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Fellows Blog Series

Deafblind Lawyer Haben Girma Advocates for Disability Rights

headshot of Haben Girma wearing a blue dress and pearls

Haben Girma

Haben Girma has been advocating for herself since she attended elementary school in Oakland. She became the first Deafblind person to graduate from law school when she earned her degree from Harvard Law School in 2013. She is a civil rights attorney who advocates for disability rights, a public speaker who travels the country changing people’s perceptions of the disability community in the media and has been featured in Forbes “30 Under 30” and on NBC and NPR.

In 1983, five years before Girma was born, her mother Saba Gebreyesus fled Eritrea, a city in Africa with approximately six million people, taking two weeks to walk to Sudan and sleeping in trees “surrounded by hungry hyenas.” But she was determined to give Girma the opportunities her son wasn’t given; he also was born deafblind.

After her mom settled in California, Girma was born in Oakland in 1988. In elementary school, she learned Braille and later used a Bluetooth keyboard hooked up to a Braille reader to communicate with others. At school, she gained access to the materials she needed to be able to learn. She credits her supportive teachers and classmates, accessible materials such as interpreters and other accommodations, and developed study skills and homework strategies for her success.

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Actress with Cerebral Palsy Diana Elizabeth Jordan is Veteran of 40 Shows, Shorts and Movies

Diana Elizabeth Jordan smiling in front of a tree

Diana Elizabeth Jordan

Diana Elizabeth Jordan, an award winning actress, writer, producer and director, is an important figure in the conversation about the inclusivity or lack thereof of people with disabilities in Hollywood. She found a way to get into and around Hollywood, with the help of her faith and self-confidence.

“There have been plenty of times in my life where I haven’t felt positive but I try my best to let the positive outweigh the negative and I think my faith in God has a lot to do with that,” said Jordan.

Jordan has cerebral palsy, which mildly affects her speech and gait. She has been acting professionally since she graduated from college. She began her career working in Chicago Theater. She also was the first actor with a disability to obtain Masters of Fine Arts in Acting from California State University Long Beach in 2001.

Since beginning her career, Diana has built an impressive list of over 40 credits in theater, film and television including her first T.V. guest star role on The WB’s 7th Heaven in 2004. The majority of roles she has been cast in have not been disability specific. It has always been important to her to be cast in roles where her disability is incidental to the character or storyline.

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Maya Angelou, Legendary Poet and Civil Rights Activist Who Had Disability, Inspires Generations

Image of Maya Angelou from around 1970, black and white photo of her face looking to the side

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was an award-winning author, poet, civil rights activist, college professor and screen writer. Most recognized for her literary works, Angelou was and remains among the most influential woman of her time. After passing away in 2014, Angelou still is widely remembered and honored for her hard work and perseverance over decades.

As a child, Angelou was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She told her brother, who told the rest of their family. While the boyfriend was found guilty, he was jailed for just one day. Four days later, he was murdered, with the theory that Angelou’s uncles did so. As a result, Angelou became mute for almost five years.

“I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name,” she later said. “And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone.”

Angelou had selective mutism, an anxiety disorder that causes a child to not speak due to physical and psychological trauma they endured. In the five-year span that she experienced this, her listening, observing and memorizing skills improved and her love of books expanded. This helped her later when she began working in becoming successful in her career.

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Whoopi Goldberg: Talented Actress, Comedienne and Talk Show Host Lives with Dyslexia

Whoopi Goldberg headshot wearing a gray sweater

Comedienne, actress and talk show host Whoopi Goldberg

Deloris in Sister Act, Whoopi on The View, Shenzi the Hyena in The Lion King—many of us can connect at least one character in a favorite show or movie with Whoopi Goldberg. Not as many can recognize her as a person with dyslexia. Dyslexia is a general term for disorders that involves difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols, but does not affect general intelligence. Indeed, singer and activist Harry Belafonte, Shark Tank star and businessman Daymond John and businessman Richard Branson all have dyslexia like Goldberg.

Goldberg is recognized widely for her work. She is one of few people to win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony award. However, as a child, Goldberg constantly faced negative feedback. People used to think she was lazy or not trying. She dropped out of school by age 17 and continued her education by going to museums and public lectures, according to the Child Mind Institute.

“What I remember about being a kid was that I felt pretty protected, I wasn’t afraid, and I had a mother who understood after a while that there was something different about the way I learn,” Goldberg recalls in talking with the Child Mind Institute.

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Halle Berry: Living with Disability While Taking a Stand against Domestic Violence

Halle Berry headshot smiling facing the camera with gold hoop earrings

Halle Berry

Halle Berry is much more than a sex symbol; she is a fighter who lives with disability.

