Personal Insights: Why Isn’t Disability A Bigger Part of the Diversity and Inclusion Conversation?

Why Isn't Disability A Bigger Part of the Diversity & Inclusion Conversation?

People with disabilities are often mentioned as if they’re in a constant state of unhappiness because of their disability, leaving us to wonder how anyone can be proud of their experiences as disabled people. Why then, are people proud of their sexual orientation or their cultural background even if it makes their lives harder? It’s because, despite our struggles in the world as minorities, who we are isn’t a burden. We can be proud to be disabled. 

Several powerful figures in history were or are currently disabled, but mention of their disabilities is usually omitted when honoring their achievements. Frida Kahlo, for example, contracted polio at the age of six, which left her with a noticeable limp. Further, she was severely injured in a trolley accident when she was 18 and took up painting while she was bed-ridden. Kahlo underwent 30 operations in her lifetime and despite being in constant pain, she created over 100 paintings in her lifetime. She was also bisexual and had affairs with women throughout her marriage to fellow artist Diego Rivera, making her an LGBTQ icon as well as a disabled Latina icon.

Frida Kahlo’s story is fairly well known, but Harriet Tubman’s disability is less so. Tubman experienced a traumatic brain injury after a slave owner struck her in the head, leaving her prone to seizures and hypersomnia, also known as narcolepsy. She went on to become the lead conductor of the Underground Railroad, which freed enslaved individuals. During the Civil War, Tubman served the Union Army as an armed scout and spy; she contributed to securing freedom for 700 more slaves during a raid. Through these major events, she had to manage to live with her condition just as at least 11 U.S. presidents who also had a disability in some form. 

One may wonder why it matters that these influential people had disabilities, because they are great on their own. This is true, but their disability is a part of their story. When we fail to acknowledge people of color, queer people, and people with disabilities, we give strength to the narrative that being a minority equals inferiority and incapbaility. 

The false narrative that devalues disabled people is the root of some of the worst discrimination that disabled individuals face. 

A young girl named Ashley is but one example of said discrimination. In 2007, at the age of six, Ashley “was given growth attenuation treatment via estrogen and had her uterus and breast buds removed. The intent of the treatment was to keep her permanently small” because it would make it easier for the family to care for her (source). The case quickly became controversial and some doctors even defend the treatment today. One article published in The Official Journal of Pediatrics says that “growth attenuation is an innovative and sufficiently safe therapy that offers the possibility of an improved quality of life for non-ambulatory children with profound cognitive disability and their families” (source). 

Considering the same improved quality of life could likely be achieved through increased access to social support and assistive tools, doctors being okay with making permanent changes to a child’s body for the sake of others’ comfort is the stuff of nightmares. It tells the world that the only potential that a disabled child will have is to always be a burden, so editing their bodies to fit a more ideal standard is more of a benefit than an inappropriate measure. 

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In looking to history and seeing disabled icons achieving things that able-bodied people have not, society should realize that disability doesn’t decrease someone’s worth or give the right to dismiss disability-specific needs to appease others. Let’s start listening to disabled people’s stories of both success and struggle.


Bianca Gonzalez is a freelance writer who specializes in intersectional social justice. She’s a queer Latina feminist who beat brain cancer at 19. You can find her at

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