DRC shines a light on Vilissa Thompson for Black History Month

DRC shines a light on Vilissa Thompson for Black History Month

DRC spoke to Vilissa Thompson about the importance of recognizing that black people with disabilities are also a part of Black History Month. Thompson is a social worker from South Carolina who created the blog Ramp Your Voice! She discusses issues that matter to her as a Black woman with a disability, including intersectionality, racism, politics, and why she unapologetically makes good trouble. She is also the creator of the viral hashtag #DisabilityTooWhite.

Responses edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: Why does black disability history matter?

A: Black disability history matters because it has always been here. Many of our leaders have disabilities. For instance, Harriet Tubman. Nobody really pays attention that she’s disabled until you do your research. I was an African-American studies minor and never once was it brought up that she was disabled. How are we omitting peoples’ disabilities like that? Harriet Tubman talked about how she felt her disability was something from God. She talked about how it impacted her when it came to the work that she did. It was a very important part of her identity and what she was able to do. How do you erase that and celebrate her at the same time? You can’t. Until we come to terms with the complexities of how we understand disability, the erasure of those things when it comes to black history will continue. I want us to be more conscious of how that erasure impacts the storytelling that we do about those we respect.

Q: Who are the black historical activist people should know?

A: George Jackson, Johnnie Lacy, who were able to run an independent living center for years. There is Brad Lomax who was a black disabled pastor. Brad’s presence was significant in getting the Black Panthers to assist the advocates in the 504 Sit-in that happened. Then there is Don Galloway who was also instrumental within the independent living movement.

Q: You talk about the “triple jeopardy” of being a black woman with a disability on your blog. Can you explain what that means?

A: We have three things that are quote unquote disadvantages. We are black. We are disabled. We are women. Those things together have their own hardships, trials, tribulations and historical significance. When they combine, it seems they create this kind of melting pot experience where we have to engage with the world in a certain way to be respected, seen, and validated because in our separate communities we are invisible. We have to fight for that disability and that respect. For me, I am just as black as I am disabled. I am just as disabled as I am a woman. I am a woman as I am everything else.

Q: Why is it important for black people with disabilities to tell their own stories?

A: If we don’t who will? No one has extended a table for us. We create our own, and that is what black people do in the first place. We create our own thing. Black disabled people create our own spaces. We share our own stories in a way that does not have to fit the model that has existed for such a long time. It allows us to be truthful about who we are and not sit around and wait for whiteness to really care about what we do. We should not feel that we have to whitewash or codeswitch. That is expected of us as black people in general, but particularly as black disabled people. I really want black disabled people to know that their stories matter. We have a unique history and a unique plight. Many of us have several intersecting identities that we need to make our voices visible. We need to ensure that our voices don’t get lost.     

Useful Links

Donald Galloway, Disabled Social Worker Who Fought for Inclusion

Brad Lomax, Disabled Black Panther

Johnnie Lacy, Defiantly Black & Disabled