This week, I humbly acknowledge the anniversaries of two events which left a profound impact on my life.
First, on September 1, 1980, the last day of a vacation with my family and friends before I was to begin my first year of college, I dove into shallow water, broke my neck, and became paralyzed from the chest down. After spending seven months in intensive physical rehab at Magee Rehab in Philadelphia, I quickly realized the world was not built for people like me. It was 10 years before the Americans with Disabilities Act – the college I was originally going to attend was not accessible and accessible public transportation did not exist. In fact, access to most buildings and spaces was nearly impossible. Luckily a friend of mine was the Dean of a local college and she suggested I take a few summer courses and help the college adapt its campus – I was the first person with a disability to attend and graduate from this college.
From Corporate Leadership to Entrepreneurship
This began my lifelong journey to help make the world more accessible and inclusive for everyone, first at the city level, then state, and eventually to an international audience. For more than 30 years I was honored to work for some of the country’s Fortune 50 and Fortune 100 companies in leadership and executive roles with some of the most amazing colleagues. In 2019, I left my corporate role and founded my own consulting business, Maahs Travels, to devote my full-time to my passion – doing my part to level the playing field for everyone, especially people with disabilities. My focus is on accessible travel and tourism where I work with businesses and governments around the world to define market potential and strategies to attract more people to global destinations.
The 50th Anniversary
The next anniversary I recognize is the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, ten years ago – August 28, 2013. At the time, I was the Chair of the Board of Directors for the American Association of People with Disabilities and asked to represent the nation’s disability community by delivering a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial along with Presidents Obama, Clinton, and Carter, the King Family, Congressman John Lewis, Oprah, and many others. The Obamas hosted an unforgettable reception at The White House the night before for all of the speakers and VIPs. We sat next to the King Family and directly in front of Oprah. We heard remarks from Congressman John Lewis and President Obama which left us with much to be proud of and much to look forward to.
Then, the next day, people from all over the world gathered at the Lincoln Memorial and surrounded the Reflecting Pool as far as you could see, to hear all of the amazing speeches to honor Dr. King and the ideals he stood for. As I waited my turn in a secure area in front of the Lincoln Memorial, I sat with then Vice President Biden, Congressman Lewis, Tracy Martin (Trayvon Martin’s father), Marc Morial, Oprah, and many others. A light rain shower began and a Secret Service agent put his raincoat around me so I would look presentable when it was time to give my speech. As I spoke with those around me and then listened to their speeches, I remember feeling their pain, passion, and pride – all at once. It was emotional. It was inspirational. And, it reminded me of the work that still needs to be done. Right before I delivered my speech, I was in the “Green Room” holding tent alone, until Oprah entered. We greeted each other with a big hug and spoke about many things, including what the day meant to us.
Dr. King’s Dream and the Unfinished Work
In my speech, I stated, “It’s fair to say that Martin Luther King, Jr. was the father of our movement as well. Dr. King had a dream. He had a dream about equality and dignity for all people. Yet for millions of people with disabilities, this dream remains out of reach. 8 in 10 of us don’t have jobs. Most will never know what it means to work even if we are ready, willing, and qualified. It remains legal to pay people with disabilities far less than minimum wage in the United States.
Today, I share Dr. King’s dream. I dream of a world that does not hold anyone back. People with disabilities represent all races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, and genders. We represent nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population. We have seen a lot of progress, but, like all civil rights movements, we have much more to do. The disturbing thing is that all of this still holds true today.
Only about 22% of people with disabilities who are employable have jobs and the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is still more than twice the unemployment rate of those who do not have a disability. And, while many physical barriers have been taken down for people with disabilities, we remain victims of an ableist society.
Yes, we still have a lot of work to do. My journey continues.