Community Spotlight: Tameka Citchen-Spruce

Posted by Reeve Staff in Life After Paralysis on February 10, 2022 # Community Education

Tameka headshotTameka Citchen-Spruce visited the 2005 Ability Expo in Detroit, not entirely sure what she hoped to find. She was curious, but conflicted. Part of her yearned to embrace her identity as a young Black woman living with a C2 spinal cord injury, while another part still struggled with the self-doubt that defined her teenage years.

As she wandered among the vendors, a booth showcasing the Ms. Wheelchair Michigan competition caught Citchen-Spruce's eye; it was a discovery that would change the trajectory of her life.

Within a year, the 21-year-old was proudly wearing the organization’s crown and speaking about disability awareness at events across the state. Connecting with other women who lived with disabilities empowered Citchen-Spruce and sparked a passion for disability justice advocacy that has shaped her career ever since.

“I found my tribe through Ms. Wheelchair Michigan,” Citchen-Spruce says. “These were women like me. I had mentors who saw me for who I was, who believed in me. That really created a ground for me to learn to advocate – to speak out for myself, and for others.”

For more than 15 years, Citchen-Spruce's work has ranged across issues of race and disability, frequently landing in the area where the two intersect. As a longtime member and community organizer for Warriors on Wheels of Metropolitan Detroit, she has fought to improve equitable civic access, increase transportation for those with disabilities and promote a disability centered training curriculum for local police departments.

Citchen-Spruce is fueled in part by her own past challenges. She sustained her spinal cord injury in a car accident when she was just six-months-old, but it wasn’t until she was on the cusp of her teenage years that her feelings about living with paralysis became complicated. As both the only Black girl in her school and the only student who used a wheelchair, the distance from her peers felt vast.

“It was difficult for me emotionally because there was no one like me,” she says. “No one in school, no one in media representation. I really didn’t know who I wanted to be, and I had no examples of what I could be.”

She struggled with low self-confidence, convinced that if she “was walking and able-bodied, life would be better, and I would be better.” But at the same time, Citchen-Spruce spoke up for herself, advocating to be placed full-time in a mainstream classroom as a 6th grader and calling out racism in high school when she encountered it.

“I always had to advocate for myself and be a fighter,” she says. “But you get tired of having to fight, especially being a Black person, too.”

Her path to self-acceptance was “a process” that began with Ms. Wheelchair Michigan and continued as she earned a degree in journalism at Oakland University, met her future husband and built a life advocating for others.

“I had to believe in myself and accept and love who I am,” she says. “I had to do the work. And it gave me a greater purpose that really propels me to speak out now.”

Alongside her disability justice advocacy, Citchen-Spruce also seeks to increase the diversity of stories represented in popular media. She has so far produced two short films that spotlight the challenges faced by young Black men and women. “My Girl Story,” which included the perspective of a teenager living with spina bifida, was screened at the 2021 annual conference of the National Center on Independent Living.

This year, Citchen-Spruce will continue her efforts to build and strengthen disability support networks by working with the Michigan Disability Rights Coalition to develop diverse leaders throughout the state’s disabled community.

“Regardless of how people want to count you out or put limitations on you, you have a purpose,” she says. “Trying to remove barriers and create policies that empower others – that's what really motivates me.”

Learn more about Tameka Citchen-Spruce's work, visit www.tamekacitchenspruce.com.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.