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Succeeding with Disabilities: Meet The Birmingham-Area Residents Defying The Odds

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Karneshia Patton is a small business owner and a model. (KIRK JORDAN PHOTO)
By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times

In Jefferson County, an estimated 16.1 percent of residents, aged 18 to 64, have disabilities, according to research from ADA-PARC, a group of local affiliates of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) National Network.

The Birmingham Times recently spoke to several individuals with disabilities to discuss their experiences and highlight their successes.

Hasaan Hawthorne: Accomplished Wrestler, Upstart Professional

Hawthorne started wrestling in the sixth grade after trying a variety of sports–football, baseball, swimming, track–but none of them fit him.

“Track was okay. Football was eh, and wrestling just intrigued me because I knew I wasn’t good, and I was getting beat up, and I was very upset about it. At the same time, it was like, ‘I want to go again,'” Hawthorne said.

It didn’t help Hawthorne that in sports like football, who was born without shinbones and had his legs amputated at three months old, kept breaking his prosthetic legs.

However, Hawthorne’s disability didn’t keep him from wrestling. In 2016, he won the Alabama’s state high school wrestling championship, capping off a 37-0 undefeated season, for Pelham High School.

Hawthorne, 25, grew up in Pelham alongside his brother Chase, who is five years younger. His parents are Demond, a tax accountant, and Felecia.

Early in his life, Hawthorne said, he was given a wheelchair, which his parents wanted him to use. However, that’s not his style, he said. “I couldn’t sit still. It actually got to a point where my parents…stopped trying to go by the book. They let me just play and figure it out from there,” Hawthorne said.

Around the age of two or three, though, Hawthorne started using prosthetic legs, he said.

Hawthorne, an avid World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) fan, said he was first introduced to the traditional sport when he attended a wrestling tournament in which two of his friends were competing.

Simply watching the warmups got Hawthorne interested, he said.

“For a lot of wrestling warmups, it’s a lot of forward rolls, cartwheels, handstands, et cetera, and I was like, ‘I can do that. I do that at home, just joking around,'” Hawthorne said.

After seeing some of the warmups, Hawthorne said, he asked his friends’ mother if he could join in. She said “yes,” so he started doing cartwheels and handstands with the rest of the competitors.

Once Hawthorne joined his own wrestling team at Riverchase Middle School, coaches went to work, training him as they did his teammates but with various tweaks to accommodate Hawthorne, who never used prosthetic legs during his wrestling career.

For Hawthorne, the “training curve” was always steep, and that first year was “rough,” he said. “Not good. Had a lot of L’s,”

In his early wrestling days the thing that kept him going with wrestling was a desire to simply understand the sport,” Hawthorne said.

“Growing up, it was just wanting to figure it out. That was the whole thing, just figure it out. Take everything you get, from wins, losses, practice, videos, learn to apply it,” Hawthorne said.

Additionally, he said wrestling was a way of going on a “revenge tour” for the anger he had experienced, including his anger at the people who had pointed and laughed at him for his disability since kindergarten.

“Growing up, [wrestling] was just payback, kind of taking everything out that I’ve endured, and then still wanting to win. Even when I started winning, and had some success, my mindset never changed. It was still like, the target was on everybody else’s back.”

The transition from home, where there was understanding, to school, where other students might be hostile to Hawthorne was confounding, he said.

“It was very weird I go from a house that understands, and go to school where you’ve got random people just being mean for no reason,” Hawthorne said.

A win-focused athlete, Hawthorne highlighted his first tournament win as his first success. He secured the win during his sophomore year at the Pelham High School Invitational in 2013. “That’s when I was like, ‘Okay, I think I could do this for real,'” Hawthorne remembered.

(BOB GATHANY/AL.COM)

Though Hawthorne dealt with a significant amount of anger from how some people treated him, his disability didn’t keep him from building and maintaining a lot of friendships, he said.

“I ran with everybody for real, of course, all the athletes. I hung out with a lot of athletes that I’ve known from younger ages, but at the same time, I had a lot of friends from school, from different sports. I’m a very popular person,” Hawthorne said.

Toward his later years with wrestling, Hawthorne said, he started to change his understanding of why he participated in the sport. Instead of being motivated by anger, Hawthorne was motivated by power of his story, he said.

“As I got older, and more mature, I realized, ‘Okay, there are some other people like me, I’d like to be the spokesperson that I wish I had, not really spokesperson, but someone who walks, so somebody else can run,” Hawthorne said.

In 2016, the year that Hawthorne won the state championship, his father Demond told AL.com that people were regularly inspired by Hawthorne’s wrestling. Scott Verner, who previously coached Hawthorne in football, said the former wrestler was a model for others.

