Vilissa Thompson on Intersectionality, Dating Advice for Disabled Women, and being a Womanist
"I love what I do - I know that I am impacting the world in ways that are unique, empowering, and dynamic."
Vilissa is an amazing advocate for social change, especially around disability and Black women's rights, representation, and visibility. I'm honored to share her unique voice! In this interview, she shares about her experience as a disabled, Black woman, her advice for disabled women wanting to date, why she identifies as a Womanist instead of a Feminist, and being invited to the White House.
You are the creator of Ramp Your Voice! What is RYV and its mission? What moved you to create it?
Ramp Your Voice! (RYV!) is the advocacy space I created for myself to share my thoughts and experiences about the world I live in as a disabled person, and the intersectional viewpoints I have as a social worker and a woman of color. Its mission is to be an online space that allows for the authentic (real-life) experiences to be shared, and not the ableist views we normally see online that are written/created by able-bodied/neurotypical persons.
I was moved to create RYV! because I got frustrated with the job market for social workers a year after I graduated with my Masters in Social Work degree. I felt that the field didn’t have jobs that were the right fit for me, and decided to branch out on my own by creating a blog. I love to write, and figured that I could share my talent by discussing topics that mattered to me as a disabled person, and these topics would cover a wide range of areas, not just one. Since 2013, over 150 posts have been published, and I’ve written about politics, disability representation in literature, healthcare, education, shared my own experiences, and my most favorite kind of posts - interviewed disabled women. I like the variety RYV! has, and I believe that that is what makes it unique, and a source people trust and enjoy to read.
Tell me more about your advocacy work and its focus on disabled women of color.
In addition to writing the blog, I conduct presentations about the disabled experience (and have held 3 workshops so far at conferences), offer public speaking opportunities to those interested in learning about my life as a disabled person, and I have the ability to provide consulting expertise to schools and businesses about the importance of inclusion, accommodations and accessibility, and acceptance of disabled persons. All of these services are those that I have listed on RYV!, and I have been sought out in different capacities to fulfill.
Besides creating an online space where disabled voices and acceptance reign, I have a specific agenda - I want there to be more diversity within disability advocacy. Disability advocacy is too white and male dominated; that has to change because disability knows no race or gender. Disabled women, particularly disabled women of color, are grossly ignored and underrepresented. I want to feel empowered by meeting and connecting with other disabled women of color who understands what it is like to have triple minority status - being disabled, of color, and female.
Since creating RYV! almost 3 years ago, I have amassed this reputation of being an advocate who is referred to by those who are interested in the experiences of disabled women of color, and that makes me proud to be known as that. It makes me proud that those in this community understand my passion for inclusion and intersectionality, and views my voice and knowledge as a reputable one. I love connecting with disabled Black women especially because they share with me how they are proud that someone is talking about the issues that matters to them, and their words empower me to keep the fire burning strong as an advocate. I found a niche and gap to fill within disability advocacy, and I went for it. In the process, I empowered not only those who were wanting something different and relatable, but also myself and strengthened my own voice.
Tell me more about your online dating series for disabled women.
I decided to develop the “That’s the Way Love Rolls” online dating series because I was tired of the same narrative concerning dating as a disabled woman. That narrative consists of a number of sentiments, such as “No one will ever love me because I am disabled” and “my confidence and comfortability are shattered due to being disabled.” Those narratives are indeed important, but there are more perspectives that need to be read and understood too. For example, what happens after we overcome the internalized ableism and regain our confidence to date as disabled women? Who are writing those kind of stories to create a more equal balance for shared perspectives? That gap is what I want my series to fill. I am confident in myself as a disabled woman, and I know that some guy will appreciate and want to date me, disability and all. My disability does not hinder my dating experience - it acts as a trusted “repellent” to those who are not open-minded to differences and are shallow. I have learned to love myself and to be comfortable in my skin and body - my disability does not determine my worth, value, dateability, or desirability.
You've talked about how online dating can be frustrating for disabled women. What are some of the challenges that disabled women, especially WOC, face with online dating? How can online dating improve for disabled women?
I think the challenge for disabled women of color is the question of whether guys are not approaching or messaging you because of your disability status or racial identity (the latter is for those who date interracially, like myself). I think the combination of having membership within both identities creates a puzzling dilemma for disabled women to endure.
For some guys, having a disability is not the issue, but being a Black woman is because they don’t have experience with dating outside their race or know that their family would not be accepting of an interracial pairing. Likewise, for some, being Black is not a deterrent, but not understanding what your disability is or how to approach a disabled woman may make them pause and second guess sending or returning a message. Personally, I try not to stress about these “what ifs” scenarios, and understand that there are guys who will see my Blackness and disability and beyond them - they just want to get to know me. It is important to see the identities a person has because those identities have shaped their realities and how the world views and responds to them.
