Meet Dru Conroy!
Easterseals Western and Central PA Accounting Department staff member, Dru Conroy shared her Easterseals story at our Speakeasy event in Pittsburgh Division. Dru spoke about her work and shared many touching anecdotes, including the fact that her co-workers make her feel like she doesn’t have a disability. She stated that working here was her dream job.
She loves her co-workers and counts them as her family. Attendees also had the opportunity to meet Dru’s mom, Betty Conroy who shared in Dru’s success. We love you, too, Dru!!!
Tuesday, September 19, 2023, 4:01 PM
On September 13, Adaptive and accessible fashion was center stage. The Runway of Dreams Foundation, …
On September 13, Adaptive and accessible fashion was center stage. The Runway of Dreams Foundation, a public charity that empowers people with disabilities through inclusion in fashion and beauty, hosted the event at the Powerhouse Arts building in Brooklyn, NY during the highly popular New York Fashion Week. As an organization that promotes and celebrates innovative design, this year’s theme of A FASHION REVOLUTION called for models with disabilities to come down the runway in the latest apparel and footwear from companies like Tommy Hilfiger, Zappos, Steve Madden, and Target. Victoria’s Secret also unveiled their first-ever Adaptive Intimates line. As with every Runway of Dreams show, every model highlighted the diversity of disability. There were models of different ages, BIPOC models, wheelchair users, cane users, folks with limb differences, little people, models with care assistants, and other presentations of disability.
“Every runway show is better than the last,” says Mindy Scheier, founder of The Runway of Dreams. “The most exciting part of the 2023 A FASHION REVOLUTION was having 11 mainstream brands on our runway, including Victoria’s Secret, who decided that this was the runway to debut their Adaptive Intimates. Having women with disabilities on our runway proudly wearing Adaptive bras and panties that were developed with and for women with disabilities left me awestruck.”
Mindy says conviction is what inspired her to start the charity in 2014, after 20 years working as a fashion designer and stylist. When her then 8-year-old son Oliver, who has Muscular Dystrophy, asked for jeans that he could button himself and wear over his leg braces, she adapted the jeans herself – and then conducted extensive research on how to mainstream and manufacture accessible clothing. In 2016, she partnered with Tommy Hilfiger to create the first-ever mainstream adaptive clothing line on the market.
With an overwhelming response to the collaboration with Tommy Hilfiger, companies have been looking to hire people with disabilities to build their own inclusive and accessible offerings. In 2019, Mindy founded GAMUT Management, a consulting and talent management company that represents people with disabilities across fashion and entertainment.
Mia Ives-Rublee, a client of GAMUT Management and one of the Zappos models in the Runway of Dreams show, also participated in the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge as a film maker and actor. “Being able to see yourself in clothes or on screen shows that you matter as a person; that your story matters,” she says. Mia also mentioned that disabled people are often excluded from media and fashion, even though, according to the CDC, 1 in 4 Americans identify as having a disability: “With that understanding, it is easy to explain to non-disabled people the importance of creating clothing for a variety of body sizes and needs. To understand those needs, disabled people need to be a part of the fashion industry from the designers to the board members. Working together, they can create clothing that is adaptable to wider body types and needs.”
Advocate and model for Runway of Dreams, Caitlin Connor, agrees. “So many people in the disability community are left out of the fashion industry and shopping can be depressing. We need organizations like Runway of Dreams to show brands that we harness both buying and selling power and that disability impacts everyone at some point in life.” Caitlin learned about Runway of Dreams when searching for resources for her nonprofit Be More Adaptive, which is a one-stop resource and community for all things adaptive and accessible. “When I became an amputee through a traumatic accident, my world spiraled with confusion as I searched to understand my new life with a physical disability. While recovering from the accident, I was also pregnant and eventually got laid off from my job. It gave me time to research for as many resources as possible and led to me developing Be More Adaptive.”
Runway model and music artist, Lachi, shared that we can change the fashion industry “…by supporting models who celebrate their disability as a unique part of their identity, or by spreading awareness to adaptive fashion brands and disabled designers, and by embracing the cutting edge, newness of the disabled body and the untapped stories it tells.”
Lachi is another participant of the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge, with the “Unlucky in Love” short film alongside Imani Barbarin and Rachel Handler. Like the Runway of Dreams show, Lachi says, “the film challenge proves that there are as many opportunities as there are ideas, that we create our own opportunities, and that we need to stop waiting to be discovered and need to start being the discoverers. Both the Runway and the Challenge allow folks with disabilities to cut their teeth in fashion or film and to grow among a supportive community of peers, allies, friends, and collaborators.”
