Episode 37 Transcript

Published: Thursday March 7, 2024

Diva’s Dialogue | Dr. Donna Walton’s Path to “Diva’s with Disabilities”

Dr. Walton’s crusade for inclusive representation


Alycia Anderson: Welcome to Pushing Forward with Alycia, a podcast that gives disability a voice. Each week we will explore topics like confidence, ambition, resilience and finding success against all odds. We are creating a collective community that believes that all things are possible for all people.

Open hearts. Clear paths. Let’s go.

Welcome back to Pushing Forward with Alycia. I’m Alycia Anderson, and today we have got Doctor Donna Walton. She is the founder and president of the Divas with Disability Project.

She’s an actress. She’s an author. She’s an activist. I love that! She’s a public speaker and so much more.

I found your tagline, which I really loved, so I wanted to share. Her tagline is, “Showing up unapologetically to reshape what visible disabilities look like.”

I’m all about that. Congratulations on being a total powerhouse.

Welcome, Doctor Walton to my show.

Dr. Donna Walton: Thank you very much Alycia. I am glad to be here, absolutely thrilled to be here actually.

Alycia Anderson: Maybe we can start a little bit looking backwards. And can you tell and share with my audience? What your personal journey looks like. What led you to establish Divas with disabilities? What’s your relationship to disability, with whatever you’re comfortable in sharing?

Dr. Donna Walton: Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, again, I wanted to say thank you so much for inviting me to this phenomenal platform. It’s good to know that people are paying attention, so that makes me feel really good.

So let me just start with my journey 18 years ago, I should say no more than that I’m dating. I’m not going to date myself, but that would be that would be incorrect if I said 18 years ago, but when I was 18 years old.

My dreams of being a dancer, a singer and actress, they were completely shattered when I was diagnosed with a life-threatening bone cancer that had to be taken away, and that was taken away.

It had to also take away my left leg. It was amputated. Above the knee and it had to be done to save my life.

So at that time I thought that my dreams were absolutely going to be obliterated because I aspired to be a performer. You know, you couldn’t tell me that I was not going to be in Hollywood. To do my thing, dancing act, whatever I wanted to do, I wanted to be there.

But over the decades, of course, fate would have it that my dreams would have to be, I would say, redirected, and or postponed. Until we move… until the present time where so many things have happened. I was confronted with, you know, all the things of why I could be or I could not be a performer because of my disability, and so that became a tired narrative for me.

I mean, I just got exhausted with the sort of… the no’s.

So, I had to find ways to turn this into, yes.

So, with my faith and motivation, I move forward, fast-forward in life and decided that if the change… I was not going to let what happened to me define what my life would be, that it was going to be how I responded to it, that was going to make all the difference in my life.

And so, fast-forward, I created several organizations actually before I created the Divas with Disabilities project. I created an organization Leg Talk, which is lessons of empowerment for achieving goals and greatness because I wanted to…, I wanted to show society what resilience looks like.

And, not to define disability as to pitiful and not being able to do, I wanted to show I can do spirit.

So, I set out to teach employers about disability awareness, and then moving forward, you know still gaining momentum, staying on… staying focused on still being that performer, but again not… not quite there yet because society wasn’t quite there yet.

I was on Facebook and realized… this is when Facebook, the advent of Facebook right, in 2008…? When did Facebook come in to be 2008 maybe?

Alycia Anderson: I think you hit it right on the nose.

Dr. Donna Walton: Yeah, 2008. And, I was on and I was just like created this page and started just talking about myself about being, you know, an amputee and, you know, like what’s? Does anyone out there, any other people, you know, know? You know, tips and trades and, you know, just kind of sharing thoughts.

And realize that women were responding, and they kept responding, and the conversations became, you know, OK, this is… I’m onto something here. This this is great.

And so we ultimately named … it became just a women’s Facebook group, and then it ultimately became Divas because we realized that diva and disability could coexist in a single person.

You know, because we realized it was life experiences and that it wasn’t about that we weren’t defined by our disabilities. That we were more than the sum of our body parts, that we had, vibrancy, we had life!

I mean that we were women who happened to have a disability, and that was just a detail about us.

And so realizing that, D.I.V.A.S. became an acronym for Dynamic Illuminating Victorious Achieving Sister.

You know that.. because, the whole idea is that black and brown women have been left out of conversations. Have been left out… did you say just the door has not been opened for women to participate in mass media spaces, because that’s where my sort of impetus came from, because I wanted to be an, you know, a performer.

So there were other women like, well, yeah, I wanna act too. I dance, I dance and you know I use a wheelchair and I dance and I, you know, I can. I can still live my life, and so Divas became that platform to amplify the images and representation of black and brown women with visible physical disabilities in mass media spaces, and we’ve morphed into other areas now because we see that our lives intersect at various aspects… of any aspect of it… in life, we are there.

