Academy-Award Winning Actor Marlee Matlin & Easterseals to Headline The Marketing Power of Disability Conference Presented by PRWeek

Angela F. Williams - CEO EastersealsAt Easterseals, we believe in the power of the disability community, the unlimited potential of some 61 million Americans with disabilities. It’s undeniable. And yet, far too many adults with disabilities remain under- or unemployed, with businesses and others in our communities still failing to tap this incredible pool of talent.

After more than a year of navigating life through the pandemic, this fact is now only magnified. As we noted in our recent study about the impact of COVID-19, working-age adults with disabilities report far greater levels of unemployment than in prior years, with more than one million losing their jobs within the first few months of the pandemic. These study findings also show we must act now to change the landscape for people with disabilities to assure greater equity and inclusion for them in the post-pandemic world.

This means advancing equity for all in our communities. To do so, we must increase employment opportunities by helping people with disabilities, older workers, and veterans find and hold meaningful jobs.

Fortunately, the pursuit of a diverse, equitable and inclusive workforce has never been more top of mind than it is now. As a powerful advocate for people with disabilities and their families, Easterseals is working to ensure that disability is included within DE&I conversations happening with employers nationwide. No such conversations or considerations are even remotely complete without including people with disabilities.

As we’re beginning to recover from this past year, our country must now place far greater value on adults with disabilities in the workforce. Yes, it is the right thing to do. And yes, there is an undeniable business case to be made.

A recent study by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) indicates that working-age people with disabilities have approximately $21 billion in discretionary income. This money is waiting on the table, ready for the taking by the brands who get it right.

As consumers, we rarely see disability included in the advertisements, corporate storytelling, or brand messages across our screens or in stores. But for those companies who authentically include disability – in product offerings and design, hiring practices and advertising campaigns – consumers pay attention with their pocketbooks. Companies who embrace disability will be the first to say that these inclusive decisions make for smart business, increasing the bottom line and improving customer loyalty.

Are you curious about this topic? Want to explore it more? I certainly do!

Plan to join Easterseals and Marlee Matlin, Academy-Award Winning actor and disability advocate, alongside PRWeek for an incredible conversation on Tuesday, June 1 – The Marketing Power of Disability. Learn more here.

During this special virtual event, we will drill deeply into how the communications industry – and all the brands it counsels – can more effectively include this extensive population through content and campaigns, but also tap into this incredible pool of talent to bolster corporate DE&I efforts.


·  12:02pm ET-12:30pm ET: Fighting Fears, Suppressing Stigmas

·  12:32pm ET-12:58pm ET: A workplace that works for everyone

·  1pm ET-1:30pm ET: Featured chat with Marlee Matlin

·  1:32pm ET-1:58pm ET: The keys to inclusive content 


·  Marlee Matlin, Academy Award-winning actress and advocate

·  Angela F. Williams, president and CEO, Easterseals

·  More speakers to be announced…



Many Said I Was Selfish For Having a Baby. This is Why They’re Wrong

rachelle and her daughterWe are excited to have Rachelle Chapman share thoughts about being a mom ahead of Mother’s Day. Rachelle is an Easterseals Ambassador, one of six diverse women helping us stay connected to the disability community and advancing our mission together to provide services and advocacy for people with disabilities and their families. You can follow Rachelle on Instagram to learn more about her and her family. 

By Rachelle Chapman

I didn’t always want kids, but when I fell in love with my husband, something changed. I wanted to make a little human one day with him and have a family. When I was playfully pushed into a pool during my bachelorette party and became paralyzed, the first thing I asked laying on the side of that pool to the EMTs is if I could still have kids.  I remember one answering and saying yes. It was a small comfort even in the midst of a traumatic moment. 

I lost the use of my fingers, triceps, and everything from the chest down. I wondered what I’d be able to do on my own with a little one. We found a surrogate because of the meds I was on and, in 2015, we had a beautiful baby girl named Kaylee Rae. 

