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Keah Brown

A Journey to #DisabledAndCute: On Representation, a Movement, and What's Next

Sept 15, 2017 at 3pm


KEAH: Hi. My name is Keah Brown. And I finally like myself. I am the creator of this hashtag, #DisabledAndCute. And this talk is essentially gonna be about the hashtag, representation in media, and what's next for me. But before we get there, I kind of have to talk to you about who I was before this and who I am becoming. So let's get started.

KEAH: There's baby Keah. I was three or four in that picture. I was a really cute kid, right? I have cerebral palsy. So CP squad since '91. This picture was actually taken in my Grandma's house. I was raised kind of in her house. For most of my life. And then we moved. I was raised in a big family. Lots of aunts, cousins, uncles, a twin sister, an older brother. You'll see them later. I cried a lot as a baby. I think the word for that is colicky. But I think I was just kind of like... Bad. So there's that. And this was one of the only pictures where I wasn't crying. Can you hear me? All right. Good. Let's go to the next slide. Okay. So up top, the two that are smiling—that's Leah, my twin sister. And below is my brother Eric. He's older by four years. And they're just really attractive people. So I wanted to show you guys pictures. Excuse me. So... Here's my mom. We love her to death. Her name is Cheryl, and I got my sense of humor from her. She's very supportive and loving and kind. In all the cheesiest ways that moms can sometimes be. Like I said, I love her to bits and pieces, and I grew up in a house with her—later on, after we got out of my Grandma's house, I grew up with her, my older brother, and my twin sister, Leah, and they're all able-bodied. And that came to... Not an issue, but it affected me, in ways that I'll talk about soon. So okay.

KEAH: My biggest problem growing up is that I didn't see myself. I didn't see myself in life. I'm fine. I didn't see myself in life. In movies. In TV shows. And I think when you don't see yourself, it affects the way you... I'll pick it [the remote] up in a second. It affects the way that you see yourself in the world. When you don't see yourself and you don't see that you're worthwhile, you start to question... You start to question if you have value in the world. And I think a lot of that happened for me around age 12. I started to wonder if I was worthy of love and affection. And if I was worthy of being alive, simply because I didn't see myself. There was no one like me to show me that... You know, there was something worthwhile in my disabled body. Can someone grab that?

AUDIENCE MEMBER [picks up remote]: Do you want me to click for you?

KEAH: Thank you. Yeah. That's much easier. Okay. Click the button. Yeah, click the other button. Click it again. There we go.

KEAH: So who did I get to see growing up? I got to see Brandi and Whitney Houston in the best Cinderella. It's the only one we acknowledge. It's Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella and I just got to see her be beautiful and be a princess and be loved and admired in a way that I never got to see a lot of Black people, growing up. Go to the next one, please. And then the God. Audra McDonald. We love her in this house. She played in... I'm sorry. I'm gonna say it. The best Annie. As Grace Farrell. She was the secretary of Daddy Warbucks, as you know. And she could sing. Which I can't do, so I was really into that. She was beautiful. And albeit as I'm older now, I understand that it wasn't the best role. But she was somebody. And she had lines. And she just felt like a fully realized character in small ways. So I was really into her. And, like, despite that, though, even seeing Brandi and Whitney Houston, may she rest in peace, and Audra in these roles, I was only seeing my Black skin. Never my disability. Just... The only time that I saw my disability was in, like, those exploitative, annoying-ass telethons where they squat to you and are like, “Give us money to help these disabled people while we dehumanize you.” That's the only time I saw my Black skin growing up.

KEAH: This is baby Keah, fresh out the gate, ready to be great, but not sure how to get there. So I struggled growing up with my self-esteem. I was the only one in the house, as I said, with a disability, so everybody else was able-bodied, and they didn't really understand what it was like being disabled and what it was like having people stare at you in malls and shopping stores and everywhere you go. Somebody would be there, with their mouths agape. Like they've never seen a limp before. And let me see... What else? I wanted desperately to be what I thought was “normal”. I thought that there was this magical being in these able-bodies with working legs and working hands was this be all, end all. And if I was able-bodied, if I was able-bodied, my life would suddenly be better. It would be this magical thing where I'm like, Oh, I would get a boyfriend. You know, people would be SO into me. It would be like that movie, Teen Witch, where all she had to do was wear the necklace, and then her wishes came true if she, like, touched it or something. That was a good movie, but not gonna happen. And you know, I just spent so much of my life feeling broken and wrong, and feeling like I had so much to make up for. So I tried to meld myself into who I thought people would like, because I was like, Oh, shit. There's so much going against me. Because I'm in this body that's not like anybody else's. So I had to really... I spent a lot of time really tearing myself down, thinking it would help in the end.

