Posts tagged Disability
Hip Hop Artist Shares Stories Through Song: Perspectives From The Sandanezwe Disability Project

We all have a story to offer the world. Through our stories, I believe healing can be found. In high school, I started to really understanding this more. When I was a junior in high school, I began sharing bits and pieces of my story and my perception of the world around me in the form of hip-hop songs. I wrote about my identity as an African-American. I wrote about life growing up in the Bronx, NY. I even wrote about my future plans of one day becoming a doctor. This hobby continued as I transitioned to college and I truly began to realize the power behind music and the sharing of words in general. Words are definitely powerful.

Scholar Aaron Corn states, “Songs are indeed powerful. They have the power to soothe, the power to persuade, the power to provoke, the power to educate and the power to lament.” I experience this first-hand every time I tune into my music.

Last semester, as a junior at Brandeis University, I studied abroad in Durban, South Africa, with a program focused on community health and social policy. As part of the program, I had the opportunity to explore any topic of interest and complete an independent study project. For a long time I had no clue what I wanted to study. Throughout the semester I felt a strong calling, however, to pursue the connection between music and healing.

During the semester, I had the chance to live with host families both in urban and rural communities. While living in one of the rural communities, called Sandanezwe, my host-brother, Mduduzi, introduced me and the other students in my program to a project that he created in the community. Mdu was in his early thirties and he walked with a limp. Through conversations with him, I learned that he suffered from Polio as a child. The project he created, the Disability Special Project, seeks to create a safe space for the disabled community within Sandanezwe. It is a project established and solely maintained by the disabled community. I saw how Mdu’s experiences growing up in this community shaped his vision for this project. In South African society, and many other parts of the world, many people who are considered disabled face exclusion from society and other forms of discrimination. Although I had no prior experiences working with disabled people, meeting Mdu and hearing his story inspired me to learn more.

After much thought, I decided to go back and live in the Sandanezwe community for three weeks to conduct my independent study project. I titled my project “A Mirror to Society: An autoethnography reflecting perspectives of disability through personal narrative in a rural community in South Africa,” and through this project I sought to hear the stories of members of the Disability Special Project, with a focus on their self-perceptions. I also interviewed members of the greater Sandanezwe community to learn how they viewed people with disabilities.

In the middle of my project, I remember waking up one morning very frustrated. Throughout the process, there were many times when I had to throw my plan away. For example, there were many days when the weather was too cold or rainy, and no garden members would show up to work, which meant I wouldn’t be able to speak to anyone. This morning, instead of sitting around in misery, I decided to go for a walk and climb to the top of a mountain. I found a nice spot overlooking the beautiful scenery of Sandanezwe. I looked out to my left and saw an endless array of green mountains weaving off into the distance. I interrupted my gaze to select a song to play on my iPhone. Unlocks. Scrolls. Music. Genres. Scrolls. Instrumental. Scrolls. J. Cole. Scrolls. Love Yourz (instrumental). Click. My ears were then greeted with the soothing sound of piano chords. The instrumental was from a song by J. Cole entitled “Love Yourz”. While listening, I looked up at the mountain range, and the words “you can, you can, you can” rang through my mind. I started to think of the interviews I had done so far, and the responses that I had received, especially those of the garden members. “I can do things, but they won’t let me do it!” echoed the voice of one member in the garden. “I’m strong! I am a human being,” rang another garden member’s voice. I pulled out my phone and started to note my thoughts. My thumbs moved swiftly. “Don’t let nobody ever tell you, you can’t do,” I wrote, “Can’t walk, can’t shoot, can’t love, can’t live…” I was writing to those voices of oppression. I was writing to the oppressor. I was writing to myself.

One of the last questions I asked the garden members in my interviews was, “If you were to write a song to the community to help them to understand you better, what would you say?”As they answered I took note of the responses. “I can write that God is the beginning and the end, so all our challenges if you can take our problems and put them in God I think all our challenges will disappear,” one member replied in his soft-spoken voice. “I can tell people that I’m proud of myself in a way that whatever I contribute in the project it can also benefit the community,” another determined member responded. “I will write a song and say that if they see me as a disabled person they mustn’t think that I’m useless because they are so many things that I can do for them. They must respect me and have hope in me because I can do of the things that can help them,” said another. A group of three said, “We can introduce the song to teach the community that a disabled person can do anything that a person with no disability can do.”