Fashion isn’t just the stylish clothes we wear – fashion is expression, empowerment, and a part of culture. Lachi is a big fan of what she calls “glam canes” – white canes used by people with low vision to navigate and bejeweled with rhinestones from top to bottom. She has a cane to match every outfit. “It’s an instant showstopper, icebreaker, and leaves an impression,” Lachi says. “It also allows me to celebrate my blind identity in a very bold and sophisticated way.”
Self-expression and community are at the core of the Runway of Dreams Foundation. It’s evident in how supportive models are of each other … Evident in the hundreds of people who attend the runway show with enthusiasm and pride… shown through the diversity seen at every event … bringing people with and without disabilities on the same path toward possibility and inclusivity. And, with the efforts of such an incredible community, we are seeing progress in fashion – with much more ahead.
Monday, September 11, 2023, 3:40 PM
Before schools went on summer break this year, my Seeing Eye dog Luna and I were invited to do a spe…
Before schools went on summer break this year, my Seeing Eye dog Luna and I were invited to do a special school program at The Admiral, a senior residence where I lead weekly memoir-writing classes for older adults who live there.
Goudy Elementary is a Chicago public school located so close to The Admiral that the third-graders can walk there. They do exactly that every Friday to attend a “reading buddies” program sponsored by the Admiral. Each third grader reads out loud to an assigned Admiral resident, their “reading buddy,” and the Admiral Reading Buddy reads aloud to their third-grade buddy, too.
Things went a little differently the Friday Luna and I were there, though. “Instead of having the children work with reading buddies today, could you give a special presentation to them about what it’s like to be blind?” they asked. “And could you have your Seeing Eye dog with you, too, to explain how the dog gets you where you need to go?”
Teachers at Goudy emphasize social awareness with their third-graders. Students there benefit from having the ability to take the perspective of — and empathize with — others from diverse backgrounds and cultures, including people with disabilities.
So of course I said yes.
I love doing presentations like these for schoolkids, and the request to have my Seeing Eye dog with me was no problem: Luna comes with me everywhere I go!
Very few of the children had family members or friends who were blind, and none of the children had ever met a Seeing Eye dog before.
The timing of this visit was perfect: the “Understanding Disabilities” series of children’s books from Cherry Lake Publishing, in partnership with Easterseals, had been released a month earlier. Each book in the series is written by an author with a disability, and I wrote two of them: Service Dogs and What is the Americans with Disabilities Act? Weeks earlier, I secured 50 copies of the Service Dogs book, which meant that after our presentation, I’d be able to send each third grader a copy of the book to take home with them.
The afternoon was delightful, and so were the children. They arrived well-prepared, each of them holding a card with a question they wanted to ask me when it was their turn. Every single child told me their name, then introduced their question, a la, “Hello, my name is Sunil, and here’s my question …” Their older reading buddies were also there but sitting further away. Again, no problem — I just made a point to repeat each question so the older “Reading Buddies” could hear it too.
I have a habit of getting longwinded when I answer questions kids ask me, so I’ll limit myself here and only answer the questions that challenged me the most.
Q. How can you dress when you don’t see?
A. I have all sorts of systems for keeping track of my clothes. If a shirt is black, I put a safety pin in the tag. If a shirt is white, I put a paper clip in the tag. Every piece of clothing I own that is black has a safety pin in the tag, and everything that is white has a paper clip attached to the tag; I just memorize the color people tell me my other clothes are and figure out which is which by the way they feel.
Q. What if you need to go somewhere and your dog is sleeping?
A. I wake her up.
Q. How do you write books if you can’t see?
A. I learned to type on a keyboard when I was in high school and could still see — I wasn’t blind until I was 26 years old, and I still have the keyboard memorized. The computer I use to write books comes with a speech synthesizer. The speech synthesizer calls out letters as I type so I can hear and fix any mistakes as I go. I can manipulate keys on the keyboard to read a page of type by word, line, or paragraph when I want to check for spelling and grammar. Over the years, the synthesized voice has become more and more human-sounding, but when I let people hear it, they usually say it sounds like something out of a science fiction movie.
Q. Is it scary being blind?
A. It was scary at first, but I went to a special school for a few months to learn how to use a white cane to get around, how to cook and clean for myself, how to read Braille and stuff like that. I have been blind for so many years now that I’m used to it and it isn’t scary anymore.
A. I have to be the one who knows where we’re going, so when we get outside in front of our apartment building, I hold onto my dog’s leash and harness, turn the way we need to go, and give her a command she learned at the Seeing Eye School she went to: “Luna, forward!” She pulls forward, and I feel the pull by holding the back of her harness and follow her lead.