And whether it be health care, right, you know, in employment… accessibility issues, we just we’re… wherever there is life that’s where we are, and so Divas is in all of those spaces helping to move forward the… this amplification that says the imagery and representation of black and brown women in these spaces.

Alycia Anderson: What’s the current status of representation of black and brown women with disabilities?

Dr. Donna Walton: I mean, well, I’ll just speak from the from the space of just hiring rates. OK, so the hiring rates are still lagging behind. I know when I worked for the federal government, we had always had a 2% goal of reaching the people with disabilities. And I tell you it was…, you would believe… you would think that 2% you know was not a really major, you know, number to meet, right!?!

It was…, it was abysmal in terms of reaching it for black women or black people in particular, people of color with disabilities, and not only getting into employment or being gainfully employed, but actually moving up the ladder… right, in terms of having viable employment… employment that was sustainable.

So many times, you know the unemployment, the employment rates were abysmal because they… people were underemployed, they would come in at entry… people with disabilities were coming at entry level positions and staying there forever…right… instead of moving up the ladder.

And, a lot of that, of course, was due to stigma and discrimination and not really valuing people with disabilities, and also not making the environments accessible.

Alycia Anderson: So, I think that that is so powerful the work that you’re doing with corporations. That’s… that’s…

Dr. Donna Walton: Absolutely. I mean it’s really necessary and it’s a long journey. I mean it’s… as you know, we’re in this D, E and I space and it’s being challenged and so persons with disabilities, it’s always been a challenge because we were always on this… I guess we were always advocating that diversity was disability, that you… how could you see… how could you not include disability when you talk about diversity.

Alycia Anderson: Mm-hmm.

Dr. Donna Walton: So, you know, Divas serves in many aspects in terms of ensuring that our voices are heard, you know that we are seen and represented in spaces that we are mostly likely are not represented very well. And we serve as a strong community globally as a matter of fact, I should mention that we’ve been able to partner with the two main organizations in Kenya as well as Ghana.

Alycia Anderson: Ohh wow!

Dr. Donna Walton: Yeah. And that’s really working well in terms of being that voice. Now we… they take our mission and they replicate that mission in their countries because you can imagine you know the USA we have made incredible advances in terms of accessibility, right. The ADA for example.

Well, in other countries there’s no such thing as laws that somewhat advocate, and legislate laws to ensure that people with disabilities have access.

So, to work with… to work with these countries is incredible because at least they have examples.

They see that it’s possible, right.

Alycia Anderson: And it’s a real intersection also of how your advocacy is being sewn into areas around the world that really need to see the representation…to believe it.

Dr. Donna Walton: Mm-hmm.

Alycia Anderson: Not only in society but in themselves, sometimes probably as disabled people.

Dr. Donna Walton: Absolutely.

Alycia Anderson: …and that’s powerful. That’s powerful.

Dr. Donna Walton: Yeah, you know, and that’s a really good point that you make. Seeing yourself and I think… and I always think about representation, I always think about Viola Davis’s quote, you know, and I’ll just paraphrase it, she said. You know, she was asked about why was representation important? You know, what does it mean?

It’s like you have to see a physical. It’s important. People have to see a physical manifestation of their dreams.

Alycia Anderson: Mm hmm.

Dr. Donna Walton: And so every time that I would…, when I was on my journey, my early journey of the covering, you know I didn’t see any actors. I didn’t see any performers with disabilities. I didn’t see that, at all!

I was barely seeing, you know, black women!

You know, in spaces that would give me this motivation that, hey, I can do that. That could be me.

Alycia Anderson: Yeah.

Dr. Donna Walton: And so, Divas also serves as that example we’re that magnification of what can happen. That what can exist.

We have over 800 members, and I’m pretty sure that the number is large…, larger than that, but sometimes you know self-disclosure is not… not everyone is there with being out, if you will, about their disability.

And then of course there are non-obvious disabilities that many women don’t talk about it. All because of the stigma around, you know, mental illness and other disorders, and then their chronic conditions too, that don’t always show up. They’re episodic, so they don’t always show up.

Alycia Anderson: And from a workplace perspective, I used to hide. And, but you know, I’d be the girl that was in the bathroom extra long or the one that was having surgery and embarrassed about it. And how do I hide this?

And I think that’s another conversation that is so important when we’re getting to that whole like self-identification and feeling strong with not only the one disability, but actually the many layers of disability identity raise, like all of it together.

And then finding power in it and confidence to at some point to feel OK to say who you are, you know, and be who you are.

So that’s a really powerful work too.

Dr. Donna Walton: Yeah, and I think that that’s… you know, in terms of the… how do you get that empowerment, you know?

It’s through community. It’s through seeing, yeah, it’s possible.

