Freelancing Personal Essay

How Challenging Internalized Ableism Helps Ground My Freelance Work

Coming to understand myself as disabled has been a far from linear journey, much like other realizations that have been particularly meaningful in my life. In some ways, that process occurred alongside the reckoning of my identity as an artist, during the height of the quarantine measures for COVID-19. While I have struggled with back pain for at least a decade, sleep issues following white supremacist workplace harassment in 2016, and migraines since my teens, it took the closure of my chiropractor’s office to flatten the curve last summer for me to do the much-needed work to unpack my own internalized ableism about being disabled. It forced me to realize that I deserved the same compassion I pride myself on providing for students with disabilities in my day job as a social worker in the scourge of academia.

All too often, health can be viewed as an achievable goal and moral obligation for all folx, but I know the reality of how chronic health concerns of migraines, back pain, and sleep issues make that impossible. Especially when I navigate the medical-industrial complex in my fat brown body, this is further complicated by xenophobia, white supremacy, misogyny, fatphobia, etc. and I understand the need to state these matters directly to those who fail to provide appropriate care. Years ago, that meant telling a doctor that seeking birth control was actually a valid reason to make use of his walk-in clinic when I was told that I should have gone to the public health unit, as I outlined how the pill had long regulated my menses to reduce heavy blood losses that had required iron shots, but folx deserve to have their contraceptive needs met, regardless of why.

I deserved the same compassion I pride myself on providing for students with disabilities in my day job as a social worker in the scourge of academia.

Since a decade as a social worker has taught me that I have little control over getting those in power to address rampant oppression in the body I inhabit, I pour my efforts into unlearning ableism to give myself the respect that I have always deserved in these ever rigged systems. As a freelance writer, that means acknowledging the reality that I do not always feel well enough to write on a daily basis, which I must take into account when accepting writing assignments, but that can be especially challenging when these opportunities have not always been offered. Despite my attempts to secure paid gigs for nearly a decade, many publications finally expressed some semblance of interest in commissioning BIPOC writers following last summer’s shift towards more willingness to reckon with the longstanding gaps in racial justice, and the most oppressed of us know that little has changed despite this online appearance of progress.

Before that white supremacist workplace harassment stole my nightly slumber, I would not hesitate to work into the wee hours of the morning or watch something disturbing late into the evening, but now I know and do better. Given how poor sleep can easily fuel a migraine, especially when contending with hormones during my menstrual cycle, I have a selection of podcasts saved in my Stitcher app under the title, “Okay Before Bed” given how little this world caters to fat brown disabled women. While I still make every effort to think critically, including listening to perspectives from folx with lived experience of marginalization to continue to be the most anti-oppressive social worker I can, I do so at other times than when trying to sleep as heartbreaking stories make that difficult, and I no longer feel the need to harden myself in response to these harsh truths even if it means that I shed more tears than before.

In terms of the freelance work I accept, I try to be equally intentional, as I recall how quickly the triumph over my highest per-word rate yet vanished when an editor changed my reference to white supremacy to “cultural racism” which resonated with no BIPOC folx that I could find. Ideally, I would always get to explore gigs that truly nurture my soul, like when I got to facilitate Sustainable Resistance for BIPOC Folx therapeutic writing workshops for Scarborough Arts, which was a rare opportunity to combine my passion for Social Work and writing. Instead, I have lived the reality of white fragility’s violations of my personhood far too often as both a social worker and a writer to still be as naive as folx with epic privilege expect when they demand performative hope from those of us who are much more oppressed and well aware of it.

I recall how quickly the triumph over my highest per-word rate yet vanished when an editor changed my reference to white supremacy to “cultural racism” which resonated with no BIPOC folx that I could find.

Beyond the labour that I get paid for, there is also unpaid but necessary work in looking ahead and reconciling that I am unlikely to sleep well when a perusal of my calendar app fills me with dread, like when I know that my late grandfather’s birthday approaches, as I am well aware of the benefits of navigating less assignments alongside the grief that lingers decades later. In those moments, I convince myself to negotiate deadlines that are further away with editors I can only hope will consider my needs, as I take note of those who have proven less than accommodating, and instead work at strategy by some means with that newfound knowledge. As much as I resist, that sometimes also means taking a step back from the unpaid labour I remain keen on doing to support oppressed folx, whether in a formal role, like serving on a committee for an ethnic agency, or my time informally disrupting the problematic status quo.

While I would be lying if I said that I never doubt my writing abilities, I am getting better at understanding how often those feelings of apprehension about my work stem from feedback from folx who are minimally invested in challenging their complicity in extremely oppressive power systems. At those times, I remind myself of wisdom from Audre Lorde that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, and reflect that part of continuing to write truth to power is accepting my humanity even when I cannot be as productive as capitalist structures demand.

To do this work, I must continue to unlearn the inherently ableist colonialist messages from my Trinidadian childhood that I need “to burn the midnight oil” to be “the cream of the crop” as those do not bode well for disabilities, much less those of us in BIPOC bodies often deemed highly disposable by white supremacy. While challenging taken-for-granted beliefs takes time and effort, it is much-needed labour and well worth the work as it allows me to give myself permission to take a break from writing continuously for hours or stop working and get rest when I feel tired. Especially when up against folx and structures that fail to see me as worthy of empathy, it becomes even more crucial to make that my priority or I may struggle further if back pain exacerbates, which often results in poor sleep, and dramatically increases the odds of contending with a migraine the following day. And sometimes it is spite that keeps me going the way others rely on hope because my art deserves as much space as the privileged writers whose work received praise long before more talented BIPOC folx ever received a chance.

Krystal Kavita Jagoo is a social worker, artist, and educator who prioritizes equity in all her work. Her visual art was featured in Pandemic: A Feminist Response, and the zine, CRIP COLLAB. She has taught “Justice and the Poor: Issues of Race, Class, and Gender” at Nipissing University, facilitates Sustainable Resistance for BIPOC Folx writing workshops and will teach the Writing for Social Change course at the Loft Literary Center. Her work has been published by Huffington Post, Healthline, MedTruth, Verywell Mind, Prism, Canadaland, Community-Centric Fundraising, Giddy, etc. She can be found on LinkedIn