Champions of Change Blog
- Posted byon August 15, 2013 at 2:00 PM EST
Ki’tay Davidson is being honored as a Champion of Change for embodying the next generation of leadership within the disability community and his commitment to the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“It is our duty to fight, it is our duty to win. We must love each other and protect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” – Assata Shakur
In a world where our environments are not designed to affirm diversity or natural human variation, people with disabilities are relegated to the sidelines and treated as though our existence is burdensome and inconvenient. Disabilities are often viewed as an “epidemic” or “illness” that requires “curing”. When individuals are told they should have been prevented or cured, how does that affect one’s perceived worth in society? How does that perpetuate exclusive environments? Undoubtedly, our society is designed for the able-bodied population and only this state of being has been normalized as “correct” and “ideal.”
However, when I reflect on the disability rights movement I am overwhelmed and in awe. The injustices of our society are institutional and it is easy to become complacent, fatigued or entitled; but our community’s ability to disrupt the dominant narrative by advocating unrelentingly is incredible.
Nevertheless, I challenge the extent to which we place the responsibility for advocacy on those designated as leaders or “champions.” Advocacy is not just a task for charismatic individuals or high profile community organizers. Advocacy is for all of us; advocacy is a way of life. It is a natural response to the injustices and inequality in the world. While you and I may not have sole responsibility for these inequities that does not alter its reality.
As such, today I am thankful. I am thankful for every ally and individual working, struggling and fighting to make this world a better place--thankful to any and everybody who realizes that this world is bigger than themselves, and who channels that awareness to “level the playing field.” These are people who can acknowledge their privilege and opportunity, and consciously and intentionally use their existence to transform communities. Change--radical change-- requires that we challenge the institutions and discourse that perpetuate oppression. It requires that we challenge ourselves.
I may have earned a prestigious award, but today it is not really about me. It is about the community and I am simply a singular representative of thousands of people who give their hearts and their time to living a life of transformation.
“Radical simply means grasping at the root.”
I have always loved this quote and today it still rings true. Thank you for grabbing at the root, for being champions of your community. Thank you to all the champions who came before me, to those I have met, and to those who I have yet to meet. Thanks to those champions who have encouraged, listened, affirmed, fought and loved, alongside our beautiful community. Together, we have made change and will continue to make change. There are many chains that need to be broken. We all know it. I support you and welcome you to hold me accountable as we hold all of ourselves accountable to facilitating inclusive and loving environments for all.
Ki’tay Davidson is a social justice advocate and innovationist.
- Posted byon August 15, 2013 at 1:44 PM EST
Anjali Forber Pratt is being honored as a Champion of Change for embodying the next generation of leadership within the disability community and her commitment to the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Champions are victors in challenges or competitions and, as a Paralympic athlete, I have had the opportunity to be a champion in numerous races. Though, I truthfully never thought of myself as a champion of change because I simply do what I love: Make a difference in the lives of others and improve the landscape of disability nationwide and worldwide.
Being different, heads always turned when out in public. This wheelchair is what I know; I was sick as an infant with transverse myelitis that left me paralyzed. Before I first saw wheelchair racers competing at the Boston Marathon, I believed that I was going to simply outgrow my disability – that it was a phase. I thought to become an adult, I had to first get rid of my disability. Whether it was my skin color or my physical disability, it is not uncommon for me to stroll through an airport and have eyes starring or hear children whispering, "Mommy, what's that?" as they point to my wheelchair. For me, it has been about embracing these moments as teachable moments and using them as a foundation for my platform of change. I began doing this and integrating these opportunities to teach into my everyday life at a young age whether it was on a small scale of taking time to answer a child's innocent questions at a grocery store, or speaking to community groups about my disability. This eventually grew to a much larger scale of taking on my school district in federal court regarding equal access to education, and representing my country on the world stage at the Paralympic Games.
My underlying passion for my quest to make a difference stems from my motto: Dream. Drive. Do. I have been blessed with amazing opportunities in my life, and each of these opportunities has expanded my platform to initiate change that much bigger.
