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Women's Lifestyle Magazine

Adversity to Advocacy Q&A with Dr. Kimberly Kennedy-Barrington

Jul 14, 2020 10:00AM ● By Kayla Sosa

Dr. Kimberly Kennedy-Barrington is a full-time disability advocate in her community. Through legislation, entrepreneurial support and consulting, she works to fight for a more just society for those with physical disabilities, as well as those who experience racism and sexism. An honorably charged Navy veteran, Kennedy-Barrington suffers from PTSD, has undergone five head surgeries, thyroid cancer and suffered a stroke that caused her to use a wheelchair. 

While she wasn’t in a wheelchair until 2013, Kennedy-Barrington says as a black woman, she’s technically been disabled her whole life. 

Women’s Lifestyle spoke to Kennedy-Barrington about her life, her work and how the symptoms of society and injury collide. 

Women’s LifeStyle Magazine: What prompted you to advocate for people with disabilities?

Kimberly Kennedy-Barrington: A decision was made about me, for me, concerning me, without me. I had just had my stroke and when I came home from the hospital, care started immediately. I’m a United States veteran, so the VA paid for care. That December, there was a horrible storm and the caregivers decided to only send (care to) persons that were quadriplegic. So I was left for three days in my own excrements. My caregiver left me. I wasn’t able to shower myself at that time, dress myself, prepare my oatmeal. It was horrible. 

It was then, just to make a phone call and I said I wanted to talk to who does the schedule. How do you make this decision?... I want to know who does the policies and procedures - who is that person? I want to have a conversation with them. 

Just the righteous indignation I had in that moment. I never thought it would have led me to this point… It just takes that one incident that will ignite something on the inside of you to say: “I have to got to make this different. If I can’t do it for myself, I need to do it for those coming behind me.” 

WLM: How do people react when you have had to advocate for yourself in those situations?

KK-B: When you stand up for yourself, it makes people notice. It makes them feel guilty on some level. Like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m not doing my job or I’m not doing the very best that I could have done.’ Those who have some simmilance of a conscience as a person, it does hurt their heart. I’m no longer with that agency just because they had so much turnover and I said, ‘if you can’t keep your own staff, then there’s no way that I need to stay.’ So I did choose to leave, not because of that specific incident, but it was one of the many factors. I do appreciate that they listened and realized, ‘Yeah, we probably could’ve done a better job.’ 

It goes to, who are you to ration care? And then here we are again in this pandemic, and the same thing is happening. It’s a common theme that’s woven into the fabric of our society. 

When we start talking about those ‘-isms’ - racism, ableism, sexism, classism. We see how systemic every set institution that you need to go to - if there’s not an A clause or a B clause that includes even me and even you - then there’s something wrong with that system. 

WLM: What changed in your life when you had your stroke?

KK-B: I was in school two classes away from my master’s in the voc(ational) rehab program. [Veteran Readiness and Employment] And when I had my stroke, they said I was no longer eligible for the voc rehab, but I was eligible for what they call Independent Living. So basically they teach you how to be handicap, make sure that you have a good, safe environment and that you have some sort of quality of life. They do provide you with computers, cell services or phone based on your disability so that you can find a way to stay connected to your community and/or to friends and things that you like to do. And with my care plan, they also included not just them coming in doing chore services, personal care, but also they put in a section for them to do activities with me. If I wanted to play word games or puzzles, whatever it was. I appreciated the care plan that the VA came up with me. It was all inclusive. The other piece of that is they also partnered me with Disability Advocates of Kent County peer support program.

WLM: When you talk about “-isms”, how have you seen those intersect? For example, racism and ableism?

KK-B: It always intersects. When I get a phone call, it’s usually from a person of color. I can only speak about my perspective and my experiences. My experience is that black and brown communities do not get the same opportunities.

A systems thinking approach to tackle real issues facing our community is what Leadership Grand Rapids hopes all who leave the class will be: having a community-focused mindset that creates a lifelong commitment to creating a thriving and prosperous West Michigan for all. So when I was interviewed for the 2020 cohort and was asked: who is my role model? My response: I Am! Their response: How can YOU be your own role model? I am 53 years old, hearing impared, visually impared, physically impared in a wheelchair and I have a doctoral degree. They all  just sat there like, “Hmm.”

You tell me how many African American women do you know that have a doctoral degree, had a stroke, that’s had 5 head surgies, two mouth surgeries, lost their hearing, can’t see out of one eye, and is an advocate for the state of Michigan? I’ll wait! Systemic ableist thinking at it’s finest.

Kennedy-Barrington co-hosts the podcast “Rolling on the Road.” To tune-in, visit her Facebook page at Dr. Kimberly Y Barrington.