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May 2, 2016

Badass Ladies You Should Know: Vilissa Thompson

Kate Hart
headshot of Vilissa Thompson
I recently came across the website Ramp Your Voice! and immediately emailed its creator, Vilissa Thompson, in hopes of getting an interview. From articles and presentations to children's books and anthologies, Vilissa is taking every opportunity to amplify the voices of disabled women of color, and I'm happy to add another boost to her badass signal.


Kate: Describe your career(s) and/or current projects. What path(s) and passions led you there?

Vilissa: I started my career as a 27 year old disabled Millennial social worker who became frustrated that no one was talking about the issues that I wanted to discuss (along with the lackluster, low-wage jobs offered to social workers that weren’t fulfilling). I decided to establish a blog that covered a variety of disability topics from the perspective of a disabled advocate who was also a social worker. I also wanted to focus on the experiences of disabled Black women and other disabled women of color since our voices and experiences are gravely missing within the disability advocacy community. This passion truly motivated me to create Ramp Your Voice! - a safe, empowering space for disabled people, especially women who looked like me, to read and share our stories because they mattered, and their experiences will be told truthfully and respectfully.

Writing is certainly a passion of mine, and becoming a disabled blogger/writer has allowed me to share my thoughts with those in the disability community, and the broader society. I’ve written over 150 posts since RYV!’s establishment, and I can tell that my writing skills have greatly improved and my writing voice has strengthened. The best thing about being a disabled blogger is receiving emails from other disabled people who love your work and feel that your voice and topics resonates with what they are experiencing in their own lives.

Vilissa in wheelchair, giving presentation
Being three years in the disability advocacy realm has allowed me to connect with some incredible movers and shakers, and afforded me opportunities to grow and be recognized for my passion. I learned that I loved giving presentations about disabled women’s issues, from our sexuality to the triple jeopardy status that disabled women of color have. Being a presenter allows me to be an educator to my audience - they hear what I, and many others, have to say about our lives and get the truth from someone who has not only read about it, but has actually lived it. My ability to mix in real-world experiences is what set my presentations apart because I am able to put a face and name to the issues I am talking about; that “humanness” touch brings the key points I strive to make to my audience hit home harder. I am hoping to conduct more presentations about disabled women of color especially for organizations that are seeking to improve their intersectionality and cultural competence abilities further.

Along with being a presenter, I also am looking to launch a public speaking career because I desire to share my story with the world by letting them know that the lives of disabled Black women and other women of color matter, and we will no longer be ignored and invisible in society.

Kate: Do you have any (other) creative outlets? How do they influence/affect your main work (if at all)? 

Vilissa: Right now, I am working on a children’s book about my upbringing because there is a great need for more diversity within literature, particularly children’s books. As the great Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” That’s how I feel about the children’s book that has been on my heart for a few years - this is the kind of book I wish I had read as a girl growing up with a disability. Disabled children (as well as disabled adults) need to read books with characters that share similar disabilities and experiences as they do; disability is a way of life that should be depicted in literature. There are many tropes that exist in literature that do not empower us, but rather, perpetrate stereotypes such as magically curing us, or that disability is a great tragedy to experience. I want my book to buck against those inaccurate accounts on what living with a disability is like so that we will know that this life is not bad or tragic, and to know that it is okay to love yourself fully, and to not be ashamed of who, what, and how you are that makes you different from everyone else.

I also aim to create a vlog and podcast series within the next year that would allow me to take my voice further, and to share about my experiences as a disabled Black woman, and allow other disabled women to a part of it, too.

Vilissa at the White House
Kate: What's your biggest challenge?

Vilissa: The biggest challenge is growing my brand, and getting my message and voice out within the disabled community, as well as larger communities and social media outlets. Being a “one-woman show,” it’s a lot to do by yourself, but I think I have managed pretty well so far. At this time, I am not earning income from RYV!, but I am determined to change that so that I can do what I love and provide a living for myself on my own terms.

Though I am still learning, I am very proud of the reputation RYV! has acquired so far, and the amount of respect I receive among advocates. That means a great deal to me because they have allowed me to participate in works and events that I never would’ve without them asking me to (such as the trip to the White House I took in February 2016 for Black History Month that pertained to the experiences of African Americans with disabilities).

Kate: Tell us about a time that you bounced back from failure.