In the U.S., I am actively involved in my communities to show what people with disabilities are capable of. I help teach sport clinics and speak to corporations and non-for-profits about living life with a disability. I am actively involved with both US Paralympics, a division of the United States Olympic Committee as well as with Disabled Sports USA helping to provide sport opportunities for persons with disabilities and their families. Sports provided me with confidence and independence and was a constructive outlet for the daily frustrations I faced in our society. These experiences are rewarding because I can be a role model for others and for a young kid to realize they can be somebody when they grow up. The afternoon following the Champions of Change event, I boarded a plane to spend a couple days at a family camp for kids with transverse myelitis. Interacting with these families, I was reminded of what it was like for me to be a kid and how powerful it was for me to see wheelchair racers who went to college. I learned at a young age that life was worth living, disability and all. I saw huge changes in these kids’ demeanors and watched their self-confidence grow as they challenged me to a race or told me about their favorite subject in school. To be on the flipside as an engaged citizen and a role model does make me feel like a Champion of Change.
In addition to my athlete hat, I am also a scholar and these same issues shape my research agenda. My research interests center around individuals who are not given a chance, or who are left on the sidelines. My research interests focus on individuals who struggle to succeed due, in part, to some difference that has labeled them outside the mainstream. My work cuts across education (elementary, secondary and post-secondary), sports, work, and quality of life contexts. I am passionate about helping others to transform perceptions of what it means to be different, helping others accept their own differences, and motivating others to take action in their own lives and communities. As a member of more than one minority group, I have had personal experiences of being left on the sidelines, and I have faced resistance trying to emerge as a leader. It is my belief that oftentimes it is precisely these sidelined individuals who are able to help inspire others based on their own experiences. Therefore, I see my research as being instrumental not only to aid in the development of future leaders, but also to the academic field to provide empirical support for this.
Beyond the borders of the United States, I proudly wear a Team USA jersey as I compete or teach sports clinics. Wearing this jersey comes with a responsibility to pay it forward. I have realized the power of this, and love motivating others to live up to their fullest potential. I have learned from my work in Ghana, Bermuda and India in particular that sport can be a catalyst for social change. Providing individuals with an opportunity to succeed athletically gains the attention of policy makers, educators, and community members. In these cases, I have seen perceptions of disability change to become more open and accepting. Individuals with disabilities cannot be denied this opportunity, which is why it is a part of my cause. As such, I have co-written an educational coloring book Color. Learn & Play: All About Sports for Athletes with Physical Disabilities that is available online. Sport unifies us all. Sport provides an opportunity for individuals to come together regardless of race, political background, ability status, and/or gender. Sport is unique in that it transcends these boundaries and barriers imposed by society and allows for the focus to be on the activity itself, the sportsmanship, the finish line, or the end of the match. Deeper than that is the honor of representing one’s country that sport can also provide. For people with disabilities in many places I have visited abroad, who have previously been excluded from many affordances of society such as an education or pursuing a career, sport is one way where this can change. It has been my experiences with challenges, and competitions that have shaped me into a champion. I am truly honored to be a Champion of Change.
Anjali Forber Pratt is a Paralympic Medalist.
- Posted byon August 15, 2013 at 1:15 PM EST
Andrew Phillips is being honored as a Champion of Change for embodying the next generation of leadership within the disability community and his commitment to the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
I am deaf and the world is often inaccessible to me. This inaccessibility is not because I cannot hear, but because many things are designed without people like me in mind. As a result of this unintended design, I am left out and not able to fully participate in society. I’m unable to understand announcements on trains, enjoy in-flight entertainment on planes, and watch many videos online. But this does not have to be. As a lawyer at the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), I am part of a committed group of disability rights advocates who are working to change the world.
In the last few years we’ve been working on the implementation of the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 which requires that videos shown on television with captions must also be captioned when shown online afterwards. With this change, deaf and hard of hearing people who previously could not understand hundreds of thousands of hours of online content now have full access. However, much work remains to be done because, even with this law, deaf and hard of hearing people are still denied access to many online videos such as newly released movies and the growing number of online-only programs.
The NAD has also persuaded two major online video programming distributors to caption all of their online video content despite gaps in certain laws. We hope that more distributors will follow their lead and recognize the importance of providing access to 48 million deaf and hard of hearing Americans. Our advocacy efforts have even led to the development of new ways for people to add captions to their personal online videos.
I was born in the early 1980s and grew up as a child of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Growing up, I had much more access than older generations of deaf and hard of hearing people, as I had the benefit of captioned television programs, telephone relay systems, and the provision of communication access in law school. I owe a great deal of gratitude to the disability rights champions who came before me, and I stand on the shoulders of giants as I fight for more change – so that the next generation will have full and equal access, including the enjoyment of all online programming, in-flight entertainment, as well as being able to receive accessible public announcements. I look forward to the day when I and others like me will be fully included in the communications of our society.
