I advocate for people with disabilities all day long. But I'm a Black woman first. And, I'm a Black woman who happens to have a disability — that's how I view myself. When we talk about disability visibility, we know that most brands and media historically haven’t rushed to Black girls with disabilities to represent them. The entertainment and beauty industries are the places that create and shift culture — and of course, Black people and especially Black women — so for me, it was always important to push for my purpose and be intentional about my messaging in these two industries. One, because I'm a fan of beauty and entertainment, but also I know what it means when disability representation shows up authentically. Whenever I get the opportunity to model or act, I'm very choosy and particular about the roles I pick and the brands that I work with because it is about normalizing desirability. I'm advocating for disability to be fun, fly, and sexy. You know why? Because I'm fun, fly and sexy. It matters to show that reality on greater and bigger scales.
As Black women, we are trained from little girls to be the best performers; to outshine everybody, to work twice as hard and to not depend on anybody. We take that into adulthood and then we’re seen as being too independent, too loud, too bold, or too intimidating. As a result, when it comes to Black women and girls with disabilities, people approach us like they don’t want, or need to help us in the same way that they would an angelic little white girl in the same position. A lot of unlearning has to happen because for too long we've been conditioned to see skinny, thin, white girls as the only people who are desirable.
I'm advocating for disability to be fun, fly, and sexy. You know why? Because I'm fun, fly and sexy. It matters to show that reality on greater and bigger scales.
lauren "lolo" spencer
Disability visibility absolutely matters. I want people to see Jocelyn, my character on The Sex Lives of College Girls, and not just love her because she’s in a wheelchair. People love her character and while they don’t want to be like her in an aspirational way, they want to be her friend. What I love about Jocelyn is that she's so believable because she is a very real person — she's the younger version of me. I want people to look at her flirting, being sexy, and having fun and see that it’s possible. Or the next time they see a girl in a wheelchair, they think, “Yo, maybe I should say something to her” and approach in a romantic way, with the intention of starting a relationship and not just for sex. (OK, also just for sex but not in a weird fetishizing kind of way because the fetishizing of disabled bodies does happen). Like many other single women, I am not trying to be in a relationship every time I have sex with someone. We should be free to have those experiences as well, to explore and have fun.
I want Black disabled girls to be as free as we possibly can be and have fun doing it. I want us to know that everything we want is possible. I want to normalize Black love and disability — we don't see it enough. It’s why when I talk about wanting to play opposite Michael B. Jordan in a romcom, it matters, because imagine the finest dude on earth is playing opposite a girl in a wheelchair and they actually look like they're in love and having a good time yet they still fight and argue just like everyone else. Imagine the possibilities and the doors that it would open.
I am single and my experiences dating have been very interesting. People I date love how funny I am, my ability to communicate, dress well and, you know, look cute. But then the reality hits them: but wait, she's disabled. I have to take care of her. I have to provide for her and I don't know if I'm ready to take on that level of responsibility. But I think, well, I was disabled the day they met me. We've been dating, we've been chillin, and they've helped me with my chair until all of a sudden they realize, Oh, this might actually be a problem and then they dip. Men know I'm a dope human being but they don't want to commit to me as my boyfriend, so instead they say they would love to be my best friend. They still want access to me, who I am, and what I do, but they don't want to take the responsibility to commit as a partner. I've literally been told to my face multiple times, “if it wasn't for the disability, being with you would be a no brainer.”
When it comes to dating, I also try to make sure that my internalized ableism doesn't get in the way. Internalized ableism is basically when disabled people try to present as non-disabled as much as possible in order to prove that we don’t need help every step of the way. Dating as a Black woman with a disability means my internalized ableism is compounded by the ‘strong Black woman’ trope and this idea that I can do bad all by myself. I try not to think, “Oh, well, I could do this on my own. I don't need your help with this” and instead, I try to be realistic and real. Actually, I do need help. I do need help putting on my pants. In fact, I've done this multiple times on the very first date where I ask the man to help me in the bathroom (nine times out of ten I ask because I'm probably tipsy and actually need to use the bathroom). I do this because I want this person to understand how normal asking for help is for me and how normal it will become for them if they continue to go down this road with me. It’s my way of vetting potential suitors and deciphering whether he is going to be awkward or turn into a creep. In the past, guys have told me it was “the most uncomfortable thing” they’ve ever experienced. Yet I'm glad because I needed them to understand that it might get uncomfortable and if that turns them off, so be it.