“If everybody gave their heart and desire into doing what they want to do like he does, they’d be a lot more athletes out there that are phenomenal. He does more with his heart and desire than anything else,” Verner told AL.com.

After winning the state championship in his senior year, Hawthorne graduated from Pelham High School in 2016, and headed off to North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho on a full-ride wrestling scholarship.

In 2019, Hawthorne received his associate degree in communication before attending Hastings College in Nebraska. Hawthorne graduated from there in 2020, with a bachelor’s degree in communication.

In 2021, Hawthorne started as the marketing director for Next Step Prosthetics and Orthotics in Alabaster. And in August of 2022, he started a job in special projects with Canvas, a tech company based in Hoover, which sells lamps for content creators.

Millie Slaughter, Blind at 15

Slaughter has been active all her life.

After spending her early childhood in Birmingham, where she attended the former Comer Elementary School on the city’s eastern side, she moved to Panama City, Florida, she played a variety of sports into her teen years.

“Swimming. I played a little bit of tennis, softball. I ran a little bit of track,” Slaughter said.

At the age of 15, though, Slaughter woke up one day and couldn’t stop vomiting. Even after calling the doctor and giving her medication, Slaughter said it wouldn’t stop.

At the hospital, doctors thought Slaughter had meningitis and tried a variety of tests before diagnosing that Slaughter had a brain aneurysm. She had to be flown to Pensacola, Florida for a neurosurgeon. On the flight, the aneurysm ruptured.

Slaughter had the surgery but lost her sight.

“They said I was very fortunate, I consider blindness a minor inconvenience because at least I’m still around,” she said.

Slaughter, now 58, is a resident of Episcopal Place Apartments in Birmingham’s Highland Park neighborhood.

Until her blindness, Slaughter was active in school activities and sports at her high school in Panama City, but that changed after the aneurysm.

For months after the incident, during which time Slaughter has little memory, she underwent intensive physical therapy, given the entire left side of her body had become temporarily paralyzed. “I had to learn how to walk and all that kind of stuff all over again,” Slaughter said.

In the fall of 1981, Slaughter said, she started at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind, a public boarding school, in St. Augustine. Her memories of starting at the school are filled with “culture shock,” she said.

They group all the kids in there together…I was just learning braille, but I was in the 10th grade, but I was still in there with other 10th graders already knew braille and everything,” Slaughter said.

Slaughter wasn’t able to catch up until the following summer when she worked with a tutor, she said.

About once a month, she and the other students were sent home, Slaughter said. After the first long weekend home, she noticed that she didn’t fit in with the other students in another matter.

“I went back to school, and the kids said, ‘What did you do this weekend, Millie?’ And I said, ‘Oh, I went to a football game, and I went to my mom’s beauty shop and got my hair cut and went out with my friends…and I said, ‘What did y’all do?’ And they said ‘nothing,’”

“I thought, ‘Well I better not tell them what I did every time,'” she said.

Many of the students at the school had been “secluded” in their hometowns and didn’t have any friends.

Slaughter, however, said socializing never became a problem for her and maintained her sighted friends from back in Panama City, as well as friends from the School for the Deaf and Blind. one in Florida.

After graduating from the School for the Deaf and Blind at the age of 19, in 1984, Slaughter went on to Gulf State Community College in Panama City and then to Florida State University (FSU) in Tallahassee, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social science in 1991.

After enrolling in FSU, Slaughter said, she wanted to be a psychologist, but given that she needed braille textbooks to complete schoolwork, she was put off by the math courses required to complete the degree.

After graduating, she went on to work with Industries for the Blind (IB), a national organization which seeks to place U.S. military veterans and people who are blind into jobs.

(HARPER NICHOLS PHOTO)

Working for the organization, Slaughter wrapped bedspreads and pillowcases for members of the military on active duty. Throughout her life, Slaughter said she always wanted to work with people or help people, even if it’s just over the phone.”

Part of that drive comes from her mother Fotula, who owns a beauty salon, where she “fixes people up.” Fotula, Slaughter said, goes beyond in the usual services offered at salons.

“She helps people who’ve had surgery and lost their hair. She could help do hair weaves and stuff like that, so they don’t look like they’ve lost all their hair…She can do wonders,” Slaughter said.

Five years after she started with IB, Slaughter got a job at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). She was set to be the dispatcher for a transportation service run by UAB, but the program fell through.

Since moving to Birmingham, Slaughter has lived at Episcopal Place Apartments in Birmingham’s Highland Park neighborhood, an income-based rent community for elderly residents or people with disabilities.

With her lack of sight, Slaughter said the most difficult part of her life is accessing transportation services.