It wasn’t my plan to write a song for my project but sometimes the best plan is to just live in the moment. I realized that this was what I wanted in my project all along. I wanted the greater community to hear the voices of these members of the garden. I wanted the garden members to know that their perspective matters. After another day and a half of reflecting on these responses, listening to the instrumental on repeat, and writing, the song was complete! The song is especially powerful because it was created using the words of the garden members. On my final day in the garden, a celebration took place. The Department of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs from a neighboring town came to meet the garden members and planted onion seeds with them, and I performed the song I created for them. Everyone crowded around me with big smiles as I began, and at the end of my rendition, the garden members all clapped and cheered. New life was deposited into the space. Seeds were planted both literally and figuratively in the garden that day.

You can watch the Mirror To Society video here.

Keep Telling #DisabilityStories

In the weeks leading up to the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on July 26, social media was abuzz with disability stories. The National Museum of American History even organized an international Twitter conversation on #DisabilityStories on July 15, 2015. For the remarkably successful daylong event, people from across the globe engaged in conversations about representations of disability in art and popular culture, the lived experience of disability, and historical accounts and artifacts.

For people with disabilities and disability rights advocates, this anniversary occasions both celebration and reflection. Accessible spaces, biomedical technology, and assistive services have made the world a more habitable place for people with disabilities. At Boston College, where I attend school, student have rallied around the cause of disability, fighting for a campus as accessible as it is beautiful. The Disability Awareness Committee of Boston College has made accessibility a critical issue on campus, documenting the ways in which the built environment and institutional policies at Boston College—for instance, steep pathways marked as wheelchair accessible—disempower them.

Disability advocates in Boston marked the anniversary with a celebration in Boston Common.

The ADA has been a remarkable success, but we must not forget the work left to do. William Peace, who attended the event, perhaps sums it up best: “[The ADA] has succeeded legally, but socially it has a long way to go.”

Securing the civil rights of and equal opportunities for these citizens is, bottom line, an issue of representation. People with disabilities are daily disempowered and isolated by institutions and individuals that pass over, erase, or ignore the realities of disability. It happens when a conference is held in an inaccessible building. It happens when a path is marked as accessible but is, in fact, unnavigable. It happens when a vision resources workstation provides no resources, when the sign for the workstation isn’t even in braille.

People with disabilities are often invisible in some parts of everyday life, such as in the workplace. In 2012, only 33.5% of working-age people with disabilities were employed. In the media and popular culture, individuals with disabilities appear less often than able-bodied individuals. When they do appear, their portrayals are often limited.

The unflagging stigma and underrepresentation of disability halts the progress of the ADA. If people with disabilities continue to be forgotten or perceived in problematic ways, then the ADA will fail to achieve its ultimate goals of accessibility and inclusion.

Stories are the answer to this crisis of representation. Which stories get told and how those stories are circulated determine how disability is understood socially and culturally.

We need to move away from disability as burden and the “super-crip” stereotype. While these two overarching narratives seem compassionate or inspiring, they both portray disability as a tragedy, and life with a disability as inferior and unsatisfying.

Disability cannot be reduced to a single narrative of pity, overcoming, or empowerment. Disability, as with all lived experience, is complex, multi-faceted, rich, individual. It resists a single story.

As a society, we should listen more to the stories of individuals with disabilities. To the stories of their everyday life, of their successes and their struggles, the minutiae and the monumental moments. Disability is an innumerable range of stories—told, retold, to be told.

Telling stories of disability is vital to making visible and giving voice to individuals with disabilities. Hearing stories is a way of acknowledging the reality of disability and empowering people with disabilities. By acknowledging similarities, differences, and singularities, we connect ourselves with stories.

So let’s keep sharing #DisabilityStories beyond the 25th anniversary of the ADA. The success of the ADA is about more than ramps, web accessibility, or public services. It’s about making everyday life accessible, inclusive, and fulfilling to people with disabilities. It’s about changing our attitudes and assumptions toward disability once and for all.

Chronic on Campus: My Reflections on Student Health, Illness, and Disability

What makes up the world, for me, is language. While the natural sciences contend that the world is made of matter—atoms, molecules, cells, genes, tissue, organs—I believe that language accounts for what happens between people. We don’t just pass down genes. We inherit the words we speak. We don’t just care for our own bodies. We care for our own stories.

