By Megan Jones
When Vanessa Krubniki creates a comic, it’s more than just a drawing: it’s a lesson, a memoir, an emotional outpouring. The 23-year old psychology student from Curitiba, Brazil has spinal muscular atrophy, and uses her artwork to capture what life is like for young women living with physical disabilities.
The comics follow a character named “Cassie Q,” detailing her interactions with family and strangers and her thoughts about everything from love and work to depression, stigma and self-esteem.
Originally a painter, Vanessa first tried to her hand at drawing comics about a year ago. “It started off as a game,” she says. “Something to do for fun.” But as she showed more friends her work, they encouraged her to post her drawings online.
Today, Vanessa regularly shares her comics on her blog, which has gained followers from Canada, the United States and Brazil, among other places.
She readily admits that while her character has a different name, they’re very much the same person: everything that happens in her comics has happened to her in real life. For that reason, her artwork is extremely personal. It allows her to vent about the things that frustrate her, and helps her to process the circumstances that make her sad.
The personal nature of her work has resonated with readers. Vanessa says she’s spoken with other young people with disabilities who have connected with her online after checking out her blog. “Lots of people say the comics make them feel understood,” she says. “It’s really special to hear that.”
Vanessa knows what it’s like to feel like an outsider. In Brazil, she says, disability is largely misunderstood, and many people with special needs lack support.
She’s not the first to make this observation. Cities in Brazil have long been criticized for their low level of physical accessibility. According to a 2015 BBC article, only seven per cent of working-age Brazilians with disabilities have completed any kind of higher education, and only two per cent are a part of the workforce. And as NPR reported the same year, a poll conducted by IBDD, one of the country’s disability advocacy groups, revealed that a staggering 80 per cent of people with disabilities didn’t feel like respected citizens in their home country.
When these factors pile up, Vanessa says, many young people with disabilities wind up feeling alone. She herself isn’t in touch with any local disability activists, and says she only has one other friend with special needs who she talks to regularly.
In order to cope, she, like her readers, has turned to the Internet to connect. Vanessa says she reads articles by disabled journalists which help build up her own activist framework.
“Hearing life stories from the perspective of someone with a disability validates my experiences,” she says. “I often feel very disconnected, but reading these things, I get a sense of belonging, and I can connect my experiences to a larger oppressive system.”
Knowing that others are looking to her comics as a point of relation, Vanessa fears that her art isn't uplifting enough. There’s a pressure on people with disabilities to be inspirational, she says, particularly if they’re building a public presence. But a sunny outlook isn’t always realistic. There are days when Vanessa finds it difficult to be hopeful, and she doesn’t shy away from that in her work.
As a result, her comics can sometimes seem bleak. In a description that accompanies her post “The Complicated Life of a Bug,” for example, she writes: “Everyone has their little web of aggravators, things that stop them from moving forward…. Sometimes with disabilities, this web gets so detailed and so layered that it might seem impossible to move. I fear that one day it will be impossible to move.”
With posts like these, Vanessa says she occasionally worries that she’s reinforcing the idea that life with a disability is automatically a bad one. “I think many of my experiences with a disability have been negative so far,” she says. “But that’s not how it has to be. Society has to change.”
The topics she addresses most frankly, perhaps, are sex, intimacy and love. Like many other 20-somethings, the concept of dating takes up a lot of mental energy: one of her biggest hopes right now is that she’ll find a romantic partnership soon. Unlike most though, she doesn’t feel she can’t openly discuss her needs with very many people. In fact, most people, Vanessa says, assume she doesn’t care about sex or relationships.
“It gets overwhelming when you have a very central longing and you can’t talk about it,” she says. “People with disabilities don’t really have room to address those needs. My comics are a way to bring that out into the open.”
Whether it’s through expressing sexual desire, dissatisfaction with social structures or frustrations with family and friends, Vanessa encourages others to elevate their own voices.
“Young people with disabilities should take their power back,” she says. “Standing up for yourself is hard and can be very stressful. But sometimes you have to act against the status quo. If something isn’t working for you, don’t just let it go.”
The comic below, called Cassie's Folding is tagged under "depression."
"In my life I have been folded. It's kinda like when it's simply not okay to be you, and not even knowing what to say or what to dress, because any sense of confidence has been systematically chopped off. In my life I have been folded. In half, and half, and half, and half. And what I had left was a Q for a signature."