Though she previously was a regular user of MAX VIP, Birmingham’s public paratransit service operated by the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority, Slaughter said she has mostly switched to Buz-a-Bus, a service operated by Collat Jewish Family Services, since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Today, she’s volunteering for the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind.

Karneshia Patton: Model, Entrepreneur, Artist

Patton was raised in Senatobia, Mississippi, born with spina bifida, a developmental problem with the spinal cord, and is paralyzed from the waist down. Since the age of three, Patton has been using a wheelchair. Her first one, she said, was hot pink.

While Patton said she was the only person in Senatobia using a wheelchair to get around, it’s always felt natural for her. However, around middle school, Patton said her peers weren’t very understanding when they noticed that she was different from other people. “Kids are mean. I can just put it like that,” Patton said.

While the way some joked about her and laughed at her was painful, Patton said, she compartmentalized her difficulties.

“I think the earliest memory I had was like fifth grade of that. I don’t really know. I was a kid. [I just had] to keep going through the day. I couldn’t do anything about it. I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t tell the teachers or nothing like that,” Patton said.

During her middle school years, Patton found enjoyment in wheelchair sports but away from school. Her mother used to drive her to Memphis, Tennessee to play a variety of sports, starting with tennis. Patton has also played basketball and wheelchair track and field.

Patton said she spent significant amounts of time inside Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis growing up, regularly seeing urologists, orthopedists and a variety of specialists.

“I was in and out of the hospital a lot. I didn’t technically live there…I had frequent doctor’s appointments. I knew the ins and outs of the hospital and how it worked, how it operated at a young age,” Patton said.

After finishing up at Senatobia High School, Patton said she was ready for a change. “I always felt limited,” Patton said of the town with a population under 10,000 and went off to the University of Mississippi, in Oxford, where she studied nutrition science.

Going to college, felt like “starting over,” even though she still felt like the only person with a disability, not knowing anyone else who used a wheelchair.

“It felt like a new world. I had never really been on my own, so it was all just very new, and then having to navigate people in this new setting…it was still kind of the same environment of being the only person with a disability around but more so on my own terms,” Patton said.

Given her childhood involved a lot of interactions with health care professionals, Patton said she first wanted to be a nurse. “Growing up in health care, essentially, being in a children’s hospital all my life, I just wanted to kind of embrace that and give back to that as much as I could. I knew I wanted to work with babies. That was my dream,” Patton said.

After graduating with her bachelor’s degree in nutrition science in 2012, Patton started on a graduate program in speech language pathology at Ole Miss. After a year in the program, Patton was accepted into Samford University’s Moffett and Sanders School of Nursing in 2013.

“I did it for a semester and quickly realized that that was not the life for me,” she said.

Patton considered her next move and around 2015 found a new passion in modeling.

Her first fashion show was for Jet Miller, who founded a movement called Living Out a Dream (LOAD). Patton said she had just taken a few pictures and assumed Miller knew she was trying to become a model because he asked her to be in his show, The Birmingham Times previously reported.

(TONY HAUTE PHOTO)

Since then, Patton has modeled in Magic City Fashion Week, founded by Birmingham designer Daniel Grier. Perhaps her highest profile campaign is with cosmetics retailer giant Sephora in 2021, called “We Belong to Something Beautiful.”

In the video, Patton spoke about the lack of representation for people with disabilities in the media, as well as the importance of friendships between those with disabilities. Her friend Ammie, who was paralyzed from the waist down after she was shot three times by her ex-fiancé in Birmingham years ago appeared alongside Patton in the video.

In addition to modeling, Patton turned another hobby into a profession. Doing nails happened to be something she already loved and had done all the way through her time in high school and college.

“I started trying to figure out what else I could see myself doing with my life because so much of my life was spent thinking I was going to be in healthcare, so I was like, ‘Okay, now what?’ And I always did nails as a side hustle,” Patton said.

In 2016, Patton started attending Birmingham’s School of Nail Technology and graduated in the summer of 2017.

After finishing up her nail program, Patton started her first professional nail work at Fingerpaints Nail Studio in Birmingham’s Smithfield neighborhood. During her time at Fingerpaints, Patton knew she wanted to work for herself, so she pursued a Master of Business Administration from Strayer University and took on Ebony Smith, the owner of Fingerpaints, as a mentor.

After earning her degree in 2018, Patton started her own nail business, Shantelz Nails, which she runs full-time in Hoover.

“I’ve come a long way. I really enjoy working for myself. It kind of feels liberating. I can set my own schedule. I can start and end when I want. I can take vacations when I want to. It’s definitely freeing, and I love that about the job,” Patton said.

In addition to her nail business she continues to work as a model.

To read about Harper Nichols whose series of photographs highlighting individuals with disabilities were part of a UAB exhibition click here