Bonnie St. John is best known for her Silver medal in at the 1984 paraolympics and her time on staff in the Clinton White House. St. John was the first differently-abled person (regardless of race or gender) to attend the Ski Racing Academy in Vermont. The school’s assumptions about able-bodiedness meant that Bonnie was often disabled by her environment (I am using political definition here, see fn 1); despite being a limber athlete, she fell down regularly trying to get to the cafeteria because many of the walkways were gravel & she could not feel the ground shifting beneath her temporary leg, then she broke her new artificial leg on a soccer field that was not evened out properly. Despite the ablism in her environment, Bonnie held her own with able-bodied competitors and faculty alike and went on to win a silver medal in the Winter paraolympics in 1984. Had she not slipped on a particular ice patch on the trail, a patch that many others also slipped on, she would have won gold. She often refers to the experience like this:
People fall down; winners get up. (paralympics.org)
Avoiding the “Super Crip” (fn 2) story, St. John’s many interviews about being a differently-abled (fn 3) athlete, highlighted the mindfulness required by people disabled by ablism rather than positing herself as an exception who overcame what others simply fail to do. She pointed out that she had to make a conscious decision to become an athlete and then actively woo coaches and opportunities to compete. Often she trained alongside able-bodied people in arenas designed exclusively for them; ie, facilities that were only minimally ADA compliant if at all. For her, watching able-bodied athletes be recruited and groomed for the Olympics, taught her to be her own best advocate, to think critically about her decisions, and to pursue her dreams with the passion of someone who understand that even the most basic things (like getting to lunch) could not be taken for granted.
Her drive did not stop with her athletic competitions. St. John also credits being involved in sport at the intersections of race, gender, and ability as teaching her the discipline and the drive she needed to graduate from Harvard and Oxford and become a Rhodes Scholar. Her academic and Olympic accomplishments caught the eye of then-President Bill Clinton. He appointed her to his cabinet as Director of the National Economic Council, making her one of the first differently-abled African Americans to hold a cabinet position in the White House.
St. John is also deeply committed to the success of women and girls. She credits her nurse at Shriner’s hospital for helping her to succeed
“She kept telling me, ‘you have to push harder, you have to push harder.’ … She taught me some really important lessons (ibid)
and wants to offer the same kind of help to other women and girls. Thus she became a motivational speaker who has published 4 books encouraging heterosexual women to build happy and productive relationships, and be successful at business and parenting at the same time. When she got divorced, she also sat down to write her own story of child hood sexual abuse and marital struggle to motivate other women to put their emotional and physical health first. That same book, How Strong Women Pray, included interviews with 25 other women who combined their spirituality with strength and healing in order to become successful. St. John wanted to highlight women’s voices from all areas of life to inspire other women, not just posit her own experience as a guide. She continues this desire for a chorus of diverse women and experiences as a guide and helpmate to other women and girls in her 2009 project with her 14 year old daughter. The two have teamed up to write a book about inspirational women leaders and are asking young women to nominate people to be included based on having been inspired by them. In working with her daughter, St. John also wanted her to be inspired by other women and the power of feminism. So far they have interviewed the current President of Liberia Ellen J. Serleaf, designer Eileen Fisher, and Noemi Vivas Ocana a Managua resident who, after putting herself through school only to be downsized at her job, became a small business owner and leader of her community’s lending circle which empowers women through shared wealth and small business loans.
St. John’s activism has also always included the empowerment of women and girls. In 2008, she was the guest speaker at the same Shriner’s Hospital where she had recovered from her amputation as a child. Afterward she talked about how the hospital is a place of both profound hope and despair because of the ways that disability is treated in our society and the fears embedded in not being able-bodied. For St. John these fears take on particular gendered aspects as young girls are taught both that their self-worth is tied up in attractiveness and that differently-abled bodies are not attractive nor should differently-abled women have or express sexuality.
“I worked so hard over the years, to feel strong and feel beautiful, to get away from the feeling of being an awkward disabled kid. I could smell the fear and discomfort. It was a battleground. And I thought, ‘I’m going in. And I’m not leaving any soldiers behind.’ (MLive.com)
As part of her talk, she reminded young differently-abled girls that they were beautiful, desirable, and had the right to dream of the same companionship as able-bodied girls and women.
Bonnie St. John’s powerful example, deep commitment to intersectional women’s issues, and her understanding about the importance of both global feminism and inspiring and caring for the next generation of young women, make her a quintessential figure in black herstory. As one of only a handful of prominent black differently-abled women she is also someone we should all know.
- I am using the term “disabled” politically here in the tradition of radical disability feminists to mean “The disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organization which takes no or little account of people who have physical [and/or cognitive/developmental/mental] impairments and thus excludes them from mainstream society” (Oliver 1992 as quoted in Clare Exile & Pride Southend:1999, 6)
- “Super Crip” is a term used to describe people whose stories and images have been used to make temporarily able-bodied people feel good about themselves and the lives of differently-abled people rather than question the ableism that makes differently-abled people’s success seem like such an anomaly. In other words, the story focuses on individuals “over coming disability [a physical or mental impariment]” rather than on them succeeding in an ableist and therefore disabling world. (It should be note that Bonnie St. John does tell her story utilizing elements of the “super crip” and certainly reports do as well; however, the more secure she has gotten with herself and her herstory the more her narrative has let go of these elements for a more nuanced look at her life. She has always included discussion of ableism and its impact on her and society in her work.
- some people with disabilities have taken exception to my use of the term “differently-abled” as opposed to “disabled”. Differently-abled is the term I use to describe myself and it is the prevailing term used by disability rights activists in my region of the country; for us, the term recognizes that there are differences in our abilities that represent diversity within the community of people with disabilities and diversity amongst us and temporarily able-bodied people. It was also an effort to destabilize hierarchies between people who were born differently-abled and people who became differently-abled and between those with visible disabilities and those with hidden ones, while also recognizing that these differences meant that we experience disabling environments and ableism differently.