2020 Portraits of Empowerment
In partnership with American University, AAPD is providing a credit optional Disability Advocacy Certificate Program. The 10-week virtual Certificate Program prepares participants to be knowledgeable and effective advocates and representatives for the disability community. The focus will be on preparing participants to advocate in their home universities, home states, and on the national level. During this course, participants will have the opportunity to become familiar with the history of the disability rights movement through a variety of topics such as disability legislation, healthcare, employment, and more. Through conversations with issue experts, participants will apply their learning to advocate effectively to influence policy change. Participants will complete a government visit, learn how to communicate across multiple platforms to engage with diverse stakeholders, and understand their role as an advocate and in the disability rights movement. In addition to the Certificate Program, all participants are paired with a virtual mentor.
AAPD is proud to present our 2020 Portraits of Empowerment, featuring our selected 2020 Disability Advocacy Certificate Program participants. Each participant shared a story either related to the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act or when they first learned about advocacy.
- Katy Brennan
- Louis Paniccioli
- Courtney Felle
- Shirley Carrillo
- Kyra Beckish
- Nadia Bon
- Jonas Bryson
- Verlencia Somuah
- Alma Silver
- O. Kendell Moore Jr.
- Naomi Hess
- Jesica Weaver
- Fanisee Bias
- Danny Charney
Be sure to check back as we highlight more of our participants. To learn more about them, please check out our 2020 Disability Advocacy Certificate Program participants’ bios.
“I have always lived in post-ADA world. It may not be an inherently accessible one, but it is a world in which I have the right to demand better. I am part of the first generation to never live without that privilege.”
Katy Brennan shares her full story about why the ADA is important to her:
“Because of the ADA, I have control over the trajectory of my life. I have always lived in a post-ADA world. It may not be an inherently accessible one, but it is a world in which I have the right to demand better. I am part of the first generation to never live without that privilege.
I became disabled at age 15, and so did my grandmother. While our stories share many similarities, they diverge at two points. The first being the nature of our disabilities. Where my disability stems from multiple chronic illnesses, my grandmother is legally blind. This fact alone makes our disability stories extremely different, particularly when it comes to personal definitions of accessibility. However, when considering these differences, the most stark by far is the opportunities available to us in life.
My grandmother was never truly presented with the possibility of attending college. Once her visual impairment was diagnosed, she seemed to slide by in school. She passed her core classes, mostly due to my grandfather’s tutoring, but was never once offered a textbook with a larger font. She took driver’s education, just like everyone else, and by some miracle passed. Waiving that graduation requirement was never on the table. She was passed from requirement to requirement, passing without accommodation or consideration.
While many of these accommodations today are made under IDEA, it is clear from her story that in a pre-ADA world, her disability was viewed as the end to her educational journey. And, it likely would have been, even if she had chosen to pursue higher education. Without Titles II and III of the ADA, no university was obligated to provide her reasonable accommodation. That’s not to say there weren’t disabled undergrads at that time, but without support from her high school or the ADA to back her up, it was never a viable option.
Today, the disabled granddaughter of a disabled woman, I do not face those barriers to higher education. IDEA allowed me to graduate from high school, and instead of just passing, I was able to excel with reasonable accommodations. And when it came time for college applications, the ADA made it possible for me to apply to and attend my dream school: Columbia University.
My college experience is not perfect. I still have to fight for every single accommodation, but the difference between my grandmother’s generation and mine is that I can fight. I know that under Titles II and III of the ADA, I have the right to an accessible and equitable education to my peers. And knowing that I am in the first generation of disabled Americans to have that right is not a privilege I take lightly.”
“Because of the ADA, I am able to have my rights protected, preserved, furthered, and valued not only as an individual with a disability but as an overall human being.”
Lou Paniccioli shares his full story about why the ADA is important to him:
“Because of the ADA I am able to have my rights protected, preserved, furthered and valued not only as an individual with a disability but as an overall human being. While in school it always took me longer on test and I had work ten times harder than my peers. The ADA guarantees me the right to the same quality of education with the proper accommodations insuring my success and protecting me from discrimination within our educational system. However, we as people with disabilities still have a long way to go to fully and directly integrate the entire disability community into every aspect of society throughout the world. Nonetheless we can state with both full confidence and conviction that because of the ADA the foundations of the progress that we can continue to make to this very day have been firmly established and shall continue to propel us forward for years to come.”
“The accommodations I need don’t always match the assumptions many people have about accessibility.”
Courtney Felle shares her full story about why the ADA is important to her:
“Happy 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act! As a college student with a chronic illness, I’m pretty thankful for the protections of the ADA.