Q. What are your biggest challenges if you are blind?
(Note to blog readers: this was my very favorite question of them all –the question told me that the kids had enough empathy to understand that being blind could be challenging sometimes, and they weren’t afraid to ask me what some of those challenges were).
A: Oh, there are lots of challenges, but rather than focus on the things I can’t do – I can’t play video games, for example – I focus on the things I can do. I know how to play the piano, and I know how to swim and can go to the beach, and I can write books, too, and get to bring my dog with me wherever I go!
Easterseals partnered with Cherry Lake Publishing Group to come out with the “Understanding Disability” series to explore disability in a comprehensive, honest, and age-appropriate way. One of their goals was to open the door for critical conversations about disability to young readers, and those questions the Goudy Elementary School students asked me that day tell me they are eager to learn.
The senior who’d emceed our presentation that day sent an email message to Luna and me later, thanking us for our program and especially for the books: “I want you to know that when I held up the books to show the kids, they were so excited and happy!”
What a coincidence: I am excited and happy about those books, too. Even now, months after that presentation, thinking that some of those third-graders might have brought their new Service Dogs book to read to their “Reading Buddies” the Friday after our presentation makes me smile.
Wednesday, September 6, 2023, 3:43 PM
Editor’s Note: Allison Friedman is an educator, advocate and artist with experiences addressin…
Editor’s Note: Allison Friedman is an educator, advocate and artist with experiences addressing common barriers that people within the Deaf community might face when it comes to education. Among the many things she does, she provides ASL access for people in the Deaf and blind community. We had a conversation about the importance of inclusion in education, including what others may not realize about Deaf culture in today’s “trendy” landscape.
Allison Friedman: I grew up in Chicago, Illinois. I’ve always had a passion for the arts and I’m a professor and an advocate. I’m involved in several programs that are trying to spotlight different walks of life for different individuals. I’m very passionate, creative, and I work in the film industry, too. I help people get an insight into what it is like to be a person with a disability.
You have a lot on your plate, it seems.
Allison Friedman: I do! But from here, I do want to go ahead and talk about my journey as a Deaf individual and being a part of the disabled community.
What would you say is one accomplishment that stands out during your career?
Allison Friedman: Oh, that’s a tough one. I do have several, but the one that sticks out happened when I was working at Columbia College in Chicago. They invited me to do a TEDx presentation, and gave me a theme for it: essence.
Wow. That’s a pretty broad topic! What did you come up with?
Allison Friedman: My presentation focused on sign language and human connection. I am passionate about sign language and ensuring Deaf children have access to their own language. For the project, we surveyed several Deaf children who were language deprived, including my own father, who, for 13 years, didn’t have access to any of those resources for him. That really hit home for me.
I can imagine why –13 years old without any of those services?
Allison Friedman: Yes. My father, again, he didn’t have language until 13 years later. My grandparents didn’t know that there was a Deaf school.
So, your father never went to school at all?
Allison Friedman: Oh, he finally did go — as soon as my grandparents found out there was a school for the Deaf, they sent my father there and that’s where he really thrived and came into his own being. All those resources available for him there played a huge impact in his life.
How about you? What was your schooling like?
Allison Friedman: Growing up, I didn’t see ASL in the public, not until I was older. And that’s why I’m really thankful to social media and also Gallaudet University. American Sign Language wasn’t really recognized as a language until the 60s. And having it recognized as a language and also being validated as a community was really beneficial to us.
Nice! Sounds like advocating and teaching and helping people understand more about the Deaf community is paying off! What is something you wish more people understood, actually really got, about the deaf community and ASL in general?
Allison Friedman: I’m happy that ASL has gained more recognition globally, but Deaf children are the ones in crucial need of it. That’s something I want to really emphasize. Again, my father didn’t have language until 13 years. ASL is something very trendy now and something that’s seen as pretty cool. I want the world to know that ASL is not just a trend, it’s not just something to have fun with, but it’s actually some people’s main mode of communication for everyday life. I really want to emphasize that having language accessibility for children is what we need. There’s an irony in it being such a trend lately — seeing it at speeches, during the singing of the National Anthem, more out in the public in schools and colleges — while Deaf children still struggle sometimes getting access to ASL.
Monday, August 28, 2023, 1:50 PM
by Mids Meinberg Going to college represents a major shift in every young student’s life. Now consid…
by Mids Meinberg
Going to college represents a major shift in every young student’s life. Now considered by society to be an adult, a freshman experiences an unprecedented freedom in managing their schedule and their life. This greater freedom is then coupled with an increased difficulty in coursework, leading to a large amount of stress. To further complicate things, turning eighteen is also when a lot of mental illnesses begin to present themselves more powerfully. This increased stress, these newly emergent symptoms, and the relative absence of a support network can make the first year of college nearly impossible to navigate for some.