Vilissa: At this point, I haven’t had any failures or major setbacks. I have experienced some major life changes within the past 4 months that has shifted my focus in what I want to do. As of now, I am making plans to move to Washington, D.C., where I plan to continue building RYV! and gain employment with an organization (hopefully either federal/government or non-profit) that focuses on disability rights and advocacy. The change in scenery, so to speak, will afford me an abundance of opportunities to connect with other advocates within this field. The trip to the White House was timely in many ways, but especially when it comes to putting Washington, D.C. on my radar as a very good choice to relocate to. I’m very nervous about this “big girl/truly adulting” move, but I do know that this is the season for such a drastic change.

Kate: What's the best compliment you've ever gotten?

Vilissa: The best compliments I receive revolve around my work being loved and appreciated, and that my voice is needed within the advocacy world. Those affirmative statements mean so much to me because it shows that people are paying attention to what I have to say, and value what is being vocalized. It keeps me going on those days when I wonder how to take RYV! to a new level. Hearing those words from disabled women of color, especially, uplifts my spirits because this is for us - this work is bigger than myself.

Cropped shot of Vilissa smiling at camera
Kate: Did you have any defining moments that galvanized your understanding of and/or commitment to feminism? How does it inform/inspire your work?

Vilissa: For me, I consider myself a Womanist because Womanism respects and encompasses all three of my identities equally - being a woman, disabled, and Black. I have my issues with feminism in relation to its history of ignoring and/or muffling the voices of disabled and Black women within the movement. Those racist and ableist undertones have caused individuals within both marginalized groups, and those of us who have membership within both groups, to shy away from feminism. Feminism cannot call itself an inclusive movement if it only cares about the experiences of white, able-bodied, neurotypical women. Intersectionality is imperative, and though I do support the principles of feminism, I cannot in good faith take on the title of “feminist” when women who look like me do not believe that the movement accepts, respects, and will fight for their rights wholeheartedly.

Kate: What are the best ways to support other women?

Vilissa: The best way I have learned to support other women is by allowing them to share their plights on my website. I love interviewing disabled women about their careers and day-to-day living because I know firsthand how important those stories are to empowering each other. When I meet a disabled woman who is fierce and taking the world by storm with their passions and dreams, I make it a point to ask her if I can interview her on my website, and I have yet to be told “no.” Disabled women are willing and wanting to share their stories, and platforms like mine provide the opportunity to make that happen. I also try to support (or signal boost) the businesses and projects they spearhead, and to contribute when appropriate. I love seeing the creativity of disabled women, and to what stereotypes and barriers are being shattered by their hard work and determination.

Kate: What is your advice to aspiring badasses?

Vilissa: This quote has stuck with me since graduate school, and it’s one that a graduate professor would utter: “What makes your heart sing?” Whatever you envision yourself doing that allows you to use your innate gifts, feel empowered while doing it, and makes your heart feel full - DO THAT. That is what you aspire to do in your life because that’s part of your life purpose. We all have a specific duty to fulfill while on this planet, and I have found mine - discuss the unique challenges disabled people endure with an interest on the plight of disabled women of color. That is what makes my heart sing fully, and I am determined to do it to the best of my absolute ability.

Don’t let anyone discourage you from doing what you love - the money will come, but you cannot replace the time and energy lost in living a life that others want for you that isn’t true to who and what you are. YOLO (You Only Live Once) isn’t just about trying new things for fun, but it also pertains to creating a life that suits the real you. You only have one life to live, and it is up to you to soak in all the greatness that you can make out of it (even the not-so-great moments). When I die, I want folks to remember me for being fearless and going after what was mind to rightfully own - that’s the life I strive to achieve presently (and especially when I do move to Washington, D.C.).


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Vilissa Thompson is a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) from Winnsboro, SC. Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization focused on promoting self-advocacy and strengthening empowerment among people with disabilities. Being a Disability Rights Consultant, Writer, & Advocate affords Vilissa the opportunity to become a prominent leader and expert in addressing and educating the public and political figures about the plight of people with disabilities, especially women of color with disabilities. Being a disabled woman of color herself, sharing her life experiences and tales from the women she has encountered during her advocacy work, has empowered her immensely because it validated the struggles and successes she endured in her young life. Disability advocacy work is one of Vilissa’s purposes in life, and she’s thrilled to be living out her dream, one presentation and motivating speech, at a time.

Vilissa is currently seeking submisisons for the "I Am Able!" anthology.

@VilissaThompson  /  facebook  /  @RampYourVoice  /  facebook  /  tumblr

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