I arrived at Boston College certain that I would study English and love it, but after a year of introductory English classes, I felt entirely uninspired. What was the matter? When it came to the stories, what mattered?

During sophomore year, something happened in my own story. I stumbled across a news article about a new interdisciplinary Medical Humanities minor. Medical humanities is a field devoted to the humanistic and cultural study of medicine, caregiving, illness, disability, and representations of the body; it values the interconnectedness and complexity of these issues, looking at them from different perspectives in order to better understand them. These topics have always been present in my life: my sister works in a lab, my twin is studying medical imaging, my mother is an EMG technician, my parents cared for aging and ill relatives and friends.

Could medical humanities synthesize my love for literature and my interest in caregiving and healthcare?

Sophomore fall, I attended a symposium at Boston College on Genetics, Narrative, and Identity. Contributors to The Story Within, a collection of essays on genetic diseases and the complex life-stories and decisions surrounding them, captivated me with their candor, strength, and insight. The day culminated in a writing workshop and keynote address given by Rita Charon, M.D., Ph.D., who founded the field of narrative medicine. She made clear to me what it means to be present for another person, in sickness or in health.

I decided to enroll in an introductory medical humanities course. In the texts we studied and the conversations in which we engaged, the complexity and high stakes of the issues—genetic testing, public health, representing disability and disease—marveled me.

The most compelling text to me was Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain. She writes: “Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language.” 1 Pain is that which cannot be put into words, cannot be represented; so specific, so individual, it falls outside of any system of communication. At the same time, pain is perhaps the most difficult thing for a listener to believe. If pain really did destroy language, dissolve the relationship between two people, what did this mean for me and my world of words?

But, more importantly, pain calls us to bridge the gap between individuals. Pain calls us to create something, to listen with empathy, to trust, to acknowledge the other, to bear witness. In sickness and in health, in pain and in pleasure, our words and our stories are what humanize us and connect us.

A friend of mine recently shared with me that she has been dealing with diabetes since she was two years old. She is one of the most driven, most involved students I know. I felt so fortunate and honored to hear her story and her insight. Her story and the conversations that followed strengthened our friendship.

In college, the stories of chronic illness or disability are so often untold and unheard. Built environments and institutional policies, sometimes established without consideration for those who have chronic illnesses or disabilities, can intensify these potentially isolating experiences. Laurie Edwards, a writing instructor at Northeastern University and a person with chronic illnesses herself, writes on the state of colleges for students with chronic illnesses or disabilities, shedding light onto the ways in which colleges fail these students.2 Students, faculty, and administrators should acknowledge these students and their individual needs. Making accommodations for these students and respecting their stories for these students will ensure that higher education remains accessible to all people—sick or well, disabled or able-bodied.

On a college campus, it is easy to assume that everyone is healthy, with crowds at the gyms and a vibrant and energetic student population. At the same time, illness is easily normalized. What college student hasn’t been exhausted? Who hasn’t caught a cold in a residence hall? We must heed narrative medicine’s call to honor the stories of health and illness in each individual, to acknowledge its specificity, and to listen with care and empathy. With this kind of attitude, we can perhaps see that the campus of the healthy and the campus of the ill are not different places: they’re the same.

Over the coming months, I will facilitate the sharing of stories about college students living with chronic illnesses or disability. Stay tuned for future features from me on these issues.

Christopher Kabacinski is a rising senior at Boston College, where he is studying English and Medical Humanities. He is a founder and the editor-in-chief of The Medical Humanities Journal of Boston College, a student-run journal featuring undergraduate work on issues such as medicine, health, illness, disability, bioethics, and representations of the body. Currently, Chris is working as intern at Health Story Collaborative. He is developing a project about college students with chronic illness or disability. If you or someone you know might be interested in sharing his or her story of health, illness, or disability, please contact Chris at


1. Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain. Oxford University Press: New York, NY, 1985. Print. 4.

2. Edwards, Laurie. “When It Comes To Chronic Illness, College Campuses Have A Lot To Learn.” WBUR, Cognoscenti: Boston, MA. 5 March 2014. Web. Accessed 16 June 2015.