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Success Stories >> Zarifa Roberson’s Story

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Zarifa Roberson was born in 1979 in Philadelphia with a form of arthritis that affects the entire body, limiting mobility and self-care. Born with clubbed feet and hands, dislocated hips, and a locked jaw, Zarifa has had a series of operations and years of physical and occupational therapy. After graduating from high school in mainstreamed classes and earning bachelor's and master's degrees, she now works as a vocational rehabilitation counselor in Washington, DC. In 2004 she founded a magazine called i.d.e.a.l., an acronym for "Individuals with Disabilities Express About Life," now published quarterly by the League for Disabilities, Inc., one of Baltimore's oldest nonprofits. Zarifa is also a motivational speaker. "We need people with disabilities to be in the forefront so our younger people will have an image to look up to. I didn't have that growing up. I knew strong African-American women, but they didn't represent me because they didn't have a disability."

Early Life

I used to wonder why God made me so different, so unique, but now I see it as a blessing.

I grew up in Philadelphia. I have a fraternal twin sister and always thought I could do whatever she did, but that wasn't the case. For instance, I tried to walk, but I still had casts on my feet. I was in casts until age four and didn't take my first steps until I was five. My grandmother talks about my parents being worried, upset, scared, crying. She didn't even have a high school diploma at the time and they had college degrees, but she told them, "Stop that crying. This child has a good mind. We can work with her." If my grandmother or parents left this world today, they'd say, "We're not worried about you. You're going to be OK."

Coping with Disability

Most people have never heard of what I have, which is arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, a form of arthritis where there is stiffness everywhere a muscle and joint meet. I have to keep moving. The best activities for me are walking and swimming. Most people who have my disease have more severe disabilities, but I'm very independent. When I tell doctors I have arthrogryposis, they are shocked. People who know the disease realize I am blessed to have a very mild case when they see me walk in.

Growing up in the city, I wanted people to like me for who I am. At all the schools I went to, I was mainstreamed; I went to regular classes. As a teenager, I tried to fit in and make others like me. I thought if they liked my sister, they should like me, but my disability got in the way. I went through a period when I stopped liking myself and my family and was very angry. I used to wonder why God made me so different, so unique, but now I see it as a blessing.

Education and New Starts

I went to Samuel Fels High School in northeast Philadelphia. I was in the Communications Department, and that's where I fell in love with entrepreneurship. The school newspaper had stopped, and I started it back up again. It's called Panther Press, and it is still there today. That's where it all started.

I wanted to continue my education but did not realize that my disability entitled me to receive money from the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR) to go to college until a chance encounter with the OVR rep for my school. I just bumped into the OVR representative in the office, and he approached me. He did not know about students with disabilities in regular classes because the nurse was referring only students in special education. I would never have gotten help if not for this chance meeting. The next thing I knew, he was paying for me to go to college. That's one thing I love about what I'm doing now, letting people know what's out there. I tell my transition students, take advantage of all of your services.

After that I went on to college and graduated from Millersville University in 2001 with a BS in Speech Communication and a minor in African-American Studies. I don't miss the work, but I loved campus life. I had always been active in various organizations, and I was one of the charter members of the NAACP chapter on my campus. I went on to grad school at Coppin State University in Baltimore, where I received a Masters of Education in Rehabilitation Counseling. I founded the chapter of the National Rehabilitation Counselor Association for graduate and undergraduate students. We were the Student Rehabilitation Counselor Association. I didn't get any help finding a job. My counselor gave me a bus pass and said, "Get out there and find a job. You're marketable." My first job after college was with Childcare Information Services in south Philadelphia. I didn't get a very good salary because I didn't have experience.

Seeking Community

My parents were supportive, but I would say to them, "You don't know how it feels to have a disability." I resented my mom and asked her, "How come you didn't keep in touch with other people with my disability?" because I was feeling all alone. Shriners Hospital for Children in Philadelphia works with children with rare disabilities, and my mom said she tried to find others. I did find one other individual with the same condition, but she didn't want to hang out with me. She had a more severe case, and I guess this bothered her. A lot of other more common disabilities have networks for support, but people with my condition didn't have a community. I said, "Where's my community? Where are the people I can relate to?" That's why i.d.e.a.l. Magazine came about.

