What My Disabled Body Taught Me About Belonging by Mark Travis Rivera of Nika White Consulting

What My Disabled Body Taught Me About Belonging

Writer’s Note: 
July is Disability Pride Month, and at Nika White Consulting, we are intentional about discussing disability justice as part of our work around diversity, equity, and inclusion. I want to share my story with the NWC community because I believe we must model the way for others. Disabled people belong to every group in society, whether it is race, gender, sexuality, socio-economic class, etc. I identify as many things, and one is a disabled person. Here is what my disability has taught me about belonging. 

Dr. Maya Angelou once said, “you only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all.”

When I first read this quote in Dr. Brene Brown’s book, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone— it knocked the wind out of me. Like Dr. Brown, I, too, wondered how Dr. Angelou could make such a statement.

Aren’t we hardwired for human connection? Isn’t there an innate need to belong?

These questions led me to reflect on my past experiences and how they molded the person I am. When my mom gave birth to me at five and half months in 1991, I weighed one pound.  According to a research paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), “In the early 1990s, just over one-half of extremely premature babies in the U.S. – those born earlier than 28 weeks and weighing less than 3 pounds – survived.” Due to being premature, I developed a condition called cerebral palsy, caused by a brain injury during birth.

For a long time, I was referred to as a miracle baby in my family. I resented that somehow being disabled and surviving the circumstances around my birth made me unique—when it just made me a “freak” or “odd” in the eyes of my peers. From a young age, being a disabled child often left me feeling like an outsider in school. I was an odd person who could not play in gym class and would be pulled from classes to do physical therapy to help me improve my mobility.

What my disabled body taught me about belonging is that I first and foremost belong to myself. Despite being a Latinx, queer, gender non-conforming disabled person, I still have agency over my body.

Here are (3) things to consider when it comes to the disability community:

1. Disabled people are whole human beings; stop dehumanizing us. When you only see us for our cognitive and physical differences, you disregard the fact that we are whole human beings with complex identities and lives.

2. Disabled people are allowed to love and have varying sexualities; stop desexualizing us. While some disabled people may identify as asexual, we must stop desexualizing disabled people. This type of assumption leaves disabled LGBTQ+ folks out of the conversation.

3. Disabled people should have autonomy over their lives; stop trying to control us. Disabled people should be given the same liberties as our non-disabled counterparts. While the way we live may be different, the idea that we are all equal is not the reality we currently live in.

Too often, disabled people are excluded from the discourse of diversity, equity, and inclusion work and struggle to have their perspectives shared and seen. 1 in 4 adults in the United States have some form of disability yet a lot of DEI-centered work lacks an intersectional lens that includes, amplifies, and highlights the disabled community.

To feel a true sense of belonging, people from the disability community need a voice at the DEI table. They need allies and advocates.  They need to feel seen, valued, and heard.

I am free because I acknowledge that I belong no place — I belong every place — and I deserve to have my humanity fully recognized.