(Image description: Two women in their mid-20s, one with red hair and one with blonde hair posing for a selfie in the White House)
Guest blog post by Karin Hitselberger, UCP’s Public Education Associate
A few weeks ago, during my first week here at United Cerebral Palsy (UCP), my coworker, Kaitlyn and I were invited to an event at the White House. The event was for young women with disabilities. Kaitlyn and I are both women with disabilities– in fact, we both have cerebral palsy– but our experiences are a little different. I am a lifelong, full-time chair user, and while Kaitlyn was a chair user at one point, she now walks. We come to life, as women with disabilities, with our own perspectives, as did each one of the other girls, who we met that afternoon. But there are crucial parts of our experience that we all share.
As Kaitlyn says, “The events may not be the same, but we are sisters in this life.” The event we attended, entitled “Strikingly Beautiful,” was a celebration of women and girls with disabilities, but also a unique opportunity to bring this group together, in such a powerful place to share their unique, yet often similar life stories.
“Women and girls with disabilities often feel isolated in their experiences because they may not have grown up with other women with disabilities and don’t always see themselves reflected in popular culture,” said Maria Town, Associate Director for Public Engagement and Disability Community Liaison at the White House Office of Public Engagement. “It’s important that women and girls with disabilities have opportunities to connect with one another and learn from each other’s stories so that we can build more inclusive communities,”
It was surreal, but so important to be in the White House, a quintessential symbol of America, discussing our experiences as young women with disabilities– something that is rarely given any thought or space at all on a larger scale, let alone at that high of a level.
Even though most of the people in the room had never met each other before, it felt like a warm reunion. It was like a family or a group of close friends, all sharing stories that seemed to somehow be uniquely and intimately familiar to each and every one of us.
We witnessed strong, disabled women sharing their truth. Reminding us of the power and importance of stories. Then, we shared our own stories, putting pen to paper on White House stationery and spelling out our truth– whatever that may be. As women with disabilities in our mid-20s, Kaitlyn and I were both truly honored to be able to share our stories with younger girls with disabilities. We both saw what an impact intergenerational mentorship and conversation makes in the lives of young people with disabilities and were incredibly grateful to have an opportunity to be in a room with girls in different stages of life than us, and be the potential role models and mentors we so wished for in our youth.
Sharing our own experiences, and listening to others share theirs, was a powerful reminder to us both that, even when you feel like you are the only person who goes through something, the truth is you are never ever alone. Kaitlyn and I both had opportunities, in different ways, to share our experiences and perspectives with the group. It was as amazing for us to witness the similarities in our own stories, as it was to listen to other people share theirs. We both felt privileged to witness the immense power that comes from bringing people together to create community and shared experiences.
We both were deeply impacted by the very existence of such an event to talk about things like beauty and sexuality, and other issues relating to the experiences of women with disabilities. We know that all women need safe and open spaces to talk about these issues, but as women with disabilities, our place in these communities often feels overlooked. Seeing these experiences discussed at such a high level, like at the White House, was incredibly important to us. It reminded us that our experiences and voices matter.