The accommodations I need don’t always match the assumptions many people have about “accessibility.” It’s often difficult for me to carry things, even things that an able-bodied person wouldn’t consider heavy. If I can store belongings in a class building or workspace, that’s an accommodation. If I can use a laptop in class to access eBooks and type notes, instead of having to carry extra books and notebooks, that’s an accommodation.
At some universities, it’s a fight to even get basic accommodations under the ADA. Thankfully, I’ve been lucky at my college: though the disability services office isn’t perfect, administrators do take me seriously and try to help as much as they can. Having this basic safety allowed me to dream bigger. What would it mean to not only have accommodations, but to have my ideal accommodations?
As we reflect on the ADA’s history and its future, I find myself wanting two main things:
- Strengthening the ADA and holding colleges and businesses accountable to ADA standards
- Normalizing accommodations beyond the scope of the ADA and pushing for even fuller inclusion of people with disabilities in all spheres of life
We need to ensure that the world is accessible and welcoming to people of all ability levels. So, please, let’s make it happen!”
“Because of the ADA, I received accessible formats for all class materials as well as proper accommodations from professors so that I could achieve my fullest potential.”
Shirley Carrillo shares her full story about why the ADA is important to her:
“Because of the ADA, I received an EQUAL opportunity to pursue my higher education. I double-majored and graduated with two Bachelors of Arts degrees. I received accessible formats for all class materials as well as proper accommodations from professors so that I could achieve my fullest potential. My accommodations contributed to me reaching my goal of graduating with honors. I also was able to participate in extracurricular activities by fulfilling leadership roles in organizations on campus. Knowledge is power, I am grateful and honored to be a young, Hispanic, and visually impaired woman, who accomplished one of her biggest dreams because the ADA ensured I would be protected to earn a higher education and open many possibilities for my future aspirations.”
“ADA is looking out for people with disabilities in the workforce. It should be seen as a source for empowerment to tell your story, without fear of rejection. The employers who see you beyond your disability are the ones you want to work for.”
Kyra Beckish shares her full story about why the ADA is important to her:
“Let’s be honest: applying for jobs is the worst. Trying to make yourself seem like the perfect candidate on a piece of paper and an interview is difficult as is. Doing it all with a disability isn’t any better. The fear of discrimination due to a disability is real. The Americans with Disabilities Act is intended to ease that fear.
When applying to be an RA, this issue became very real. I was hired without talking about my epilepsy too much, but I knew I had to tell my supervisor in case anything happened. I was scared that she would think I was incapable to handle the position.
I couldn’t be more wrong. She smiled, thanked me for telling her, and reassured me that it didn’t matter. I was hired for a reason, and my disability could never get in the way of that. She accepted me as I was and was proud of me for being brave.
The moral of this story is that the ADA is looking out for people with disabilities in the workforce. It should be seen as a source for empowerment to tell your story, without fear of rejection. The employers who see you beyond your disability are the ones you want to work for.”
“I learned that the ADA is more than just a law. It outlines basic requirements that force people to think about their attitudes towards people with disabilities and why compliance with reasonable accommodations is important.”
Nadia Bon shares her full story about why the ADA is important to her:
“As a result of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), I was afforded the opportunity to graduate with distinction from Cornell University’s College of Arts and Sciences and enjoy a full college experience. Cornell is a private university so it is covered by Title III of the ADA which prohibits discrimination for people with disabilities in private entities with public accommodations, including restaurants, theaters, schools, and doctors offices. During my time at Cornell, as required by the ADA, I received reasonable accommodations including transportation to and from classes using a van, and a note-taker to assist me in my classes. This made it easier for me to focus on my academics, especially because I knew that I would be able to get to classes during Ithaca’s snowy winters! I was grateful for the note-taking service which allowed me to enjoy lectures without worrying about writing down every word. In addition to the physical accommodations, the ADA also gave me confidence to request universal accommodations. One instance of this was when I explained to my genetics professor how the Iclicker questions (a device that allows the whole class to answer a question at the same time) were too fast for me to read and answer accurately. He encouraged me to discuss this with the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education to bring the problem to the forefront. I was empowered as a person with a disability and learned I can make a difference for others with disabilities. I also learned that people in positions of power will listen to your struggles if you speak up. This was an important lesson as I am no longer as intimidated when speaking to those in authority.
