Divas With Disabilities: A Movement in African American History

Jan 31, 2018

The Divas With Disabilities project (DWD), is a digital movement created to amplify the images of African American women with physical disabilities. Images have power. They influence our perceptions of others and ourselves. By using the power of images, DWD helps shape the perception of what “disability” looks like by promoting African American women and women of color through various media platforms.   Founder and Director, Donna Walton, EdD, affirms that “We can no longer wait on mass media to decide how to portray us on TV, cast us in a film, or decide when we are good for advertising dollars, Black women, who happen to live with physical disabilities, are Divas—empowered women with disabilities—deserving of historical recognition, acknowledgement and inclusion.”

Diva, Zazel O’Garra, Queens, NY

Diva, Zazel O’Garra, Queens, NY

According to disabled writer and activist Paul Hunt, the mass media, which we define as including press, film, internet, advertising, television, print, and radio, is a source of information whether correct or inaccurate still provides imagery that continues to enforce disability stereotypes. By portraying disabled individuals in a negative un-empowering way, black women and girls with disabilities are depicted as non-sexual, pathetic, a burden, our own worst enemy, an object of curiosity, or unable to participate in aspects of life. Does a missing limb mean our aspirations of feeling good and being happy are changed? The time is now to show the world that black women and girls with disabilities have a beauty all their own that is found by channeling their inner Diva. 

In her newly released book, "Shattered Dreams, Broken Pieces", Walton recalls her high level of creativity while a student in school, writing “I enjoyed art class, I was very passionate about music class.” With a creative spirit and talents nurtured in school by her teacher, and those positive experiences as a girl helped her spirit and motivation after her leg amputation. Beliefs formed as a girl about her self-worth played a large role in imagining how wearing a prosthesis could enhance Donna’s black feminine beauty by changing her “gait from a limp to a saunter” with the power of reinvention. Embraced by the National Black Disability Coalition (NBDC) Donna uses black disabilities studies in Shattered Dreams, Broken Pieces to construct a more exact comprehension of the community of which black disabled women are a part. As founder of the Divas With Disabilities Project, Walton shares the historical underpinnings of black women with disabilities in the current media climate regarding unrealistic expectations of beauty and maintaining a positive self-esteem. 

Diva, Kebra C. Moore,

San Antonio, TX

She states that “Sexual images of Black women may lend understanding as to why African American women with disabilities are marginalized even more than their non-disabled counterparts, and why African American women with disabilities stand less of a chance of being described as desirable.” Her critical look at how black women with disabilities are (mis)represented in United States popular visual culture and mass media contextualizes history of both esteem and shame in community groups among people of color, specifically the black community. Complicated by colonialism and imperialism, disabled black people have been denied rights because of social prejudice and oppression. One way black women with disabilities have been able to combat negativity of their status is through their participation in the black arts movement, activism in the United States disability rights movement, and a constant presence in the civil rights movement. In their ongoing fight to be recognized and celebrated, black women with a disabilities are positioned in the constant battle on black women’s body politics and de-stereotyping black women’s narratives. With 20% of Americans living with a disability yet only 2% of characters on screen have a disability, the majority of representation depicts black women with disabilities as an incompetent minority when that sentiment is the furthest from the truth. Real depictions of black women with disabilities is needed at this moment in America’s history, but the question is: since it’s never happened before, what does adequate representation look like and how do we get there?

Despite attempts to silence and erase the experiences of black people with disabilities, their narrative is documented in history, culture, arts, sciences, leadership, and politics. Leroy F. Moore Jr., the Black Disability Studies Committee of the National Black Disability Coalition Chair, believes Black DS must have a home that is Afro-centric and engages Black disabled pride and knowledge. With more black women with disabilities uniting in their efforts to be more visible in forms of visual culture and mass media, the vision of representation is growing.

Diva, Alana Wallace, Chicago, IL

Diva, Alana Wallace, Chicago, IL

Author Audre Lorde wrote that black women with disabilities suffer from the community’s invisibility, a struggle present but imbalanced between visible and invisible. In The Cancer Journals, Lorde attests that “Surrounded by other women day by day, all of whom appear to have two breasts, it is very difficult sometimes to remember that I AM NOT ALONE”. Lorde reflects on how her identity as a woman with a disability is a gateway to understanding visible and invisible power struggles at play on a daily basis. Our time is now. Owning our identities is being embraced by notable women of color with disabilities, such as Shanica Jarret, who explains that disability is not only a semantic marker, but also an undeniable reality of happiness and hardships. 

Diva, Cherri King, Washington, DC

Diva, Cherri King, Washington, DC

A focus on black women within disability, women’s and black movements further emphasizes what black women have known and make clear—that shifting parameters of identity requires deconstructing oppressive systems that separate, building new knowledge from individuals who are affected by those systems, so women and girls can reimagine representation and embrace shifts in their unique knowledge. By incorporating the mentality being visible and present, or as Walton says, “Showing up, unapologetically,” into our lives as women of color with disabilities, we uphold an authenticity and commitment to unified efforts of the disability community by being the models of application for further activism in the black diaspora. DWD movement is a critical step in supporting women and girls of color is to ensure their identities are fostered in inclusive sources of mass media and popular culture, and their images are not erased from American history.




The Divas With Disabilities Project (DWDP) http://www.divaswithdisabilities.com

Dunhamn, Jane, et al. "Developing and Reflecting on a Black Disability Studies Pedagogy: Work from the National Black Disability Coalition." Disability Studies Quarterly 35.2 (2015).

Lorde, Audre. "The cancer journals: Special edition." San Francisco: Aunt Lute (1997).

Walton, Donna R. Shattered Dreams, Broken Pieces. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (2017).

Walton, Donna R. (2011) What’s a Leg Got to Do With It?: Black, Female, and Disabled in America. Barbara Faye Waxman Fiduccia Papers on Women and Girls with Disabilities Center for Women Policy Studies.

Hunt, Paul (1992). Discrimination: Disabled People and the Media.

The authors:

Veronica HicksVeronica Hicks is dual-title Ph.D. candidate in Art Education and Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Penn State University and a Global Ambassador for the Divas with Disabilities Project. Veronica leads an ambitious, multi-phased project that confronts the discriminatory societal challenges of black women with disabilities. Her research includes a compassionate and critical reflection on a relationship between a teacher and student who are both women of color with disabilities. The relationship is translated into a black feminist comic book as a theoretical analysis of women artists and educators of color with disabilities through a black feminist intersectional framework. Her work responds to the lack of critical attention paid to depictions of black women with disabilities in popular visual culture. Veronica’s research opens new understandings about women of color with disabilities, their depictions in popular visual culture, and their place within educational research.

Dr. Donna R. Walton, the author of Shattered Dreams, Broken Pieces, had dreams of international stardom. All it took was one diagnosis at the age of eighteen to turn her life upside down. Through the power of reinvention, Walton got her a new lease on life. Through thousands of hours working with other amputees, receiving national recognition from the National Disability Institute, and being featured on C-SPAN for her community-building projects surrounding the beauty of being a black woman with a disability, Donna has taken refuge in remembering if what you want isn't behind door number 1, door number 2, or door number 3, don't settle for less. Knock a hole in the wall and make a new door. Walton credits her unforeseen success through life's journey that asks the question, “what’s a leg got to do with it?” Her latest endeavor as the founder of the Divas with Disabilities Project has made an unprecedented impact in the disability and women of color communities as a hub for thoughtful discussion on issues, self-love, and showing up, unapologetically in all forms of media.