In so many episodes of my life, I felt like an outsider. Different not only because of my brown skin or native language, but also because of my disability. Going through life without seeing teachers, doctors, bankers, lawyers that looked like me was the norm. I questioned every day as a teenager, and then as a young woman, why didn’t I see myself in these roles. I also didn’t picture myself as an agent of change, because how much power did I really hold?
Looking back at that train of thought I realize that any power is enough. If I am fueled by a passion for an issue I can be the chemical reactor that creates a movement by building advocacy. In my case, my advocacy is centered on disability rights which can be very political and can certainly become a career. This can be anything from being a coalition consulted, working as a campaign strategist (both for a candidate or issue campaigns), working in a non-profit or creating your own non-profits. The opportunities are endless if it is truly something we are passionate about and understand that sacrifices may need to happen.
Disability issues are close to my heart, not just because it is my lived experience, but because far too many capable, amazing disabled people are in hiding and feel underrepresented, ignored and discriminated against. I think two instances in my life really filled me with the passion to work on this issue and get political.
The first experience was when I was a teenager excited about applying to college. In a meeting with my school advisor, I was told not to bother applying because, in her words, “your condition and disability will be a barrier to your success in achieving a degree.” Of course, I was shocked, angry, and as a typical high school student, I didn’t listen. I still applied, got my acceptance letters and graduated high school as the only disabled student going to college that year.
My second instance was after graduating college, which is a hard time because finding a job in 2010 was not an easy task, and competition for college grads was tremendous. After countless interviews and 8 months of unemployment, I thought I landed a job in Maryland. I remember I was seated at the event firms mock dining table waiting for the owner to bring the paperwork that I would have to complete since I accepted the position and I was so excited! I had asked my mom to let me borrow the money, so I was able to fly there and stay a couple of days with a family member. My cane was beside me hidden just a little bit under my coat, the owner finally arrived, and when he noticed my cane proceeded to say that “we will not go forward in hiring you, having a cane and a disability may not be ideal for this position, we are sorry for your inconvenience.” I was embarrassed, sad, and hurt. I did not realize before this situation happened how difficult it was to be disabled in America.
Since these two experiences happened I have been advocating for disability rights, higher education attainability and access and anti-discrimination laws in my state of Rhode Island. I have worked in helping with coalition building, training disabled students to feel empowered through leadership programs, civic engagement and organizer training, because what is more powerful than the story of self? I have worked in non-profits and for-profit organizations and have built my career by working on issues I love. I have also helped pass ordinances in my city that dealt with access to the deaf and hard of hearing as disabilities are sensory, physical and invisible.
Today, I am building from scratch a non-profit that is very much needed in Rhode Island. CaneIwalk is my project, hopefully, my non-profit which will empower and amplify the voices of youth with disabilities to reach their full potential by providing Innovative mentoring programs, youth leadership, development programs, and social justice, civic and community engagement programs. The goal is to motivate our disabled youth to reach their personal, educational and professional goals while guiding our public and private sectors to be more inclusive.
Passion creates advocacy for an issue which becomes political as soon as we work to push policies in different capacities. Your interest and strengths help guide you in the direction of a career, it is just a matter of keeping focused and working to meet smaller goals along the way. To me, inclusivity, intersectional work and intentionality is key to making a passion for politics a career.
Stephanie Olarte is the Rhode Island State Program Coordinator for The Hispanic Federation. She is a Latina and disability advocate, and is passionate about seeing more women of color elected to office.
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