Alycia Anderson: Mm-hmm.

Dr. Donna Walton: Right? I mean, it’s connecting with others and sharing stories. That’s a major part of Divas as well. We every month we have what’s called a divas call, and diva calls are just that they have… We have different speakers. Women who come and speak to our group. They could be Divas.

When I say Divas…, meaning they could be part of the network of Divas or they can also be divas.

I mean, just because you’re not a part of the Divas with Disabilities organization doesn’t mean that you can’t claim yourself to be a diva.

I would think dynamic. I would think that I would want to be called a dynamic, illuminating victorious achieving woman, right! I mean…

Alycia Anderson: Ohh! I guess I… just all four of those. And the Illuminating!

Dr. Donna Walton: Illuminating!

Alycia Anderson: It makes you feel like…!

Dr. Donna Walton: Yeah!

Alycia Anderson: Like as a disabled woman like rise and shine.

Dr. Donna Walton: Absolutely.

Alycia Anderson: Ohh, so beautiful. Light!

Dr. Donna Walton: Light. Like, power. All of that.

You know, all of that, we harness and embrace all of that, and I hope that we do embody that.

And… but you know this…, it has to be tweaked and somewhat, you know, fine-tuned all the time. I mean because…our state of lives are very fluid. I mean, you know… you… it’s some days your body ain’t working, right.

Alycia Anderson: Yeah.

Dr. Donna Walton: It don’t… if you don’t feel good? I mean… So, we don’t want to give the impression that it’s all bells and whistles either because you’re body we are… and we are talking that we know… we we’re holding space in these bodies, and these bodies don’t always show up the way they need to, but it’s our attitudes which keep us afloat.

Alycia Anderson: Let’s take a quick break. You’re listening to Pushing Forward with Alycia.


Alycia Anderson: Welcome back to Pushing Forward with Alycia, I’m Alycia Anderson. And today we have got Doctor Donna Walton.

She is the founder and president of the Divas with Disability Project.

Is there… that like success story or a story of like one of your Divas, a community member that joined that you can kind of share with our audience about the impact of your organization?

Dr. Donna Walton: I… there is one diva. I mean there are many, but I think that if I could just share her story.

When you acquire… OK, first of all, not all Divas acquire their disabilities at the same time, right? Some people are born with their disabilities. Some persons acquire their disabilities, right… at different continues along their lives.

So, this particular diva is really special because she is African. So that’s one… so… and she moved to the US, and gained… get gainful employment and then was fired under the… under the major… under the legislation or not legislate… the policies, I should say that put her there. So she… I learned… I… we connected some kind of way. I don’t know if it was in the cafeteria. I don’t know… somehow we got in a conversation and I said to her…, I said we don’t have this an organization.

I think you need to… think you need to connect, and so she joined Divas and started just participating in our monthly calls and things like that.

And I guess her story to me, became a success story, if you will, because she moves from being like her… this position, I should say, moved from being disempowered, depressed, isolated, small self-esteem. All of those too now working with Divas and being in this network of women and seeing the power that existed with these women.

She was able to get a new job. In fact, she’s… she was able to connect with a podcaster, I think she… she’s doing a podcast as a matter of fact, and you know, just incredible work.

It took a while, but she stayed the course, but that I think… that was one. That’s one story, you know, just to see how her life was transformed.

Alycia Anderson: And that’s the beautiful picture of a community coming together and feeling supported, and also like you’re saying, I’m sure that there is so many stories like that in your organization of women just… and illuminating.

Dr. Donna Walton: You know this… this sister, right here! Yeah, this sister, this diva you’re speaking with, is it, you know, has the stories, I mean I know… you know, I was just saying, I’m not gonna toot my horn. No, I’m gonna toot my horn because I think it’s important that we do.

Alycia Anderson: Do it.

Dr. Donna Walton: Illuminate ourselves. We do echo and sort of amplify our stories because it’s through our stories that people gain, you know, the strength of the desires would have them to do, but another story of my story that was just… that sort of brings my journey together as because again I started off wanting to be this actress and performer, and never…. and never let go of the dream and never let go of it.

I just had to. It just had… it was just detoured.

I taught school, and I would use the classroom as my stage.

Alycia Anderson: That’s so cute.

Dr. Donna Walton: I taught those students… those students. That was my first strong experience because… I graduated… I should say that, you know, like my journey like I said was I’ve been punctuated by successes because you know this whole time we’ve gone through chemotherapy, rehabilitation, all of this.

I was able to get through life with my masters, my bachelors, my masters and my doctoral degree.

All of it in the in the face of adversity, right in the face of, you know, it didn’t go anywhere.

But, you know, that had more to do with my faith than anything else, and I … and I can only credit that to where I am… to the faith that I’ve had in believing… that I just… I couldn’t do it alone… and I did… to call a higher power to get me through it and it’s working and it… and I haven’t stopped doing that.

