By Bria Overs | Word In Black

Credit: Disabled But Not Really

(WIB) – We’re all likely to experience some form of disability in our lifetimes, whether temporary, progressive, or permanent. It could happen because of age or an accident. It could be mobile, cognitive, or affect the senses, like hearing or vision loss.

“We should approach disability with an open mind, and we should approach [it] with an empathetic heart,” Wesley Hamilton, founder and executive director of Disabled But Not Really, says.

Disabled But Not Really is a Kansas City-based nonprofit “bringing adaptive training and other lifestyle enhancements to people living with a disability.” Their goal is to help others, but the influence behind its founding is one man’s journey to help himself.

“The biggest thing that is defeating within the disabled community is the mindset of the rest of society  — how we view disability,” Hamilton says.

One in four adults in the United States has a disability. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts it, “Disability impacts all of us.”

Hamilton says becoming disabled won’t be an “‘if,’ but ‘when.’”

The Man Behind The Vision

Hamilton, 35, knows a lot about what it’s like to become disabled — the ups, the downs, and the in-between. In 2012, at 24 years old, he became paralyzed from the waist down due to gun violence. He’s used a wheelchair ever since.

While that experience was foundational, it wasn’t life-defining for Hamilton. He says it was merely the beginning of a journey.

Born and raised on the east side of Kansas City, Missouri, Hamilton is a single father to his 13-year-old daughter Naveah. When he’s not being “Superman,” as his daughter calls him, he’s running DBNR.

Hamilton and his daughter (left). Credit: John Novello

His accomplishments don’t stop there. He’s also a proud award-winning bodybuilder, adaptive CrossFitter, and presented TED Talks in 2019 and 2021. But Hamilton is probably most known for his episode on season 4 of Netflix’s hit show Queer Eye and served as a mentor in its most recent season. 

He also has a love for travel. He’s been to Israel, Los Angeles, and Chicago so far this year to share his story and influence how people view disability.

In reflection, Hamilton tells Word In Black, he was a product of his environment, similar to many young Black American boys and men. In young adulthood, he felt his options for life were to die or be in jail by 21.

But Hamilton knows first-hand that life doesn’t always turn out how you think it will.

Disabilities Are Empowering

At the time of the incident that left him paralyzed, he weighed 250 pounds, he says. His weight, along with his new disability, caused health complications. Through several surgeries and transitioning into a new life, doctors recommended bed rest, which lasted for two years.

Despite the challenges and hurdles, his daughter saw his wheelchair and disability as a superpower. While Hamilton struggled to see things her way, he says his perspective shifted after his daughter told him, “Daddy, you’re getting in your Superman chair.”

“I always use that moment because, my whole life, nobody ever spoke life into me,” Hamilton says. “For me, being so weak and basically having somebody put a cape over me, I was like, ‘Wow, I have to be Superman.’ I literally got up the next day and realized I had to take control of my life.”

In making his life anew, Hamilton attended courses at Johnson County Community College to learn more about nutritional diets and making healthier life and eating choices. 

Credit: Itzel

Hamilton says when doctors recommended eating more protein and other dietary changes, he didn’t know what they meant or where to start. Black communities are often located in food deserts, “communities that lack access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables.

Making a change was worth the effort. After Hamilton’s final surgery, three years after becoming paralyzed, he was 135 pounds. The weight loss, he says, was achieved through mental wellness and nutrition.

Hamilton’s weight loss surprised everyone around him because of common stereotypes of people living with disabilities being unhealthy, weak, and incapable. 

“I’m disabled based on society’s perception,” he says. The lack of faith or belief in his ability to make a change is part of the inspiration for starting Disabled But Not Really. 

“We can all be disabled and own that based on society’s perceptions, but at the same time, we can be so much more.”

Disabled But Not Really

DBNR, while open to everyone, is focused on serving survivors of gun violence and their support systems. Hamilton’s experience is part of the decision to work with this group.

While mental and emotional wellness is vital for this community, physical fitness is just as necessary. Programs like #HelpMeFit, a 12-week class, tackle all of it and more for participants. 

The DBNR Wellness Center is a fully accessible gym with adaptive equipment and physical and occupational therapists. Hamilton says the goal is to get folks into a space that compliments their abilities and challenges them.

For him, impacting his community is the most crucial part.

In the future, Hamilton wants to create a state-of-the-art facility that provides physical, mental, and emotional assistance for people with disabilities. In his plans, it will also serve as an educational center for newly disabled people and their support systems.

“We focus on things in a holistic way to help people actually live a longer life and find other ways of healing their body from the inside out,” he says.