Beyond what you see: Presenting on the struggle of looking abled

“I presented at GCLA (Great Lakes College Association). [My presentation] was called ‘Passing Out: The Intersectionality of Passing as White and Able- Bodied.’ It was all about the similarities between the different minorities that entails.” This is Safia Hattab (’21). When I met with her to learn more about the nature of her presentation, she started with the core of discussions in this field.

“When we talk about racial minorities, we talk about white people v. everyone else. When we talk about disabilities, we talk about able-people v. everybody else. But there’s this interesting crack, which is what intersectionality is, with people who may pass as white or pass as privileged but aren’t. They are still a part of the community.

What happens a lot of the time is those people don’t fit in anywhere. They’re too POC (person of color) or abled for the disabled community. Even if they try to reject their identity, (first off if you’re disabled you just can’t. You can only pass as abled for so long…) you’re never going to be white enough to truly fit in with a white community. It’s sort of exploring that intersectionality with my life and my own experiences as somebody who passes as white and passes as abled while being somebody who’s not.”

Despite this strong core for her presentation, it wasn’t her original idea to present. “It was the GLCA Students of Color Leadership Conference. I heard about it because it was an email, and somebody was like, ‘You should present. It would be really interesting. I went into Jevon Willis’ office and I was like, ‘So here’s what I can talk about,’ going in with the full intent to talk about disability as a minority. He was like, ‘It would be interesting to talk about passing because there are so many people who are POC (which this conference is predominantly POC, noticeably so) who would want to know if passing is ‘a win.’ Like if you pass, do you get the best of both worlds?’

Jevon and I worked really closely trying to figure out how to integrate everything in a way that made me comfortable, because he said, ‘You don’t have to present if you don’t want to.’ I was like, ‘I really feel like I should.’ The entire process was super nerve- racking.”

Part of what inspired her through the process to present on the topic was her personal experience. “The fact that I don’t look disabled means people don’t believe me a lot of the time or people won’t understand why things are in place. A really good example is that in high school, I got extended time on exams and I wouldn’t always need it, because I would have good days. The days I would try and invoke those accommodations, which are my right to have, teachers would get really confused. People feel like they can say things around me, as a disabled woman, that they wouldn’t say around somebody who looks disabled. I don’t get the accommodations; I’m expected to act and be as abled, as I can, because I look abled therefore there’s no way I’m sick. I can’t do that because there’s no way that’s feasible. I can’t be held to the same standard as abled people. However, I am forced to push myself to those standards and then, when I inevitably fail, I’m treated like trash, essentially. People just don’t understand that.

From a racial perspective, people have a tendency to undermine my Africanness. I am African American, but I pass as white, so a lot of people would be like, ‘You’re not really one of us. You can’t understand our struggle.’ For the longest time I didn’t think I could have an opinion on racial issues, because they didn’t impact me. In reality they did.”

But her presentation moved beyond solely her own experience. “I’m very aware that there are certain experiences that I share with the POC community, because I am a POC. There are certain things I will never understand, because I do have some semblance of privilege on both respects since I pass as white and abled. But to act like that is a one size fits all situation and to act like just because I look some way means I am is not how that works. We [the intersection community] are just as hurt sometimes because we have our own struggles. They shouldn’t be undermined simply because we look and act a certain way.This goes to anyone with image. If a football player’s into poetry, people find that really weird because that’s just kind of like, ‘You don’t have a right to be into that.’ Or if a football player likes chick flicks or something… that’s not in the mold. It’s that blown to such a proportion that we oppress this minority.”

Hattab went on to describe the presentation’s impact and reception.“It was received really well. I was surprised. It ended up being a lot different than I had anticipated. We opened the floor for discussion, and I learned that this isn’t something that isn’t exclusively a white passing or an able passing situation. There are a bunch of people who are POCs who are gay, who have a very similar sentiment. They were like, ‘People don’t think I am gay because I don’t look gay or I’m more masculine than I should be.’ What was really cool about it was we had a lot of these discussions because I underestimated how long it would take (I was told to fill forty-five minutes and when I got there, I find out I’m supposed to fill an hour). I actually ended up having too much content. We just sort of opened the table and discussed things that we wouldn’t discuss with other people. It was really cool because people walked out of it and said, ‘Thank you for giving us a space to talk and listen.’ A lot of the stuff I had said wasn’t really controversial, but one of the guys, happened to be black, tall and athletic, and people just assume he’s in college on an athletic scholarship, and he’s like, ‘Just because I’m a tall black man doesn’t mean I’m a crazy basketball player; I’m a poet.’ But people then undermine his masculinity because he’s a poet. People then talked about how they were injured. One kid in the room happened to have an ACL tear that still bothers him occasionally. People don’t understand that it comes and goes, so there was that kind of thing where people won’t accommodate him because he looks a certain way. It brought up a really interesting conversation about appearances versus reality, who we are and how much we as a society judge each other based on what we look like based on what stereotypes we fall into.”

It seems likely that part of the success of the presentation was the effort Hattab put in to make the presentation as accessible as possible for a presentation about accessibility. “I made my presentation very plain, which has its own connotation. When you see a very plain presentation; white with black background, it looks like the person didn’t put enough work into it, which is its own set of ableism and ableist ideals, which I was trying to destroy the whole time. So it was black text. I tried to keep colorblind colors not together. I tried not to have a lot of color, but if I did, if it was green not to put red next to it and kind of work with the colorblind scheme of things. Even if you’re colorblind, you can see the contrast. Obviously, it’s impossible to try and make a presentation accessible for everyone, but you can do what you can.”

Hattab finished with a note that: “You never know from a disability perspective. Appearances aren’t everything. You don’t see everything. That’s the core of everything.”

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