Another valuable life lesson I learned from my time at Cornell, as supported by the ADA, was the importance of finding a community of people with similar values. I was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society and served on the Dean’s Advisory Board which helped me expand my leadership skills. However, I did not discover the joy of being a leader in the disability community until I was introduced to this community in the ILR school. Through my Employment and Disability, and Global Comparative Disability Policy classes I learned how disability impacted employment, the power of the Disability Rights Movement, and how the medical and social models impact people with disabilities. I gained a new respect for disability activism because I was able to see how activism is about more than fighting injustice – it is about changing attitudes in society. This helped me find my own niche in the disability community. It also inspired me to study Disability History to learn how discrimination against people with disabilities occurred throughout history and how disability activism was prominent in certain disability groups, especially the Deaf and Blind communities in nineteenth-century America. Little did I know that I would expand my knowledge even more through my study abroad program.
The ADA also provided me with an opportunity to learn how disability laws began, and are enforced in other cultures, during my Junior year studying at Oxford University. Cornell’s abroad office was amazing and made sure I received the same accommodations in Oxford that I had at Cornell. I met beforehand with several liaisons at Oxford including the Academic Director and the Head of Disability Services. Without the support of the ADA, I would have been concerned that such meetings would hinder my chances of being accepted into the program. Knowing that I had basic rights as a result of the ADA, and that the abroad office at Cornell was willing to help troubleshoot any problems, reassured me and helped me make the most of my experience at Oxford. While there, I took part in producing a video encouraging other students with disabilities to apply to the University and wrote a blog about my travels. Through my experiences at Oxford and Cornell, I learned that the ADA is more than just a law. It outlines basic requirements that force people to think about their attitudes towards people with disabilities and why compliance with reasonable accommodations is important. In short, the ADA not only helps people with disabilities like me integrate into society – it makes us better people.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever had any real issues with public accommodations being accessible to me, which doesn’t seem like much, until one realizes what that truly means: my visual impairment does not hold me back as much as it would’ve just 30 years ago. I cannot begin to describe how empowering that feels.”
Jonas Bryson shares his story of why the ADA is important to him:
“Because of the Americans with Disabilities Act, I have been able to live a happy and healthy life in school, on public transportation, in hotels and restaurants, and so on. I am so grateful to have had all of these wonderful opportunities to be able to succeed in the workforce and in my own personal life, all because of this bill which was passed only 30 years ago. To illustrate this, I don’t think I’ve ever had any real issues with public accommodations being accessible to me, which doesn’t seem like much, until one realizes what that truly means: my visual impairment does not hold me back as much as it would’ve just 30 years ago. I cannot begin to describe how empowering that feels. If the ADA were to work 100% effectively, nobody would notice it because everybody would have access to the critical services that they need, regardless of the cards that they were dealt at birth. It’s easy to take this idea for granted, because most people realize now that this is the way things ought to be, but I have learned that we cannot afford to rest on our laurels. The ADA wasn’t always the law of the land: it was fought for. And over time it has been and will continue to be adapted because of regular people constantly fighting for an even brighter future. I want to help make that brighter future a reality.”
“As a disabled person with multiple intersecting identities, my advocacy has been enforced and highlighted through my knowledge. I’ve learned that I need to not only understand my rights as a person of color, but also my rights as someone with a disability and my rights as a female.”
Verlencia Somuah shares when she first learned about advocacy:
“I first learned about advocacy through my education systems. When I was first diagnosed with a vision impairment I did not know who would be there to support me while still achieving the goals I had set for myself. The people in my education systems had the access and resources to advocate for me to receive accommodations making things accessible for me. I also had a support system of friends and family members that were willing to assist me as well. While this is not always the case, I think it’s really important for us to utilize the people around us who have access and even when they’re not willing to, have the education to know who we can reach out to. For me as a disabled person with multiple intersecting identities my advocacy has been enforced and highlighted through my knowledge. I’ve learned that I need to not only understand my rights as a person of color, my rights as someone with a disability and my rights as a female. All of these policies and the information back how I advocate not only for myself but for people similar to me in the disability community. Through my experiences and my gained education I have learned that my knowledge is my power and through that I’m able to advocate at greater heights than I would without that knowledge.”
“Learning about advocacy meant facing the harsh truth of ableism and discrimination at a young age. It meant riding on a segregated school bus all throughout middle and high school, dreaming about how I could make the world different for future students with disabilities.”
Alma Silver shares when she first learned about advocacy:
“Learning about advocacy meant facing the harsh truth of ableism and discrimination at a young age. It meant riding on a segregated school bus all throughout middle and high school, dreaming about how I could make the world different for future students with disabilities. But from a place of resistance and pain, advocacy grew into a bedrock of strength, determination, and hope. As I finish my college degree, my passion for advocacy drives me to continuously learn and grow, to be better and do better. It drives me to listen, connect, and engage with the unheard stories that need to be told to foster a truly inclusive world. #DisabledandProud #Advocacy”
O. Kendall Moore Jr.
“(Advocacy) means that others with learning challenges like I have grown up with can also have a chance to be properly represented and have their voices heard.”