Andrew Phillips is the Policy Counsel at the National Association of the Deaf in Silver Spring, MD. His disability advocacy work has taken him from his hometown Berkeley, CA to the plains of Siberia and into the halls of Congress.
The Power of Community: Embracing “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child” in Policy Development and Service DesignPosted byon August 15, 2013 at 12:56 PM EST
Zach Garafalo is being honored as a Champion of Change for embodying the next generation of leadership within the disability community and his commitment to the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
My personal story could have had a very different outcome. I was adopted at four months. From the outset, I displayed all the behaviors consistent with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Think a bicycle missing its brakes. My bicycle also did not have any wheels, any steering or any chain. I was literally bumping around out of control in every direction. In Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, I was Mr. Toad. When I was two and a half years old, I was formally diagnosed with ADHD.
My parents’ connection to the broader adoption community of support enabled them to learn about and access an array of services to assist in my pro-social development. Over many years, my parents wove together various interventions, summer camp, social skills groups, counseling, sports that helped me develop the insight and ability to compensate for and manage my excess energy. The unifying theme for my parents, and eventually me, was connecting with others to learn what resources existed.
I have always had positive adult role models. Role models do not need to be educated parents or helping professionals. Connectedness and inspiration can come from unconventional places and be equally transformative. Teachers, community leaders, custodians, coaches and others devoted time to help nurture my passion for civic involvement and volunteerism. Caring adults took the time to mentor and help shape my leadership capacities. I served as Student Representative to the Natick School Committee, Chairperson of the Youth Advisory Board and youngest elected Town Meeting Member in Natick’s history. My deficits never defined me. I write this not to boast, but to inspire hope and to personally illustrate that people with disabilities do not have to be defined by their challenges.
I attended Southern Vermont College in Bennington, the kickoff site for the President’s 2020 College Completion Initiative. My college experience helped prepare me for a smooth transition into a great career and graduate studies. The Success Center allowed me to understand my strengths and areas for growth as a learner and equipped me with skills to compensate. What is remarkable about SVC is the community ethos that charges its students to think critically and challenge the status quo. Today I am challenging the status quo.
My personal story informs my work. This is why I get up every day and fight for the rights of all young people. My own lived experience – supported by research – has clearly documented that young people and families who are connected to their communities have better long term outcomes. We need to invest in children and families and work toward building a unified system where young people and those who care for them have knowledge of and access to services that form a cohesive whole as opposed to a fragmented hole. Empowering those who care for young people to navigate complex and multiple overlapping systems is vital.
Zach Garafalo is the Assistant Director of YOUTH POWER!
- Posted byon August 15, 2013 at 12:47 PM EST
Zoe Gross is being honored as a Champion of Change for embodying the next generation of leadership within the disability community and her commitment to the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act..
I had a lot in common with George Hodgins. He lived in a quiet suburban neighborhood an hour or so away from the quiet suburban neighborhood where I grew up. We were both autistic, very close in age, both struggling with our transitions to adulthood and independent living. We both had interests we were passionate about. I was absorbed in disability advocacy whereas George was more athletic, preferring hiking and soccer. I was on leave from college last spring; George’s parents had recently withdrawn him from a local day program he attended.
The first point of difference between George and me: I will turn 23 this fall. George never will.
On March 6, 2012, George Hodgins was murdered in Sunnyvale, California. His mother, Elizabeth, shot him point-blank, and then killed herself.
Journalists covering the event for local papers called George “low functioning and high maintenance.” They called Elizabeth Hodgins “a devoted and loving mother.” They sought out quotes from other parents of autistic children, who normalized the crime by saying things like “every mother I know who has a child with special needs has a moment just like that.” Many people commenting on these articles also expressed sympathy for the mother, calling her a “guardian angel.” Many said her decision to kill George was “understandable” because autistic children are difficult to parent, because there aren’t enough services for families, or because given his disability and an assumption that he could not have enjoyed life anyway.
