Alycia Anderson, Founder of the Alycia Anderson Company speaks with John Griffin, Publisher of Accessibility.com.
You can, you should, and you will. You have to be willing to try.
[...] there is no inclusion without accessibility, period.
Alycia Anderson, Founder of the Alycia Anderson Company, TEDx Motivational Speaker, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Accessibility Change-maker, and Corporate Inclusion Coach.
Interview with Alycia Anderson, Founder of the Alycia Anderson Company.
Transcript for Interview with Alycia Anderson, Founder of the Alycia Anderson Company.
John: Okay. Good morning, and welcome to edition number 16. I think it is of Accessibility Matters. I’m John Griffin. I am the publisher of Accessibility.com. A couple of weeks ago, a number of you and many more besides you participated in our Accessibility Plus 2021 Conference. It lasted over three days. So, if you did nothing but stay from beginning to end, you win a prize for endurance.
Another prize for endurance goes to the young lady who moderated that session for us. She is an incredible asset to our industry. She’s an incredible asset to Accessibility.com. She’s a great friend to probably everybody that’s ever met her. And she’s an auctioneer. She is Alycia Anderson. When Judy Heumann and Caroline Casey turned their keynote speeches over to the rest of us to follow through at that conference, the first face you saw was hers. She has a great journey to talk about. Alycia, you started at four years old. Tell your a story.
Alycia: Thanks for having me, John. I’m so happy to be a part of this family first and foremost. So, thanks for those kind words. Yeah, my journey started really at birth. When my cells split into two when I was born an identical twin. And my journey on inclusion literally started in those moments where my twin sister, able-bodied, and me, I was born with sacral agenesis. So, I live my life from a wheelchair. And we’re one egg split into literally chasing the other half of each other. So, she’s always been chasing the disabled half of her and I’ve been chasing the able bodied half of me. And so we’ve been on this journey of inclusion from conception. And way before, it was kind of a thing that we were aiming for in our society. And so it’s just been this long been a beautiful, sometimes tough journey to make sure the both of us are included in every single thing in our lives.
And so inclusion has always been something that has been a part of my life and has been something that is -- I’ve been chasing it. Whether it was in school, or at work, or within social groups or infrastructure, or having the accessibility needs to keep up with my sister, it’s always been there. And when I was four years old, my parents made the decision that it was going to be highly important for us to both have the same opportunities in life. And from the standpoint of me, I was born in 1975. So, that’s when the Judy Heumanns of the world were advocating for Rehabilitation Act and laws to be passed. So, there’d be legislation that would back up accessibility and inclusion of people with disabilities. And back then it was stigmatized, and it was really hard. And there was -- those were the common answers.
And so advocacy for my parents to open up pathways for me to be integrated in schools, when that didn’t happen, to have opportunities socially and in programs like Brownies and Girl Scouts. And to be able to have those experiences just the same as my sister was a constant battle, and an opportunity for advocacy. And within that, each moment of that is an opportunity for us to learn what is actually possible, and to break through some of those barriers that people with disabilities face when we’re trying to have the same opportunities as everyone else.
John: You speak publicly about disabling ableism. You referred to it as the modern pathway to inclusion. That’s a statement that really needs to resonate. You’ve got this very articulate voice. If disabling ableism is the modern pathway to inclusion, then the pathway to inclusion navigates over the highway of accessibility. The two are inextricably intertwined. You gave a talk, and I’m going to quote you. You said, “We can’t hide our differences. We need to embrace them, honor them, experience them, believe in them, discuss them, share them, include them as life’s beautiful treasures.”
Following that prescription, what you’re talking about, I think, is where possibilities become your realities. Let’s discuss the specific points that you make with regards to how accessibility has brought you forward to where you are today through those activities. When did you first and how did you first come to the decision that your parents wanted you to make and prayed that you would make, which is to embrace your differences?