I believe online dating spaces could improve by making all women feel safer - we hear stories of women encountering persons who are not who they portrayed themselves to be on their profile pages. Safety is a huge priority for me because I know that my disability status makes me “vulnerable” and I want to feel secure when I review the profile pages of guys I may be interested in. Safety, along with comfortability in disclosing one’s disability status, are huge issues disabled women encounter while online dating, and these spaces should consider how they can remedy these obstacles for a smoother online dating experience.
"If you are still struggling with accepting yourself, take some time to work on you first."
What is your advice to disabled women who want to try online dating?
If you are still struggling with accepting yourself, take some time to work on you first. I think that women, regardless of ability, make themselves vulnerable when they seek love and acceptance from others before they learn to love and accept themselves first. For me, I could not expect a partner to love me fully, disability especially, if I had not worked on internal conflicts I had about my disability status. Possessing self-love as a disabled woman is so crucial because you realize that you are just as deserving of having healthy, loving, respectful, and fulfilling relationships as everyone else, and will be less likely to settle.
One critical point I will share about online dating: realize that you won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but know that there will be someone willing to select your cup and love what it contains. Rejection and not receiving responses can bruise the ego when first starting out, but know that this is a part of the process - do not take it personally. Take the time to decide how and when you want to disclose your disability, and the deal breaker responses you won’t tolerate from dating prospects (this will help you better judge a person’s character and be safe while dating). Know that your special person is out there - remember to be patient with yourself during this process.
And most importantly, have fun and be safe. Dating is about meeting new people, and in the process, finding the person who wants to be with you and you with them.
Tell me more about the need for racially diverse disabled voices in, well, really all areas of society. How can we increase greater visibility and representation for disabled women, especially disabled women of color?
We can begin by allowing disabled women of color, particularly, to feel included within this movement. As I stated earlier, the disability community, from its history to the voices and faces we see online, is overwhelmingly white and male. Our community has excluded the experiences, stories, and the historical advocacy efforts and participation of disabled people of color.
There has been a great push for more visibility and representation, but this is a slow progression. One barrier is our resistance to discuss topics other than disability within advocacy, and that has allowed the intersectional experiences of disabled women and disabled people of color to be ignored. Purposefully ignoring our challenges is offensive because it fails to drive home the truth that we undergo different obstacles and oppressions that are outside of the disability realm. For example, you cannot claim to see me as a whole person if you solely focus on my disability status; my Black and female identities have affected my ability to be included and gain access to resources in ways that my disability status has not. Disabled people of color like myself, particularly women, are starting to make our own places within the advocacy realm because we understand that if we wait for the movement to do so, we will remain waiting on our turn. Our voices, struggles, and stories matter, and it is long overdue for disability rights organizations and online spaces to make room for us to share with the community and the broader society our truths.
Allowing visual depictions of disabled people of color through images and stories are great starting points to increasing visibility and representation. Efforts must also be made in employing us within older and newer organizations and having us hired in various positions (Executive Director, workers, and volunteers). Electing us on Advisory Boards and Boards of Directors, so that diverse faces and voices can be represented fully, are also greatly needed. These actions would allow disabled people of color to feel that they matter, and hopefully, increase active involvement within the collective community as well.
"Womanism is where I feel safe as a Black disabled woman, and ardently believe that all of my identities are seen, understood, respected, and most importantly, accepted."
How can intersectional feminism be more inclusive of disabled women, including disabled women of color?
I do want to be transparent - I do not call myself a feminist; I identify as a disabled Womanist. Womanism is the social theory that is deeply rooted in the racial and gender oppression of Black women. Womanism, unlike Feminism, is a theory that includes the various identities Black women may have, including disability. Womanism is where I feel safe as a Black disabled woman, and ardently believe that all of my identities are seen, understood, respected, and most importantly, accepted.
The reason I gravitated towards Womanism and not Feminism was because I could not align myself with a movement that has a history of excluding two of my three primary identities - Blackness and disability. I do agree with the principles of Feminist theory, but it is the actual Feminist movement that I have issues with, especially since the movement’s most visible voices are white, able-bodied/neurotypical woman. The push for inclusive (and thus, intersectional) feminism is important because we cannot claim that a movement represents ALL women when its focus, faces, and voices has only one look and sound. Feminism is making slow strides to include the experiences of disabled women, but it has to do better in including disabled women of color as well. Understanding intersectionality and how these experiences affect women who belong to multiple groups will allow Feminism to be the inclusive movement it should have been from the start. Disabled women, and disabled women of color especially, have to feel safe and validated in order for the Movement to truly be what it is working towards.