I practiced putting on diapers by using my wrist to move the diaper around and my teeth to pull the closures off and put them on. I practiced holding her bottleand I’d say feeding was by far the easiest task. I was responsible for feeding and holding her in the middle of the night. I couldn’t get up and grab her, but my husband or mom would get her, make a bottle, and bring her to me. That way, everyone could sleep while I stayed awake putting her back to sleep.  

I understand her wants, needs, worries, and fears. My husband is the best dad in the world, but it’s a little stressful for him when she loses it. I am able to step in and let him take a breather. Every night, I read to her and tell stories. We sing our favorite Beatles songs (and a few others) and I rub her back to sleep.  

Are there limitations? Absolutely. But my husband and I had a system in place to delegate different tasks, like opening bottles and changing diapers. As she got older, things got easier. She could reach out to me in her crib to get her out and started to climb onto my lap from the floor. I could finally dress her because she could step into her pants and find the arm holes. She even learned to walk holding onto the back of my wheelchair. 

Also, this pandemic has definitely been a struggle for our family because I am high risk. The beginning was super hard because my daughter, who is an only child, wanted so badly to have someone to play with. All of the playgrounds were closed, and we had to start brainstorming on how to make the quarantine as easy and as fun as possible. We redid our entire backyard to add a swing set, trampoline, and fire pit! If I were to put a positive spin on things, I would say that I really treasured the extra time I had with my family. Kaylee was about to start kindergarten and I dreaded not being able to be with her every day. The quarantine gave us that time to be together and to make some beautiful memories.  

While I’m sad I can’t do certain things for her like teach her how to swim, do her hair or open her new toys with pesky packaging, there is far more I can do for her and she isn’t missing out on anything.  

It upsets me when people say I am selfish for having a child. They do not know what I am and what I’m not capable of. This was not just my decision, but a decision made by my entire family and my entire support system. What if my husband Chris was a single parent? Would it be impossible for him to care for that child by himself or would he be selfish for it? So how does adding me make it a selfish situation?   

love my daughter more than life itself, and I can’t explain to you the bond we have. She is one lucky girland I know she knows it. At age six, she is smart, beautiful, super active and loves going to school. I’m proud to be a mother, and extra proud to have her as a daughter.  



This Year’s Best Gift for Moms of Kids with Disabilities

Happy Mother’s Day to all of us with children who have disabilities! We celebrated early — my husband Mike, Seeing Eye dog Luna and I rented a car and traveled two-and-a-half hours from Chicago to visit our son Gus in his Wisconsin group home.

Our son Gus – he’s bigger and stronger now.

Trips like that used to be a routine, monthly occurrence. But you all know what happened in March 2020. Before our early Mother’s Day trip, we hadn’t been inside Gus’ house to visit him in 16 months. It’s been a long year, and we are grateful to the group home for following CDC regulations to keep Gus and his roommates safe. None of them ever tested positive for COVID, and all of them are fully vaccinated now.

Typically, we call the house on the drive up to let them know we’re coming — and to be sure they didn’t have some outing planned. We called as we were driving up, but the house phone was busy. And busy. And busy.

It’s common advice for those of us who have loved ones in the care of others to make unannounced visits…to check on their care. And early on we did that from time to time, but over time, our trust had grown. And Mike and I don’t really like sneaking up on people whom we’ve come to trust. This time we had no choice, though. We just showed up.

Gus’ house is actually a duplex. Four bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen on each side. An inside opening between the units allows staff members to toggle between as necessary. But Saturday, there seemed to only be one staff member there. All the residents were just finishing lunch when we arrived, and the staff member had her hands full. When Mike explained that he’d tried to call, she apologized. Minutes earlier she had realized one of the residents had knocked the landline phone off the hook.

Some might judge this staff member as irresponsible, but we knew better. She was just overworked. The nonprofit Survival Coalition of Wisconsin Disability Organizations conducted a survey of 504 providers of disability services showing that costs are rising and revenues plunging across the industry. Nearly 20% of surveyed businesses and organizations providing such services were unsure whether they would survive the pandemic.

