A Note from the Founder
January 21, 2015
My story begins almost 20 years ago when I was involved in a car accident that left me with a disability, but the real turning point was in 2009.
I was participating in a conversation on diversity in my final year at Georgetown University, and noticed that disability was missing from that conversation. That's when I started Diversability, a movement dedicated to raising disability awareness and reshaping conceptions of ability. We had an amazing year, from receiving a Reimagine Georgetown Grant to hosting our first event--"The Ability to Laugh"--to making headlines on the front page of The Hoya.
Over the next couple of years, Diversability was led by an incredible group including Eric, Jeff, Kate, and Nancy.
I stayed involved in the broader disability community through Lime Connect, the Disability Interest Forum at Goldman Sachs, and B-ABLE at Bloomberg. But over the past couple of weeks, I've noticed a need for something like Diversability to exist to bring people together and get people of all abilities engaged in the conversation. It seemed like the perfect time to bring Diversability back and expand past the campus.
People with disabilities are more than just "people with disabilities." We are entrepreneurs, executives, whatever we want to be. We are people with diverse abilities.
Thank you for being a part of this journey and movement.
November 29, 1997. I was nine years old. It was a Sunday, a few days after Thanksgiving and the day after my dad’s birthday. My mom had to travel for business so my family and I were going to see her off at the airport. I was mentally preparing myself to return to school the next day.
On the way home from the airport, my dad lost control of the car. When I regained consciousness, I found myself in a helicopter on my way to the hospital.
Not everyone made it out of that accident alive. My dad passed away.
When I came home from the hospital after three weeks, it was right around Christmas. My siblings, my mom and I wrapped whatever we could find around the house in newspaper as gifts to each other. It was one of my most meaningful memories growing up because rather than focusing on loss, we focused on what we did have: each other.
I broke a couple bones in my leg and suffered severe nerve damage in my right arm, an injury that is still with me to this day. It’s called brachial plexus palsy, a loss of movement or weakness in the arm due to damage to the nerves that send signals from the spine to the arm. After the bones in my leg healed and I relearned how to write (I was originally right-handed), I returned to school.
Going back to school presented its own set of challenges. Not only was I still grieving the loss in my family, I was also thrust into an environment where I often felt isolated and alone because of my disability. I hated my mandatory physical education class. When it came time to pick teammates, none of my classmates wanted me to be on their team. I sat on the sidelines of the gym and I started to sit on the sidelines of life, too. Having a disability killed my self-esteem and confidence.
Growing up, disability was the “elephant in the room.” No one talked about or acknowledged it. I didn’t help the situation by trying to “hide” my disability: I wore long-sleeves all the time and got emotional when people asked me about my arm.
In 2009, I was a senior at Georgetown and participating in a diversity training. We were given a pie and asked to cut out slices of our social identities based on how important they were to us (i.e. race, gender, religion, etc.). Disability was almost half of my pie. Though I never publicly discussed it, it was something that I thought about on a daily basis, from carrying my lunch tray in the cafeteria to dropping a letter off in the mailbox. I glanced over at my neighbor’s pie only to realize that being “able-bodied” was the thinnest slice of his pie. It wasn’t even something he thought about. It made me realize that disability was often missing from the conversation because of a lack of awareness. Why was the world’s largest minority (one billion people) often overlooked in diversity conversations? Despite an abundance of student groups that addressed diversity, there was a lack of groups aiming to raise disability awareness on campus.
It was my “ah-ha” moment to start “Diversability,” a movement to get more people talking and thinking about disability. I introduced the group through an op-ed in the school paper. It was scary and I felt vulnerable, but I thought, “If not now, then when?”
We launched with a screening of the documentary “Look Who’s Laughing,” followed by an art night study break, asking participants to paint their interpretation of disability. At the end of the year, the headline on the front page of the school paper read, “Conversation Picks Up for Diversability” with fellow advocate Taylor Price saying “So far this group is really breaking ground. There’s never been a group like this on campus.”
I had never considered myself a disability advocate, but I became one that year. Looking back, creating Diversability gave me the confidence I needed to become more comfortable with myself and my story. My involvement in the disability space also made me really value the richness of the perspectives in the community across different types of disabilities (including chronic illness and mental health) as well as everyone’s unique stories and experiences.
I re-launched Diversability in 2015 to the broader community, starting in New York City. This time, our focus is on taking awareness to the next level. Through our work, we seek to unite the disability community, engage allies in the conversation, and celebrate disability pride and empowerment. We foster community to connect, showcase, and empower people of all abilities doing amazing things. Our community exists online on Facebook and offline through curated events in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Montgomery, Ala. and hopefully more to come.
The three pillars of our mission are the foundation of everything we do:
Connect. Something powerful happens when we bring people with disabilities and allies together and create a space where everyone is included and everyone matters. Inclusion plays a huge role in how we see ourselves, helps us feel empowered and builds self-esteem and selfconfidence. We can start to change perceptions of disability when we connect in-person, humanize disability, and share stories.
Showcase. Without the people in our community and organizations doing the work, there would be no Diversability. We were honored to receive the 2015 Bell Greve Memorial Award from the National Rehabilitation Association for our programming and be recognized by Forbes, the Guardian, and the Ford Foundation.
Empower. We encourage our community to dream bigger and do great things. We oftentimes underestimate our own abilities, but it’s amazing what people can do if just given the chance. I think about people like Amanda Frantz, who has taken her jewelry business to the next level when she created The DiversAble Model Project, or Alisa Goldman, Diversability's former Director of Content and my high school classmate, who went on to create Healing Honestly, an online platform to speak about healing from trauma. They, and many others, are everyday role models who have expanded the world around us.
I really believe that people with disabilities are more than their “disability.” Disability is not something to be feared or a problem that needs to be fixed. In fact, disability is just one slice of the pie that makes us unique. I know I’m not the only one with dreams, career aspirations, and a desire to succeed. Together, let’s make sure everyone gets that opportunity. We all– as people with disabilities and/or allies– have a role to play in making that happen. Continue the conversation by joining us online, at our next event, or as an ally in your everyday life.
A version of this was previously published on Disability.gov and the Under 30 Changemakers Stories of Purpose: Second Edition.