‘I Am Disabled, Black And Female, But I Am Not Here To Check The Boxes’
Maya-Camille Broussard is a Chicago-based chef, author and social entrepreneur who believes people living with disabilities have a superpower. As a Black woman and a member of the deaf and hard of hearing community, Broussard started the bakery Justice of the Pies as an L3C (low-profit limited liability company) for social impact. She also runs workshops for elementary-age kids from lower-income communities in an effort to end food insecurities and has authored “Justice of the Pies,” a cookbook that tells the stories of luminaries who strive for social justice and equity. In this Voices in Food story, Broussard explains the delicate balance between advocating for people with disabilities and allowing their independence.
I grew up in two separate single-parent households in the South Side of Chicago. When I was 1 year old, I fell down a set of stairs and suffered a concussion. My mom says this head injury probably caused my neuro-sensory loss. I didn’t talk until I was 4 years old, and the doctor declared me deaf and dumb. But my mom was relentless in reading to me, so when I did start speaking, my spelling vocabulary was that of a third grader.
As a member of the hard of hearing community, I learn through visualization, and having a hearing loss has been a blessing in that I was able to develop a coping mechanism that allowed me to grasp information differently from everyone else. Because I grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood, I learned to sharpen my wits and my senses early on. In our culture, we make your mama jokes and talk about each other, but not in a mean way. This helped me think about what I wanted to say and have good comebacks.
Besides bullying, I also experienced racism when I went to an all-girls high school. Hearing the N-word was common and it was disheartening to see that adults did not react to it. I felt that my teachers would not go above and beyond to help me. They would give the assignments verbally and I couldn’t hear them as the bell was ringing. They wouldn’t write the assignments on the board even when I asked them to. The Americans with Disabilities Act was still new back then and people were not advocating for people living with disabilities, especially invisible disabilities. My mom showed the school the act and had several teachers fired for not being in compliance. As a person living with a disability, I was upset and didn’t even go to my high school graduation.
In college, I studied theater because I enjoyed storytelling through dance, visual arts and food. I worked for a theater company and, for several years, I did outreach programs with inner city kids, teaching classes and finally opening my own art gallery showcasing Black artists. But in 2011, on Christmas Day, we had a flood and I lost everything. I couldn’t recoup the losses, so I had to shut down the gallery.
I thought about how to continue to express my art but without having the overhead. So I started Justice of the Pies in 2014 in memory of my late father, who was a criminal defense attorney fighting for justice and also loved baking pies.
“Almost half of the Black people shot down by police were living with invisible disabilities or mental illnesses.”
– Maya-Camille Broussard
Now, food instability issues that started with my dad had also trickled down to me. My dad was an attorney, but he had a project mentality. He used starvation as a form of punishment. We often didn’t have groceries at home and waited until he got paid by his clients to go shopping for food. In high school he gave me $1 a day for the bus and $1 a day for lunch. I could only get a bread bowl with soup for 95 cents and had to survive on water for the rest of the day. I was lucky that my mom’s home offered three square meals, but I understood how food insecurity affected adults’ and kids’ abilities to concentrate in school or care for after-school activities. So I dedicated my business to a cause that was personal to me.
In the beginning, I relied on selling my pies through farmers markets, which brought its own challenges. The way I communicate with people is by reading lips. If I have my head down slicing a pie or counting money, I cannot hear someone talking to me. I hear the background sounds first before I hear the person in front of me. Sometimes people try to get my attention and walk away and then call me names because they think I am rude, but I actually don’t hear them.
And this can be perceived as much more than just poor customer service. I discovered, after the murder of George Floyd, that almost half of the Black people shot down by police were living with invisible disabilities or mental illnesses. Even police violence is a disability justice issue. That triggered me to become more vocal and start consciously educating consumers about how to not have misconceptions about people from the hard of hearing and deaf communities.
“For people who don’t know how to interact with the hard of hearing or deaf, I advise them to treat us normally. Accommodate someone with special needs only if they ask for it.”
Now I try to let everyone know that people with disabilities have other needs. For example, it is hard for me to keep up with a conversation in a group of three or more. I do better one-on-one. But not on the phone. I don’t have a phone number because I can’t talk on the phone. Also, I prefer to use closed captions capability offered by Google Meet over using Zoom. I don’t talk to customers, and my kitchen staff knows to tap me on the shoulder to get my attention instead of calling out my name.
When I was on the Netflix cooking show “Bake Squad,” it was hard for me to keep up with all the dialogue that is normal on a television set. But when I heard from parents with young children who have speech impairment or hearing loss that they watched me and were inspired by what I could achieve with my disability, it felt really good. I felt like I had a bigger purpose in life.
For people who don’t know how to interact with the hard of hearing or deaf, I advise them to treat us normally. Accommodate someone with special needs only if they ask for it. Don’t over-enunciate or speak slowly because that makes it harder for people like me, who read lips from across the room, to decipher. Also know that people like us can be very successful in business, because we come up with creative solutions and are keen on excelling.
As for me, people have told me that I am somewhat of a unicorn. I hit all the marks — I am disabled, Black and female, but I am not here to check the boxes. I want you to look at me as one of the people who are undermined but also strive for excellence.