Alycia: It was ingrained in me from when I was -- from what I can remember. It could have been a defense mechanism for them at that point. When I was born, they weren’t expecting twins, they were not expecting one to have significant disability. And their statement to me always was, you can, you should, and you will. You have to be willing to try. And there is no inclusion without accessibility, period. I mean, without the one you do not have the other. And from my parent’s perspective is differences are okay. And the important thing is, we don’t favor one over the other. And that is what ableism is, it’s when we look at an able bodied, where we think that that is superior over someone with a disability.
And when we look at life from that lens, what we are missing is seeing the uniquenesses of each one of us. And from a disability perspective, it’s our disabilities. And when we start looking at our differences and the things that we have to overcome, we become proficient in ways others might not because we have to overcome; the wheelchair, the visual impairment, the whatever it is, and we become significantly better at something because of these things. So, there are beautiful treasures in life, that we’re able to leverage life in a unique way that enhances not only our own experiences, but our experiences with others. And I can give a specific example from my life in my profession.
The last job, I was VP of sales at a technology company and my boss, every job interview I went on prior, I’d have to wish away my disability, tell them I can do it, talk about adaptations, don’t worry, and then get to my expertise. And this last position that I had, vice president of sales for a software company, my boss hired me because he said that he knew that I had to be a good planner, that he knew that I had to plan, you know, sales, I’m in the field, I’m on planes, trains, automobiles. I’m having to plan before I even get to the work that I do. And he knew that that gift of planning would translate to my work and would make me -- it made me more valuable as an employee than somebody else. And so finding our differences, understanding that they are these gifts and treasures that up lift our pathways and open up a different lens to see life through and where you can offer your gifts as expertise rather than limitations
John: The guy that you went to work for is an unusual man. He saw something that he had to have other reasons why -- He must have had an experience somewhere along the line where he was exposed to persons with differences that impressed him and left him with an open mind where, you know, you talk about honoring your differences. Well, you can honor them, but other people have gone to them as well. And that gives you the opportunity to experience the value proposition that comes along with problem solving from a wheelchair, understanding that you can normalize life, and you will normalize life if you just do it.
Alycia: And you know, my parents taught me when I was young too that this path of mine was going to be tough. Like, I was going to run into a lot of challenges and I needed to have a relationship with that and understand my role and that people watch me. And whether we like it or not, when we’ve got a disability people are watching and they’re learning and they’re absorbing, they’re wanting to understand. And most of the time, there’s an innocence there to really try to learn so we can move forward. Like children, they’ll approach, they’ll ask. If we don’t shush them, it normalizes it, they move on, and they’re good to go. And it’s those experiences of understanding the human to human connection that we need to make with each other to understand one another.
And so for me, I’ve always had a relationship with that as well. Like, I know, people are watching me. And do I get frustrated sometimes? Getting in and out of my car, I mean, I’m -- pushing a shopping cart at the store, to giving a presentation in a corporate office where they are not expecting me to show up in my wheelchair. And there’s always that moment of weirdness that we have to get over. But my dad said, you do the best you can with what you’ve been given. And Alycia, you need to smile, because it’s allowing people the space to understand, to be invited in to learn about each other, and to move on with a better understanding and disable ableism.
Turn off that uncomfortable, oh, poor her, she can’t, she won’t to wow, this is the modern pathway to inclusion. This is the pathway to creating our impossibilities of today into our absolutely possibles tomorrow. And we shift and we just chip away at it. Every moment is an opportunity to disable ableism, to strip away stigmas and to understand that disability is, is our individuality. It’s who we are. It’s something that you don’t want to strip away. It’s something that we want to embrace and find the power and the possibility and the opportunity and all of the beautiful gifts that comes along with it.
And is there hardships? Yes, absolutely. But that is what makes life so cool and interesting and amazing is overcoming those. And each time I have a medical thing to overcome or something that’s scary or an uncomfortable situation, because I’ve been invited somewhere where there is no accessibility and you’re thinking, I’m left out again, like do they not -- It’s an opportunity to have a conversation.
