In the White House, In the Community & Internationally, Ola Ojewumi, Give Her Views
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: You are a journalist, disability activist and Founder of ASCEND tell us why, when you enter these fields and some work that came out of them.
Ola Ojewumi: As a child, I spent way too many years in denial about having a disability. Though by age 11, I had already survived a rare heart and kidney transplant. This allowed me to start my career in disability activism very young after being denied an accommodation. My high school refused to give me an elevator key despite having a walking disability. It was at that moment when I realized that I would face these obstacles for the rest of my life. Instead of accepting their refusal, I went to the school board to fight the school’s decision. I was then appointed to represent Prince George’s County students on the Disabilities Issues Advisory Board. During my term, I advised elected officials about improving education and school facilities for disabled students. When high school ended, I knew I was not yet done advocating. In my sophomore year of college, I traveled to Guatemala to write about UN women’s programs for Marie Claire.
I learned a great deal about global violence against women and patriarchal systems of oppression. This opportunity showed me how to use the written word to fight injustice and I’ve since been published by the Huffington Post and CNN. In college, I started the 501 c(3) nonprofit organization, Project ASCEND. As a student living with disabilities, it was often challenging paying for my tuition. I was constantly applying for scholarships to stay in school and did not take student loans at the University of Maryland. I wanted to give other young women of color and disabled students the opportunity to fund their education. Project ASCEND also gives middle and high school students a chance to receive mentorship and pathways to attending college. Since starting in 2011, the organization has distributed grants to international and domestic women’s mentorship nonprofits and literacy programs in Guatemala and Nigeria. Our scholarship program has provided college scholarships to disabled students, girls of color and low-income youth learning at institutions from Cornell to George Mason University and more.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: What do you think are the major issues for the disabled community & the Black disabled community?
Ola Ojewumi: I believe African Americans with disabilities encounter the double headed monster of racism and ableism that influences high levels of poverty and unemployment. It starts in the education system with the special education to prison pipeline and mass incarceration. Equal access to quality public education does not exist for African Americans and worsens if they have a disability. If we live in a society that devalues black people how do you think it feels about black people with disabilities? There is a myth that having a disability somehow erases your blackness or race. It doesn’t. The notion that there is a sympathy complex making it so able bodied people cannot see your race (or discriminate against you) if you have a disability is nonsensical. This is the farthest thing from the truth.
Recently, I attended the President’s joint address to Congress. While leaving the event, I was sitting in my motorized scooter when a woman began to hurl racial slurs by calling me the n word. This verbal assault happened right next to the U.S. Capitol Building. Racism doesn’t stop when you become disabled. It may amplify it. In the era of Black Lives Matter, African Americans are advocating for an end to police brutality. Though we recognize institutionalized racism in America’s law enforcement, we often don’t address that 50% of those killed by the police are disabled. Yet, when a person with a disability dies it doesn’t inspire marches or mass protests. It barely makes a sound. We die in silence because people still believe that pity means discrimination does not exist for us.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: We all focus on this Administration and Betsy DeVos push for character schools but what is so surprising is a lot of Hip-Hop well known artists support and even opening up charter schools. So how can we educate wealthy Black artists and other Black people who support and give money to charter schools?
Ola Ojewumi: In the fifth or fourth grade, I had a 504 plan that implements reasonable accommodations for disabled students in the classroom. I remember seeing the word “disabled” on the pamphlet that the principal handed my mom. I said, “Disabled? Who’s disabled? Not me!” I was so deep in denial and wanted to run from that label for the rest of my life because of the social implications that this label brought. Like most disabled students, I faced several challenges because of the stigmatization of disability in the classroom. Though most people believe that we are given sympathy because of our disabilities, contrarily, those with hidden disabilities face overt discrimination. Before becoming a part-time wheelchair user my disability was invisible to the world. Having a hidden disability means the legitimacy of your disability is mercilessly questioned and treated with suspicion. You’re accused of faking your chronic illness, taking advantage of your disability by educators and looked at as though you’re less intelligent. Zero tolerance policies meant teachers would argue against providing make up work, look at your absence or tardiness as truancy to be punished with disciplinary action even if you have reasonable accommodations.
