On Wednesday, Feb. 24th, 2021, the Office of Africana Studies, Multicultural Life, and Black Students Association hosted the second part of the Black History Month program, “Blackness, Disability, and Our Current Moment.” The panel focused on the intersections between racism and disability, specifically looking at invisible illnesses and their correlation to racist practices in health care.
The panel was led by three keynote speakers. These include assistant professor of sociology Crystal Adams, Ph.D, Associate Provost for Faculty and Diversity Initiatives Brooke Vick Ph.D, and Emanuela Kucik, Ph.D, assistant professor of English and Africana studies and co-director of Africana studies.
“What does it mean to be a Black person with not only a disability but one that is unseen, one that is as invisible as this nation has tried to render your Blackness?” Kucik said. This question echoed throughout the entire panel.
Kucik first explained some key terms, including the difference between visible and invisible disabilities, “[Some] disabilities are visible, such as those who use canes or wheelchairs.” Invisible disabilities are the opposite, “ranging from autoimmune diseases, sleep disorders, [and] traumatic brain injury or diabetes.”
They “significantly impair normal activities of daily living,” Kucik said.
Kucik began the panel by sharing the experience of her mother, who suffered from a debilitating invisible illness for over twenty years. After struggling to receive a diagnosis from numerous white doctors, her condition became more and more severe.
“For the first ten years of my life, systemic racism in the medical field moved steadily toward killing the best person I know: my mother,” Kucik said.
“Many patients go undiagnosed,” Kucik added.“Underdiagnosis and misdiagnosis are alarmingly common for Black American patients.” Her mother’s condition became worse and nearly killed her, but, finally, a Black doctor diagnosed it just in time and scheduled her for emergency surgery.
There are many common diseases that specifically affect Black communities including fibromyalgia, spondyloarthritis and lupus. Due to the lack of access to good healthcare and discrimination from doctors, many communities do not recieve the help they need.
Adams said, “Many of us are familiar with race as a social construction,” but not that disability is also a social construction.
“Being disabled is not an inferior status,” she said. It may affect daily life, but it is not something to be ashamed about. Some people can “pass” as abled, according to her, because of their invisible disability. However, many people then do not recognize the debilitating effects it may have on their lives.
“The coronavirus has been devastating for the Black community,” Adams explained that disability is largely impacted by class and race.
White doctors may have preference only for white patients, or refuse treatment to other Black patients. “Our culture and our research likes to blame BIPOC patients,” for their conditions, Adams said.
Vick shared her own experience of having an invisible illness, explaining that although it has been hard, she has overcome many obstacles.
Vick traveled to Europe, and was nervous about walking the hilly areas. But it was her “chance” to explore the world, and she didn’t want to miss it.
According to her, it was a difficult and “horrible” journey. The psychological and physical stress placed a large toll on her.
She was worried about being called “lazy,” a term that society often falsely attributes to both disability and Black skin.
Vick lastly said to further awareness of these intersecting identities, “You can help amplify these stories.”