And is it ideal all the time? No. But as I’ve gotten older, and I’m an adult, now it’s taken me a lot of time to get comfortable with this. There was a lot of years where I was angry and uncomfortable and mad and didn’t want to show up. But over time, I really have realized that it’s my opportunity in life to widen pathways for other people by smiling and letting them in and trying to have as many conversations as I can just about life and being a human and what each of us brings to the table no matter our physical situation.
John: Let’s go through a couple -- I mean, your ability to articulate and communicate is stunningly clear. And I mean that as a compliment.
Alycia: Thank you.
John: So, let’s go through some of the gateways that you’ve had to go through on your journey to this screen. Education. Aside from grammar school experiences and that kind of thing. Higher education, when you begin to look upward, like all young adults have to do, how will I acquire this? Where will I go? How will I do this? Did you find that breaking the barrier of accessibility then was a challenge, and how did you go about moving that challenge aside and keep going forward?
Alycia: Always a challenge. And it depends on what part of my life, how I chose to overcome it, or frankly, ignore it and shy away from it. Because I was born in 75 and ADA was adopted in 1990, most of my life it was no and that was okay. And so elementary school, like I had to -- my parents advocated for me to be the only student in my school integrated. All of the other kids with disabilities were in a separate classroom. When I got to high school I competed in wheelchair tennis all of my life. My parents put me in tennis when I was four which was huge for just being strong and becoming one with my chair and being a competitive person. I think sport and movement as much as you can do with a disability with anyone, but it’s very important to really find a way to navigate your equipment proficiently.
And so I competed in wheelchair tennis on the national level, like I would travel. And so I, in high school, I applied to be on the tennis team, denied. In elementary school, I wanted to go to outdoor Ed with everyone else, denied. Never accessibility, there were so many noes. And back then when I was young and insecure and going through adolescence, some of those things I just shied away from because I didn’t want to be highlighted as a disabled person. I mean, I just -- I was an ableist. I was like, that’s not me. I’m not -- No way. No.
John: The best thing you get out of adolescence is if you survive it.
Alycia: I know. It was tough with a disability at times too. Especially because I have this identical twin sister able bodied we’re the same, we look very similar. But in high schools, she was going to homecoming, I was doing my hair, eating dinner with my parents. I didn’t have boyfriends. There was all of those things. It was really hard during my adolescence. And the thing that really stabilized me was sport, and having the opportunity to go to camp, play in tournaments, and be around people that look like me, because that doesn’t happen very often. It’s very rare that I have those opportunities.
But I would say for the most part in my youth, I tried to push my disability away and pretend like I was my sister, and there was no difference. But college was the real time where I started to embrace it, and I could really see my path forward and what I could give. And my undergrad is in adaptive physical education, like I had a huge focus on that piece because it was a huge part of sport, again, for me, being a very strong independent woman. So, I’m like, okay, I’m going to study this. I’m going to become a teacher. From there, I moved to Europe. I got a full scholarship to a world scholarship, 35 students around the world, one per country. I went for the United States.
And we studied Paralympic sport, the biomechanics of disability. It was amazing. And my focus was inclusion. And I wrote and worked for the Paralympics and got children’s manuals published and did all of these bucket list opportunities. And when I moved to Europe, that’s when I learned that it was okay to accept help. I learned -- I moved to a very inaccessible continent, there was -- look back at the United States, like, wow, the freedoms that I have at home, because this is inaccessible. I would go to restaurants, there’d be a disabled emblem on the window. So, I would think that I would be able to use the restroom. I go in, they just allow people with disabilities to enter. I mean, we’re talking really wild things.
And so when I moved to Europe, I learned that I had to accept help from others. And I learned that inclusion is collective, I can’t do it on my own, and a company -- its collective ongoing, hard, uncomfortable, individual work that we have to figure out together in real-time in the moment. So, from little things to going to a restaurant, getting in my car to having the career that I want and the life that I want no matter what, inclusion is collective work. And so through my education, specifically higher education, I found the relationship between the two, that it wasn’t just my responsibility to make people feel comfortable. It was also their responsibility to put in the hard work as well with me.
