As we continue to celebrate Women’s History Month at Bender Consulting Services, I wanted to share the following powerful message delivered by Sarah Blahovec upon acceptance of the 2019 AAPD Paul G. Hearne Emerging Leader Award for her work toward establishing the first campaign training curriculum for people with disabilities who want to run for elected office. Sarah is a phenomenal woman and advocate for disability rights. While she now lives in DC where she works on initiatives related to disability rights, disability voting rights, and disability employment issues, Sarah, like me, is from western Pennsylvania and is a fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
When I heard her speech at the AAPD Gala, I knew right away that I wanted to share her message with others. So many young people with disabilities believe it when they are told they can’t reach for their dreams and allow others to put limits on their success. We need more people like Sarah who are out there making a difference and empowering people with disabilities to dream. If you would like to hear more about Sarah’s training curriculum, please visit Disability Matters on Voice America to listen to a recording of my recent show, featuring Sarah as a guest.
Transcript of a speech presented at the AAPD Leadership Award Gala by Sarah Blahovec on 3/12/2019
The first time I was told I couldn’t achieve my dreams because of my disability was at the age of 16, a year after I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. Having studied violin intensely since the age of six, I had asked my teacher and mentor about preparing for a career as a professional violinist. Unflinchingly, he told me that I was too ambitious, that I dreamed too much, and that I shouldn’t bother with college at all.
Over 10 years later, I hear echoes of this refrain in the stories of people who have been told that they can’t run for office for some reason related to their disability. And like my violin teacher, their critics are both wildly misinformed about the capabilities of disabled people and unwilling to address the true barriers that hold us back from achieving our dreams. Passionate and clever people are told that they shouldn’t bother running for city council because they can’t do door-to-door canvassing for eight hours a day. A deaf candidate is excluded from their local party’s candidate forum because the party refuses to hire an interpreter. A candidate with a stutter worries that they won’t be taken seriously by prospective voters and powerful donors.
The truth is that disabled people have developed skills from living in a world that wasn’t built for us, skills that prime us for leadership. We are creative, resilient, and adaptable. We are great problem solvers and advocates. We understand the communities whom we seek to represent, especially when we exist as people of color, religious minorities, women, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community. The only barriers to our service are the outdated beliefs that society holds about leadership and the lack of resources dedicated to helping us seek public office.
Over the past two years at the National Council on Independent Living, I’ve had the privilege of beginning to address both of these challenges. Make no mistake, addressing societal attitudes and structural inaccessibility in civic engagement will take enormous effort. But not only am I energized to solve this problem, I’m finding more and more allies and co-conspirators in the fight to shift our culture. I have fostered relationships with organizations that are working to train future candidates, and more often than not, they are eager to improve their inclusion of the disability community. And while inclusion in other programs is great, I also wanted to create a training program specifically dedicated to empowering and educating people with disabilities on how to run a campaign.
Thanks to AAPD and the Paul G. Hearne Emerging Leader Award, I am taking the first step in realizing such a program: I will be building an online, accessible webinar series to train prospective candidates with disabilities on not only how to run their own campaigns for local office, but also on how to navigate the physical and attitudinal barriers they may experience along the way. This program will be led by trainers of color who understand the disability community. In order to change our systems of power, we must intentionally build our programs to center on disabled women, people of color, and other marginalized voices. I hope that this is only the beginning of a movement to create programs and resources that empower leaders with disabilities and improve our representation at all levels of government.
If my violin teacher was right about anything, it is that people with disabilities are ambitious. However, that is not a bad thing. We have the ability to harness our ambition and energy and use it to represent and uplift our communities. I look forward to continuing to serve my community by providing the tools we need to take our advocacy and leadership to city halls, state legislatures, and Congressional seats around the country. Thank you again to the American Association of People with Disabilities for making this program possible.