by Hel Gebreamlak
I was fourteen and strategically hiding behind an overheated computer, in a poorly ventilated classroom in Western Idaho. It was the summer, and being from Seattle, I was not used to the heat. I had signed up for a six-week long program for youth who aspired to be the first generation in their families to graduate from university. Though I would later go on to drop out of college, I sat in this classroom with my peers planning our post-graduation careers. This is where you turned hardships into success stories. This is where you called them hardships, not trauma, never oppression, but something that could be overcome.
The room was full of Black and Brown kids, immigrant young people and children of immigrants, teenagers from working-class and poor families, many of which were from rural areas. It was full of the ones they called “at risk”, and we were supposed to plan our way out of that designation, as though enough planning would deliver us from the danger, or better yet, into salvation from our identities that complicated our safety in the first place.
During this program, it was the first and the last time I ever cried about being queer. After a white boy told me that gay people shouldn’t have kids, I cried over this homophobia before I was introduced to the transphobia that would turn me cold. It was here where I first learned that the word “African” could sound so vile when it came out of the wrong mouth. It was Idaho that brought every pernicious well-kept Seattle secret to the surface. But, it was a particular moment in that classroom that I will never forget.
I don’t remember what the assignment was that day. All I know is that was the first time I was ever asked so publicly to confirm that I had a disability. In the Seattle schools I attended, it was always in classroom corners, quiet whispers, afterschool meetings and teacher escorted trips to the hallway where the topic of my physical impairment and its necessary accommodations was discussed. It wasn’t that the other students didn’t know, because corners of the room are not soundproof and trips to the hallway are nothing less than conspicuous. But, this was the Seattle way, where ableism and avoiding the discomfort of having to publicly name structural inaccessibility for what it was were labeled privacy concerns.
I can’t recall much else about that career development class or that program in general, but the way I was asked about being disabled has stayed with me nearly a decade later. It was during role call and our well-meaning perky white instructor paused for a moment after reading my name. “It says here you have a disability. What is it?” After tentatively reciting a watered down version of my diagnosis to the class, she nodded as though my words had some profound impact on her. “It’s more like special abilities, wouldn’t you say?”
“I suppose you could say that,” I responded, retreating back behind the desktop monitor. I knew I had amazed this woman with my unanticipated presence, and like all good superheroes I resolved to shrink away before the mystery of my humanity could be revealed to her. Instead, I moved through the rest of that program eyes low and hoodie up in the smoldering heat. I never complained about how exhausting it was to wear those sweatshirts like capes, or never dared mention the myriad of unmet access needs, because I had “special abilities” not disabilities or special needs like the other disabled kids whose lives were too contrary to look past. I was a good disabled. I was the superhero within this already inspirational cohort of college-bound youth.
That program taught me more about how to survive isolation from this world than how to move up in it. It wasn’t that these weren’t skills that I had already been carefully cultivating since birth out of necessity, but after that summer I had learned a particularly valuable lesson before disability justice and critical race theory gave me the language to capture it. The heroic and inspirational tropes assigned to acceptable enough people with disabilities and ‘successful’ people of color, albeit in different ways and inseparably intertwined for disabled folks of color, is not simply the result of unawareness of well-intentioned white and nondisabled people. It is a way to deny their entanglement in our oppression by individualizing our experiences, removing it from the context of identities and social group membership. It is away to justify the ones who were thrown away, because they couldn’t plan their way out of the danger. Besides, everyone can’t be a superhero, and the families we left behind were living proof of that.
With disability in particular, which is still seen as an individual burden even among progressive and radical communities, it is a way to excuse the most basic physical inaccessibility. With slogans like “focus on what disabled people can do, not what they can’t,” lack of access gets chalked up to one of those things we shouldn’t focus on. After all, a hero cannot be heroic without hurdles to overcome, nor can they be special without a recognized weakness over which they constantly prevail. And, for disabled folks the weakness and the hurdles are seen as rooted in our bodies, and not the uncut curves and unlit streets, forced institutionalizations, or overall lack of access. These “hurdles” are never anything that could be changed, or at least nothing that would ever require able-bodied and nondisabled people to change. And, they are definitely not rooted in an oppression that dictates which minds and bodies are worthy of autonomy and access.
A couple of weeks after I was forced to explain my disability to the class, we had to go on a team building exercise in the woods. While learning how to “work together”, a teammate asked me if I minded sitting out, because learning to work with my body wasn’t as essential to the team. Though they never stated the reason as I have here, it was clear that the interdependence of able-bodied people was seen as something to be celebrated and even sought after. Whereas mine, and that of other disabled people, was seen as a burden. So, I was cast off to the side to do the hero’s work of making myself unseen.
When I look back on that summer, I can still feel the weight of those words. And, though my relationship with my body, my disabilities, my queerness and my blackness has changed in many ways, this world’s relationship to them has not. The pressure of the superhero’s cape still brings me back to those hoodies that were so inappropriate for the Idahoan summer heat. I still clench up every time I may have to reveal an access need, or a bit of humanity, like a dishonorable unmasking. I still have days when it feels better to be a solitary hero in self-imposed isolation than a complex human being in a world that reduces those complexities to personal problems. But, even worse, I will always have those days where I don’t even get a choice in my isolation that covers me like entombment. And, when those days come, and they come often, there isn’t enough planning in the world that can illuminate a path out. There are no abilities special enough to excavate the earth alone from below. And, there is definitely no salvation.
Hel Gebreamlak is a Black, trans, disabled, first generation Eritrean american organizer and sorta-sometimes writer. Hel is the Co-Founder ofWriting Resistance, a Seattle based writing and art project for multiply marginalized sick and disabled folks. To see more of their writing, check out their blog Black, Broken & Bent.
*This writer received an honorarium for this piece. If you want to support QTPOC being paid for their work, please consider making a donation to BGD!
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