Disabled students face enough challenges in the education system and the appointment of Betsy DeVos may spell harm for this already marginalized group. Students with disabilities already have high dropout rates with a widening achievement gap. DeVos’ response that states should decide to enforce the federal law, Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), that grants equal opportunity for education to disabled students is ableism at its apex. The education of a disabled student being equal to that of an able-bodied student should not be a state’s rights issue or a choice. All children deserve a right to an education and to deny compliance with this federal law is morally wrong and unjust. Furthermore, Secretary DeVos is a major proponent of charter schools. The privatization of education through charter schools is a means of making millions from shifting government funds to private schools. While leaving public schools in a destitute state and in further decline. In the private school system, there is the option of turning disabled students away as federal education laws do not apply to them. DeVos’ response that the states should be able to choose whether to enforce the IDEA reflects the selective exclusion of disabled students. Charter schools prioritize making a profit while defunding public education institutions that are already financially strapped.
Charter schools and the voucher system unfortunately has the support of many in the black community including celebrities and musicians. There are so many of us that may or may not be aware of the consequences of charter schools on the black community. Both Black Lives Matter and the NAACP has called for a moratorium on charter schools and disabled rights organizations should partner together to push black celebrities to invest in institutions other than charter schools. We can reach them by being strategic in our outreach. Nearly all celebrities have foundations or charitable organizations they’ve created. Why don’t disability rights organizations seek meetings with those that run these organizations. Then initiate collaborative partnerships that emphasize the dangers of charter school and how they support systematic racism.
In fact, charter schools have harmful effects on black and brown communities. The voucher system is often cloaked as a civil rights issue to quell racial divide in education. Charter schools in fact expand this division. It leads many to believe that charter schools can close the black and white achievement gap by affording poor black students the same education as wealthy whites. This is a myth. Charter schools only perform 17% better than public schools in terms of standardized testing. The charter school system runs education like a business where teachers are penalized for poor academic performance or student standardized test scores. These teachers don’t receive union protections and are constantly under immense pressure to meet artificially high standards. Charter schools’ zero tolerance policies leave brown and black children subject to harsher punishment and expulsions landing many of these youths in the school to prison pipeline. These institutions divert public funding from public schools in need to well-off private schools. This lines the pockets of the wealthy elite while leaving poor students of color collectively out in the cold. As a whole, charter schools do more harm than good.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Being an activist and I heard one interview when you talked about how activism needs to be more inclusive in that you talked about police brutality against people with disabilities. Tell us what inclusiveness looks like in hot issues like police brutality, school to prison pipeline and the attack on Planned Parenthood.
Ola Ojewumi: An active way of inclusive activism is organizing with the disabled community and not against them. The traditional model of activism through protesting leaves people with disabilities out unable to participate. Secondly, we show up for you but you don’t show up for us. People with disabilities across the spectrum show up to support Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March. But, we never see you at the marches for our rights. Begin actively inclusive calls for more than superficial commitments. It means partnering with not just a few disabled activists but disability rights organizations. So, the efforts are not just centered on those who already have platforms and are repeatedly tokenized just to check the box on the Affirmative Action list. “Let’s see, did we invite a person in a wheelchair? Check mark! Okay, we’ve done our part to be inclusive!” When organizing demonstrations, make sure the event is accessible with ramps, sign language interpreters and are in accessible facilities.
In this virtual world, where many of us can telework and use social media to go viral for causes. There is little to no excuse for not being inclusive. Activists can make movements more inclusive for disabled people that have trouble traveling, leaving their homes or withstanding the hot or cold temperatures to participate in demonstrations. Try to live stream your demonstrations or community meetings. Create ways for all to participate virtually because disabled activists have a lot to contribute to causes whether it’s from our homes or in the streets fighting alongside you. You may not see many of us at protests because activism is exclusionary and constructed within systems that don’t think to add our voices to the conversations about social change.
Leroy F. Moore Jr: In 2014, there was the creation of My Brother’s Keeper and in 2015 women of color answered back with “Advancing Equity for Women and Girls of Color” forum. What are your thoughts about the two initiatives?
Ola Ojewumi: I wrote this article before the My Brother’s Keep Initiative started. But I am impressed by President Obama’s undying commitment to helping and mentoring young men of color. I am so grateful to have lived during a presidency where an Administration cared about voiceless populations excluded in public policy. During his second term, I was invited to a meeting of disability rights leaders and Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett. I asked her about the inclusion of disabled boys of color in the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative because of the special education to prison pipeline—where disabled youth are overdisciplined and funneled out of public schools into the prison system. As a black woman, I see how black girls and women are excluded from similar national initiatives. It is tragic that the well-being of black girls takes a back seat to black boys.
