by Dana Cooper | images courtesy of Belo Cipriani
“I was never a writer prior to losing my sight… Learning how to tell my story helped me tell other people’s stories.“
Writer, entrepreneur, publisher, activist: No matter the label, Belo Cipriani is a busy man. He is also completely blind.
The 38-year-old disability advocate, who lives in Minneapolis, has a wealth of life experiences—some good, some tragic—that have shaped who he is as a person and as an activist.
In 2007, Cipriani was living in San Francisco, California. He was in his 20s, working— like so many others—in the tech sector. One day, he was assaulted by a group of people while hanging out in San Francisco’s famed Castro District.
“I received multiple blows to the face,” Cipriani says, “and that’s how I became blind. ”To make matters worse, the people who attacked him were his own friends from high school, and also men who identified as gay.
Cipriani became totally blind as a result of the assault, and he fell into a depression briefly after having lost his sight. Despite these setbacks, however, he has channeled his energy and talents into becoming an advocate for other people with disabilities.
“I was never a writer prior to losing my sight,” Cipriani says. “I grew up in the ‘90s, and all these career aptitude tests said I should be in computers, and I was good at math.” It wasn’t until after his life- changing experience and the resulting mental anguish that a therapist suggested he try his hand at writing as a way to manage his depression.
Sharing his thoughts with others helped him realize the power his words had, and the ways he could use them to improve lives. “Learning how to tell my story helped me tell other people’s stories,” Cipriani says.
Realizing he had this untapped talent informed his decision to attend graduate school, where he received a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing.
Cipriani’s hard work has not gone unnoticed. He writes a disability column, which regularly appears in the Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco’s weekly LGBT+ newspaper, and he has had his writing featured in major publications, such as the San Francisco Chronicle and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Cipriani’s work has been recognized by Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. He was even awarded a guest lectureship at Yale following the publication of his book, Blind: A Memoir.
Because he identifies as both a person with a disability and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, Cipriani’s writing and activism come from a very unique place. “I’m already talking to an audience that’s interested in diversity,” Cipriani says. “You just don’t know what’s missing until somebody points it out.”
The disability community is the largest minority group in the US, according to US census data, Cipriani says, and there is a lot of overlap between people with disabilities and those who identify as LGBTQ+.
He also feels that the LGBTQ+ community, because of its indefatigable quest for equality for everyone under the rainbow, could give other groups a lesson in how to be inclusive.“Trans people, lesbians, gay men, they all work together more frequently,” Cipriani says. “Within the disability community, the autistic community is doing one thing; the blind, the deaf are doing something else, and a lot of that is the inability to communicate with each other.”
In 2015, Cipriani was chosen to be one of the Grand Marshals in the San Francisco Pride parade, the first person with blindness to be given this honor. His work in both the LGBTQ+ and disability communities has resulted in Oleb Media, an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance firm, and Oleb Books, Cipriani’s own publishing house for writers with disabilities. Oleb Books recently released its first book, an anthology titled Firsts: Coming of Age Stories by People with Disabilities.
Although Cipriani hasn’t yet spent much time in Memphis, his visit to the Cooper-Young Festival was incredible, he says, and he was impressed by the arts scene. He plans to take in more of what the city has to offer on his next visit.
Before that, however, Cipriani has great advice for people who want to follow in his footsteps and dedicate their lives to improving others’:
“Start supporting organizations that do what you want to get into. Reach out to nonprofits that are often underfunded and are dying for volunteers.”
Find Cipriani’s work online at belocipriani.com, or follow him on Twitter: @beloism. Oleb Books is also on the web at olebbooks.com.