Learning to Believe in Me
It was the summer of 2012, as I was finishing up my bachelor's degree from Brigham Young University (Go Cougs!) with an internship in Washington D.C. through the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), a group that focuses on "increasing the political and economic power of people with disabilities." The organization brought about 20 college students with various disabilities from across the U.S. together to represent people with disabilities across businesses, non-profits, and government agencies throughout D.C.
AAPD was such a unique experience for me. I had gotten so used to the idea of conforming to my environment, and just making things work, but I had not really thought about the possibility of making the change for myself and others. For the first time ever, I lived with, learned from, and openly shared ideas with other people with disabilities.
I had never known many people close to me who were like me with disabilities (or so I wasn't aware), let alone hung out in a group where everyone had a disability and stories to accompany them. It was an incredible experience to see the challenges each disability presented, yet everyone carried their lives on as best as they could--moving away from home, going to college, hiring caretakers (if necessary), trying new things, and getting out of their comfort zone and heading into the unknown. Yes, there were still challenges, yet we were living our life to its fullest and showing the world that we could do it. We were pushing for our own opportunities, we were growing and we were continuing to pave the way as people before us, had done.
Halfway through our internships, a few of us were sent notices that we were invited to meet with staffers at the White House. As you can imagine, we were all really excited. We had circled around the White House so many times through the summer as part of our daily stroll or on our way to different events, but I don't think any of us imagined actually going in there.
The day arrived and we met with our group at the White House entrance, were badged in, and taken to the Roosevelt Office. As we all got situated, we went around the table and introduced ourselves. We were told we would have 50 minutes with the staffers to discuss pressing issues in the disability community that would affect future disability policy. Partway through the meeting, the door flew open and in walked President Barack Obama with his energetic smile as we welcomed everyone. No way! I couldn't believe it! Is that really the President of the United States?? Shocked, surprised, excited, I was squealing (inside) like a fangirl! He went around, shaking everyone's hands, and the closer he got to me, the harder my heart was pounding. I was sure I was going to forget my name or say something stupid. When he got to me, I blurted, "Hi Mr. President. My name is Martina. I'm from Fresno, CA and my heart is pounding so hard right now." (Why am I so awkward? *Facepalm*). He laughed and with the most genuine smile, he opened up his arms and gave me the biggest hug and said, "It's so nice to meet you, Martina, and I'm so glad you're here." I was beside myself.
The rest of the meeting was spent taking turns, sharing our thoughts and ideas on things that mattered to us as members of the disability community. I know our experiences were so real and relevant, and we each did our best to represent the voices of our community. Three highlights from our conversation included: Increasing employment rates among people with disabilities (which his administration worked so aggressively on in federal agency employment). Not enough people within the disabilities community are empowered to pursue their dreams. We are told that we are not enough. We are told that we can't perform as well as able-bodied folks. We are not given the opportunity. We need to change this! I can't tell you how many heads have done double-takes and fixated on my wheelchair when I enter the room for an interview. People! Please get over the wheelchair. Yes, I can't walk, but look at what I can do (a story for another time). Increasing integration of people with disabilities into communities. We've got to change the way we treat people with disabilities. Instead of focusing on what people with disabilities can't do or writing us off as incapable and burdensome, empower us to see what we can do. Invite us, socialize with us, ask us, push us, believe in us--treat us like the gems that we are--full of value and so worthy of happiness. Expanding access to resources and infrastructure for people of all disabilities (amen!). Access to resources and accessible buildings and transportation make a huge difference in the quality of life for not only someone in a wheelchair but all people. It is empowering to be able to do as much as I can, whether it be big or small. Even the other day, I couldn't take my children to the restroom at a soccer game because there were steps leading to the inaccessible potty--an obvious barrier for a wheelchair, so I had them go under a tree (sorry!). Imagine how much easier (and cleaner) it would have been if builders had people like me in mind and put in a simple ramp and a bigger port-a-potty? It's so important that we continue to envision the change, make our voices heard in the community, and turn this conversation into actionable items. It was the most engaging and pertinent conversation any of us had experienced, guaranteed.
I was impressed that as we were talking, staffers and the President were fully engaged and taking notes on what we were saying and asking questions. I was impressed that they were listening. President Obama told us that disability issues were very personal to him and something he cared deeply about. He shared how before there was ever the ADA, his father-in-law who had Multiple Sclerosis (MS) struggled to get around the community in his wheelchair, including attending his sons' basketball games and Michelle's dance recitals. He understood that these challenges within our society could be addressed with simple accommodations that would make all the difference for all of us. He said that his goal is to "provide equal opportunity for everyone in this nation to maximize their talents if they are willing to work hard," and that includes our disability community. He reminded us that we are the future leaders of America, especially in the disability community. He encouraged us to continue to be self-advocates and make a difference in disability rights.
I truly believe in President Obama's words. People with disabilities make up a part of our communities. 1 in 4 Americans have a disability of some sort, whether it is visible like mine, or invisible in the form of a mental disability, and while some people are born with one, others acquire it through accident, illness, or old age--disability affects or will affect all of us. We can all make a greater effort to be aware of the needs of our neighbors and find ways to care for one another because. We're better as a society when we start to see the worth of each soul. We need to speak up for people with disabilities in conversations surrounding but not limited to employment, school, recreation, social settings, and thinking about disabilities when we're creating software, websites, buildings, cars, etc.
Never in my right mind would I have ever dreamt of myself meeting the President of the United States and discussing issues that are so important to me and so many others. But there I was, a woman in a wheelchair, a daughter of Cambodian immigrants from Fresno, CA in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, talking with the President and he was listening.
If there's a message (or a few) I want to leave with you today, it's to believe in yourself and that anything is possible. Be brave enough to speak up about things that matter to you, especially when you know you can make a positive impact, and one day, the right person will be listening. And if you can make a positive impact for even just one person, it will have been worth all the fuss and stumbles to get there. And keep learning! I thought I knew so much about disabilities because of my experiences, but my mind was broadened by conversing and learning from the friends I made through this program, and it continues to grow, every single day as I continue to converse and listen. BELIEVE that CHANGE IS POSSIBLE both within ourselves and the world we live in. Never give up hope for better days. And as we continue to pave the way, we will find it so much easier to live life a life that we are proud of because we are making the difference. And please remember, disability rights are human rights. The fight is for us all.
For more stories about disability empowerment, family, and world travel, follow me on IG: @clanhuntington and visit my site: www.clanhuntington.com