Disabled Black woman faces abuse every day thanks to 'double prejudice'

A Black British disabled woman has revealed the abuse she receives on a daily basis due to her conditions – including being asked if she was drunk after falling over in public.

Subrena Joseph, 38, from South East London was diagnosed with spina bifida at age nine, resulting in scoliosis in her spine, muscle wastage and weakness in her legs.

As a result, she walks with a gait and one leg is approximately two inches shorter than the other.

Subrena, who is originally from Grenada also has chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), a rare autoimmune condition where the myelin sheath of the nerves is destroyed.

This causes symptoms including a gradual weakness in her arms and legs, increased falls and problems with her balance, as well as visible ‘twitching’ of nerves.

In addition, she now also experiences muscle, neuropathy pain and fatigue.

Subrena says that being Black and disabled often leads to her being on the receiving end of prejudice.

‘People are often surprised that I attended university or work in what is considered to be a “normal” job,’ she says.

‘During the period when London held the Paralympics, a shopkeeper was utterly shocked when I told him that I had a job.

‘There is a perception that people with disabilities are only allowed through some doors or a very limited number of jobs, rather than all.’

Subrena notes that race creates a barrier because “there is still institutional racism, conscious and unconscious bias, and prejudice that people have regarding race.

‘The evidence in disproving this belief is on the individual, resulting in you feeling like a soldier on an invisible battlefield.

‘For me, this often results in feeling that I’m fighting my body that’s attacking me, as well as racism, disability discrimination and the everyday challenges, all at the same time.’

The London resident recalls one particular moment in which she fell over and a passerby asked her if she was drunk and refused to help her up.

‘I was walking home in Sydenham one afternoon on an isolated street with few passers-by. My leg often gives way, causing me to fall without warning – which is exactly what happened.

‘I had tried to get up independently by grabbing onto something for leverage but there was nothing nearby, and my muscles, legs and right arm were too weak to get up without support.

‘I was tempted not to ask for help and keep trying. But felt too weak and my body was in pain, and at this time, I was trying to learn that accepting help was OK.

‘I called out for help from a man across the road, he looked a bit unsure coming over. He looked as though he was around 50.

‘At first, he was reluctant to help, but after repeating my request, “can I borrow your hand, can you help me up please?” he agreed.

‘But then, as he held out his hand, he asked me, “are you drunk?” to which I responded, “no, I have a disability.”

‘His only answer was, “well where is your stick?” I didn’t respond, as I couldn’t think of how to explain the situation, or why I should have to.

‘Honestly, I felt humiliated and powerless, as these questions were asked while I was still on the floor and unable to get up.

‘It’s in these moments I feel more disabled and my sense of self is questioned.’

Growing up, Subrena says she was teased, overlooked, given cruel names and made fun of due to her condition, but she says she was lucky to have a supportive family environment.

But her experiences have also shaped her future; she is now a registered social worker in a specialist disability team and the CEO for S.T.U.B.S (Striving Towards Understanding Barriers), a disability service support and help for those in need.

‘When I was younger, disability discrimination impacted my voice, silenced me and I was unable to self-advocate and had low self-esteem,’ she explains.

‘While it’s hard to say or prove whether or not my negative experiences stem more so from my disability or race, I have been treated differently on a regular basis, and this is likely due to a lack of knowledge and tolerance around disabilities, and a lack of representation of Black people and people with disabilities.’

As well as her regular work in advocacy, Subrena has released a book: To Walk Around It, Move It Or Love It, with the help of StoryTerrace, a biography writing service, detailing her journey through life and providing coping strategies.

‘The stories of many individuals from the BAME community in the UK are overlooked, but our stories matter just as much as anyone else’s,’ she says.

‘I am also keen to share my story in the hopes the younger generation can see a reflection of themselves, and so that they can understand that challenges are part of life, however the difference between being successful and happy is deciding how to manage the challenges or barriers we face.

‘Hence disability doesn’t have to disempower, it can be a source of empowerment.’

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