A number of the part-time workers at Gus’ group home attended local colleges. With classes meeting online now, those students have left the area to live at home with their parents. Other staff members have left for safer jobs. A story on Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) reported that “aides take on demanding duties and are typically paid about $12 an hour in Wisconsin.” And it’s not just Wisconsin. More from that WPR story:

The long-term-care sector has experienced at least 6% of Wisconsin’s coronavirus diagnoses and more than 40% of deaths from COVID-19.

And it’s not just in Wisconsin. I’ve heard that long-term caregivers are in short supply across the country. Caring for people with special needs can be overwhelming. We know that first-hand. Way back—nearly 20 years ago—when Gus had just moved away — we’d take him on outings. Typically to Culver’s, where he’d demolish a double cheeseburger. Then we’d take a ride, roll the windows down and sing along to tunes blasting on the radio.

That was fun, but Mike can no longer muscle our son in and out of his wheelchair and in and out of the car the way he used to. We stick to house visits with Gus now, sitting and talking with him. I update him on what his aunts, uncles and cousins are up to these days —he doesn’t always understand, but it’s enough for him to recognize that it’s his mom talking to him. Then Mike chimes in, calling out a robust “Hi Gus!” in his best booming dad-voice.

Gus always recognizes our voices. Our early Mother’s Day visit was no exception — he smiled and laughed the minute we entered his room. And then he just erupted, about every 10 seconds, with an excited roar of joy. Hearing that, sharing hugs, back together after so many months away…I truly couldn’t ask for a better Mother’s Day this year!


Justice Department Will Intervene in Disability Discrimination Suit About Pedestrian Safety

I just got word that the U.S. Department of Justice has moved to intervene in a disability discrimination lawsuit brought by private plaintiffs alleging the City of Chicago violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 by failing to provide accessible street-crossing signal information for pedestrians with disabilities.

Chicago currently provides visual crossing signals — “walk/don’t walk” signs and countdown timers — for sighted pedestrians at nearly 2,700 intersections. It has only installed Accessible Pedestrian Signals (APS) at a mere 15 city intersections.

Sighted pedestrians use flashing “Walk/Don’t Walk” signs and countdown timers to alert them when it is safe to cross the street. I can’t see those helpful devices. Devices providing pedestrians with safe-crossing information through audible tones, speech messages, and vibrotactile surfaces do exist, but too few of the busy intersections in Chicago offer them. The proposed suit alleges that the lack of accessible pedestrian signals at over 99 percent of Chicago’s signalized intersections subjects people who are blind, have low vision, or are deaf-blind to added risks and burdens not faced by sighted pedestrians, including fear of injury or death.

I’ve come across accessible pedestrian signals in other cities we’ve visited — Madison, Wisconsin comes to mind, and Urbana, Illinois has a few — but those were inconsistent. At some intersections, hearing “beep, beep, beep” meant I should cross, and at others it meant I should stay put. Looking for the button to press to activate the accessible pedestrian signals got me off-track and made it hard to find the crosswalk again. Sometimes the beep, beep beep noise was so loud it made it difficult to hear and judge the traffic surge. I pitied the poor people who lived and worked near one of the APS and had to hear it all the time.

When I was newly blind and learning to use a white cane, orientation and mobility (O&M) instructors taught me to rely on the surge of traffic at my parallel to recognize when the signal is green and it’s safe to walk. That principle is reinforced every time I travel to Morristown, New Jersey to train with a new Seeing Eye dog. In fact, at the Seeing Eye, one isn’t eligible to be matched with a dog without having completed O&M training.

Dogs are color blind. Seeing Eye dogs can’t read the stoplights, so it’s not their job to determine when it’s safe to cross a busy street. They are trained to go right up to every curb at each street crossing they get to, stop right there, and trust their human partner to use their sense of hearing to figure out what direction traffic is moving. Once we’re certain that traffic is flowing the same direction we want to travel, we give our dogs the command to cross. Dogs are trained to keep an eye out and to disobey their partner if the team is in harm’s way. It’s called intelligent disobedience, and it’s a pretty difficult thing to ask the dogs to do, when you think about it.

