I just got home from another speaking engagement. I was in Boston, addressing an audience of 1,500. This isn’t my first rodeo—I’ve gotten used to the stage, the microphone, the attention, and the task of communicating my message. But it wasn’t that long ago when I wasn’t so willing to open up about what matters to me.
Given the current political climate in the U.S.—whatever side of the political spectrum you’re on—it feels more important than ever that we are being heard. We also have to work hard to really listen to one another.
Trust me, I know it can be intimidating. I started school as an uninhibited child. I would raise my foot to ask a question, just like my classmates would raise their hands. However, as I transitioned to middle school and got thrust into classes with new people, raising my foot became a source of undue attention. It made me stand out as a target for potential mockery, simply because I was different. So I developed a new identity. I went from being the exuberant child who participated in class to the shy young girl who kept to herself. I suffered in that silence.
Right now, it’s easy to lose your voice if you’re not careful—there are simply so many voices. Voices around the topics of refugees, foreign policy, education, gun violence, climate change, and the rights of Americans with disabilities, to name just a few. But that doesn’t mean yours or my own aren’t needed in the mix. Quite the contrary.
At the end of seventh grade, I was given a big break when my family moved to a bigger city. It was a chance to reinvent myself. On the first day of school, I decided to shed my prosthetic arms after having worn them for 11 years. That particular day goes down as one of the most transformative days in my life. That was the day I made the decision to be myself.
It was also the day that I became my own advocate. No one was going to speak up for me if I didn’t learn to speak up for myself.
As I grew into my own person, my voice became gradually louder. Not only could I speak up for myself, I could also speak up for others who had not yet found their own voice. During my sophomore year, I was accepted to the Youth Advisory Council of the Metropolitan Education Commission. Some of the Commission’s events gave me my first taste of politics. I was awarded their Crystal Apple Award that recognizes a teenager who does community service and demonstrates leadership. As the awardee, I had to deliver an acceptance speech on the importance of education. Delivering that speech was incredibly empowering. I realized in that moment that my voice could not only benefit me, but it could help make a difference in my community, and possibly, around the globe.
I’m grateful for the opportunities I have to use my voice for the greater good. With Handicap International, I’m able to share the impact of inclusive education and the importance of disability rights globally. I’ve made my voice heard in the halls of the U.S. Senate buildings in Washington, D.C., urging U.S. Senators to support the ratification on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which they’ve yet to do.
I have spoken to crowds in more than 20 countries and the RightFooted documentary is airing in more than 80 countries as I type. My voice is being heard in more languages than I can count.
But every voice matters. And you don’t have to be an expert to raise yours. Find one thing that motivates you and go with it! Every person has a unique story to tell. And no one else can do it for you.
For people with disabilities like me, I especially encourage you to communicate your experiences to others. Don’t let anyone image your reality for you. Let’s not allow others to speak on behalf of our community. Nothing about us, without us!
So please – find your core issue, and speak out with passion. I’ll be listening.