Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Redefining "Disabled"

So one year of graduate school down! To refresh your memory, my dear readers, I'm getting my masters degree at Columbia University School of Social Work. My last day at my first internship was Friday and, since I extended my program in order to take better care of myself, I'm 1/3 on my way to being a social worker. Crazy, huh? I'm excited because now it gets good. Starting next Fall, I get to pick electives that I'm passionate about and really start on my chosen path - working with kids and adolescents dealing with chronic illness and disability as well as their families (couples, siblings, etc). Can't really think of anything better to spend my life on.

Anyway, one of the requirements for the first year was a course called "Advocacy." I went into it knowing what the word advocacy meant, but that was about it. I wasn't sure how it related to social work or my specific interests in direct counseling. What I soon found out is that advocacy work is very relevant no matter what one might do with their degree. As helping professionals who are responsible for ensuring the highest quality of life for our clients, we have an obligation to understand how to effectively advocate for their rights. Nothing will progress or change if we don't.

One of the best assignments in my advocacy course was a group project in which we had to find an agency to do advocacy work for. The class split into 7 small groups based on specific interests, so naturally I suggested having a "Disabilities group" (as this is my population of interest) and was the first person signed up. After meeting several times, our group decided to work with The Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York (CIDNY), a non-profit organization whose mission statement is "to ensure full integration, independence and equal opportunity for all people with disabilities by removing barriers to the social, economic, cultural and civic life of the community." A noble cause, wouldn't you say?

We got in touch with CIDNY and were invited to attend their monthly meeting. This meeting's main objective was to discuss the difference between what is fair and what is legal, as well as learn about the rights of people with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The group was diverse in disability and ethnicity; people living with chronic illness (like myself), hearing impairments, visual impairments,
Autism, Multiple Sclerosis, severe Cerebral Palsy, mental and emotional disabilities, etc. The members were very verbal and much of what was said reflected the frustration of living with a disability in a relatively ignorant society. The conversation centered on the lack of compassion and awareness out there, particularly toward those with less visible disabilities. I have my own thoughts about this, but I'll save them for a later post.

The meeting reflected both public and private struggles and I really admired the strength and candidness of each member. Because of their struggles and the struggles of their friends, CIDNY members are driven to organize, spread information across the disabled community, and travel to and from Albany to help influence crucial legislation. After the meeting, our group met with the Community Organizer Lourdes and brainstormed about how we could help. Since we knew CIDNY sought to spread the word about their mission and the rights of people with disabilities, I suggested that we create a brochure. Since we had a diverse group ourselves (consisting of a girl of Mexican descent, a visually impaired woman, a male, and myself), we had many perspectives on the project and were able to take it a step further. We ended up producing four forms of the brochure: an English version, a Spanish version, and two versions for the visually impaired (large-print and Braille).Note: If you'd like a PDF version of the brochure, e-mail me at mklaub@gmail.com and I'd be more than happy to send one along!

I feel lucky to have worked with CIDNY and glad to have helped spread their important message. The best part, though, was working so closely with people who had lost the ability to speak or walk, but who are still fighting for justice every day. This is something I'll never forget. Also, although I consider myself sensitive to the plight of people with disabilities (as I am one myself), this project gave me a whole new perspective. CIDNY isn't the only group like this, so I'd suggest that everyone attends one of these meetings if you can spare an hour or two. I now have greater insight into the various struggles of a diverse community (especially living in a big city) and what those with all forms of disabilities are up against.

As a society, we can and must work to broaden our awareness if we hope to make real differences in the lives of vulnerable populations. I learned that if we have a voice (and even if we don't), there is always a way to speak up for what's right. As always, thanks so much for reading...


PS: If you wish to volunteer at CIDNY, get more iformation or just be in touch, I know they'd love to hear from you. E-mail them at info@cidny.org or stop by their Manhattan office (wheelchair accessible, of course) at 841 Broadway, between 13th and 14th Streets, in the Union Square area of Manhattan. Also, their telephone number is 212-674-2300.


  1. Hi Maya,

    Great post! I love that you're using your education and your experience with chronic illness as a platform for advocacy. The more people speak up and share their experiences, the more likely it is that our struggles and our successes will have an impact on the way people view those with disabilities.

    I also really enjoyed reading your poems. I am an occasional poet, but your work really resonated with me. So thanks for posting them!


  2. Hi Nessie,

    Thank you for your very thoughtful post. It's only this year that I can see how and why people become so passionate about advocacy...you really just want to make a lasting change. It sounds like you're a very passionate person yourself.
    I would also really like to read your poetry sometime if you want to share: mklaub@gmail.com

    Thanks again,