One day, as I sat on the sidelines watching the other kids play in the gym at school, I wrote in my marble journal, “Why did I have to be born this way?”
Before I understood what it meant to be a Latinx man or queer, or knew the challenges I would face relating to my identity, my disability taught me the importance of getting back up every time I tripped over my feet. My mother gave birth to me at five and a half months, and as a result, I weighed one pound and developed cerebral palsy, a condition that impacts my mobility. I often fell, so having both a bruised ego and bruised knees were common for me, but that familiarity didn’t protect me from the stigma that existed around me.
Growing up in a Brown disabled body taught me that I was much stronger than I thought. I learned that I was crippled but not broken. But unfortunately, society and the systems that reinforce ableism caused the most significant barriers to my sense of belonging in my community.
My Latinx family treated me like my non-disabled cousins except when I wanted to play outside, ride bikes, or walk around the neighborhood. I had to fight to prove I had the cognitive capability to be in a “mainstream” classroom. Often, my physical disability gave people the impression that I lacked intellect. I had to push back against my gym teachers, who insisted I sit out on a particular activity because of my disability. Constantly having to prove my humanity and demand dignity took a significant toll on my mental health.
With so little representation in the 90s of disabled children, especially disabled children of color, I often felt isolated and othered in my school and community. I was the “freak” and made to feel less deserving of any opportunity. This isolation was compounded by the fact that inclusive spaces don’t always exist in our communities. Sometimes, we have to blaze a path and make space ourselves. As a teenager, I became the youngest person in the United States to found and artistically direct a contemporary dance company for disabled and non-disabled dancers. At 17, I created marked dance project and contributed ten years of remarkable dancing that pushed the dance field forward. I wanted other disabled people who had a passion and interest in dance to have the opportunity to learn, perform, and create a more inclusive dance sector.
“We cannot separate the importance of a sense of belonging from our physical and mental health. The social ties that accompany a sense of belonging are a protective factor helping manage stress and other behavioral issues. When we feel we have support and are not alone, we are more resilient, often coping more effectively with difficult times in our lives.”
Through dance, my physical mobility and overall mental health improved. I found a passion that was beneficial for my physical disability as well as an outlet for artistic expression. While I no longer dance, movement continues to be a part of my daily life as a choreographer and storyteller. I now get to speak to students and educators, corporate leaders, and elected officials around the world about the importance of creating spaces that are inclusive of everyone. A true sense of belonging has been linked to making people more resilient and effective at coping with difficult situations, and I know it has helped me in my journey with my own mental health and emotional well-being.
Thanks in part to technological advancements, social media, and all those who have shone a light on the disabled community through their daily work, we no longer have to feel isolated and alone. It’s not a secret that disabled people exist in every facet of society, across identities and geographical locations. We now know that there are one billion people, equal to 15% of the world’s population, who experience some form of disability.
I belong to a vibrant, diverse, and innovative community of advocates, creatives, doers, and thinkers. I am proud to be a part of the 15% of the world’s population who are disabled.
“liberation: freedom from limits”
Choreographed by Mark Travis Rivera / Performed by Kayla Maria G
Photography by Lynn Lane