You recently celebrated Black Disability History at the White House (amazing!). Please tell me more about this experience. How did you get involved with this event, and how did you celebrate it there?
I received an invitation to attend, which came as a complete surprise since I did not know that such an event was taking place. That was my first trip to Maryland, and to Washington, D.C. The experience was phenomenal because it was wonderful to meet advocates who cared about and understood the importance of intersectionality within the disability experience. It was amazing to hear fellow advocates discuss Blackness and disability, and the issues of both identities, separately and combined. The best part was meeting other Black disabled advocates and feeling empowered because that was the first time I had been in a room with so many of us. The connections I had made from that trip are ones I deeply value because it has opened a number of great opportunities when it comes to projects, as well as being able to learn about the tremendous work other Black disabled advocates are doing within their specific passions and foci.
Where did you grow up and what was that experience like? Where do you live now?
I grew up in Winnsboro, South Carolina, a small town about 30 minutes from Columbia, the state capital. Luckily, I had a very good experience growing up there because of my Grandmother who raised me from birth. She was my caretaker/guardian, supporter, and my fiercest advocate - she made sure I had what I needed and did not do without. If it were not for her presence, strength, and unconditional love, I would not be the person I am today.
I was also fortunate to have teachers who supported me in school, which allowed my love for learning to grow without limits. My teachers saw and valued my talents (my love for writing, especially), and hone in on my innate abilities and allowed me to be creative. They also ensured that I was included in the classrooms, and that my classmates did not bully me because of my disability. I went to a predominantly Black school district, so race was not an issue, and surprisingly, neither was my disability. I received all of the accommodations I needed without resistance and my participation within the school setting was valued. Being in an inclusive school environment allowed for me to gain the best educational experience I was entitled to under the law, and propelled me to reach higher by going to college and graduate school, and aspiring to obtain a law degree in a couple of years.
I’m beginning to make plans to move to Washington, D.C. because the trip to the White House showed me that disability advocacy is HUGE there, and that my work would fit right in. The most surprising thing I learned from that trip was that many advocates were familiar with what I do (in regards to RYV! and my focus on disabled women of color), and I know that there are incredible connections I can make in D.C. that will propel my message and brand further. I hope to be in the DMV area by the end of the year, and I have begun the job and housing search process.
"When we take charge in telling our stories our way, we then possess power over the images and thoughts society is subjected to about disability that are truer to who we actually are."
Do you think that, as a society, we are making progress at moving away from treating disabled people like they're inspirations, and instead seeing them as human beings? In Dominick Evans' article "Is It Ever Okay to be an Inspiration?", he says that in order to change people's perceptions of disabled persons as inspiration, we need to change our perceptions of disability. What perceptions of disability need to change?
The inspirational views, along with the stigma, fear, and ignorance tied to disability, are huge barriers that need to change. These misperceptions and ideals about disability have been the causes for our inability to progress and be included fully. I believe the advocacy strides we have made when it comes to legislation has allowed positive changes to occur, but creating policies is only one facet of change that must happen. The internet, and social media specifically, has been incredible tools in allowing disabled people to speak up when injustices and ableism has occurred, and to demand that accurate portrayals of our lives be seen. When we take charge in telling our stories our way, we then possess power over the images and thoughts society is subjected to about disability that are truer to who we actually are. Fighting to have that kind of power is crucial to changing societal views from fear and inspirational to acceptance and realizing that disability is a normal way of life.
What are your favorite books and resources that address the social issues and change that you advocate for?
I love being on Tumblr because it keeps me updated on the political/social issues, headlining news, and personal stories that are occurring in the community and in our lives. This is where I learn about books, connect with other advocates (especially disabled women of color), and read different disability experiences.
My favorite books are those from Black intellectuals like bell hooks, Angela Davis, James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, and many others because they speak to my Black identity, and also my female identity (depending on the author), and can be related to disability in some ways, too. The various ways of thinking about oppression, struggles, and finding empowerment are the foundation of what I want to achieve as an advocate. I am making it a priority to read more from such trailblazers, as well as understanding more of and sharing the Black disability history to my audience and fellow advocates.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
I honestly love what I do as an advocate, and I am fortunate to have found out what made my heart sing before I turned 30 years old. Understanding your purpose as a person is a huge order to fulfill. Once you find it, it creates a whole new meaning as to how you see and relate to the world and how you can be a part of the efforts to make the world better. My work is bigger than myself (literally and figuratively), and I have a responsibility to do everything needed to complete the charge I was given, and to work hard each day towards it. That’s why I love what I do - I know that I am impacting the world in ways that are unique, empowering, and dynamic.