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Announcing the 2019 AAPD Paul G. Hearne Emerging Leader Award Recipients

by | Jan 10, 2019 | Press Release

January 10, 2019

Through the AAPD Paul G. Hearne Emerging Leader Awards, the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) recognizes outstanding emerging leaders with disabilities who exemplify leadership, advocacy, and dedication to the broader cross-disability community. Two individuals each receive $2,500 in recognition of their outstanding contributions and $7,500 to further a new or existing initiative that increases the political and economic power of people with disabilities.

AAPD is proud to recognize Sarah Blahovec and Dustin Gibson as the recipients of the 2019 AAPD Paul G. Hearne Emerging Leader Awards.

Sarah Blahovec

Sarah Blahovec is a chronically ill disability advocate. Diagnosed with severe Crohn’s Disease at age 15, Sarah has always had a passion for politics and focuses her advocacy on civic engagement and issues that intersect the chronic illness and disability communities. She graduated from American University in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies, and after struggling to find mentors with disabilities in her field, began blogging about disability rights for the Huffington Post. Sarah is currently the Disability Vote Organizer for the National Council on Independent Living, where she advocates for greater accessibility in elections; educates the disability community on voting rights and works to energize a disability voting bloc; and addresses barriers to running for office for people with disabilities. As part of her work, she created “Including People with Disabilities in Your Political Campaign: A Guide for Campaign Staff,” which was used widely by campaigns and existing run for office training organizations in 2018. Sarah is also a founding board member, former Access and Inclusion Chair, and current Communications Chair of New Leaders Council of Virginia, which equips diverse Millennial leaders in Virginia with the skills to impact progressive change in their communities.

With the 2019 Paul G. Hearne Emerging Leader Award, Sarah is thrilled to establish the first campaign training curriculum for people with disabilities who want to run for elected office. While this online campaign training course will be open to all, it will specifically focus on bringing together trainers from marginalized communities and multi-marginalized people with disabilities who have run for office in the past to teach essential skills on running for office from an intersectional perspective, and to intentionally uplift prospective disabled candidates of color, women, religious minorities, and/or members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Dustin Gibson

Dustin Gibson is a community builder who develops he[art]work to expand the collective consciousness of marginalized communities and address the nexus between race, class, and disability. He works across classrooms, neighborhoods, kid jails, and adult prisons to support individuals in finding home and engage in creating a world without jails and prisons.

Dustin works beside community members and grassroots organizations to lead campaigns and build coalitions to eliminate police violence, address community needs, end the criminalization of students – specifically black disabled students – and advocate for the implementation of policy and legislation to reduce harm.

He has worked with all three Centers for Independent Living in the Pittsburgh region and has held positions with national independent living organizations. He co-founded Disability Advocates for Rights and Transition, an organization led by disabled people that works to end forced institutionalization of disabled people and assist them in navigating systems to live in the community of their choosing with the dignity of risk.

As a founding member of the Harriet Tubman Collective and co-creator of We Can’t Breathe: The Deaf & Disabled Margin of Police Brutality Project, Dustin travels across the United States to build collective power within multiply-marginalized communities and construct alternatives to systems of policing and imprisonment.

With the 2019 Paul G. Hearne Emerging Leader Award, Dustin will work alongside youth who are or have been incarcerated to build a critical disability lens, gain historical context to current systems, and provide resources to assist them in thinking through issues and strategizing points of advocacy to organize themselves.

AAPD founder Paul G. Hearne was a passionate advocate for increased employment of people with disabilities. Paul opened doors for thousands through his leadership of Just One Break, an employment agency for people with disabilities in New York City, and The Dole Foundation for Employment of People with Disabilities in Washington, DC.

“As a result of Paul’s passion, for the past 20 years AAPD has helped to cultivate the next generation of disability rights leaders,” said Helena Berger, AAPD’s President and CEO. “Sarah and Dustin are working on leading-edge issues that are lifting up the voices and advancing the rights and inclusion of multi-marginalized youth and adults with disabilities. We are honored to present them with this year’s awards and look forward to supporting their important work.”

The recipients of the 2019 AAPD Paul G. Hearne Emerging Leader Awards will be honored at the 2019 AAPD Leadership Awards Gala in Washington, DC on March 12, 2019. You can learn more about this year’s award recipients on the AAPD website. Please join us in congratulating Sarah and Dustin on their accomplishments and leadership.


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The American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) is a convener, connector, and catalyst for change, increasing the political and economic power of people with disabilities. As a national cross-disability rights organization, AAPD advocates for full civil rights for the over 60 million Americans with disabilities by advancing equal opportunity, economic power, independent living, and political participation.