This is the situation that I found myself in during my first year of college. I went an ocean away from my family and friends to a prestigious school. My depression was making itself known in a way far more intense than anything I had ever experienced before, which was coupled with finding the academics of college a struggle, a first in my life. The sense of failure began early in the semester and continued to snowball throughout the year, with every failed test and missed assignment piling into an avalanche of guilt and remorse that I lacked the tools to escape from.
I flunked out of Rice University at the end of that year and the repercussions of that failure have lingered with me ever since. I have struggled both economically and mentally because of my inability to get a degree. Rice offers a need-based free ride scholarship to all students attending, paying for all of their expenses above what the family can be reasonably expected to contribute. I wound up attending other schools and accumulating debt in my effort to complete education, debt that I would not have had if I completed my education at Rice. In addition, the shame I felt, however unreasonable, has remained with me, intensified by and intensifying my depression.
My situation did not have to unfold the way it did. Resources are available in most colleges for those that need them, but these resources can only be accessed if you ask for them. It would have helped a lot if there were those in the community who could see how I was flailing, how I was unable to meet the demands of the coursework, and were willing to take that first step in helping me to get the aid that I needed. Instead, I allowed the compounding guilt to make me think that I was too late to ask for help, even when there was still time to turn things around.
A crucial understanding that it has taken me decades to realize is that my failures were not my fault. It wasn’t a lack of academic preparation or a lack of “intelligence” or a lack of drive that led to my failures. My failures were rooted in my disability coming head-to-head with structures that were built to inhibit disabled people from succeeding. Indeed, so much of the cultural constructions around “laziness” are built upon ableism and a failure to understand how disability affects the ability of a person to do work in the same way as a nondisabled person.
Now, just because higher education is structurally and systemically built upon ableist principles, this does not mean that the individuals working within academia are inherently ableist. I found a lot of success in my later academic career in speaking directly with professors about my failings and struggles. Being clear in why and how I was struggling led to a greater understanding from my professors and a willingness on their part to meet me halfway to ensure that I was able to achieve the success that we both wanted out of my time in the course.
Not every professor is going to be so welcoming, but there is no harm in making the attempt. A professor refusing to help is a sign that they are not someone who you want to take courses with in the future. In that case, dropping the class might make the most sense. While dropping courses feels like a major failure, it’s merely a re-evaluation of your position and the ability to get some breathing room. One of the things I struggled with heavily in the beginning of my academic career was taking an overloaded course load in an attempt to finish college earlier. A slower but steadier course load is much more likely to achieve success for any student, but especially for any disabled student considering the extra challenges posed by higher education.
In addition to these one-on-one approaches, there are additional tools that can help a disabled student achieve success in higher education.
First, most colleges and universities have programs to help disabled students with their specific accommodations. Researching the options available at any school and then using them can result in removing a lot of barriers. While these options will rarely help with the laziness myth, every advantage can be useful.
For those with mental illness, counseling options are usually available, which can include access to medication. While new students with newly intensified mental illnesses may struggle with accepting counseling and medication, the impact on one’s success not just in school but in life can be life saving. Thankfully, the shame around therapy has decreased since my time in college, but you should not allow shame to stop you from seeking these vital aids.
Second, most colleges have tutoring services available for all students. Again, shame and doubt may keep a student from pursuing these options, especially students who had excelled in high school, but it is important to remember that the use of these services does not reflect a personal failing but rather a need to overcome ableist structures. This tutoring can serve a vital function in helping a student to structure and order their time on campus – something that can be a huge barrier for students with mental illnesses.
Third, disabled students can form study groups with classmates in order to handle homework assignments and prepare for tests. Even if you have more barriers to overcome, higher education is difficult for every student new to it. By working together, classmates can find the ability to succeed despite these new difficulties. In addition, these study groups can serve as vital support networks and the start of new friendships which can help anyone to achieve their goals in higher education.
If I had pursued any of these options when I first started college, I would have found my experience far easier and likely would not have struggled as I have for so long. Hopefully this advice can help others get the help that I didn’t and make college a surmountable challenge.
Mids Meinberg is a writer and game designer working out of New Jersey. They have an AA in Creative Writing from Brookdale Community College.
