A Disability Is Not Something You Have To “Fix” — This Influencer Is Working To Change That Thinking
@refinery29 #ad @Paula Carozzo is out here redefining disability #ableism #disabilityawareness In partnership with @clorox #CloroxDisinfectingMist #ad ♬ original sound - Refinery29
Welcome to The Floor Is Yours, where we spotlight the creators behind the meaningful content on your FYP — because it’s not just about who they are, but the message in what they’re creating.
When Paula Carozzo was five, living in her native Venezuela, she had her tonsils removed — and a couple of weeks later, her parents noticed that she was behaving differently. She had jerking movements in her legs. She lost her appetite. She lost her desire to socialize. She lost her energy. She lost her voice. She was a completely different child than who she was prior to the surgery.
Her parents rushed her to the emergency room, and it was there that neuro-orthopedic specialists verified that she had brain damage. For two months after, Carozzo’s parents frantically shuttled her from specialist to specialist, desperately trying to find out what exactly happened and most importantly, to get her formally diagnosed so she could start treatment. Their efforts proved to be futile, so they made the decision to uproot their lives and move to the U.S. — to Miami, Florida — in search of answers.
What had happened was that Carozzo’s non-traumatic brain damage (the tonsillectomy may have been the culprit, but to this day, the theory has never been officially confirmed) caused cerebral palsy, a condition that occurs when the brain can’t properly send messages to muscles, affecting a person’s ability to move and maintain posture, which can lead to secondary conditions, including scoliosis and spasticity. For Carozzo and her family, grappling with her diagnosis was hard enough to contend with, but without the support or the familiarity of their homeland, the experience was “the toughest of our lives.”
“We were immigrants. We didn’t know the language, so I was going to school and not understanding what we were doing, all while trying to figure out my treatments to make me ‘better.’ At the time, we just wanted the cure,” says the 26-year-old activist and creator. “Later, my parents understood that disabilities are conditions you live with for the rest of your life. I was a kid with a completely abled body — I didn’t have a disability prior nor a condition that would’ve caused cerebral palsy — so for me, I thought there was always the possibility of going back to normal walking. I was in denial for a really long time about my disability.”
Carozzo notes that a lot of this denial — if not all of it — stems from living in a society that shunned her, made her feel like she didn’t belong, or that her disability was something she had to cure or change about herself. And she’s hoping to fight that stigma and change perceptions about people with disabilities with her social media presence — a platform that within the span of two years, has amassed more than 20,000 followers on Instagram and 58,000-plus on TikTok, with the mission to redefine disabilities “one cane at a time.”
It took her a few years to recognize her calling, though. She went to school for PR and marketing, and landed jobs at agencies in Miami, but she eventually became restless by the banality of it all — the same kind of clients, the same kind of press releases, day in and day out. She was craving something with meaning and purpose. What could she do with the skills she learned in PR? How could her work make an impact?
“One night, I started writing ideas and captions about what I wanted to talk about, the awareness I wanted to create, what kind of content I wanted to make,” Carozzo recalls. “I called a friend of mine who was a photographer, and I said, ‘This is an idea I have, but there’s one thing I want in every picture: my canes.’”
And Carozzo was true to her word: In every photo, Reel, or TikTok video, you’ll find her with her cane (she has 16 in total — the purple amethyst is her favorite). Her cane not only acts as support — an aid she literally and figuratively leans on to navigate the world outside her home, especially when she encounters spaces that are inaccessible — but it’s also emblematic of who she is as a person.
“Cerebral palsy is a very diverse condition: Some people have severe brain damage and they’re in electrical wheelchairs; some people have very minor brain damage and they walk like me — I look like I just had an injury,” explains Carozzo, who was in a wheelchair the first year following her diagnosis before she started using a walker, and then eventually a cane. “I fall under the category of invisible illness because people can’t tell that I have a disability based on what a disability is defined as, which is looking terminally ill, and that’s not always the case. It’s very important that people understand that a disability is an identity — and it’s not something that looks a certain way. And everyone experiences it differently.”
In the beginning, Carozzo shook with every photo she posted. She was scared that none of this would pan out. She was worried about expressing how she really felt — and having it be accepted. Thoughts, like Is there anyone who’s going to listen to me? Is there anyone who’s going to think this is worthy of anything? Is this going to bring any value? raced through her mind. But the more she posted, the more her content resonated with those with disabilities, and then reached even more people.
She takes great pride in creating an educational platform, with lengthy captions and heartfelt one-on-ones with people on the discourse of disabilities (like, disability etiquette — asking someone if they’d prefer to be called disabled or a person with a disability, because, again, every experience is different), and also her aesthetics that she describes as aspirational and high-end, which she believes was missing from the online disabilities community. And while she does have trolls — haters who spew vitriol by saying she fakes her disability or that she’s doing it for clout — she chooses to ignore them and instead focus on creating a safe space.
“There are pros and cons when you’re visible in this digital era,” Carozzo says. “I’m educating people about my identity as a disabled woman, as a disabled Latina, but most importantly, letting them know that they do have a safe space to show up as who they are, that they’re not alone.”
Carozzo asks her followers to show up, and she does the same, using social media as something of a mirror. One example: When she started creating Reels, she had to really come to terms with the way she walks. “It was so hard to start creating Reels because I hated the way I walked,” she confesses. “It was something I never accepted until I started creating videos of myself and how I walked. I think that when you mirror an aspect of you that you don't like, you’re really giving yourself a chance to look in and think, It’s time to accept it and move forward.”
And she’s moving forward by accepting her identity completely, by working to amplify the voices of others, by educating people on the intersectionality of disabilities, and by making sure that people with disabilities feel seen in their entirety (and not as something as derivative as a hero or an inspiration).
“Back in the day and in movies, you had to ‘cure’ disabilities, and it was a miracle. But that’s not real life,” Carozzo says. “Disabilities are here to stay with you forever, and the only thing you can do is change perceptions — that’s the only miracle. A big part of my job is to show people what having a disability is really about.”