Culture & Conversation Media

On Being Black and ‘Disabled But Not Really’

Imani Barbarin

Despite the criticism of the episode, Hamilton’s appearance on Queer Eye felt like a step in the right direction for better representation of the diversity of disabled people.

I’m in a car with my cousin, who is driving but sitting with a rolling pin from my kitchen directly beneath their hip. “Please see a doctor,” I say for the second, or maybe third, time. “It could be something serious. It’s OK to be disabled and need help,” I add.

“I don’t claim that,” my cousin replies.

My cousin is like other Black people who couch their disability (or ignore it entirely) for one reason: survival.

I was reminded of this exchange after watching a new episode of Netflix’s Queer Eye, called “Disabled But Not Really.” The season 4 episode, which features a 30-year-old Black man in a wheelchair as one of the Fab Five’s clients, has become a topic of much contention in the disability community. Yet many critical perspectives lack insight from disabled Black people. For example, many white disabled people feel like the title of the episode—derived from the name of the nonprofit organization founded by Wesley Hamilton, the man featured in the episode—is spreading internalized ableism and perpetuating a culture of shame around the disabled identity. But Black people have a long history of hiding ailments for fear of dire consequences.

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Often disability is kept as a side note to a Black person’s identity for fear that references to any impairment might be taken as weakness. Harriet Tubman suffered a traumatic brain injury at the hands of a slave overseer. Fannie Lou Hamer had polio as a child. Maya Angelou had selective mutism. Yet, when we talk about our heroes as Black people, we rarely, if ever, mention the disabilities they lived with. Many current Black celebrities and leaders with disabilities feel they can only become successful by ignoring or showing they can overcome their diagnoses. It is still a shock to some that Stevie Wonder reads braille.

In his episode with the Fab Five, we learn that Hamilton’s organization is focused on getting disabled people into CrossFit and bodybuilding. Remarkably, we learn this in a scene in which he is surrounded by disabled Black men. It is rare that spaces for disabled Black people exist at all; I was in my 20s before I came across one, and I was so overwhelmed, I spent most of the time there trying not to cry.

The Disabled But Not Really website explains that its mission is to empower people to embrace a “limitless mindset,” one in which people with disabilities “know they are more than their circumstances.” The organization supports personal development with programs like the #HelpMeFit challenge, which pairs coaches with disabled people to enhance their fitness and nutrition beyond what the participants believe is possible.

Considering the ways in which ableism is used to perpetuate racism, the concept of “disabled but not really” is necessary for Hamilton to encourage other disabled Black people to access the support they need. For many people of color, claiming a disabled body and existence can feel like just another piece of their identity that can be used to marginalize them. And though it seems like internalized ableism or self-hatred to many white people with disabilities when people of color don’t claim the “disabled” label, Black, indigenous, and people of color are right to feel that way.

Black disabled people, for example, experience a unique form of racist micro- and macro-aggressions that sway into the realm of ableism. People who need supports like Medicare, Medicaid, or food stamps are “welfare queens.” Disabled Black people hear speculation as to whether they’re “crack babies,” a misleading and deeply problematic concept. Black people in search of medical care are “just looking for drugs.” Even run-of-the mill racism is steeped in ableist language: “Black people cannot think or vote for themselves” or “Black people don’t have the intelligence to have built pyramids; it has to have been aliens.”

What Hamilton seems to understand is that in order to reach the disabled people in the community that he wants to serve, he must wheel a very fine line: He needs to talk about disability in such a way that Black people don’t feel further disenfranchised by recognizing it within themselves. Because of factors like environmental, structural, and implicit racism, as well as violent acts and poverty, Black people are one of the most likely demographics to develop disabilities. Just getting them to a supportive space can be a hurdle.

As a proud disabled Black advocate, I come across many people who try to erase my disability and think that by talking about it I am alienating the very people I need. This hurts most when it comes from my own community: Black people. From them I am told that I am already Black: “Why give them another reason to shut the door in your face.”

Black people are raised to acknowledge that every system they encounter is stacked against them. “You have to try twice as hard to get half as far,” “they are all waiting for you to fail,” and “you don’t get second chances” are shared by parents and community elders along with bedtime stories and warm milk. Any sense of vulnerability feels like a weapon that can be turned against oneself, rather than a source of strength or power.

Given Hamilton’s background—his time spent in a gang and how it led to disability—he is well aware of the racism disabled Black people face and the desire to have one less “ism” to contend with. But what’s especially powerful in his Queer Eye episode is the way Hamilton celebrates himself and his body. Never once in the episode did he begrudge his disability. Instead, he actively honored where he was mentally, as his organization encourages its participants to do.

In the episode, Hamilton also recognizes his mother, Dawn, unmasking the role parents can play in the lives of their loved ones with disabilities. Dawn was his caretaker and support system after the altercation that paralyzed him from the waist down at age 24. Queer Eye’s Karamo Brown talked with her about the sacrifices she made to care for her son. Disabled people never appreciate feeling like the burden in their loved ones’ lives. It is a stereotype that we are actively fighting against because so often, it can lead to harmful and dangerous behaviors. But, given the way many Black women and femmes so readily step in as caretakers and providers (not just for family members, but for entire communities), it makes sense why Brown would want Hamilton to actively “release” his mom with a “thank you.”

In a quintessential Karamo moment, he takes Dawn aside and discusses what her life has been like since her son’s injury. Acknowledging the difficulty they both have faced, Dawn breaks down into tears and admits they’re ready for a new chapter to begin.

Admittedly, this moment is uncomfortable for me to contend with. On the one hand, as a disabled Black woman I recognize the magnitude of responsibility that is placed upon Black women and femmes. But as a disabled person, it is insulting to be so inundated with the message that we decrease quality of life for the people around us. Even after watching the episode several times, I have no idea how I feel about that moment.

Hamilton’s role as a single father is also on full display in this episode. Given reports that parents with psychiatric or intellectual disabilities have their children removed from their care at rates as high as 80 percent, and knowing the stereotypes of Black fathers as “deadbeats,” Hamilton being seen as a father was critical to breaking down biases regarding the capability of Black disabled people. In watching his story, we see his daughter, Nevaeh, a chipper child of about 10 years old, marvel at the changes her father is going through with the aid of the Fab Five. She lovingly encourages her dad, and he is shown as an active figure in her life.

Despite the criticism of the episode, Hamilton’s appearance on Queer Eye felt like a step in the right direction for better representations of the diversity of disabled people. He may not have shouted loudly about his disability status, but he was still able to highlight an experience the disabled Black community needs to see acknowledged in mainstream television. He was proud of who he was and felt that his disability had saved his life. Rather than mourn his abled body for a national audience, he claimed it and gave thanks for it.

Importantly, the episode is an open invitation to Black disabled people to accept themselves as they are and seek joy in their disabled bodies. Hamilton’s language regarding his experiences should not be policed for the comfort of white disabled people or anyone else. Hamilton is just trying to get the Black disabled community through the door because, while many of them refuse to “claim disability,” disability so often claims them.

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