Monday, August 21, 2023, 1:49 PM
By Scott Klumb In the world of education, we need to have more inclusion and representation in early…
By Scott Klumb
In the world of education, we need to have more inclusion and representation in early and higher education. We have made great strides in improving disability education and inclusivity through K-12, but we still have a long way to go. Creating space to educate others on disability is imperative to making sure people have a better understanding of the disabled community. This can be done through the academic setting as well as other creative avenues.
As an autistic person with Central Auditory Processing Disorder (CAPD), not only did I struggle academically in a traditional school setting, but socially too, as I was bullied for most of my life. The bullying began in preschool and continued throughout my entire education. I was scared to go to school because of the bullying, and I was also nervous to share it with my family or my teachers. I didn’t want the school officials to intervene due to fear that the bullies would pick on me even more.
When I was pursuing higher education, it was going well, and most of my teachers were very accommodating and accepting of wearing a microphone that would allow me to process everything they were saying while I wore a headset. But one semester, I went up to my new instructor showing her my accommodation paperwork, which included wearing a microphone for my CAPD. She looked at me and said, “you don’t honestly expect me to wear that, do you?” Then she laughed at me and looked at the classroom and said, “don’t you all think I speak loud enough?” The class then began to laugh with her. This humiliated me in front of a large classroom and made me feel awful as a human being. I went home in tears and called my parents about it. We then reported it to my film school, and the teacher was fired. It is illegal to not follow state accommodations, and I was honestly in shock that I would come across someone that would question me. I feel for any other disabled person who has gone through something similar because we should never have to feel bad for being a disabled human being.
Looking back at my experience, I believe that if public and private schools beginning at the preschool level focused on the inclusion of the disabled community into their traditional curriculum, that disabled people would be more normalized. I believe that it would result in fewer instances of bullying towards disabled people in an academic setting. This can be as simple as reading stories to young children that include characters who are disabled, to inviting people with various disabilities to volunteer directly in the classroom or have them read to the children during story hour. Allowing the schools to create a community that is inclusive to everyone will ultimately create more acceptance and inclusivity for disabled children. It is important to teach that there is a wide range of disabilities, and that not all disabilities are visible. The majority of people that meet me can’t imagine that I have a disability. One of the biggest struggles for someone like myself who is autistic is that it is an invisible disability.
Going into school, whether it is for early or higher education, can be scary because people can be quick to judge. People think they are complimenting me by saying, “you don’t look autistic” but the thing is, autism is a spectrum and doesn’t have a look. This can be extremely dismissive and anxiety provoking because someone should never have to explain why or how they are disabled because of another person’s ignorance. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 4 adults in the United States have some sort of disability. Because of this significant number, we need to be more open to teaching kids and young adults about disabilities as well as having fair representation that disabled people can go to school comfortably knowing that they will not be judged or bullied for being “different.”
We as society have been doing a good job of educating the disabled community so that they can reach their full potential, which should be the goal for all human beings. In Colorado, there are schools like TACT and the Temple Grandin School that are specifically focused on this goal for autistic people. Last Fall, I taught filmmaking at TACT (Teach Autism Community Trades). I was told by many teachers there that they have never seen the students so engaged. I think part of this was because the students knew I was also autistic and that we were able to connect on another level with our shared experiences. The students learned a lot and TACT will most likely have me back to teach again.
Educating people about disability doesn’t just have to just be in the school setting. A creative way to do this is through film. Films like Crip Camp and CODA are excellent for exposing students to the disabled world. Crip Camp shows how far we’ve come since the 1970s and how we can continue to push forward today. There are many disabled filmmakers who can speak to their films and do panels in a classroom through Zoom or in person.
I personally have a passion for filmmaking, and I love to educate people through my documentary work. I began by making my film called Autism: One Man’s Journey, which was a story about my life. My goal was to help educate people on the autistic experience as well as give others hope for fighting through the extreme struggles of mental health. My therapist, who is an autism specialist, always says that he learns about autism from the real experts, his clients who experience it every single day.
It is important that we as a society can continue finding ways to normalize disability which can be the first step to acceptance. We can make sure that we are creating safe environments in the school setting to educate children about the disabled community to help prevent bullying. We can also use creative avenues to help others learn about disabilities in the hopes of creating a more inclusive world.
Scott Klumb is an award-winning filmmaker. He is a storyteller, cinematographer, and editor, knowledgeable in a wide array of film styles, including documentary, where he creates artistic films with meaningful stories to captivate his audience. Scott has found a passion for filmmaking, pursuing his talent both professionally and in his free time. Scott’s films have been in dozens of festivals across the world. The notoriety has been encouraging, but Scott’s primary focus is to encourage others and continue his growth as a filmmaker.
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