The best dressed actress is an advocate for ending violence against women, an advocate for individuals with disabilities, and has been fighting for virtually her whole life.

The Cleveland, Ohio native was raised by a single mother along with her sister after her abusive father abandoned the family.

“When I was a girl and my mother had the s–t kicked out of her, her self-esteem moved onto me,” said Berry.

Berry’s career began as a model. In 1985 she won first runner up in Miss USA and became the first African American Miss World entrant.

Just four years later, Berry was diagnosed with Type One Diabetes, meaning that her body does not produce insulin. “I fell ill – dramatically – when I was on the TV show, Living Dolls, in 1989. I felt I needed energy but I didn’t even have a minute to pop out and get a chocolate bar,” she said. “I didn’t really know what was wrong.”

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Solange Knowles: Role Model for African American Performers with Disabilities

Solange Knowles wearing a black and yellow dress smiling for the camera

Solange Knowles

When it comes to the traditional expectations of a pop star in Hollywood, Solange Knowles shatters the glass ceiling as a woman of color who also happens to be diagnosed with a disability that affects 10 percent of the U.S. population: ADHD. Knowles has been outspoken about her ADHD, educating people about her disability.

Through her impressive resume that includes music, art, dance and acting, Knowles is recognized as an elite in her industry. As a Soul Train Award recipient, an honoree at Glamour’s Women of the Year 2017 Awards, and, of course, holding a Grammy which celebrates her debut album “A Seat at the Table,” Knowles shares a positive portrayal of women of color in the art scene. It is no secret that Knowles is a powerhouse through her unique artistry.

“I was diagnosed with ADHD twice,” Knowles said. “I didn’t believe the first doctor who told me, and I had a whole theory that ADHD was just something they invented to make you pay for medicine, but then the second doctor told me I had it.”

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Missy ‘Misdemeanor’ Elliott ‘Works it,’ Serves as Role Model for Young Women with Disabilities

At the height of her career, Missy Elliott experienced a dramatic and dangerous weight loss; she was diagnosed with Graves’ disease, which attacks the thyroid.

Missy Elliot smiling for the camera, dressed in a black and white outift

Missy Elliott

Forty-six-year-old businesswoman, rapper and Grammy award winner Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott never has had it easy. She was born and raised in a “rat infested shack” in Virginia. As a child, she watched her father brutalize her mother and at the age of 14, she was raped by her cousin. It was only after begging her mother to leave her father did the two women escape and Elliott began the start of what was going to be a tumultuous and exceptional career.

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Vivian Bass: Creating a Successful Relationship Between Nonprofit Staff and Board Members

headshot of Vivian Bass smiling at the camera with long hair color photo

Vivian Bass

Rockville, Md., Jan. 30 – Vivian Bass has led a life of service and continues to work on behalf of various philanthropic causes including ensuring more opportunities for people with disabilities. She currently serves on the board of directors and on the executive committee at RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities. She also serves on the board of The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, is Chair of the Board of Trustees of Jewish Women International and became CEO Emeritus of The Jewish Foundation for Group Homes in June 2016 after serving there for 30 years.

Bass spoke to the Spring 2018 RespectAbility Fellows about how to develop a successful relationship between staff and board members. She summarized five fundamental points on maintaining this relationship: mutual respect, no surprises, transparency, accountability and partnership. [continue reading…]

Murphy Learns a Lesson in Discrimination

Rockville, Md., Jan 29 – The title of the 13th episode, “Seven Reasons,” is in reference to why Dr. Shaun Murphy thinks people lie. Themes include intellectual disability, ethics and religion.

Freddie Highmore, the actor who plays Murphy, portrays a person with autism, a developmental disability that affects 1 in 68 children. Many people with autism experience social and communication issues. Throughout the episode, Murphy talks in a robotic tone, talks about a subject obsessively, misunderstands social cues and avoids eye contact.

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Heidi Daroff: Using Social Media to Inform and Campaign

Heidi Daroff with RespectAbility staff and Fellows in front of the RespectAbility banner

Heidi Daroff with RespectAbility staff and Fellows

Rockville, Maryland, Jan. 26 – We are living in the age of social media overload – cluttered feeds with inspiration porn and scattered-brain content that lacks effective communication with us, the audience. Heidi Krizer Daroff, North American Director for the Israel Forever Foundation and current board member of RespectAbility, spoke to RespectAbility’s Fellows and staff about how to stay ahead of the curve and effectively communicate our message. She revealed that the secret in communicating the age of social media lies in understanding our social media channels and prioritizing a few key topics rather than trying to cover a variety of issues. [continue reading…]

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