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Being Successful Hasn’t Protected Me From Being Humiliated

6 minute read
Ndopu is an award-winning global humanitarian and social justice advocate. He serves as one of the UN Secretary-General’s SDG Advocates and sits on the board of the United Nations Foundation. His new book is Sipping Dom Pérignon Through a Straw: Reimagining Success as a Disabled Achiever

Few of us would admit this, but for many people from marginalized communities, we grow up carrying the often-subconscious belief that if we can just accumulate enough privilege, accolades, and success for ourselves, then we might achieve our way out of dehumanization and be spared from the harsh realities that we face.

For certain identities, this survival strategy might work, but even then, only so far and only for so long. But in the context of disability, there’s no way to sidestep ableism. While I’ve built the success that I had always dreamed about, my perch has given me a clearer view of the heart-breaking ways in which disabled people are penalized for refusing to accept our place in society. I can say with conviction that success has not inoculated me against the daily cruelties and indignities of ableist treatment.

I’m reminded of a time when I was invited for brunch by a former head of state whom I’d befriended years earlier after meeting at a conference where we’d both been invited to speak. The dignitary was in town for the United Nations General Assembly, the annual convening of world leaders—dubbed the Super Bowl of diplomacy—that brings New York City to a virtual standstill. He was staying in the penthouse suite of a high-rise condominium complex. I showed up 15 minutes early and wheeled myself into the lobby with my head held high, sporting oversized, bejewelled sunglasses, which—juxtaposed against my linen suit and crisp white shirt—ranks among my favourite looks to date. It was one of those slightly surreal reminders of how far I had come. A sweet little manifestation of the things I grew up dreaming of one-day attaining for myself: living in Manhattan and hobnobbing with fancy people in glass and steel buildings like the one I found myself in that morning. In between people-gazing, I had my care aide straighten my jacket for me and dab the shine from my forehead, and at the perfect moment for an on-time brunch arrival, I happily approached the security check-in desk, where the concierge peered down at me from behind the counter and said, “This is a residential building. The hospital is two blocks away, sir.”

His words stung, jolting me into the crude realization that in that moment it didn’t matter that I was a disabled achiever. To this man, I was really just disabled. I would always look out of place, never mind the fact that I was utterly fabulous, and clearly a thousand times better dressed than all the “uprights” who approached his desk. To him, I had no business being there, because, in accordance with the twisted logic of ableism, my place was in the sterile setting of a hospital or a nursing home. The implication was that I did not know my place. How dare I not only refuse to make myself disappear from public view but also have the temerity to venture into a space where people like me should only dream of occupying.

In some ways, he was right. I did not know my place. I’ve never known my place. It is this audacity, I believe, that has been the secret sauce to my success. If I knew my place I would never have become the first disabled Black man to graduate from Oxford with a Masters in Public Policy. I would not have dined with royalty or found myself backstage at high profile events, chit chatting with the likes of Oprah or Barack Obama. But not knowing my place has come at a cost, both in literal and figurative terms. It has meant countless petty humiliations.

Thinking about this incident now, the activist and humanitarian in me knows that in the name of equality and justice, none of these accolades should be considered when reflecting on the despicable way in which I was treated by that doorman. Being exceptional should not be a prerequisite for being treated with respect and dignity. But that’s exactly my point. If being exceptional can’t shield me from being disrespected on the basis of my disability, then what does that say about the pervasive cruelty of ableism?

When disabled people attempt to come up for air, to achieve upward mobility, we are quickly and violently pushed back down to drown in the waters of deprivation and precariousness. In literally every single country on earth, if you live with a disability, you are guaranteed to be poorer than if you didn’t. Put another way, it’s not just that people with disabilities are poorer. We are poorer because we are disabled. Even in the U.S., the wealthiest nation on the planet, having a disability is very often a strike against you in the pursuit of economic freedom. Despite the landmark passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, the year in which I was born, it is still legal in many states for people with disabilities to be paid less than their non-disabled counterparts. Not only that, if a disabled person receiving benefits from the government chooses to get married, they are immediately cut off from those benefits, no matter how much money their partner makes. It’s as if poverty is our destiny—the punishment for not knowing our place.

There’s an urgent need for a reckoning in our society over the unjust relationship between ableism and success. On July 10, 2023, sitting in front of the iconic green marble wall where countless historical figures such as Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa previously stood to address the U.N., I became the first wheelchair-user to keynote the opening session of the High-Level Political Forum on the Sustainable Development Goals. But the entire time, I was distracted by the reminder that I desperately needed to raise thousands of dollars to maintain the elaborate team of care aides I depend upon to continue rubbing shoulders with the world’s most powerful people. Like so many of my disabled brothers, sisters, and siblings around the globe, I have taught myself how to suffer in silence, and to be grateful to be in the room. But then, in the quiet of night, when I cry myself to sleep in righteous indignation, I remember the words of the revolutionary feminist poet, Audre Lorde: “Your silence will not protect you.” By the same token, if we truly want to be free, regardless of ability, then we must come to terms with the fact that individual success will not correct for systemic failures and pitfalls. It will not protect us from the piercing of our human dignity. We should never stop striving for big goals—but we should accept that our achievements will never work as our armor.

Adapted from Ndopu's new book, Sipping Dom Pérignon Through a Straw, just published by Legacy Lit

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