Paula Carozzo is engaged in redefining disability. With tens of thousands of followers on both Tiktok and Instagram, she’s engaged in activism, storytelling, and artistic practice. Andrea Cheng’s article at Refinery29 describes how, after a tonsillectomy when she was 5 years old, in Venezuela, Carozzo suffered “non-traumatic” brain damage, which may have been a result of the surgery. The brain damage
caused cerebral palsy, a condition that occurs when the brain can’t properly send messages to muscles, affecting a person’s ability to move and maintain posture, which can lead to secondary conditions, including scoliosis and spasticity. For Carozzo and her family, grappling with her diagnosis was hard enough to contend with, but without the support or the familiarity of their homeland, the experience was “the toughest of our lives.”
“We were immigrants. We didn’t know the language, so I was going to school and not understanding what we were doing, all while trying to figure out my treatments to make me ‘better.’ At the time, we just wanted the cure,” says the 26-year-old activist and creator.
No question: Carozzo is very conventionally attractive. Despite the palsy and its consequences, she went to school in PR and marketing, and got jobs that might very well not have been available to someone with the same disability and a different body type and style. According to Cheng, however,
she eventually became restless by the banality of it all — the same kind of clients, the same kind of press releases, day in and day out. She was craving something with meaning and purpose. What could she do with the skills she learned in PR? How could her work make an impact?
“One night, I started writing ideas and captions about what I wanted to talk about, the awareness I wanted to create, what kind of content I wanted to make,” Carozzo recalls. “I called a friend of mine who was a photographer, and I said, ‘This is an idea I have, but there’s one thing I want in every picture: my canes.’”
So the TikTok video above is an anomaly; it’s one of very few that don’t show a cane. We see her walking with a cane, dancing with a cane, posing with a cane (she apparently has 18 canes). That video also makes a point that Carozzo expresses in her conversation with Cheng:
“There are pros and cons when you’re visible in this digital era,” Carozzo says. “I’m educating people about my identity as a disabled woman, as a disabled Latina, but most importantly, letting them know that they do have a safe space to show up as who they are, that they’re not alone.”
Carozzo asks her followers to show up, and she does the same, using social media as something of a mirror. One example: When she started creating Reels, she had to really come to terms with the way she walks. “It was so hard to start creating Reels because I hated the way I walked,” she confesses. “It was something I never accepted until I started creating videos of myself and how I walked. I think that when you mirror an aspect of you that you don’t like, you’re really giving yourself a chance to look in and think, It’s time to accept it and move forward.”
Asking people “to show up” is a double-edged sword. For people who are ready, or close to ready, it can be an enormous gift. For people who are not ready — or simply aren’t moving in that direction and don’t want to — it can feel like a demand, an expectation, to be someone you can’t be or don’t choose to be. Nonetheless, a conventionally attractive, seemingly fearless, highly visible disabled immigrant woman is out there in the world, making the invisible visible, demonstrating and encouraging bravery. (“Seemingly fearless” because no one is fearless, and Carozzo has a TikTok where she shows the work it took to film her sitting on a wall with no back, and talks about how scared she was.)
No one is obligated to show themselves fully, let alone courageously. And at the same time, everyone who does opens up the space for the next person. Carozzo’s big following stems not only from her skill with imagery and iconography, but also from her genuine desire to live her life, support other disabled people in living their own lives, and demand of the able-bodied that they make room for her and her people.
Thanks to Mona Eltahawy at Feminist Giant for her regular Global Roundup, and to Samiha Hossain, who curated this one.
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