Traffic in Chicago has changed immensely in the year my new Seeing Eye dog Luna has been with me — things started out normal in February, 2020. Then came the COVID shutdowns in March. Cars were few and far between, making it difficult to rely on my sense of sound to judge traffic flow. “Is the light green?” With so few people out and about, there was no one to ask.

Traffic increased again when things opened up in the summer, then decreased again when a surge in COVID forced another shutdown in fall. I’ve made my share of bad decisions at intersections during these times, and I cringe to think that onlookers are blaming my young new dog Luna when it’s me who made the mistake.

So I’m no longer skeptical when it comes to accessible pedestrian signals. Do I need one at every corner? No. Be selective and put them at particularly difficult intersections — the T-intersection down the street comes to mind. I need all the help I can get at that one. You know what else would help? Making the already-existing countdown timers audible. In these times of talking computers, VoiceOver on smartphones, and speech synthesizers, it seems a simple call-out of “ten, nine, eight…” and so on wouldn’t be that difficult. And what a great help it would be to me and my fellow visually-impaired pedestrians.


Have Vaccine, Will Travel: Flying Blind During COVID

A sun hat, tropical leaf, a miniature bus and airplane, and a passport book arranged in an organized fashion with colorful accents

My boyfriend Juan lives in Houston. I live in the suburbs of Chicago. He came to visit me last fall, and the last day we were together was September 26, 2020.

That was nearly seven months ago.

A few weeks ago, I finally booked tickets to fly out there this month for a much-needed and highly-anticipated reunion. I’m not going to lie to you: the long wait hasn’t been easy. With a feeling of uncertainty constantly looming over both of us, some days really took their toll.

When we parted ways in September, we were reasonably certain I’d be able to make it out there for my birthday and Thanksgiving. I didn’t. We also missed New Year’s, his birthday and our first Valentine’s Day together.

Phone calls, text messages, and Zoom meetings galore kept us busy and connected. It was tough, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s been worth it.

I am not the type of person to make travel plans and wing it. I like to do a lot of research beforehand. Before I took my first solo flight last year, I did a lot of research on airlines and accommodations, and asked blind and visually-impaired friends what their advice was. I posted my questions on Facebook and I did a lot of my own research on airlines and accommodations.

When planning my upcoming trip, I didn’t post any questions on social media. Instead, I talked again to blind and visually-impaired friends, and this time I also talked with former teachers who are very familiar with blind travel or have traveled themselves. Some of the questions I asked:

  • What was assistance like at the airports?
  • Was the level of assistance any different than before COVID?
  • Should I plan to arrive extra early, even earlier than I normally would?
  • Does the airline need advanced notice of my need for accommodations?

While I don’t expect things to be super different, I do expect some changes, so I logged onto the Southwest Airlines website to read about their COVID-19 travel updates. It doesn’t look like traveling is any different in terms of accommodations. Boarding might be a longer process, but typically I go for pre-boarding anyway. There are markings on the floors to indicate a 6-feet distance, but I trust that my assistant will make sure I am distanced from other people.

So, after extensive, careful research and my family and me getting fully vaccinated, it felt like the right time to travel to Houston.

Juan and I have discussed the Texas governor’s recent decision to lift all mask mandates there, and he assured me he always wears his mask. I asked him if restaurants still require masks and, if so, how he knows that (since, like me, he is totally blind and wouldn’t be able to read the signs). “I’m usually with two of my friends who can see, and they’ve told me there are signs,” he explained, assuring me that the businesses he goes to are still really good about requiring masks.

So with that extra reassurance, I finally booked my flight! I’ll be spending two weeks in Houston, somewhere I haven’t been since early 2020. I’m excited to see some of my friends that I met last year, and welcome that sense of freedom that always sticks with me after traveling somewhere on my own.

Look for another post about travel from Ali when she returns from Houston in May and can report in on their adventures together there.


Women’s Empowerment and Disability: We Have the Law on Our Side

An illustration of Lady JusticeAnja Herrman’s well-written guest post about disability and empowerment was so, well, powerful that it got me thinking about my own journey to discovering strength in disability, too.