Building Identity and Character

I came to a point in my life a couple of years ago thinking, "People don't like me the way I am, but I don't care; I'm not changing." I've been through so many changes. People don't understand what kind of changes you can actually go through living with a disability, especially when you're the only one in your family with a physical disability. You wonder, "How did I get here? How did I end up like this?" As a young person you get so frustrated because you can't do this or that. People talk about you in a different way. I used to be teased because of the shoes and other clothes I wore, how I would walk up the stairs and open my locker. The teasing really hurt, but I'm older now and wiser and I think it built character. It taught me how the world will view me and treat me. You make sure you are always on your game so if they do try to talk down to you, you can say, "Hun-huh. I have education." People are surprised when I push back, but they're not going to talk down to me.

It was trying growing up with a disability, but I made it through. I went to high school, attended regular college and grad school, and I just love what I do. I love to be a platform for other minority people with disabilities because you don't really that image in our community. If you have a disability, it is either entertainment or sports. I love Stevie Wonder, but I can't sing. Not everyone can be a musical genius. But we need people with disabilities to be in the forefront so our younger people will have an image to look up to. I didn't have that growing up. I knew strong African-American women, but they didn't represent me because they didn't have a disability. So I try to do that through the magazine. We also highlight people without disabilities who have made a difference in the disability community.

Creating i.d.e.a.l.

I started i.d.e.a.l. as a resource for people, especially young people, with disabilities in an urban setting. We just don't have positive images of people with disabilities, especially in urban settings. People think we are sitting at home collecting a check or out there panhandling in the street. I said, "I'm not like those people. I'm very educated. My family is educated." But you don't see those positive images out there for young people. There should be some positive images out there that people can relate to, and in doing the magazine I got more confidence in myself. I actually started the magazine in summer 2004 prior to starting graduate school in 2005. I went to grad school to become more culturally sensitive and to be better informed about disabilities; vocabulary and terms in the field are always changing. For instance, we don't use the term "mental retardation" anymore. And we say "deaf" or "hard of hearing," not "hearing impaired." Having a disability doesn't make me an expert. Even with the same disability, functional limitations may be different for different people. The magazine was in hiatus during graduate school, when I worked at the Division of Rehabilitation Services, my first job in the vocational rehabilitation field. I worked for the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation in New Jersey for nine months; now I work for the DC government.

I love my job working with people with disabilities, and I am trying to raise the visibility of the magazine. We have been featured in a couple of Philadelphia papers, and I am to be interviewed by a DC Afro-American paper. I feel blessed and humble about this whole experience. I thank God every day for my parents supporting me and keeping me on task. A lot of young people with disabilities these days don't have that structure. Their parents hold them back instead of pushing them. I feel like I have to push them, saying, "Come on, we can do this. I'm supporting you." I tell people to take advantage of their services. In DC there is no waiting list now for vocational rehabilitation. That's unusual. Even if you can't go to college, that doesn't mean that you won't be successful. College is good but not for everyone. There's entrepreneurship. You can work your way up in a company. No matter what's on your resume, you still have to market yourself.

i.d.e.a.l. magazine highlights individuals with disabilities. A recent cover story featured a DJ who is hard of hearing and actually culturally deaf due to a swimming accident that occurred when he was little. We also had an article on a teenager with sickle cell anemia who is now symptom free after a bone marrow transplant from his sister, a solution available only when you are young. We profiled a young man who is deputy director of the mayor's office for people with disabilities in Philadelphia, a very diverse city. We also featured a former NBA player who is not disabled, but his father is deaf. He started a camp in Atlanta for the deaf and hard of hearing community, which he sponsors every year. All issues have a "Did you know?" section. One time we explained the difference between SSI and SSDI (Supplemental Security Income and Social Security Disability Insurance) because I have consumers on a daily basis who don't know which one they receive. We have a columnist who writes about disabled hip hop artists, and we highlight and try to use models with disabilities. We also have a lawyer who writes columns about how to get employment if you have a disability, tips on how to present yourself to take advantage of the federal government's initiative to hire individuals with disabilities. We have an editorial section where people can voice their opinions or offer advice on various topics. We have subscribers in many states, as far away as California. We are trying to keep the focus of the magazine but publicize it and broaden the readership to those without disabilities as well. We are also redoing our website to offer online subscriptions and make it more interactive so people can exchange information.

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