Black Lives Matter: Voices

James Senbeta

Photo by Loren Worthington/

James Senbeta
Engineer and Athlete
33, Philadelphia
C5-6, T7-8 Spinal Cord Injury

Hint: It’s Not the Flu

My first experience with being Black with a SCI/D came with trying to be diagnosed. I was about 16 or 17 years old when I bruised my spinal cord at C5-6 and T7-8 in a sports accident and lost partial control of my legs. When I complained about a burning sensation across my torso and around my upper abdomen, I was ignored. Spinal taps showing elevated antibody count and EMGs showing weakened responses were disregarded.

I became sick with flu-like symptoms on my 18th birthday with Malice at the Palace as the last thing I could remember before passing out. The next morning, I could not move anything below my first row of abs, and it all became completely numb. I went to more neurologists with the expectation that they would treat the problem but wound up being considered crazy when their hypothesis didn’t pan out as to the cause of my issues.

I had to go see a psychiatrist for proof that I was not making up my symptoms and came out with a diagnosis of moderate depression. A new set of physicians had the willingness to review my medical history and actually research possible causes. It’s rather amazing that it took years to receive the official diagnosis of trauma-induced transverse myelitis.

Benched While Black

I initially went to the University of Missouri where I studied civil engineering and played on the wheelchair basketball team. During my third year, the coach kept changing the offense every week. When I explained to him that the ever-changing plans were leading toward stagnation on the floor, he got upset, questioned my intelligence and benched me. When another teammate proceeded to do the same, he was rewarded with a co-captaincy. Yet when the team was in a deep deficit due to full court presses, I was immediately dragged off the bench to help salvage games and keep them somewhat competitive. At the end of that semester, I fell into a depressive episode, left the team and flunked out of school.

Eventually I rebounded and transferred to the University of Illinois to pursue a degree in agricultural and biological engineering due to its renewable energy systems specialization. While there I joined the wheelchair racing team, initially as a way to stay in shape, but I ended up turning into a Team USA athlete. But being on the U of I team allowed me to realize I was dealing with individuals who, despite their disabilities, displayed some of the greatest examples of white privilege. It is a sport where you need to have money coming in to be successful, and so many come from upper-middle class families whose parents helped pay for the equipment and other fees necessary to compete.

Job Hunting While Black

The worst of what I’ve experienced in terms of being Black is employment. The thing about being an engineering student while Black is that in all of your classes you’re either the only one or one of very few, and that still does not prepare you for your outlook in terms of trying to get an internship or full-time position as a Black engineer. I stayed in athletics strictly because I had a hard time obtaining an internship before and after graduating with my bachelor’s degree.

It took me participating in the Rio Paralympic Games, at least two years after graduation, to receive an offer for an internship. In most cases, hiring managers and talent acquisition personnel hire not by what a candidate knows but whom they know, unless you bring something extraordinary to the table. This is usually reinforced by the makeup and experiences of those individuals. Most companies, including those that boasted “Black Lives Matters” after George Floyd, will hesitate to hire anyone that does not look like themselves. I’m thankful for the opportunities I have received, but if I have to rely on hiring managers who are actually looking for talent and potential and not just a cultural fit, my options are far slimmer than others’.

** This post was originally published on

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