The Onus of Belonging: On Disability, Disney Princesses, and Finding My Tribe
By: Sarah Jama
There comes a time in any healthy, developing friendship when a shift from acquaintance, to friend, to close friend—and if luck is at hand—to sibling or family occurs. The concluding shift, in my opinion, can only occur once one is made to feel thoroughly seen, thoroughly visible— flaws and all—by the counterpart in question.
For my friend Aisha and I, the shift happened in a dingy elevator of the downtown public library.
We were waiting to arrive on our floor. A woman walked into the elevator. She was older, mid-forties, and had a grin plastered around her teeth. Upon seeing me, she stepped close. Unwavering, she placed a palm on either side of my face, sliding her hands up, down, and around, stopping only at my temples. “Oh my gosh,” her eyes glittered. “You are absolutely beautiful”.
I cringed and laughed; a paradox. “Thanks.”
I didn’t exactly feel beautiful. I was un-showered and my hair was unkempt. But I knew what she saw: a youthful looking Black girl with a gimp and a walker and a nice smile. To some I was a sorry sight, one that people stopped in front of—mid restaurant meal—to pray for or be asked medical questions. To others, I was seemingly angelic, a miracle of a God, a sign of some sort of greatness, or a sign that things could always be worse. In contrast, to my friends who knew me well, I was the girl who could down seven shots of tequila on my first try and still seem eerily sober. I was the girl with the awkward one-liners, bad comedic timing, and a voice too loud for her body—one that undoubtedly commanded armies in an alternate universe.
Still, there was a tiny part of me who was validated by the label of beautiful. It was one that was very rarely thrown my way.
I hated myself most for that reaction.
The woman released me and the elevator door opened. She stepped out. I let out a small scream, and began wiping my face with my sleeve. More than anything in the world, I despise being touched without permission. In that moment, I was child. I was a plastic doll.
“Holy shit!” Aisha said, standing less than a foot away from me, stunned. “Does that happen often?”
I laughed. “Yup.” I took a few breaths, attempting to calm my heartbeat.
When people step into my walker without asking, into my personal space, I freeze. I am not physically strong enough to retaliate, and in small spaces, there’s nowhere to turn.
“I got prayed on at McDonalds the other day,” I shrugged, still wiping. “And on the way here, the cab driver told me that if I lost some weight, my walking would be easier, because, as he mansplained it, exercise worked for him.” I grinned sheepishly to show that I was fine. I was fine. But I didn’t mention the other incidents. How I was groped at the transit station by a man who called me pretty, and then told me that I wouldn’t, as he put it, “get some anywhere else”. I didn’t mention how disgusting I felt for what he did, and how rage-filled I was that, according to society’s perception of people with disabilities, his words rang some truth.
I’m Black and woman enough to be grotesquely fetishized. But I’m physically disabled enough to come off as undesirable, unsexy, and even asexual. I’m human enough to be spoken to, but I am only half-human, in the sense that my body almost always is the first point of conversation, and in the sense that I am robotic enough to control my reactions to:
I don’t see your disability
How do you manage to seem so happy while being disabled?
You’re pretty for a black girl
Why so much makeup, who are you trying to impress?
It’s fine if you never get married, just focus on your career and friendships
Junk food? You shouldn’t take your health for granted
Are you contagious?
Can you have sex?
I watched as my friend’s mind turned, trying to piece together what it must feel like to face blatant racism, sexism, and ableism on a constant basis.
The answer: it is fucking confusing.
But I explained it like this:
Growing up, of all the Disney Princesses (most of whom were white), I related most to Ariel’s plight in The Little Mermaid. All the other kids my age wanted to be Aurora, or Cinderella, or Belle. But I could only relate to the half fish, half woman.
Ariel wanted to leave the world she was born in, but not because she hated it. She loved her gadgets and gizmos and her family and life experiences. Yet, despite this, Ariel was always acutely aware of the fact that another world existed that she would never be a part of. She would never walk like the humans, talk like them, or blend in.
Similarly, people make the mistake of assuming that most people with disabilities hate their circumstances. Such is the opposite in my case. I love having Cerebral Palsy. I don’t struggle with it, because it’s the only world I’ve known. More than that though, having Cerebral Palsy teaches me to be able to see people beyond their painted surfaces.
It teaches me to care more about deeper human connections, and has made me tougher and stronger. It teaches me to handle anything and everything life throws at me. Like Ariel, I have never once hated my circumstances. It taught me to value the intensities of emotion and humanness, to hate small talk and television, and value more people for nothing less than who they are.
Still, like Ariel, I have never been fully integrated into the world and the lives of people around me. I was told by a friend once that if she saw me walking on the street and hadn’t known me in the context of school, she would never stop to talk to me because of assuming we have nothing in common—due to the walker.
Repeatedly, the onus is placed on to me to crack jokes, break the ice, and make people feel comfortable with my presence. Somehow, I have to prove my right to exist with every “hello”, with every word that I utter. Being a Black woman, I also have to be kinder, smile more, careful in masking my anger. If not, I get written off as the angry Black girl who hates her life and is miserable, labels that can quickly become prophetic if left unchallenged.
Like Ariel, the quest to fit in with people who come from a different world means giving something up. She traded her voice to be able to walk on land. I constantly am faced with having to trade and negotiate parts of my essence in order to be seen as an equal.
I never say no to a task or challenge in fear of seeming incompetent (as I was often labelled by teachers in high school), even if I want to. I can never admit to falling in love, because I don’t want to be seen as chasing things in worlds not meant for me, as demonstrated by the lack of black disabled characters on television, in media, or anywhere.
Too much makeup means I’m trying too hard to seem attractive. Too little means I don’t care. As a kid I was bullied mostly by older boys in my school who saw me as a creature, instead of a peer. Being one of two Black kids in my middle school also didn’t help, and only solidified the notion that I don’t belong.
For a long time, I ran away from my experiences in fiction novels and creative writing, similar to Ariel’s obsession with discovering trinkets. I was trying to remove myself from my experiences, and find an easy out or distraction—like Ariel. I have only recently stumbled upon the realization that there is no real way out. There is no way to fully integrate or be understood by those who do not share in these nuanced lived experiences.
More often than not existing on what feels to be my own island is isolating. Still, I will keep my fins, because like Ariel in the end, I have decided that the onus of belonging is no longer on me to fulfill.
All I can hope for are friends who can see parts of me, and for the friends who choose to stay and become family, like Aisha and a few others, to be willing to take the plunge and see enough of me to become a part of my world.
Photo via Pixabay
Sarah Jama is a community organizer and recent graduate. She is president of the McMaster Womanists and organized a number of events in Hamilton in relation to racism, such as the Rise Up: Rally against Police Brutality, was a co-organizer of Hamilton’s first Anti-Racism Action Initiative. She served a two year term as the Ontario Director of the National Educational Association of Disabled Students, and founded the first peer-based and run service for students with disabilities at McMaster University called Maccess. Her interests include but are not limited to, critical disability theory, critical race theory, social justice organizing, and activism. She featured on CBC Radio’s The Current discussing disability activism in Canada. Most recently, Sarah has been named by CBC’s as one of Hamilton’s top five most interesting people of 2016, because of her city wide advocacy and organizing. Find her on Twitter at @2016Jama