Before I lost my sight I was the Assistant Director at the University of Illinois Study Abroad Office. I helped college students who wanted to study overseas and arranged housing and other details for students from Britain who were spending a year at the U of I. The job entailed talking with students, checking out what programs might work for them, phoning different college departments or other universities to arrange for the transfer of college credits. I was sure I’d be able to perform these tasks without being able to see.

My boss, however, was sure I could not.

I tried proving her wrong. At first, I didn’t use a white cane or a dog. I quit driving or riding my bike, but I could still see well enough to walk to work with a walking cane (my husband Mike and I happened to have bought one as a souvenir during our honeymoon in Scotland months before, when I could still see perfectly well). As my eyesight got worse, I started making mistakes in the office. I ran into tabletops. I had to sit inches away from my computer screen to see the words. After I spilled grounds all over the floor one day while making the morning coffee, my boss took me aside and told me I wouldn’t be going to the annual convention with my colleagues that year. “You’ll embarrass the office,” she said.

That all happened in 1985. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) had not been passed yet. Three months later, she terminated my contract. Fast forward to 2021. The ADA requires “reasonable accommodation” for individuals with disabilities in employment and at places of public accommodation such as retail stores, office buildings, sidewalks and movie theaters. I am totally blind now, and I use speech software to write for publications and moderate our blog. I’ve had three books published, and before COVID my Seeing Eye dog was leading me to buses and cabs to get all around Chicago to teach five different weekly memoir-writing classes for people 60 and better. With more and more seniors getting fully vaccinated, I look forward to teaching in person again soon.

We still have a long, long way to go before hiring practices are totally fair to those of us with disabilities. But ever since the passage of the ADA, things have been moving in the right direction for me and the millions of other Americans who have a disability. The wisdom and determination of all the many, many people who banded together in 1990 to get the ADA passed leaves me feeling empowered. We have the law on our side.


This Clever Podcast Helps Kids Imagine What It’s Like to be Blind

A young child has earphones on and is listening pleasantly. Behind her are illustrations of different objects like a feather, kit, radioI like to start my mornings with coffee and a podcast. I never used to be into podcasts, actually — I’d listen to a few here and there — but when COVID-19 regulations started keeping us closer to home, morning podcasts became a part of my routine.

The first one I ever listened to was Serial, a murder mystery. Since then, my two favorites are Crime Junkie and Morbid: A True Crime Podcast.

A few weeks ago, our Easterseals blog moderator Beth Finke told me about a podcast called X-Marks The Spot and asked me if I’d be willing to give it a listen and write a review for you Easterseals National blog readers.

Created by the Chicago Children’s Theatre (CCT), X-Marks The Spot is a five-part serialized audio production conceived and directed by CCT Artistic Director Jacqui Russell. She came up with the idea after completing a 2018 residency at Otis Elementary, a Chicago Public School where some children with visual impairments learn alongside their sighted peers.

Listeners to the podcast are encouraged to listen to the dialog and the narrations to enjoy a story using their sense of smell, taste, touch and hearing rather than depending on their sense of sight. Sighted people can and do enjoy all sorts of podcasts, but they might not be used to podcasts that are more of a performance and a story. Not being able to see the action may be new to them. I thought this was really interesting, so I was glad to give it a listen and then give you readers this review.

Described as an “extra sensory experience,” X-Marks the Spot is obviously much different than what I normally listen to. I’ll use certain scenes to give examples here , but don’t worry about spoiler alerts – my examples won’t spoil any major plot twists! Here are my thoughts about the podcast’s representation of blindness:

  • X-Marks The Spot follows a family with 4 children, including Melody, who is blind. It begins by introducing each member of the family, and then having that person speak so the listener can identify the person based on their voice. I enjoyed the beginning of the podcast because Blind people are used to identifying people by their voices, but sighted people may not be.
  • The beginning also described the different dimensions of visual impairment. Some people who identify as blind actually have some sight. Melody, the character in the podcast, is completely blind, just like me.
  • The first episode also addresses something that intrigued me, because it’s a question I often get: how do you describe color to a blind person? There’s a quick scene that is a great representation of this. While the children are in the car, they play a game where someone describes a color without saying what it looks like: they use their other four senses instead. This way everyone can play on an even keel, Melody is not at a disadvantage because she can’t see. Example: “This color sounds like a sick guitar solo. It feels like a skinned knee. It smells and tastes like desert air.” The color was red. This was one of my favorite scenes, partly because I had read once about describing color to a blind person using senses, and another because it was fun! I, too, was able to play along and try to guess what color they were thinking of.
  • In another episode, the kids are flying a kite, and their mother puts a bell in the kite so Melody could hear how high it goes. I don’t know if I ever flew a kite as a child, but if I did, we never adapted it like this. That’s certainly not because my family didn’t want to. That idea just never occurred to us.
  • I think this is a great podcast for children. Even as a 28-year-old listening to something geared toward a younger crowd, I found myself laughing at some parts.
  • I think it does a great portrayal of blindness, from the color game to mentioning the white cane to even being able to hear the sound of the Braille writer.

I think kids of all ages would really enjoy this podcast — it might give them ideas for ways to adapt things, such as the kite and the color game. My family has always wondered how to describe color to someone who can’t see (my dad has asked me this a few times and has always been curious).

So now I can give him an idea. While X-Marks the Spot is different from podcasts I normally listen to, it is something lighthearted, amusing, and I’m glad I was able to write about it here. I recommend you give X-Marks the Spot a listen – you can find out more and link to the podcast from the Chicago Children’s Theatre web site.


Working From Home: A Reasonable Accommodation under ADA Law?

a woman working on a laptopA story published earlier this month in HR Dive (a newsletter for people in the Human Resources industry ) reported that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities hit a 7-year high last year. And that’s saying something – it’s not like the outlet for people with disabilities getting a job was all that great before the pandemic, either.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), back in 2019 only 19.3% of working-age people who had disabilities had a job. The number of people with disabilities working last year dropped to 17.9%. In its analysis, BLS pointed out that “Persons with a disability were more likely to work in service occupations and occupations involving production, transportation and material moving in 2020 than those without disabilities.” The analysis said employment in leisure and hospitality fell by 8.2 million jobs in the first two months of the pandemic, and 8.3% of employed persons with a disability were working in those fields before 2020.

Americans with disabilities have lagged far behind their peers in employment for far too long. Even before the pandemic, only two in ten people with disabilities were participating in the workforce (compared to seven in ten for people without disabilities). Despite efforts to help increase employment for people with disabilities (including the passage of the historic Rehabilitation Act of 1973) jobseekers with disabilities continue to face double digit unemployment.

For individuals with disabilities whose major challenge is getting to work (accessible public transportation, ADA compliance in the workplace and so on) this past year might change things for the better. COVID-19 risks motivated many employers to add work-from home options for workers and adopt virtual hiring processes. From the HR Dive article:

That adoption is expected to continue well into 2021. Combined with other measures to reduce bias in the hiring process, this change could vastly improve accessibility for individuals with disabilities.

The article even suggested that the impact of remote work in 2020 could encourage employers to consider work-at-home arrangements as reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. I hope they’re right.


National Transportation Organization Wants to Hear From Us

I love it when organizations or businesses go out of their way to ask older adults and/or people with disabilities what we think, don’t you? So when I found out the National Aging and Disability Transportation Center (NADTC) had launched a survey to hear about our experiences accessing and using local transportation options, I filled it out right away. From the NADTC web site:

As part of continuing efforts to identify transportation access, usage and disparities that impact diverse groups, the National Aging and Disability Transportation Center (NADTC) has launched a national equity, diversity and inclusion transportation survey. The survey will gauge opinions and obtain information from a representative sample of racially, ethnically and culturally diverse older adults, people with disabilities and family caregivers.

The survey is accessible and only took ten minutes to fill out — a very small chunk of my time to spend to be part of a study that may help with some of the public transportation issues I run into living in a big city. I urge you to join me and feel good about helping an organization make transportation options work better…for all of us!