KEAH: Go to the next slide. And so... Poor Leah. We love her. But I spent a lot of time taking my anger out on Leah and tearing her down, because I was jealous. And I was like, “Oh, she has everything. And I have nothing. It's so unfair for me to be in this body but for her to have a quote-unquote ‘normal’ one.” And like I said earlier, I spent a lot of time tearing myself down, being really mean, and just assuming that this body was the world's worst body and there was no, you know, escaping it. So I was very mean and very angry, all the time. You know? I was very emo. But not like in the fun emo way. With all the music and the black hair and the eye liner and the jeans with the little... Fucking... Um... Ugh. What do you call them? The little chains. That's the word. Chains. And so... I was just really angry all the time. And, like, I don't know why people were around me. But for some reason, my sister, bless her, she loved me anyway. She was just like... You know what? I'm gonna let you cook. And hopefully you'll grow out of this eventually. Can you go to the next slide? So I did go away. I went to college.

KEAH: I went to SUNY Fredonia. It's a liberal arts college. And I studied journalism and creative writing. And I really loved writing as a kid. But I never thought that I was good enough at it to be paid for it. Then in high school, my senior year, one of my English professors pulled me aside and she was like, “Hey, maybe you should try writing.” And I was like, “Oh, wow. Okay.” So essentially I went away to college and I met some really wonderful women. And they changed the way that I viewed certain aspects of myself. And other women. Let's see. Go to the next slide. So I met women like Chelsea and Leigh. Chelsea is up top. In the black and white robe. That's us at graduation. I looked so cute that day. And then Leigh is below. God, I looked so good there. Look how good my skin looks! I'm sorry. And we're smiling. We went out, I think—that was my 21st birthday. And they're smart. And they're funny. And they're caring. And these women, they made me laugh. And, like, really be myself for the first time, without apologizing, without caring what somebody else thought. And they made me finally start to like myself. You know, it was a long process, as things are. But they really did. And so it was them and... Sorry. Felicia and Christine. Felicia is up top, in the black top. We're at the Cheesecake Factory. My favorite place. I tweet them all the time. I'm like, “We're in a relationship, Cheesecake Factory.” And they're like, “Whatever. Okay. Fine.” And below is Christine. That is at Felicia's bachelorette party. So they're some of my best friends to this very day. And they are women who I can talk to about anything. Doesn't matter the time of the day. Doesn't matter what they're doing. They're always there for me. They are super supportive of this whole thing that my life has become. And when I told them that they were in this PowerPoint, they were like, “I hope you chose good pictures!” And I was like, “Duh. Come on. Who do you think I am?” So essentially I met these women. Both Felicia, Christine, Leigh, and Chelsea. And I was like, “Oh, these women are great.” So it helped me adjust my idea of women and of people that I thought were perfect. And had something that I didn't. And so it was like... A competition thing for a while. But being away in college like that, like... It really changed my view on what women—who women are and what they can be and what we have and what we don't have and what we should have, et cetera. Go to the next slide.

KEAH: And then I realized that all these things that I loved about these women—I had in my sister the entire time, but I couldn't see any of it, because I was super jealous of her and I was so hell bent on being... Less than her. Because I was in my body. That I couldn't see any of that stuff. And so I took it upon myself to finally stop tearing her down. And trying to fix that relationship. Because, again, Leah was a complete saint in this whole thing. Like... She was just like, “I really hope you learn to love yourself one day and then when you get there, like, I can't wait to be in your corner.” She said that to me, like, in 2015, I think. And I was just like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, okay, fine. Whatever. I'll get there. Like, I love you now. But I'm never gonna love myself.” Boy... I was so wrong! And so yeah. I just took the time to really get to know who Leah was as a person, instead of seeing her as a piece of competition. And so I knew that in order to do that well, I had to start looking at how I saw myself. Next slide.

KEAH: And so we're gonna fast-forward to 2016. Which was a completely shit year, in terms of, like, the election and everything else was trash. But! Professionally, I mean, my year was just amazing. Not to brag or anything, but... Whew, it was lit! So I was working on my relationship with Leah and we were doing great. Hanging out all the time. Going out to eat. You know I love food. And I started to tell my stories. You know, I started talking about what it was like being a disabled person, being a Black woman who's disabled. Being in this world that's so inaccessible. And so just... Terrible. To a lot of disabled people. Especially those of color. And just kind of like... What it means for me to be alive right now. I spent a lot of time doing that, and then to my surprise... I ended up in some major publications. You know, your girl was in Harper's Bazaar, ESPNW, Teen Vogue. I was out here, okay? I was killing the game for a grip in 2016. And then I started to see my worth. You know, I think sometimes we can't put our worth in the work that we do, but whew... It feels so good just to see something that you wrote or something that you did on such a national stage. It was such a huge publication. So I was feeling myself. I was like, You know what, girl? This is it. You're really killing it. Next slide.

