Empowered Fe Fes gives young women sense of disability pride and community

Fe Fes Dance
The Empowered Fe Fes perform "Believe Your Beauty" in 2012 (Fulani Thrasher/ACCESS LIVING)

By Rebekah Frumkin

At 21, Alexis Smith already has the résumé of someone twice her age. She’s a poet, memoirist and activist working on a short film about inclusivity for people with disabilities. She also has spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy, for which she uses crutches 90 percent of the time and a power wheelchair the remaining 10 percent.

“Every time we talk about ourselves as being disabled, we’re not looking for sympathy,” Smith says. “There’s nothing to be sympathetic about.”

Smith is one of roughly 16 members of the Empowered Fe Fes, an advocacy and peer support group for young women ages 17-28 with physical, cognitive and learning disabilities, or combinations thereof. The Fe Fes meet regularly at Access Living in River North, a non-profit dedicated to disability rights and awareness. Members’ specific disabilities are not made known to non-members unless they are voluntarily disclosed.

In its 18-year history, the group has served as a source of affirmation and self-determination for girls whose disabilities often left them feeling excluded at home and at school.

Fe Fes Meeting
The Fe Fes sing their opening chant at their most recent meeting. (Rebekah Frumkin/MEDILL)

“Young kids with disabilities aren’t necessarily born into families where there’s anyone else with a disability,” says Susan Nussbaum, Fe Fes founder and disability rights activist. “There’s no one else to give them a sense of their history, their culture, their capabilities.”

A baby boomer who came of age during the late ’60s and early ’70s, Nussbaum found her passion for activism early in life, aligning herself with the feminist and anti-war movements. But when she suffered a spinal cord injury as a young woman and became a wheelchair user, she felt suddenly adrift.

“I felt alienated from my own life – strangers in the street talked to me as if I was an infant,” Nussbaum recalls. “At that time I didn’t understand that disability oppression is part of the system; I didn’t see disability as a political issue at all.”

It wasn’t until Nussbaum found work at a disability rights office that she recovered her passion for social justice. Hoping to spare other young women her feelings of disenfranchisement, Nussbaum applied for and won a grant to found the mentoring group that would become the Fe Fes.

The 10 inaugural Fe Fes were high school girls of color from low-income backgrounds. They chose to call themselves “Fe Fes” after a colloquial term for “female.” The Fe Fes met weekly at Access Living to talk about everything from disability rights to sexual health. As word of their meetings spread, their group grew in size.

“With the Fe Fes, we wanted to help young girls develop a sense of identity and disability pride, as well as self-determination with regards to their reproductive health and sexuality,” says Judy Panko Reis, healthcare policy analyst at Access Living. “People need to understand that disability is just a difference and a natural part of life – it’s not a bad thing.”

While Nussbaum helmed the Fe Fes in the late ’90s and early 2000s, the group entertained feminist and disability rights guest speakers. In the years since, the Fe Fes have maintained their focus on feminism and sex positivity, while adding an emphasis on collaborative projects.

Among their recent accomplishments, the Fe Fes staged an adaptive dance performance in 2012 called “Believe Your Beauty.” In 2015, the group published “Take Charge!” a reproductive health guide for women with disabilities. At the group’s last meeting, a speaker presented on QueerCrip fashion, or clothing that caters specifically to the needs of queer, trans and disabled people.

Alexis and Sky
Fe Fe Alexis Smith inspects the jewelry of guest speaker and QueerCrip fashion designer Sky Cubacub. (Rebekah Frumkin/MEDILL)

“Our mission is two-dimensional,” says Fulani Thrasher, current Fe Fes organizer. “It’s to have a safe space for young women with disabilities to feel like a part of a community, and it’s to [help them] learn about internalized oppression and channel that knowledge into self-advocacy.”

All of today’s Fe Fes receive federal Supplemental Security Income and live with their parents or family members. Most are unemployed. For many of them, the group meetings are a rare occasion to express themselves among peers who understand them.

“Sometimes I’m not that talkative because I’m normally very quiet, so I like being open to everyone,” says Christina Talavera, 24, who has been a Fe Fe for over a year.

“Believe Your Beauty” was a favorite project of Fe Fe Brittany King, 25, a dancer before she acquired her disability. King is also excited about the Fe Fes’ current campaign for economic justice, a systematic initiative to raise awareness of the economic hardships suffered by women with disabilities.

“We just feel like we’re being pushed through the system and forced to live on Social Security, which isn’t that much,” King says. “So right now we’re working to change that whole situation up.”

Among the Fe Fes’ elder stateswomen is Mayra Puma, 28, who has been a member of the group for the past 10 years. Puma, who is Ecuadorian, described a lonely childhood during which she felt misunderstood by her able-bodied siblings and endured constant bullying at school. Thanks to the Fe Fes, she says she’s acquired a new mission.

“I have a dream to have my own group back home in Ecuador,” Puma says. “I want to help other women who are having the same struggles as here.”

For many of its members, the Empowered Fe Fes remains an oasis of understanding and peer mentorship. For some, it even serves as a galvanizing force: Alexis Smith is looking forward to finishing her film, which will illustrate the challenges confronted by people with disabilities when using public transportation and moving in academic or professional spheres.

“We’re just like anybody else, we have the same dreams and aspirations and we’re just as smart,” Smith says. “I’m sick of the stigma and the stereotypes – I’m not going to let my disability stop me from doing anything.”

The Empowered Fe Fes perform “Believe Your Beauty” in 2012. (Fulani Thrasher/ACCESS LIVING)