This blog post was written by Eli Wolff (Partners for Youth with Disabilities) and Mary Hums (University of Louisville). This article was originally posted on HuffPost Blog.
Traveling through an airport and being left on a plane because no one informs the airport mobility accessibility attendants that an arriving passenger needs assistance. Relocating accessible parking spaces without consulting anyone with a disability working in the closest building. Construction workers leaving equipment in hallways and elevators, blocking a student with a disability using a mobility device from passing through, and navigating the building to get to class.
These are typical everyday issues persons with a disability encounter that persons without a disability may never even think about. Over the course of time and life, these occurrences add up, resulting in people with disabilities feeling disrespected, disenfranchised and – ultimately – powerless.
But it does not have to be this way. People with disabilities have a voice that should and must be at the table from the beginning of any planning process and should never simply be an after-thought. Language, words, and actions can help us fight some of these daily battles. One example of words that can help insure people with disabilities are not cast aside is the phrase “Nothing About Us Without Us.”
These empowering words form a mantra that has fueled the disability rights movement over the years. To quote James Charlton who authored a book by this same title, the term “Nothing About Us Without Us,” “expresses the conviction of people with disabilities that they know what is best for them.” This mantra became the rallying call for the United Nations Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and continues to have relevance and significance more than ever. But why does it matter?
It matters because people with disabilities must be front and center as visible leaders to share our voice and our experience. It matters because it reinforces the role of people without disabilities as allies and partners who share the road toward inclusion and equality. It matters because it unites us with all the marginalized and invisible individuals and groups who are demanding a seat at the table. Most of all, however, it matters because we as people with disabilities need to be the ones whose voices must lead the way.
“Nothing about Us Without Us” emphasizes how people with disabilities must be valued as integral and essential contributors to every sector, industry and community including entertainment, fashion, education, sports, medicine, business and law. While people with disabilities need to be leaders of disability-focused organizations, that is not enough. We also need to be front and center in mainstream local, national and international organizations.
For example, in the entertainment industry, people with disabilities need to represent themselves and be visible in movies, TV and advertising. Similarly in the world of sports, people with disabilities need to be leading the Paralympic, Special Olympic, and Deaflympic Movements, but also need to be front and center within the Olympic Movement, professional sport, intercollegiate athletics and youth sports.
The powerful phrase “Nothing About Us Without Us” ignites a vision for people with disabilities that represents pride and power rather than stigma and pity. It helps us realize that the disability community is an empowering and uplifting community that unites us and works for our rights and dignity. The phrase reinforces the possibilities for people with disabilities to be meaningfully included, and if we wish to, seamlessly become leaders in every type of organization and institution. We need to have a valued voice in every facet of daily life.
Partners for Youth with Disabilities is joyful to introduce our third and last (but certainly not least) Legends Honoree, Melissa M. MacDonnell, President of Liberty Mutual Foundation and Vice President of Liberty Mutual Insurance. Melissa sat down with us to discuss her career path and who inspired her journey along the way. She is an example of kindness. She defines herself through the impact she has on friends, family and mentees, not external accolades.
Even though she holds a prominent position at Liberty Mutual Foundation, Melissa describes herself as an introverted person. Her goal is to “keep her eyes on the prize” to help the most vulnerable in our communities. She thinks about the impact she can have by doing her job well; she holds great respect for Liberty’s CEO David Long who himself is deeply committed to the community, and in particular, accessibility and inclusion. Melissa’s courage and motivation come from her passion in giving back to the community. In addition to working at Liberty Mutual, she also serves on the boards of Horizons for Homeless Children and the Don and Marilyn Rodman Foundation. She is a member of the Leadership Advisory Board for Rosie’s Place, and is a volunteer at the Sudanese Community Center. For fifteen years, she acted as a big sister for a young woman from Germaine Lawrence, a residential treatment program for girls. She’s also served as a Vice Chair for both the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts and Mass Mentoring Partnership, the Chair of Faith and Action at United Way, and as a board member of Bruce Wall Ministries. Think that’s all? Not even – Melissa has helped chair record-breaking fundraisers for the Big Sister Association, Whittier Street Health Center, Salvation Army, and Community Servings, and was also a participant in LeadBoston and Boston Women Build in the Bayou.