Reading these things, I felt alone in my mourning. There seemed to be an outpouring of grief and sympathy for the murderer, and far less sympathy for the victim. The ideas being expressed about autistic people, and people with disabilities, frightened and upset me. So I reached out to my community, and we grieved together. Working with the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, Not Dead Yet, and the National Council on Independent Living, I started Day of Mourning, a nation-wide vigil commemorating the lives of people with disabilities murdered by their parents or caregivers.
I feel strongly that prejudice and ignorance about people with disabilities leads to these murders, and to the crafting of sympathetic messaging around them. Because so many people in our society can’t imagine a person with disability living a fulfilling life, they don’t see the tragedy and the wasted potential when one of our lives is cut short. How do we communicate that the lives of people with disabilities have actual value? All too often, society grieves over the existence of people with disabilities, mourning our lives instead of our deaths.
The Day of Mourning vigils represent a stand against these prejudices, and an affirmation of the value of our lives as people with disabilities. They serve to challenge the prejudiced way these murders are covered in news media, and support the need for true justice for crimes perpetrated against people with disabilities. The vigils allow people with disabilities to come together as a community and a culture, to support each other and to remember our dead. Most of all, the Day of Mourning vigils ensure that George Hodgins and others like him will be remembered as they deserve – not as burdens or as tragedies, but as people whose lives mattered.
Zoe Gross is a Patricia Morrissey Disability Policy Fellow at the Institute for Educational Leadership.
- Posted byon August 15, 2013 at 12:32 PM EST
Lydia Brown is being honored as a Champion of Change for embodying the next generation of leadership within the disability community and her commitment to the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Generations of disability rights activists, in bipartisan partnership with policymakers, have made great strides toward fulfilling the ADA’s promises of equality of opportunity, full participation in society, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency. Yet keeping the promise of the ADA also means confronting the difficult and uncomfortable reality that people with disabilities continue to be disproportionately victimized by abuse and violence.
Since I began advocating for disability justice in 2009, I have learned that violence has permeated every part of disability history. People with disabilities were targeted for elimination during the Holocaust under Nazi Germany, forcibly sterilized under the Constitution in Buck v. Bell (1927), a decision that has never been overturned, and repeatedly rejected for life-saving organ transplants solely on the basis of disability without any legitimate medical reason.
Are the names Daniel Leubner, Angelica Auriemma, and George Hodgins familiar to you? If you don’t know their stories, I suggest you google them. Each of these people were killed by those that were supposed to care for them, and in each case, the victim’s disability was the motivating factor in the commission of the crime. Daniel, Angelica, and George were all autistic, as I am. The horror of their murders is regularly compounded by dehumanizing and devaluing rhetoric, empathy for the aggressors rather than the victims, and misrepresentation in the media, in public discourse, and in policymaking discussions.
I have testified against the abuses by the Judge Rotenberg Center in my home state of Massachusetts, where six residents with disabilities died because of violent aversive “treatments.” I have written proposed legislation in Massachusetts demanding a regulatory response to continued police brutality that has caused the deaths of fellow autistic Americans. I have campaigned against the use of restraints and seclusions in school, which have been cited many times by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in testimony before Congress as the cause of death for many students with disabilities.
Hate crimes against people with disabilities demand a response from all communities in order to combat the insidious attitude that our lives are less valuable and not worth fighting for. As long as people like me can be killed for the crime of inhabiting atypical bodies and minds and as long as those responsible can escape any real consequences for their crimes, neither I nor my children nor my children’s children will be free to achieve equality of access and opportunity.
The specter of violence remains an enormous obstacle to equal rights for Americans with disabilities. Until we begin to have serious discussions about the ramifications of violence against people with disabilities and what we can do to implement policies and foster communities that respect and affirm people with disabilities, these realities will remain ensconced in shadows. How do you get rid of shadows? Expose them to the light. That’s what true champions of change have always done and, together, we’ll do the same here.
Lydia Brown is the Undersecretary for Disability Affairs in the Georgetown University Student Association and Project Assistant for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.
White House Blogs
- The White House Blog
- Middle Class Task Force
- Council of Economic Advisers
- Council on Environmental Quality
- Council on Women and Girls
- Office of Intergovernmental Affairs
- Office of Management and Budget
- Office of Public Engagement
- Office of Science & Tech Policy
- Office of Urban Affairs
- Open Government
- Faith and Neighborhood Partnerships
- Social Innovation and Civic Participation
- US Trade Representative
- Office National Drug Control Policy