Stephanie Woodward is not a woman known for pulling punches. She’s the Executive Director of Disability EmpowerHer Network, a Rochester, New York-based non-profit that supports women and girls with disabilities to grow as leaders. Woodward isn’t shy about why she, along with board chair Leah Smith, started the organization in 2020.
“We look around and see that the majority of the workforce, particularly in the disability rights movement, are women with disabilities but when you look to the leadership, the CEOs, the executive directors, it's not women with disabilities. So we are the frontline staff, but the CEOs are men, or they're women without disabilities, which doesn't make sense to us because we are completely capable of being leaders. Why aren't we leading?”
The idea of starting their own program really started to gain traction for the two with the May 2020 passing of area disability rights leader Stacey Milbern, someone both Stephanie and Leah considered a mentor. Such is the generational impact of disability advocacy − conversations began in earnest that day, according to Woodward.
"I had just texted her [Smith] that day and said, 'Let's stop talking about this. Let's do it. Like, girls need mentors. Like, there was something about losing that mentor that ignited the feeling that we can't keep talking. We must do it.'”
First came a letter-writing campaign where family members of girls with disabilities could request a letter from a mentor. That small step came with an unexpected response that Woodward thought would be a “cutesy thing” − done over the New Year − that has turned into 70+ mentees receiving support. One of the people writing those letters was Jill Moore, a former elite parasport athlete who is now an inclusive play specialist. She says that becoming a mentor was a learning curve all on its own.
“I got asked if I wanted to write a letter to an eight-year-old girl with spina bifida, which is my disability, who loves to play with their friends, loves music, plays basketball, about to have a surgery I'd had pretty frequently and I said ‘Absolutely!’ and I had no idea what you're supposed to write to an eight-year-old, but I got my dinosaur stickers and I went for it anyways.”
The other main program that the Disability EmpowerHer Network runs is a camp – held in the Adirondacks − that supports participants in learning outdoor and personal skills while building community. Moore says that part of the reason that camping – complete with mentors having to know how to start a fire as part of their qualifications – appealed to her is because of the community that can be found in a disability-led space, particularly when it comes to generational knowledge. She says that her experience growing up with a disability was one where she was continuously second-guessing her worth and being challenged by her level of social skills. For her, the camp shows both what the campers of this generation have grown up knowing, but also how they can be supported by mentors who have been through the fire, so to speak.
“I didn't come from a world of advocacy or policy and I came into this camp and all of these girls could school me, like, they've learned to fight their fight . . . And I think they need those reinforcements. They're growing up in a little bit more of an inclusive and positive climate that they've made.”
An essential part of that environment creation is the projects the campers are working on collectively with the support of the network. Whether that’s one camper working on changing her school’s active shooting policy to ensure the safety of disabled students or another who is supporting accessibility efforts at a local homeless shelter, it’s clear that the campers are building accessibility initiatives as a group. Woodward says that being youth-led means meeting campers where they’re at, whether that’s an Instagram chat about Taylor’s Swift’s newest release, a deep discussion about family issues, or a school shooting threat.
That support, to Woodward, is all about asking and the barriers to asking that society continues to reinforce for women − particularly disabled and marginalized women.
“Women don't ask. Women don't ask for promotions, women don't ask for jobs, women don't ask for raises, women don't ask for opportunities, women don't ask for mentorship, women don't ask. And because we don't feel empowered to ask for these things, we don't get them. Whereas to put it very plainly, men ask for everything like it's the most casual thing in the world, like men ask for applause for picking up a pencil. . . And we would like it easier for women to feel comfortable with asking by letting them know that they can ask here at Disability EmpowHer Network, they can practice asking with us, so that when they go out into the real world, the more you ask, the more you can get.”
Applications for the next class of campers, due to set off in August, are available on the organization’s website and are due April 1, 2022.