Written by Stephanie Woodward, Co-founder of Disability EmpowHER Network
I remember the first time I ever saw anyone like me. It was the 4th of July and my parents had taken all three of us kids downtown to watch the fireworks over the river. It was crowded and hot and I was excited for the show. I sat on the hood of my mom’s car while people passed by us, shuffling to find a spot before the fireworks started. Then I saw her. She was a Black girl holding her mom’s hand as she walked by us. I noticed her walk was funny and I looked down to see that she was wearing braces on her legs – braces just like mine. I was wearing pants, so I immediately pulled my pant leg up in hopes that this girl would see my brace and know that we were alike. I don’t know if she did or not, but I do know that I spent the rest of the night hoping that she would walk by again. She never did.
I didn’t see another person like me until I was an adult. I saw people with disabilities, yes. But none that I could relate to. None that felt like my peers. Definitely no one who felt like a role model to me. Growing up, I didn’t see disabled women on television or read stories in Teen Vogue about women with disabilities. I had no one to help me navigate my experiences as a growing young woman with a disability. My parents worked hard to empower me, but there are some things that they just couldn’t do for me.
For example, my parents were thrown for a loop when they realized I got so many UTIs because I refused to go to the bathroom at school. They kept asking me why. They bought me a cute bag to put my catheters in so that no one would see them, so what was the problem? How could I tell them that at school – like in so many bathrooms – people can see between the cracks and into the stall, and that I didn’t want the other girls to see that I was cathing? How could I tell them that the girls in school told me that it was weird that it “sounded different” when I pee? Yes. That really happened.
It is for moments like these that I wish I had an adult in my life that knew what I was going through and could help me. I wish I was able to see successful disabled women role models so I could know that I could be successful too. I wish I could talk with a disabled woman who had been in a relationship (or two or three!) with a man so that I wouldn’t have believed that I was unattractive and unworthy of dating because of my disability. I needed a role model, and it turns out, I am not alone.
Researchers have found that “students with disabilities rarely have opportunities to meet adults with disabilities with the potential to be significant positive influences in their lives.” However, the need for girls with disabilities to have positive disabled role models and mentors is even greater because there is less visibility of successful disabled women in our culture, there are more limited “socially sanctioned roles” for women with disabilities in our communities.
I know that I really could have benefited from having disabled women as mentors when I was a teenager. I felt alone and like I needed to be a pioneer in almost everything I did simply because I was a girl in a wheelchair who wanted to be a lawyer and I had never seen a woman with a disability in a successful career role. If I had a disabled woman mentor to help guide me, I know I would have felt more confident and probably would not have had to search so much for resources just to get basic accommodations to finish high school and go to college. Looking back, I am surprised I did not give up – especially when my high school did not have an elevator and they made me go outside of the school during harsh New York winters to go around the school in order to get to the lower level to go to some of my classes. I had the right to have my classes moved to be accessible, but I did not know that, so I didn’t ask for it. Instead, I rolled through the snow between classes every day.
I do not want the next generation of disabled girls to struggle the way I did. I want them to confidently take the reins and lead us to a more diverse, more innovative, and better world. I know they can do that if they have positive disabled women as role models and mentors, and that is why I founded Disability EmpowHer Network with my friend – and proud disabled woman – Leah Smith.
Disability EmpowHer Network is committed to connecting, motivating, and guiding disabled girls and women to grow, learn, and develop to their highest potential and have the confidence to lead. We have two programs that connect girls with disabilities to successful disabled women role models: EmpowHer Camp and Letter from a Role Model.
EmpowHer Camp is a skill-building, empowerment, and mentoring program that brings girls with disabilities (ages 13 -17) to camp with successful disabled women mentors in the Adirondacks for one week to have fun, bond, and learn about disaster preparedness and basic survival skills, while also developing independent living and leadership skills. The next summer, the girls are invited for an exciting reunion trip in Washington, D.C. to explore how they have grown as leaders. This is a life-changing program for participants and their families, as well as the disabled women mentors.
Letter from a Role Model is a mentoring program that connects girls with disabilities from across the country to receive a personalized letter from a positive disabled woman role model. We match girls with role models based on their backgrounds, interests, disabilities, and personalities. Girls who have received letters report feeling less alone, more confident, and more motivated to try new things. Parents report that they are both excited for their daughter to make a connection with a role model, and relieved that their daughters have someone that they can talk to about disability-specific issues.
Empowering girls with disabilities by pairing them with successful disabled women mentors is key because their shared experiences of disability and womanhood allow mentors to demonstrate to the girls all that disabled women and girls truly can achieve. After all, if you can see it, you can be it.
Interested in learning more about our programs? Check out DisabilityEmpowHerNetwork.org. We’re accepting applications for EmpowHer Camp until April 30, 2020. We accept nominations for Letter from a Role Model on a rolling basis.
1- Burgstahler, S., & Crawford, L. (2007). Managing an mentoring community to support students with disabilities: A case study. Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education Journal, 15(2), 97-114.
2- Rousso, H., & Wehmeyer, M. L. (2001). Providing Role Models for Girls with (and without) Disabilities. In Double jeopardy: Addressing gender equity in special education (p. 357). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.