Manitoba·Point of View

'Navigating through disability while Black' can be a disheartening challenge, says mom and advocate

"Being born Black in Canada means you are never the norm, the standard, the status quo," says Tina QueenTite Opaleke, a mother of a Black child with a disability. "Being born Black and disabled means you are the exception, the rarity, perpetually seated outside of the box."

'The erasure of Blackness': Tina QueenTite Opaleke's Black son was fitted with a white prosthetic

'Advocating for my son's right to mobility came naturally,' says Tina QueenTite Opaleke. (Submitted by Tina QueenTite Opaleke)

I was born with club feet. Feet turned inward, disabled. 

I spent my primary years having what I knew as being "pigeon-toed" corrected. 

Or rather, the illusion of correction, because invisible disabilities are just that: lifelong disabilities that no one recognizes but yourself. 

Having invisible disabilities means knees dislocate while jogging. I don't jog anymore.

Invisible disabilities mean ankles and toes are abundant in inflammation and early arthritis.

It means I wear runners, instead of heels, for the stability of my body and the longevity of my limbs, however invisible to the naked eye. 

This continuity of invisibility carries past my disability. It also rears itself into my race, my culture, my daily experiences. 

Why would a health-care professional threaten a single black mother and nine-month-old baby with the police?- Tina QueenTite Opaleke

I am a mother with invisible disabilities who has two children. One of them is a Black disabled child amputee — with visible disabilities. 

He wears a running blade step-in prosthesis on his right leg — and experiences being Black and disabled every day. I am witness to it. 

His very first prosthesis was created when he was nine months old. I went to a reputable clinic in Vancouver to inquire about having one made. 

Our very first experience was disheartening. He was denied an assistive device because, according to the prosthetist, "it was not worth the cost."  

I — mother, protector, disability justice activist and advocate of anything pertaining to my family — did not leave that clinic. I was very clear I would not leave until my son was respectfully cast for a prosthesis. 

I was told the police would be called if I did not leave. I did not leave. I requested they call the police to document the violation of our human rights; they chose not to. 

'My Black disabled son did not receive adequate health-care services due to the colour of his skin,' says Tina QueenTite Opaleke. 'Shame.' (Submitted by Tina QueenTite Opaleke)

This is where disability and race intersect in the ugliest way. Why would a health-care professional threaten a single Black mother and nine-month-old baby with the police? 

Why was I misrepresented as making a scene, while I calmly breastfed my baby? 

Why was I being refused services I am entitled to? 

Because I was standing up for my son's human and disabled rights. 

Because I did not listen to the white man who thought he had authority over me or my son's medical needs. 

He did not! 

Equal access to support

I advocated quietly, respectfully and patiently. My Black disabled son is a Canadian citizen born with a congenital femoral deficiency. He is not only entitled, by law, to just health care, but deserving of an assistive limb to walk. 

Every time he tried to take a step, he would fall, split his lip, need stitches or cry out in anguish. How, as medical professionals, could they deny anyone with physical disabilities the resources required to achieve mobile independence? 

Being born Black in Canada means you are never the norm, the standard, the status quo. 

Being born Black and disabled means you are the exception, the rarity, perpetually seated outside of the box. 

I, as a disabled mother of a Black disabled child, know that Blackness comes with unnecessary struggle; continuously confronting racial injustices and standing firm in the face of adversity, all while navigating through disability while Black. 

Thus, advocating for my son's right to mobility came naturally. 

My Black disabled son did not receive adequate health-care services due to the colour of his skin.- Tina QueenTite Opaleke

Eventually, after hours of silently protesting in a prosthetic clinic, they took a cast of my son's leg and constructed a baby prosthesis to aid in my son's mobility. 

Three weeks later, upon completion of his assistive limb, we arrived to find a white prosthetic. A Black disabled child was given a white-coloured assistive limb. 

I was the only person in that clinic who saw an issue with the limb. The very fact that I had to acknowledge the error confirmed the obvious erasure and neglect of our Blackness. 

The prosthetist responded by saying, "I see your point, it's just that I don't see colour."

I wonder: what colour did he see when he earlier had threatened to call the police on us? 

I want you to see my colour and acknowledge its existence, its influence and its validity. 

My son had to wait an added three weeks (six weeks in total) to have the privilege of walking. A privilege most take for granted.

Colour of his skin

My Black disabled son did not receive adequate health-care services due to the colour of his skin. 

Shame. 

The erasure of Blackness within white spaces shapes the way in which Black disabled bodies are misrepresented (or, most times, not represented at all).

Visibly disabled Black bodies? Even more so. 

I wish I could say our experience at the clinic was isolated, but that would be false. 

That was just the beginning of our journey navigating through disability while Black. 

I will continue to advocate for disabled Black bodies, including my own. 

Our stories, experiences and voices are valid and imperative in bringing forth change to a system that devalues disabled bodies, dehumanizes Black bodies and the plethora of vulnerable racialized victims at the intersections of that crossroad. 


This column is part of  CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

 

About the Author

Tina QueenTite Opaleke is a Nigerian/Jamaican hybrid of the African diaspora and the co-founding director of PFFD (Prosthetics For Foreign Donation). A former international model and spoken word poet, she led chants for the Winnipeg Women’s March on Washington 2017, was awarded The ACA Humanitarian Award 2019 and is now pursuing her honours BA in behavioural sciences.

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