I often find myself in unlikely places and situations. At 14 years of age, I found myself in a small Italian town on the Adriatic coast, driving my father and family friend down a crowded street, behind the wheel of an American-made pickup truck. 16 years later, I found myself playing quadriplegic rugby on a court in Paris with 11 women from 6 different countries in an American-made Vesco wheelchair.
Last Monday night, I found myself at the United Nations in New York City. This time amidst individuals from over 150 different countries, a mere 6 hours from my rural Pennsylvania home. Though incredible, I would not call this quite as unlikely. It was a merger of a lifetime passion in advocacy, interest in and concern for international affairs and development, and a decade of life experience as a person with a disability—possibly a little personality thrown in. I was invited to the Advisory Council for Handicap International US in January of this year and last week joined their delegation at the Conference of States Parties on the CRPD.
I sat in on the general assembly listening to countries reporting on the status and actions for disability rights within their respective communities. It was a lot of information to take in. The side sessions on a wide spectrum of topics were eye-opening and greatly widened my perspective. Even more to process, but invigorating. Some of the sessions I attended had focuses of promoting inclusion and equity for all in education, consideration of women and girls with disabilities in inclusive society development, universally accessible urban design, changing lives through adaptive sports, and youth perspectives from active young adult leaders. I truly appreciate the thought and attention given to these widely overlooked topics.
In a few of the side sessions, I was compelled to comment in order to share experience and further humanize the impact of inclusive community activity and presumption of competence in individuals with disabilities. The session on changing lives through adaptive sports was especially personal. After acquiring a disability as a physically active 21 year old, I was lost. I had lost my identity, confidence, and ability to physically – often socially – engage with the world around me. When I found quadriplegic rugby I was changed. I learned how to live life in a wheelchair from my peers, while being physically engaged in a full contact adaptive sport. I had the opportunity to travel and practice independent living skills in a supported environment. Most importantly I gained confidence. When I find organizations and individuals with power of making true change, I am compelled to show appreciation for their commitment and remind them what that work means.
Our stories and experiences are our power. This was reinforced for me in the many that shared pieces of themselves, like Mia Farah. She said, “I know my rights and I am ready to fight for them – we are stronger together,” as she addressed the general assembly.
Despite my experience base, I was still struck by the active listening of everyone in the room and the follow up. I networked with incredible people, leaders in their communities and countries in forwarding the rights of people with disabilities as human rights and pushing forward inclusive community design. I found my niche. I walked away from COSP completely inspired and empowered, with a widened perspective of world issues facing individuals with disabilities and a new and vast network of colleagues already in action. I even had the opportunity to share very special moments with some of them. One memorable instance—on a rooftop with an Empire view. Stronger together we are indeed.