Answer: Not much. When I applied for law school in 2013 I had to write a personal statement. That’s the case with pretty much any institution of higher learning. I chose to write about my labels. Some I chose. Some where forced on me. Some I rejected. Some I embraced.
I want to share that essay with you. I’ve made some revisions because I realized the incredible amount of ableist language I used in my original essay. For that, I apologize. Yes, even disabled folk can be ableist. Shedding that interalized ableism a matter of personal growth and education. And in my time interacting with the disabled community, that is what has happened: education and growth.
So, I present to you: Owning My Labels
So often we are asked to describe who we are. It is difficult because it forces us to apply labels to ourselves. Some labels you cannot do anything about. You are born with them or they are attached later. Others are labels you acquire purposefully. Those are the ones you choose to wear based on your own decisions and are completely within your control. I can imagine myself with the “Hi, My name is…” label stuck all over me with each one saying something different.
My first labels told the world I am a Black woman. As straightforward as that is, I would later find out that there was more to me than that.
At a very early age, my siblings and I were removed from my mother’s custody because she was an addict. Actually, both of my parents had a heavy addiction that affected us in different ways. For me, it caused an illness that required emergency operations (yes, plural) to save my life. At six months old, I had surgery to remove both legs and three fingers on my writing hand. I am what is called a below-knee amputee (BKA). Between then and age 10, I underwent 13 different surgeries. I celebrated birthdays and holidays in the hospital. I experienced many firsts there as well – like my first boyfriend, kiss, and break up (smh). Interestingly, my disability was not a difference I noticed until I was much older.
New label: Disabled Black Woman
It is very easy to take for granted the things for which others have had to fight. An education is one of those things. I can admit that at time I took my education, and my access to it, for granted. It was not that I did not see the value; I was young and more concerned with socializing with my friends. It took me awhile to fully appreciate and take advantage of the opportunities in front of me. I knew I was a good student, but I did not always apply myself. Growth and maturity made me realize that I was only placing myself at even more of a disadvantage considering the systemic racism, ableism, sexism, etc. knocking at my life’s door. So I changed that. And you know what? If we’re honest with ourselves, learning should never stop.
New label: Student.
Being an academic is not worth much if that knowledge is not shared with others. Beginning in high school, I worked with students of different ages as a tutor or mentor. I taught English to adult learners and Spanish to college students. I worked with high school and elementary school students on their reading and writing.
I found I had a new label: Educator.
Throughout all of my experiences, I learned that it is important to speak up. I have had to fight for what I felt I deserved. Each day I find I must correct someone in their own preconceived notions of me, and people in my communities. I feel I am not doing my part if I do not try to educate those around me about issues that affect me and my communities. Again this spans from ableism to sexism to racism to all types of -phobias and hate. It is important to be in a position that will allow me to be a voice and affect change.
New label: Advocate/Activist.
Finally, I have used the opportunities I’ve been given to help others. These include serving on executive boards for different organizations and clubs. I was a founding member of the Charter Legal Clinic in Long Beach, CA, served on the board for Autism in Long Beach, and VP of Communications for my sorority. These positions, and others, allowed me to interact with my community and train others who come after me.
New label: Leader.
Hello. My name is Disabled/Black/Student/Educator/Advocate/Leader. These are labels I wear with pride. They do more than broadly define the person, they influenced my life path. They helped shape the person I will become.
In recent years I’ve added a few new labels. I am wife. A lawyer-in-training. A step-mom and a mom-to-be. I’m cool with these. My labels aren’t meant to help normalize any part of me for others. They aren’t meant to “other” me. They just…are. And they serve a purpose: to tell you who I am, not how I want you to see me.