Kendall Moore Jr. shares when he first learned about advocacy:
“I believe the first time I heard of Disability Advocacy was during the Rising Leadership Academy conference, now called the Disability:In conference. For me it at least means that others with learning challenges like I have grown up with can also have a chance to be properly represented and have their voices heard. In my case, it also was comforting to know that there were companies out there more than happy to hire those with disabilities. I found it interesting to know that companies can and should be able to accommodate those with disabilities, but I’ve never been able to figure out what my accommodation would be, if needed, given that my disability is mostly a learning disability, and might not always be obvious unless you know what to look for. It’s really made me wonder just what kind of accommodations I could be granted in the workplace much like how someone with a wheelchair could have a ramp, or a blind person could be given Braille on office signs or the like.”
“At a young age, I learned how to describe the impact of having a disability and tell others my hope for a more inclusive future.”
Naomi Hess shares when she first learned about advocacy:
“I first learned about advocacy when I was the Maryland Muscular Dystrophy Association Ambassador from 2011 to 2013. I traveled around the state speaking about MDA and sharing my story. I even testified in the Maryland legislature in favor of Fill the Boot, a fundraiser by firefighters where they line streets and hold out their boot to collect money for MDA! In the past ten years, Team Naomi raised $80,000 for MDA, much of which goes toward funding treatments and sending children to MDA summer camp. My experience as MDA Ambassador gave me valuable self-advocacy, fundraising, and public speaking skills that remain with me to this day. At a young age, I learned how to describe the impact of having a disability and tell others my hope for a more inclusive future. My time as MDA Ambassador motivated me to seek out a career in helping people with disabilities such as myself.”
“I didn’t know my voice could be heard and the impact that it could have, and so it empowered me to continue.”
Jake Linn shares his story when he first learned about advocacy in the video below. CW: suicide, mental health
“This ability to communicate my story, be vulnerable and open to listen to others, and be unapologetic when advocating for justice is so powerful and important to my journey, growth, and community building.”
Fanisee Bias shares her story when she first learned about advocacy:
“Advocacy is one of my favorite words, actions, and life skills. One of the first times I ever learned about advocacy and had to practice it was throughout junior high and high school creating a 504 plan for myself. My gut reaction to it was not the best feelings; I was nervous, I was intimidated, I was confused, and I felt like my “extra” needs were a burden. I wondered if everyone had to go through this exhaustive yet crucial process to get their accessibility needs met, but then I realized due to my new diagnosis (starting in junior high) that my new norm would be different, unique, and require more advocacy than ever. I used to rely on my mom to speak up for me, fight for me, and help me navigate society with my specific needs, but, fortunately, in hindsight, that had to change. She would challenge me to tell my physical therapist what was working for me; she challenged me to call and make my own doctor’s appointments; she challenged me to be my full authentic self and speak on the injustice myself and the disabled community face by sharing my experiences. This ability to communicate my story, be vulnerable and open to listen to others, and be unapologetic when advocating for justice is so powerful and important to my journey, growth, and community building.
Since then, advocacy has brought me to an abundance of opportunities where I can fight for myself, my community, and the solidarity within others. I love to work with people to their lived experiences. With that, my knowledge of government and social structures/systems is essential to my future in advocacy. I can only use my voice so far, and I am eager to get into policymaking to make a difference on a broader level. Being a black, Latina, white, disabled, young woman, I want to be able to show representation in my community and across the nation with my identities, even though they are historically marginalized. I want to be able to be a resource for people whether that’s knowing their rights or needing someone to support them.”
“While growing up, I realized that if I saw an injustice or something I wanted changed, I had to show up and actively make an effort to be a part of the activity to demand change.”
Danny Charney shares his story of when he first learned about advocacy:
“I grew up in the San Francisco bay area in California on an island named Alameda. I remember being very young and being brought to rallies and protests in Berkeley California because my parents wanted to instill in me a sense of caring about movements that’s bigger than myself, whether that’s LGBTQ rights or the long lasting struggle for black lives. I remember while growing up, realizing that if I saw an injustice or something I wanted changed, I had to show up and actively make an effort to be a part of the activity to demand change. This meant I couldn’t stand silently and idly by while different minoritized groups were being discriminated against, I had to show up and protest. Today, I have started to learn and use social media to expand my advocacy in order to hear from and to reach more people. The more educated I can become, the better ability I have to use my privilege to speak up for other marginalized identities around me.”