now, teachers can release the families they work with from the burden and stigma of talking about how disability impacts them. Knowing the effect that the pandemic has had on both educators and families, this can feel like yet another thing shoved onto the plates of both, but understanding the nuances necessary to instill confidence and self-worth into a Black disabled child can develop lifelong advocates in a society intent on rendering us invisible.
Imani Barbarin is a disability rights and inclusion advocate who uses social media to leverage the collective voice of the disability community to enact change. She holds a Master’s in Global Communication from the American University of Paris and writes the blog crutchesandspice.com.