Black girls are not safe at home or at school. They face a brunt of the physical abuse in schools by resource officers and are sexually harassed in and outside of school. They are less likely to be enrolled in STEM courses and perform poorly on standardized tests. In their homes, they’re likely to have larger responsibilities of tending to younger siblings, cooking and cleaning than boys. The black community (and society at large) refuses to recognize these struggles where black girls are seen as older, harshly disciplined and enter the juvenile justice system because of sexism and racism. It’s ironic that Malcom X contended that the most disrespected human being on Earth is the black woman. Nonetheless, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King were unapologetic misogynists. Much of the civil rights movement was led by black women who went unrecognized for decades. Even within organizations like the Black Panthers, black women activists battled relentlessness sexism and gender-based discrimination.
Here we are in 2017 and very little has changed. Black women have to fight for ourselves and our rights on our own. When a black man is killed by police brutality the community organizes marches and rallies in the thousands. When a black woman is harmed or killed by the police it doesn’t make a sound. In fact, no one shows up to the protest as seen during a vigil for Rekia Boyd. Black women have spent centuries standing up for and organizing on behalf of black men’s liberation without reciprocation. Ask yourselves, how many men organize or attend protests for black women raped or abused by law enforcement? Male participation at domestic violence rallies and demonstrations is slim to none. In my 26 years on this Earth, I have never seen a black woman appear on television to validate or rationalize the unjustified violence black men face. However, it’s more than common to see black men on television arguing that black women provoke violence against them and support the narrative that “they brought it on themselves!” Don’t believe me? Remember when Amber Rose started a crusade against sexual assault? In response, black musicians Rev Run and Tyrese told her “dress how you want to be addressed.” However, if a person argues that black men should stop “dressing like thugs” if they don’t want to be harmed by police an immediate uproar follows. Rightfully, black men respond by saying don’t judge us or stereotype us as criminals because of the way we dress. Yet that same empathy or humanity is awarded to black women.
ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith has spent many segments trying to teach women how to not provoke a man to hit them and asserting that NBA wives should be seen not heard. Black men have consistently argued that it is an injustice for anyone to believe that black men provoke police brutality and that it’s really caused by racial bias. Yet, Stephen A. Smith and a legion of black men have ALWAYS argued that black women and our “angry attitudes or outspoken nature” is the reason that we are mistreated, used, abused, sexually assaulted and that we ultimately bring it on ourselves. Hypocrisy or a double standard? You decide. Nonetheless, Black men subject black women to the same bigotry society throws at them. Because we live in a world where black women are devalued by much of society there is little incentive for black men to treat us any differently. We’re often treated worse. When it comes to mentorship, nurturing and the advancement of black women and girls we can only rely on ourselves to save us. We’re on own on and it’s our strength and wisdom that will help us withstand centuries long exclusion and injustice.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: I was surprised to see you on Democracy Now cause usually media even left lending media don’t have people/activists with disabilities on. As a journalist, what do you see that mainstream and left leaning media need to know and do when they report on something to touches the disabled community? And what disabled Journalist like you and I can do better to keep our voices out there?
Ola Ojewumi: We as disabled journalists have to organize and begin pitching our stories to major news outlets like CNN, Huffington Post, New York Times and others. In the disabled community, we are repeatedly talking to each other (our own disability networks) and publishing our work on mediums whose primary audience is disabled people. That’s great. But to have inequality addressed we have to spread the word beyond just our own activist circles. If you are unable to get published by big names the internet is here to give you a voice through self-publishing websites like Mic and Medium. The readership is so wide and diverse that more people are inspired to contribute to the disability rights movement whether they’re disabled, able bodied or personally not affected by disability but want to make change regardless.
Like many writers, I am tired of watching local news and major cable news programs only mention people with disabilities through the lens of inspiration porn—defined as society's tendency to reduce people with disabilities to objects of inspiration. I’m tired of reading stories about how an able-bodied individual pitied a disabled person enough to take them to prom. Or even worse how a disabled person has decided to commit suicide and how brave they are because of that tough decision. The news describes them as courageous and the neighborhood throws them a HUGE party for no reason other than that they have a disability. We pity them because imagine how horrible their quality of life must be? Contrary to popular belief, there are quite a number of people with disabilities that are happy and accept disability as a part of the human condition. Many of us don’t feel like we’d “kill ourselves if we ever ended up in a wheelchair” which is a very common phrase able bodied people use without shame.
