I am writing in regard to an article that was published on March 10, 2017 on The Reporter Vol. XXI No. 1070. I had some grievances as to the process and content of the article that sought to profile me in celebration of International Women’s Day.
Some parts of my replies to the questions that were presented to me are wrongly misconstrued. For instance, the Dean of Medicine, Black Lion Teaching Hospital did not as such engineer my downfall, he like many others, did not feel like I was entitled to a chance to prove myself. He simply denied me a spot in the class after a quick look at me without thinking that I might be able to satisfactorily meet the physical and intellectual rigors of the Program much like other people with Cerebral Palsy who have gone to become accomplished doctors. There was no downfall to engineer and I do not as such want to run a smearing campaign. Moreover, some of the tenses that were utilized are in the past when in fact they are supposed to be in the present or in the future. This might falsely represent my present state of affairs.
The tone of any piece of writing or publication is as important as the content. The process, I imagine, is also sacred. Every story worth telling is precious and needs to be protected as such. I was deeply uncomfortable with the process and end result of how the profile became public. Not only was my story mishandled, I was subjected to harassment, unprofessionalism and unnecessary comments.
I implored the interviewer to change the introduction and some of the way the questions were posited. I reasoned that people might not take kindly to its content as it gives off the impression that interviewer judges people from the outside in – that persons with disabilities need to prove themselves in one way or the other just so their abilities and not their disability is seen first. I worried that people with disabilities would find it objectionable and morally repugnant.
The way my profile was handled tells of the nature of the relationship the society has with women, people with disabilities and more specifically women with disabilities. They are constantly undermined, seen but not heard. Same is true for women with disabilities. They are subjected to blatant and subtle indignities, insults and jibes.
Yes, as the article rightly points out, I do have Cerebral Palsy. It is a permanent movement disorder with different manifestations usually affecting parts of the brain that control movement, balance, and posture usually caused by accidents during birth. It limits my motor skills especially in regards to my mobility enough for me to be considered as physically disabled. It is a source of most of my insecurities and this indescribable torment because I frequently feel like a caged bird. It is not something I can control or change but nonetheless something I get judged on and pitied for every single day. I do not only have to fight against preconceived notions and stereotypes about being a young woman from Sub Saharan Africa, Ethiopia no less. But also have to prove that I might walk funny but I my intelligence is something to be reckoned with.
I can work through any heartbreak or some complex legal question, might even solve a Rubik’s Cube if I feel like it, but the feelings and emotions that flood through me whenever I try and unpack what it means to be a smart, accomplished and beautiful woman who happens to also be disabled is something that I have never been able to come to terms with.
To me, my ability and disability are not so clear cut. They do not exist in clean organized little boxes. I feel equally ashamed and liberated to admit that it is like a jumbled up pair of earphones that have been in your back pocket for too long. For someone who has to grapple with body image issues and low self-esteem at times, I am my abilities but I also am my disability. There are times when I am ALL my disability. Times like when I can’t walk up a flight of stairs, can’t wear heels to complete a hot dress or see the panic and disappointment set in the eyes of men I am interested in when they do not want to be seen out in public with me. All rational thought goes out the window and I am reduced to tears. No amount of pep talk about how I am beautiful, funny or smart can ever really ameliorate how helpless and tiny I feel at any given moment.
He trivialized my story and the courage it took to tell it and thereby dismissed the painful experiences of many who, like me, have to work twice as hard to gain half the recognition and appear to be and be tough to get through the day to day. I do not want to speak on behalf of disabled people because all of our experiences are different. However, it hurts to be treated so inhumanely when all we desperately want is to share in the human experience despite our little kinks. He could have risen to the occasion, took great care with his words and intention to tell a story of intersectionality and correctly set the scene. A true feminist who, as luck would have it, happens to be disabled, sits down to talk to him about her disability, how it shaped her and her views on feminism. The end product would have been an ode, a true celebration of International Women’s Day.
I had wanted my abilities AND my disabilities to be noticed and celebrated. Any insinuation that I am one and not the other is insulting at best and at worst, damaging. That is precisely the reason why I had wanted to stay away from “phoenix rising from the ashes” or “disabled little African girl makes it big at Harvard” narrative because I refuse to accept that a piece of paper from a university or a gold medal at another make me more human. Furthermore, the reason I shared my story is not in an effort to inspire other disabled people to claim their humanity through success.
Disabled people do not need me to feel inspired to do better or to dare to go where no one has gone before. Everyone is trying to get by like everyone else. It is highly unlikely that some random kid confined to a wheelchair would read the article and suddenly decide that a career in international law is something to look into because some other random disabled woman on a newspaper has done it. Stories like mine might be uplifting but true empowerment comes from opportunity – consistent and ample opportunity closely tailored to the needs and preferences of each individual. The will and grit to make something of one’s self does not automatically translate into success. Compassion, empathy and positive affirmation that we are indeed as human as everyone else is vital.
The irony of ironies is the fact that a profile on a woman in connection with International Women’s Day, in my point of view, turned out to be so insensitive to the issues and rights of the disabled and the rights of women. I want this reply to spark a national dialogue. I want each and every one of us to really dig deep and think why women are treated as though they are mere objects, playthings for sexual pleasure, vessels for carrying offspring, human washing machines and vacuum cleaners so underserving of rights and dignity.
From the many personal lessons this experience has taught me, the most quintessential lesson remains – the importance of introducing and reinforcing intersectionality (theory that argues that social oppression does not simply apply to single categories of identity — such as race, gender, sexual orientation, class, etc. — but to all of them in an interlocking system of hierarchy and power) in our everyday interactions especially in regards to feminism. We can all benefit from seeing things from the perspective of the oppressed, marginalized or misunderstood so we can truly be a contributing member of a society that is accepting, tolerant and inclusive.
Martha Basazienw Kassa