After Donna Walton’s left leg was amputated at age 18 more than 40 years ago, she wanted to consult with a Black woman with a similar experience of living with a disability.
Walton said doctors and social workers showed her pictures of Edward M. Kennedy Jr., son of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, skiing after part of his right leg was amputated.
“That was the person I was supposed to emulate,” Walton said during an interview last month. “Well, there was no way I could emulate that for various reasons.”
For the next four decades, Walton used her personal and professional experiences as a counselor, motivational speaker and amputee to establish Divas with Disabilities, the social network she created through Facebook in 2012 that connects women of color who have various disabilities.
Today, the network has more than 1,000 followers and members.
Walton, who received a doctorate in counseling from George Washington University in D.C., moderated a panel July 30 at the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill as part of an all-day discussion titled “From Washington to Hollywood and Beyond: The Future of Americans with Disabilities.”
RespectAbility, a Rockville, Md.-nonprofit organization led by advocates and those with disabilities, organized the session. Walton, who published a book last year called “Shattered Dreams, Broken Pieces,” serves on the board of advisers.
The Hollywood discussion is one part of the Divas’ platforms to force the movie industry to hire people of color. The group’s vision statement: “To see more women of color with disabilities reflected in mass media.”
As it stands, Darryl “Chill” Mitchell, who was paralyzed from the waist down in a 2001 motorcycle crash, is the only prominent Black actor with a disability who consistently gets roles. Before the crash, he worked as an able-bodied actor, starring in movies such as “House Party,” “House Party 2” and “Black Knight.”
“The actors and actresses are not advocating for and hiring people with disabilities to play those parts,” said Tracee Garner, a member of the Divas with muscular dystrophy from Loudon County, Virginia. “It is easy if you are already an actor and am able to stay in the industry. [Mitchell] already has his career established.”
Garner mentioned how Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson recently received some flak for his portrayal of an amputee in the movie “Skyscraper.” Former Paralympian and actress Katy Sullivan wrote a letter published July 16 to NBC’s “Dateline” on how “able-bodied” actors portraying those with disabilities can affect a project’s authenticity.
Six days earlier, Johnson posted a picture on Instagram with the movie’s writer/director, Rawson Thurber, and real-life amputee Jeff Glasbrenner.
As for the Divas, monthly conference calls are held with guest speakers to discuss intersectionality of Black women who are disabled, self-care and other topics. Anyone in need of employment can view a few jobs posted weekly on the Facebook page.
Zazel O’Garra of New York City’s Queens borough heard about the Divas through a friend from Berlin. O’Garra, who had a tumor removed from her brain in 2003 that left her partially paralyzed, works as a counselor, serves on the Screen Actors Guild and manages her own dance company, ZCO Dance Project, to teach dance throughout New York City for those with disabilities.
“I took a train to Washington, D.C., and we just hit it off immediately,” O’Garra said about meeting Walton. “It just grew from there and I wanted to be a part of the [Divas] organization.”
Future plans are in the works to arrange a national conference next year to bring all the Divas together in person. A possible name: “Divas and Allies.”
“I don’t want to exclude [anyone],” Walton said. There are individuals who have family members with disabilities. I look at them as our allies. They can’t relate to being a Diva, per se, but they can certainly be supportive.”
For more information, go to http://www.divaswithdisabilities.com.