Instead of assuring disabled people that they’re valued and that their lives matter. We share social media news stories about how taking your own life (with a non-deadly illness) is amazingly brave and praiseworthy. In any other circumstance, would we celebrate an able-bodied teenager’s choice to commit suicide? Would society label it as brave or celebrate it with a prom party? No, we’d do everything to stop them and direct them to psychological treatment. This happened last year when a disabled Wisconsin teenager chose to commit assisted suicide though her illness was not terminal. Hundreds showed up to her prom to celebrate this choice. This shows young people with disabilities that choosing to die is the right option and that your entire community will show up to support you and not tell you that you should choose life. As a person with a disability, your ambition can take you beyond the limits society has set for you and achievement is on the horizon if you fight ableism and its ability to make us feel worthless. This is precisely why we need more disabled writers. We need to put a cease to this so that this narrative doesn’t dominate the news like it does now. We can put a stop to this negative subliminal messaging that undoubtedly harms people with disabilities. I’ve been published by the Huffington Post. CNN, Marie Claire and other media outlets. So, I know the power of my pen to create social change and show the world that people with disabilities are people and not just our disabilities. People first.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: It’s 2017 and yes, I have seen more Black disabled activists/artists especially online, in the White House especially under Obama but for me I still see very little in the Black community and even in Black popular cultural media, arts and so on. So how can we take the good work online and under Obama and bring into the streets of the Black disabled community?
Ola Ojewumi: We have got to either start our own organizations and mediums to share our work or not continue to wait for black institutions and organizations to recognize our brilliance. If we continue to wait on others to include us, we will always be asking for a foot in the door and waiting on the approval and acceptance of others. I’ll use Angela Rye as an example. She was former the former Executive Director of the Congressional Black Caucus. She left and founded her own company, IMPACT Strategies. She’s since become a well-known commentator on CNN and Huffington Post Live. She sets the standard because there are too many of us that aren’t brave enough to go out on our own and start nonprofits, activist groups or businesses. But we have to do so as a means of no longer demanding acceptance. Rather, we must champion our own causes. Elevate our voices to launch our own platforms.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: You travel a lot and internationally. I just got back from South Africa interviewing artists/activists with disabilities. As a woman with disability what did feel like when you travel and see other disabled women nationally and internationally
Ola Ojewumi: It felt amazing to travel across the United States and other countries. When I board a plane, there is a type of excitement that I feel. It’s this independence of traveling on my own that brings me joy. Many thought that this would never be a possibility for me and decided that I could never be that independent. In college, I had dreams of working in the field of international relations and I’ve done so with the United Nations Population Fund and President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). YALI has an international fellowship program which affords African millennials the opportunity to live and work in the United States.
At a YALI event, I met a deaf fellow and her interpreter. In many parts of my native West Africa, people living with disabilities are shunned and seen as cursed. Often, they never leave their homes and do not receive schooling. Seeing her changed the game for me and altered my thoughts about traveling with a disability and working internationally. I haven’t always had a disability. This occurred later in my adolescence. Before becoming disabled, I was told to reach for the stars and that I could achieve anything. After my transplants, I was told to accept my limitations. I responded by saying, “I have no limits and my potential was limitless.” I was always told by those in my inner circle that traveling internationally would be nearly impossible while having a disability. Thus far, I’ve traveled to Guatemala and Israel. I live to prove others wrong and change the negative viewpoint of disability.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: You attended the National Museum of African American History & Culture. What did you feel about being there and did you see or read about any African Americans with disabilities?
Ola Ojewumi: I have visited this museum a few times and each time it’s felt incredible. There is so much history that takes you to different time periods in the black history. The exhibits show the power and perseverance of those in the African Diaspora and the many accomplishments and contributions of African Americans to the development of America which has made it the world power that it is today. However, I was greatly disappointed to see no mention of the disability rights movement or disabled and LGBT African American history makers. In fact, Nene Leakes is featured in the museum for the popularization of black gay slang…and not an actual gay African American leader. I say black LGBT and disabled people are excluded respectively as a reflection how the black community has treated both communities historically. In the black community, being gay and disabled are things the black church has shunned. Many view being gay or disabled as something that needs to be prayed away or cured.
