“Disability does not define me:” FSU alumna’s journey to empowerment through fashion

Courtesy of Keisha Greaves

In 2006, Keisha Greaves said she didn’t have to think about how long it would take her to walk from May Hall to the library or up the two flights of stairs to her room on the top floor of Horace Mann. 

She liked dying her hair “crazy” colors, attending Black Student Union meetings, and participating in the annual events hosted by the fashion club.

The small campus and the people she met inspired her to pursue her dreams of designing comfortable clothes with bold patterns and style. 

Keisha graduated in 2007 with a degree in fashion design and merchandising and had dreams of opening her own business. “I always knew I wanted to be my own boss.”  

 For that to happen, she knew she needed to go to graduate school.

As she pursued a master’s in business management from Cambridge College in 2009, Keisha noticed it was becoming hard to walk up the stairs, hold objects in her hands, or even hug her family members. “I would be walking, and my leg would just give out. I would be repeatedly falling, and I thought, ‘That is really weird.’”

She visited a neurologist and went through a series of tests before being given a definitive diagnosis – Limb-Girdle Muscular Dystrophy (LGMD).

She said, “I was completely confused and scared. I didn’t want anyone to know what was wrong with me.” 

Keisha said she started walking with a cane and was too “ashamed” to tell people why and would make up an injury on the spot: car accident, old sports injury, whatever she could say to avoid having an awkward conversation about her diagnosis. “I didn’t tell my employers. I only told my family and close friends, and that was truly a very lonely time for me.” 

She added, “It took me a really long time to want to be able to talk about this – I really only began talking about my condition in 2015 or 2016.” 

She kept thinking that one day the doctor would tell her they had misdiagnosed her and that “really nothing was wrong with me because I just couldn’t believe it.” 

Keisha found she had to adjust her life in ways she never imagined because of her diagnosis. 

“Now,” she said with a laugh, “I wouldn’t be able to even walk up those stairs to my room in Horace Mann and I didn’t even think about that before.” 

Keisha found a way to channel her passion for clothing and her confusion with her diagnosis into a movement that champions acceptance for those diagnosed with chronic illnesses. 

And so, Girls Chronically Rock was born. Her brand empowers young men and women who also have degenerative muscle disorders. 

“I’m a true believer in the saying, ‘Things happen for a reason,’ and when I was so angry about my diagnosis, I might have forgotten that. But now, I have this platform and I think this is that reason.” 

Keisha began by selling T-shirts on Etsy with logos such as: “Disability Does Not Define me,” “Chronically Ill Badass,” and, “Trust Your Dopeness.” 

Her business name came from her determination to reimagine the words “chronic illness,” and the negative associations people have with life-long illnesses. “I wanted something with the word chronic in it and it came to me while I was lying in bed at night.” 

She added, “I knew I was going to be a fashion designer, and my diagnosis turned into something I’m incredibly passionate about.” 

As her business began to take off, she transitioned to her own website: GirlsChronicallyRock.com and expanded her line from just T-shirts to sweatshirts and jewelry. 

The two most important aspects of the clothing she sells? Comfort and flare. “I like wearing graphic tees. You know, for people with disabilities it takes a lot longer for us to get ready in the morning. If I can just put on something fashionable, but it’s quick – well, that’s perfect.” 

Keisha features models on her website who are also diagnosed with chronic illnesses. 

Ellice Patterson participated in a photoshoot in the summer of 2018 promoting Keisha’s brand: “I always want to support brands that are created by and catered to the disability community, so I thought working together would be great.” 

She added, “It’s important to have pride and ownership in your disability status – wearing cool gear that highlights that is equally as important.”

Janelle Diaz met Keisha at a Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) event and later participated in the photoshoot with Patterson. 

She said Keisha quickly became one of her closest friends because they both love fashion and are “not going to let our diagnosis stop us from fulfilling our dreams.” 

Diaz said Keisha wanted models who represented the MD community to wear her clothing for any promotional pictures that ended up on the website and Keisha is “combining her passion for fashion with a message of empowerment to the differently abled community. It was great working with Keisha, she is very creative and a pleasure to work with.”

Keisha now serves as the Massachusetts Ambassador for the MDA. She participates in charity events, speaks about her experiences with LGMD at conferences, and advocates for widespread accessibility for people with similar conditions. 

Nyree Kibarian met Keisha at an MDA event a few years ago, where they bonded over their shared experienced with MD. 

Over the summer, Keisha asked Kibarian to participate in a photoshoot for Girls Chronically Rock. She said participating in Keisha’s photoshoot helped her see her own life outside the context of her diagnosis. 

She said, “I think that’s why a lot of us see Keisha as a pioneer – she’s helping able-bodied people see that despite disability, we’re all very similar to one another, all the while encouraging those with a disability that you can do great things despite it.” 

Kibarian said she’s always done things “by the book,” but her work with Keisha has empowered her to take steps out of her comfort zone. 

She said, “Now, I’m looking into improv classes because it’s something I’ve always wanted to do – maybe even modeling. These are things that have always been in the back of my mind, but working with Keisha and modeling for her line, I feel empowered to go after these goals. 

“She’s a force to be reckoned with. Her movement of empowerment is spreading like wildfire,” Kibarian added. 

While most days Keisha stays positive and is inspired by others who have similar conditions, she has days where it’s hard for her to get out of bed because of the pain and discomfort. “I’m truly grateful for the people who reach out. I’m so inspired by the messages I get from people about my brand and vision.” 

She plans to release an adaptive clothing line with items that make it easier for people with disabilities to get dressed. “Something fashionable, cute, comfortable, and portable. Something easy for us to wear while still looking good.” 

She also raises money for muscular dystrophy research and advocacy through sales of her clothing and fundraising. 

 Each month, she donates 10 percent of her clothing sales to the MDA and during LGMD Awareness Month in September, all of the proceeds from her website will go toward the cause. 

She hosts awareness tables around Boston and fundraises at the annual MDA Muscle Walk in the city every May. 

Her vision is to make Girls Chronically Rock a household name. 

She said, “I’m looking to make Girls Chronically Rock a movement – for girls with chronic illnesses, for anyone with chronic illnesses. Hopefully, I’ll build an empire.”