John: What we’re doing right now, we’ve discussed the differences, we related it to accessibility. Your suggestion to any audience that you and from your quote, the last part of it, include these things as life’s beautiful treasures, you’ve made a prominent life for yourself. Tell us a little bit about how you’ve come to interpret all of these challenges, distinguished journey, you’ve turned it into something really, really valued. Point of these sessions is to talk about how accessibility matters. Whether you find accessibility by accident, or you have to work for it, or you have to climb a hill to get to the top, if you find it, if you include it, inclusion and accessibility are inextricably intertwined. You care to comment on that?
Alycia: Again, you don’t have one without the other and accessibility challenges, like you said, whether they’re handed to you or you have to climb a mountain or anything in between. That is the pathway of how I’ve perfected and become comfortable with my disability. And there’s been times when accessibility wasn’t offered, and it’s been painfully embarrassing. But there’s also been times where society has learned from those experiences of why it’s important to open those pathways for everyone. And those experiences are life’s beautiful treasures. The hard things are life’s beautiful treasures, for me, at least. They shape us, they give us a lens to see through that we wouldn’t otherwise and opportunities that wouldn’t be there otherwise.
I have a twin sister that I can compare, like, I’ve had so many amazing, beautiful opportunities that have come through my path, through overcoming some serious struggles. I mean, some major struggles and through that, that is our beautiful treasures is finding a way to turn our hardships into our treasures and seeing the gifts that we get from them. And most of my hardships have been through lack of accessibility or challenges of it, or ableism and people not believing in who I am and having to continually pitch myself that I am who I am, and that this is the best part of me. I wouldn’t be who I am without my disability, without the challenges of my life, socially, environmentally, structurally accessibility, all of it.
And there’s so many times in my life people have said to me, like I hope that you’ll heal one day, I hope you have the opportunity to walk one day, I hope you have the same opportunities as I do. But the reality is, because I don’t have that, there’s so many beautiful treasures that I’ve been gifted, and that I have and that I -- that now I’m comfortable because of time and becoming comfortable in my own skin, that I can share this and give it to the world while I have time, and while I have the ability to do it. And that’s all that I’m trying to do is give hope, and share the potential of possibility for other people living with any type of disability, visible or not, to believe that they can have that great job and they can make whatever money they want. And they can go on that vacation and they can get married. And they can have kids and they can be happy. And they can do whatever they want. That they can, they should and they will, if we’re willing to do it together.
Like this is a pathway for all of us to navigate together. And then we get to the other side of hope, the other side of opportunity. So, the treasures of this are all of those little things that pop up that you overcome. You’re like, “Oh, I did that. Yes. What’s next?” What can I do next? And as you start chipping away those things, society opens up, the world opens up, pathways open up, accessibility opens up because we’re having human to human interaction, and people are starting to care and understand that these things benefit all of us at some point in our lives. So, it is true, like my life is full of treasures because of this disability. And that is a fact of the matter for sure, and I’m so grateful for it.
John: Well, there’s another thing that you didn’t mention about yourself, that is also a piece of who you are. And that’s heroic. You know, heroism exists in the child that doesn’t give -- isn’t given the same gifts that the other child may be. And that that journey, when embraced and when accepted brings people such as you to people such as me, that’s one of the beautiful treasures that you share.
Alycia: Thank you.
John: And for those of you who were attending today, tell your friends about this that might be going through some of the same kind of issues. Because inclusion and disability and accessibility are first cousins to each other, and accessibility matters. Inclusion and disability travel over that highway. Thank you for being with us today. And thank you to our very special guest, who will be no doubt a part of the Accessibility.com family as we move forward.
Alycia: I’m honored.
John: Good to see you today. Thank you.