In addition, the strong black woman and man narrative encourages people to hide their disabilities or deny they exist. Black gay Americans remain closeted in the same manner for fear of rejection and being ostracized by the community. I hope that the museum will try to change this and choose the inclusion of these two groups. So much of the disability rights movement’s history is influenced by the Black Panthers and the Civil Rights Movement. The same goes for the gay rights movement. The Stonewall Riots began with an African American transgender woman, Marsha Johnson, throwing the first brick. This initiated the beginning of the gay liberation movement. This is African American history and shouldn’t be forgotten due to ableism, heterosexism and transphobia.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: In the next four years what would you like to see for you and your community?
Ola Ojewumi: I’d like to see more youth and women of color leading the disability rights movement. I hope that the tumultuous times we’re living in will spark a revolution that brings institutionalized ableism to forefront and that the disabled community can amplify our voices and demands for access to equal education, an end to mass incarceration and police violence against the disabled. I want to see more diversity and inclusion so the disability rights movement doesn’t remain a movement for wealthy and middle class whites as the community is largely diverse. It is that diversity that is needed to effectively dismantle systems of oppression that leaves us trapped in institutions like nursing homes and prisons. Rather, we are fighting to live independently with access to quality healthcare and not further cuts to SSDI and Medicaid.
More importantly, I want to see a close in the achievement gap for disabled students. It’s unfortunate that we only represent 11% of those attending colleges and universities. Though much of the disability rights system is focused on employment, that centralization is a very classist approach. It doesn’t place an emphasis on how the public education system keeps disabled students of color out of the work force through a pushout into the juvenile justice system. The modern disability rights movement must address the disproportionately high dropout rate and while creating pathways for disabled students to attend college. This will provide equal opportunity to enter the workforce. Even within the workforce, there is an overrepresentation of disabled people in the field of janitorial services and menial jobs that pay them below minimum wage. There is nothing wrong with working in these fields but I want to see an end to laws that legalize subminimum wage for disabled employees. So that we can rise to become CEOs, engineers, tech innovators, doctors, lawyers and world changers.
Leroy F. Moore Jr. You have been in the White House as a visitor and other roles, what do you see the difference between Obama administration and one now?
Ola Ojewumi: I worked as an intern in the White House and served on their kitchen cabinet on disability. President Obama had a real commitment to making the lives of disabled Americans better through his executive order to increase federal hiring of people with disabilities, the Affordable Care Act and expansion of Medicaid. President Obama has literally saved the lives of numerous disabled Americans that can now have access to affordable health insurance. The current Administration is trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act and take away crucial programs that assist the disabled. From halting the expansion of Medicaid to eliminating federal funding for the Meals on Wheels program. We have a Secretary of Education who believes that educating children with disabilities should be a choice for states to decide and a President that has been sued for violating the ADA. It was disheartening to see him openly mock a disabled reporter. These factors combined make me legitimately fear that people will disabilities may die because of these policy changes and I fear for the future of disabled Americans.
Leroy F. Moore Jr. Lately there has been high profile women in all arenas from the former first lady, Michelle Obama to Senator Warren to Beyoncé to Viola Davis to the founders of Black Lives Matter but very few with noticeable disabilities. Please give us some names of disabled women who are making moves today.
Ola Ojewumi: I have many disabled idols that are women of color. They’re fighting the good fight for disability rights and equality. I am inspired by the first black female attorney, Claudia Gordon. I look up to former White House disability liaison Taryn McKenzie Phillips. Other disabled women of color making waves are Dr. Angel Miles, Day Al-Mohamed, Keri Gray, Andraea LaVant, Dr. Donna Reed Walton, Kamilah Martin Proctor, Heather Watkins, Charlotte McClain Nhlapo and many more.
Leroy F. Moore Jr.: Any last words and how can people keep up with your work?
Ola Ojewumi: You can follow me on Twitter @OlaOjewumi or visit the Project ASCEND website to keep up with our charitable works at www.project-ascend.org.
Pic Ola Ojewumi sitting in her wheelchair wearing a black and cream dress suite. In the background is a huge sign that says, " Disaporas Development. She is sitting next to a woman with a tn scraf that cover geer hair wearing a black jacket.