Women’s Empowerment and Disability: Becoming the Role Model I Needed

A young lady wearing glasses and a cloth face mask with flower printI am pleased to have 14-year-old guest blogger Anja Herrman back with us today. I got to know Anja very well when she was nine years old and learning at home during a casting program (casts on both legs from her hips down to her ankles). She was schooled at home for two months back then, and I was her at-home writing tutor. Many of her completed assignments were published as guest posts here on our Easterseals National blog, and you can read this post from 2016 to learn how and why she had all her posts back then published under the pen name DJ Mermaid. A disability activist, Dj Mermaid is in high school now and goes by her real name.

by Anja Herrman

Marie Curie. Madeline Albright. Rosa Parks. Michelle Obama. Just a few of the role models I’ve looked up to in my fourteen years of life, all for different reasons: their perseverance, courage, bravery and strength, to name a few. As a young girl, I had these women to emulate and to champion.

There’s just one problem. While these women are all incredible in their own right and this is not to be dismissed, none of them openly identify as disabled. Growing up, whenever I looked for role models to help guide me along in my journey from childhood to adolescence, I never felt like I had people who “got me.” None of them understood the deep nuances of my life, so the “guidance” they provided for other pre-teens never rung true for me. These women existed, I just couldn’t find them, even though I spent a long time searching.

What to do? Well, if I couldn’t find any role models, I told myself, then I’ll be a role model, both for me, but most importantly, those who come after me. I was nine when I made this resolution, and over the past half decade (wow, I’m old!) I’ve been working on this promise to myself: to be a good role model and make the world more accessible and equal for people with disabilities. I want to forge a path that, if I’m lucky, others may choose to follow.

One such opportunity arose almost exactly a year ago (curse you, COVID, for drying up all of my speaking opportunities!) when I was asked to be a keynote speaker at an International Women’s Day event in Chicago. The speech was supposed to focus on advocacy and the disability community. Okay, piece of cake, I thought. The catch? The speech also had to be tailored to the business community. Which, in hindsight, makes sense, since it was hosted at an advertising firm.

But here’s the thing: I had absolutely no idea how to do that. Hence, for the very first time in my life as a writer, I found myself in a battle against every writer’s worst nightmare: writer’s block. Intense pressure doesn’t help, but what would you expect from a girl who compares herself to a lauded Secretary of State, a First Lady who is the literal definition of an icon, a famed scientist and a civil rights pioneer?

So, to conquer the writer’s block, I went back to basics and wrote a speech explaining what right I had to be speaking up on that stage. Using what I’ve learned from my life as a disabled adolescent fighting for equality, I crafted what I thought was a good speech and then I moved on to something else. I put the speech on the back burner, letting it simmer in my subconscious like a soup. Instead, I worried about other tasks: mainly the French test coming up in a few days.

Pro Tip: Another surefire way to get writer’s block is by over-critiquing. Critiquing beyond the point of being constructive stifles ideas.

The event drew nearer. So near that before I knew it I was sitting in the passenger seat of our car putting my mascara on while my mom was driving, and my brother was playing some sort of game on his phone, probably Minecraft…is that even a thing anymore?

Looking back, it’s a miracle I didn’t poke my eye out with a mascara wand while going over my speech one last time.

We got out of the car, raced up to the event space and, thankfully, I had a half an hour before I had to speak. So begins all the pre-event tests like checking the ramp to make sure I don’t tip before I have to speak (can you think of anything more embarrassing?) and introducing myself to all the other speakers and wishing them luck.

Before I know it, it’s showtime!

All the way through my speech, I imagine a little tiny me, with her pigtails and AFO’s sitting in the audience, biting her lip with anticipation. I look out, and notice that tiny Anja is laughing at the funny parts, and solemn at the serious parts, which means everything is landing exactly as I wanted it to back when I was sitting at home in my ratty pajama top writing the speech.

I conclude the speech. Over the roar of applause, I look into my younger self’s eyes, and see that she’s proud of me, and I know that I’ve succeeded in my quest, to be the role model that I needed.

And, guiding another person down the path to their own definition of success, well, that feels pretty great too.