In recognition for her great contributions to the community, she’s been awarded the Women for Whittier Award, named to the YWCA’s Academy of Women Achievers, and listed as one of the Top 40 Under 40 by Boston Magazine. While humbled by all of these honorable awards and incredible achievements, in her opinion, helping a woman from Sudan get her driver’s license is one of her greatest personal successes. Melissa has mentored the woman, who spoke very little English at the time. It took her four times to pass the permit test and seven tries to pass the road test–all to be able to drive a car– a task that for many of us, comes with the kind of freedom and liberation we often take for granted. Melissa understands the impact of aiding others in achieving even the smallest things, and because of that, she’ll continue to keep mentoring and supporting as many groups as possible. “[Your] dream always has to be bigger than a job,” Melissa advises young adults. “Follow [your] gut, and embrace who you really are.” Her dream, which included philanthropy, stems from her deeply compassionate family and her role model of a mom. Her own parents and family served as a host family welcoming in youth in addition to having ten kids of their own. Motivated by her parents’ caring words and deeds, she is dedicated to giving back to the community.
According to Melissa, PYD is succeeding in meeting the important needs of young people with disabilities and providing them with comprehensive programs to help them thrive. As a center for inclusion, PYD puts great efforts into reaching deeper into the community and encouraging more and more young people with disabilities to find their own identities.
Melissa appreciates that “PYD opens up an entire world for young people with disabilities.” PYD is humbled to have Melissa as our respectable honoree and to have this chance to recognize the greatness she has contributed to the community. We hope to see everyone on May 18th to join in the expression of gratitude to such an influential person.
This post was written by Juan Zhou, Jackie (Xiao) Yan, Olicia Mannion, and Mary Grace Alcaro of the BU PRLab. Edited by Nicole Malo.
Eli A. Wolff is a Mentoring Coordinator at Partners for Youth with Disabilities. Eli also serves as adviser for the Royce Fellowship for Sport and Society at Brown University and co-leads the Power of Sport Lab, a platform to fuel and magnify innovation, inclusion and social change through sport.
Eli’s past work has been at the intersection of research, education and advocacy in and through sport. In 2000, Eli helped to establish the ESPY Award for Best Male and Female Athlete with a Disability, and he organized the national disability sport organizations to support professional golfer Casey Martin in his successful case against the PGA before the U.S. Supreme Court. From 2003 to 2008, Eli led a global effort to include provisions addressing sport and recreation within the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. More recently, Eli has helped to lead a national effort for the inclusion of student-athletes with disabilities in high school and college athletic opportunities.
Eli has also contributed to the international sport for development and social change community and has assisted with the global efforts for the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace on April 6 of each year. In 2016, Eli co-developed Mentoring for Change and the International Mentoring Day as an annual part of January’s National Mentoring Month, on Muhammad Ali’s birthday, January 17, as a collaboration between the National Mentoring Partnership, the Muhammad Ali Center and Epicenter Community.
Eli was a member of the United States Paralympic Soccer Team in the 1996 and 2004 Paralympic Games. Eli is a graduate of Brown University and has an MA in Sport Studies from the German Sport University of Cologne.
Stacey Schneiderman joined the PYD team in December 2016 as a part time Mentoring Specialist. She feels lucky to have been a mentor herself for the past 8 years. Stacey taught as a special educator for over 11 years ranging in settings from behavioral health hospitals, residential programs, and both urban and suburban public schools.
She is thrilled to bring her passion and experiences as both a teacher and mother of 3 to this role. She spends most of her with her family, per dog and turtle.
Mike Haydu joined the PYD team in January 2017 as a Mentoring Specialist. His work at PYD will focus on facilitating matches between mentors and youth ages 11-17. Prior to joining PYD, Mike worked at College Nannies and Tutors in a variety of roles, first as a nanny and a tutor and later in an administrative capacity, acting as a liaison between students and families and their tutors. Mike has spent the past seven years working and volunteering at The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Ashford, Connecticut.
As a former counselor and tutor, Mike brings a passion for empowering young people to tackle the obstacles they face. Mike’s dedication to service comes from his Jesuit education (Fairfield Prep and the College of the Holy Cross), where he was taught to “be a man for others” and to “go above and beyond the call of duty.” His interest in working with young people stems from his experiences growing up the oldest of over 20 younger cousins and the impact he realized an older role model could have. He is excited to help facilitate these kinds of relationships for the youth and volunteers that work with PYD!