Society has been conditioned to ignore people with disabilities all the way from grade school. The kids with disabilities learn in a different classroom and on a different side of campus. They come out at a different time than the rest of the kids do. There is very little social interaction with people with disabilities. We're learning from a very, very early age not to interact with disabled people and we take these conditionings into adulthood. By the time disabled people are thrown out into the world as adults having to navigate life, society is rarely unlearning its ignorance when it comes to people with disabilities. It’s why disability visibility is so important. I'm tired of our humanity being ignored.
On one hand there is the erasure of our existence and on the other, there is the savior complex. People love to call us “brave” for daring to go outside and love ourselves. I remember one time I went to a party and had a great time — I'm not shy about getting on the dance floor. After, my homies and I were waiting for an Uber after the party and this guy walked up to me and said, “I just want to let you know I saw you out on the dance floor. Big up to you. It’s just so brave and courageous and confident for just being here and having a good time.” My first reaction was why didn't he say that to my homegirl who was dancing next to me the entire time? Why isn't she brave for being on the dance floor? And why am I the one that has to be brave and overly confident for doing something that literally hundreds of other people were doing on the dance floor, too?
I am creating the possibilities that I desire because they are not being handed to me.
lauren "lolo" spencer
What I want everyone to know about disability is simple: we're human first. We're just like you. Everyone is going to experience disability at some point in their lifetime, whether it's temporary or permanent or they grow into it as they age, it's going to happen. There is no escaping living life with a disability. So keep that in mind for the people who are already experiencing this now. Respect them, honor them, love them, be joyous with them, interact with them. It's not rocket science, y'all. It's so easy to treat us like the joyous, real, full, dope human beings we are.
There's just not enough examples of people with disabilities just living their normal, everyday lives — the cute little fun videos of us going to brunch don't hit but videos of people with disabilities doing extraordinary things, jumping off cliffs or sharing their trauma go viral. Meanwhile, if you talk about how you were bullied, those videos go crazy. We either need to be extraordinary or sad for people to think these are videos worth sharing. It’s why I created my lifestyle brand, Live Solo. I launched it last September and it is dedicated to young adults with disabilities who are seeking independence and self-empowerment. I created the brand because I recognized that so many young adults want to live a traditional young adult lifestyle yet because they had disabilities, they didn't know how they could do that. My disability isn't the only one that exists, so I wanted the brand to be something that was bigger than me. I knew I didn't have all the answers, and I still don't have all the answers for people who are wheelchair users or have muscular dystrophy like me but I wanted to create a space where I could build a community of people of varying disabilities and is also a resource for not only just disabled people, but friends and family.
One of the things I constantly ask myself is what are the possibilities of my life? And how big am I really allowed to dream? As a Black woman and as a Black woman with a disability in the path I’ve chosen I am met with varying roadblocks, discrimination and assumptions about what I should or should not be doing or how I should or should not show up in the world. I want to be able to dream as big as I can. I don't mind people calling me “inspirational” but not for doing basic shit. Don't come up to me in a cafe and talk about, “Oh, you're so inspirational for being outside today.” I can't stand that. If you happen to be inspired by what I do, I love that.
It's a constant battle of proving to myself my own self worth, especially while dating and in my career. I am creating the possibilities that I desire because they are not being handed to me. Just like I’m dreaming big in my professional life, I'm manifesting a man. I know he's very close. If it is not Michael B. Jordan himself, it's someone like him. Like so many other single women, I just want a man to give me some good love and put a ring on it. I don't ask for much. But I really know it's coming.
I want Black girls with disabilities to understand that the journey and the roadblocks that you're experiencing in dating, in your career, in life, aren't just your own. It's all of us. We are all going through it. I'm going through it. It's an everyday battle, honey. I have not figured it out. I just have figured out how to get through it a little easier every time. Look up resources. Lean into your community. It's okay to ask for help. The bad ass that you want to be, be it, own it, engulf yourself in it as much as you possibly can.
Own it, own it, own it.
As told to Kathleen Newman-Bremang. This interview has been condensed from its original transcription.
Lauren “Lolo” Spencer’s book, Access Your Drive and Enjoy the Ride: A Guide on Achieving Your Dreams from a Person with a Disability (Life Fulfilling Tools for Disabled People), is available now.