Emerging Disability Rights Leader Finds Value in Disability
Stephanie Woodward wasn’t always so comfortable, or proud, of having spina bifida. But her disability led to her decision to attend law school. At age 19, Woodward wanted to learn more about other people with disabilities, so she became a volunteer for the Center of Disability Rights (CDR). “This was my first encounter with the disability community,” Woodward recounts, “and the first time I met individuals with disabilities who held high positions within an organization. While I had always been proud of myself, I had never been proud of my disability identity. Working at CDR with people with disabilities who were strong leaders and incredible role models made me feel proud of my disability identity. This pride led me to take ownership of my disability and take action within the Disability Community.”
Woodward continued to seek ways to participate in the Disability Rights Movement. She interned with Senator Tom Harkin for the summer. This experience sealed her fate. She decided to go to law school and assume her position alongside other disability rights leaders, many of whom have been valued mentors to her over the years.
Lee Perselay, Disability Counsel for Senator Harkin, told Woodward that even though the fight for disability rights is difficult and exhausting, disability rights advocates never have to take flak from anyone. Bruce Darling, CDR’s CEO, took Woodward under his wing and provided her with opportunities to grow her leadership skills. She organized and executed large protests, wrote letters to government officials and testimony for congressional hearings, and organized campaigns on various disability rights issues.
Yoshiko Dart, who worked alongside Justin Dart to make the Americans with Disabilities Act the law of the land, declares that she is Woodward’s “biggest fan” and believes in her and what she can do. Andy Imparato, Disability Policy Director for the US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, became a mentor to Woodward when he was President and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) and she was an AAPD intern. Imparato invoked Woodward as an example of an emerging disability rights leader in his acceptance speech for the National Council for Independent Living’s National Advocacy Award. “I was shocked, flattered, and more confident in myself than ever before after that. His confidence in me helps me to believe that I can really make an impact.”
While Woodward has benefitted from the mentoring and inspiration of many key disability civil rights leaders, she credits her father’s uncompromising expectations for the path she is on. “He never let me use my disability as an excuse and he never coddled me because of my disability…my dad had the highest expectations for me and never sheltered me. This helped me to become a strong and independent woman and to always set high expectations for myself.”
Upon entering law school, Woodward immediately found myriad ways to act on her passion for advancing disability civil rights and awareness. She works with the Olinsky Law Group and the Burton Blatt Institute, and will graduate from Syracuse University College of Law as the Executive Director of the Disability Law Society. She has also worked with the Disability Cultural Center at Syracuse University. Along with being an advocate, she lists as another significant achievement being a quarterfinalist in the Williams Institute Moot Court Competition – the only national competition concerning LGBT rights.
Woodward will graduate in the top 11% of her class at Syracuse University this Spring, with a J.D. and an M.S.Ed. in Disability Studies. She looks forward to continuing her work on behalf of the Disability Rights Movement, and making the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act a reality. Her advice to legal recruiters:
Don’t try to “look past” a person’s disability. Look at it and see how valuable that is. Disability offers diversity, expertise, and new view on issues. You wouldn’t ‘look past’ someone’s racial or gender identity to see their value, right? The same goes for disability. I am valuable, but I am more valuable because of my disability.