KEAH: And so then something shifted in me. On the 28th of December, 2016, right after Christmas, I got some really cute clothes. I was feeling myself. Taking selfies. Being cute. I woke up in the morning and I was like, Oh, I have... You know, I feel kind of cute. I feel good. I feel like there is something worthy about me. So I assumed it would leave, but it stayed. And so I was like, Oh, I'm cute now. What does this mean? What does this amount to? So then a baby was born. I'm just kidding. Not that baby. But my baby. The hashtag [#DisabledAndCute] was created on February 12th, 2017. When I realized that the feeling was still there. And I still felt good about myself. And so I was like, Let's celebrate. Let's post pictures. Next slide. And so there we are, in those really cute pictures. I went away, because I was on deadline. And I had to write an essay, I think, for Lenny Letter. And I came back, and the post was trending, and people were using the hashtag, and being great. Next slide.

KEAH: And we went viral! I ended up in Teen Vogue, Cosmo, MIC, Huffington Post, et cetera, et cetera, and then I was also international, which was cool. I was in France. Sweden. Australia. Paris. Et cetera. And I was like... Wow. My face is, like, everywhere. Get it, Keah! Okay. And then... Someone drew a picture of me, based off that picture from the earlier tweet. And I was like,Wow, okay. I look good. So it was my header on Facebook for, like, ever. Next slide. And I think... Okay. So I think #DisabledAndCute matters, because we don't celebrate ourselves enough. We spend so much time like, “Oh, shit! I can't be boastful. I can't be proud. I have to, like, rein it in. I have to be subtle. I can't be too confident, or it'll look like I'm cocky.” But, you know, I think that hashtag turns it on its head. Celebrate yourself, God damn it. We live in this world where disabled people in particular are just always told, “Don't draw attention to yourself. Don't make it seem like you think that you're the shit.” But you are the shit! You know? You are the fucking shit! Like, you're so awesome. You're gorgeous. You're all the things. And I think for me and for a lot of people, it seems the hashtag serves as this piece of permission to love yourself and to love things about you that people tell you that you shouldn't love. And so yeah. I think that's what the hashtag is doing. And I'm so happy to see people still using it months later. Next slide.

KEAH: So what's next? World domination. I mean... We are literally doing it all. I wanna write movies and TV shows, and I want to write books, and I just signed with Alex Slater of Trident Media Group, and we're working on some really great things that of course I can't talk about yet. And I'm also doing this thing... Okay. So I shouldn't tell you this, but I'm gonna tell you anyway. I'm doing this thing with this really big company, and it involves clothing. So... You'll be seeing a lot more of me soon. Like, a LOT MORE of me. I also created T-shirts with the hashtag on them. You'll be seeing them in a second. I just want to do it all. And I want to be on Ellen. #GetKeahOnEllen. Dancing all the way up the aisle to her chair. Hip bump or something. I just want to do it all, “Hey, girl. Thank you for giving me that hour of pure joy for those times that I was really depressed and really sad.” And I just had that hour of being like, “Yes, Ellen!” Making me laugh. Say something corny. Have a guest on that I think is cute. The Ellen Show has given me so much. Next slide. So here are the T-shirts. Up top is Mama Brown in a pink and white #ISupportDisabledAndCute. I wanted to make those specifically for those who are able-bodied but still wanted to support me. And below me is me in a filter with #DisabledAndCute, and I wanted to make that with my handle on the sleeve, because people were making them and saying I was involved. And I was like, “Oh, no, sweetie. That's not me. I'm not making those [shirts].” So those are where you can give me actual money for the thing that I created and not somebody else. Next slide.

KEAH: And so here I am. I'm not gonna play the video, because I'm running out of time. So that's the video that I have for Ellen. Next slide. What else? Essentially I do this work because I love it. And I know my worth. And I think on days when I don't remember that I'm worthy, I'll go back to this hashtag and I'm like... You know what? You did something that matters to people. And even if it's just a hashtag, or even if it's just a tweet, or a T-shirt, or something, I did something that impacted people in some way. And I think that's beautiful. Next slide. And we're almost done. Here I am in these pictures. I really just wanted to put them up there, because they're cute. I look good here. That top picture is the one that was the basis for that drawing earlier. And the bottom one I took of my friend's house. And I'm not even wearing lipstick in this picture. This is a SnapChat filter. So yeah. I just wanted to show these pictures and I wanted to tell people that I know that selfies are given this bad rap and they're supposed to be vain and they're frivolous and stuff. But I think there's something so empowering about taking a picture of yourself and finding something that you think is worthwhile, that you think is beautiful, and so I encourage all of you to go home today, take a couple pictures. You don't have to show anybody. But just look at this person and understand that there's something so beautiful about who you are. And find that thing. And celebrate it. And I think that's it. Thank you so much. And I'm really glad to be here. And that this was something worthwhile to talk about. So yeah. Thanks.

Keah Brown

Indoor photo of Keah Brown

Keah is a journalist at Cliché Magazine and a writer who has a BA in Journalism from The State University of New York at Fredonia. Her work has appeared in Teen Vogue, Literary Hub, Catapult, and Lenny Letter among other publications.