But, you know, it’s like I said that this whole dream thing of becoming this, this actress. So one day there was an announcement that came through Divas from a director. Who was in the process of producing a film or a web series… I should say, and they wanted to cast a woman with a wheelchair.

They wanted a wheelchair user. Black woman with a wheelchair. Well, when it came in, I was ecstatic. I’m like, oh, this is great! You know, I put it out because we do casting cause we announced our casting calls on our page, and so I put it out there for the Divas.

It’s, like this is it! You know they’re coming for us! This is it. You know, you… you should try out! Go for it!

And so Divas were… they were… the Divas who qualified met, you know, criteria were auditioning.

Well, the director contacted me, and said, well, I noticed that you didn’t submit your audition. You didn’t submit, she said.

Well, I said thank you.

First of all for…, you know, for the submissions, but we noticed that you didn’t submit.

I said, well, no, I… it wasn’t my intention to submit.

It was for Divas. I mean, this is the opportunities for them, and they said well, but you have a disability?

I’m like, yeah, but… I’m not a wheelchair user, you know.

They said, well you know, we don’t have to have a wheelchair user. We just wanted to… We… All we know is that when we think of disability, we think of a wheelchair. So, we wrote the script for a wheelchair user, but it can certainly be an amputee, right, like I think you should audition.

OK, I think you should audition.

I’m like, Oh, OK, I said well, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get to New York.

You know, they say, well, we’re going to do better than that. We’re going to come to you. We have… We’re going to happen to be in DC… We happen to be in DC.

And we’re going to come to you. And they came.

Alycia Anderson: Wow.

Dr. Donna Walton: Director came, auditioned me in this hotel, and I got the part.

Alycia Anderson: Ohh my gosh.

Dr. Donna Walton: They called me and said they wanted to offer me the role of Pamela Harriston in their web series called The Retreat.

And I encourage everyone who is listening to this… to go out and it’s on Crackle right now. It is for free The Retreat and I play a lead role as Pamela Harriston and that was a defining moment, because that was, that was the time… that said to me… all of your dreams do…. Never abandon your dreams.

Never abandon your hopes and aspirations and never stop trying to manifest… right, what you see your life as being.

Because I never gave up on that hope that I’m going to be this actress, right. I am going to… I am going to and it doesn’t stop there because last year I was cast as a supporting role or guest role guest star in the Hulu series, The Other Black Girl and I played the role of Deborah, who is the mother of a… of the main character of one of the main characters. Uh, and I’m a wheelchair user.

Alycia Anderson: Never give up on your dreams like I think that’s such a beautiful take away.

Dr. Donna Walton: Never. Never. Never. I mean, I mean and it’s… it sounds sometimes cliche, you know, never give up your dreams. Always dream. No, but it real. It’s real. It’s a real. Phenomena. To have consciousness. And beliefs in something so important to you, so meaningful to you. That it actually becomes actualized.

Alycia Anderson: Ohh this this was a beautiful, beautiful way to wrap up our conversation honestly, that is an incredible story.

I have two last things.

Dr. Donna Walton: Yes.

Alycia Anderson: First of all, it’s important that our audience knows where to reach you and get involved with your organization. We’re going to leave that in the show notes. But will you tell us what your website is and where to book you and all that?

Dr. Donna Walton: Absolutely, absolutely. You can find me various ways you can first find me at the Divas with Disabilities Project.org. So that’s www.divaswithdisabilities.org. You can also find me at donnawalton.com. I’m on Instagram.

Alycia Anderson: We’re going to have you on again because. I feel like we could.

Dr. Donna Walton: I hope so.

Alycia Anderson: Take this conversation really, really far so we end. The show, with the pushing forward moment.

Dr. Donna Walton: So, I can leave you with a quote.

Alycia Anderson: OK, I love.

Dr. Donna Walton: That, I think is a pushing quote, right, has a pushing moment impetus in it, right?

And that is, “If what you want is not behind Door #1, Door #2 or Door #3 do not settle for less. Knock a hole in the wall and make a new door.”

Alycia Anderson: That might be the best pushing forward moment we have had yet. That is amazing. That is powerful. Doctor Walton, thank you so much for your power, your beauty, your strength.

Dr. Donna Walton: Thanks.

Alycia Anderson: Your wisdom. You’re amazing. I’m so happy we finally met in person and I’m looking forward to growing our friendship, I hope, and I’m so grateful for your time. Thank you so much. Seriously.

Dr. Donna Walton: You are more than welcome. You’re more than welcome. Thank you very much. I’ve enjoyed this.

Alycia Anderson: And thank you so much for Pushing Forward Community and we will see you next time. This has been Pushing Forward with Alycia and that is literally how we roll on this podcast.