At 37, Diana Mairose may have a soft voice but it speaks loudly and with purpose. It is the vehicle behind which a confident, driven, empathetic, idea person collects believers of her cause. Sitting on the sidelines is not her thing. No, Diana’s friends, peers, co-workers, and public officials will tell you she is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to getting things done. What she gets done enhances lives, strengthens communities, and ensures people of their human rights.
Diana is an advocate support advisor for Hamilton County Developmental Disabilities Services (HCDDS), that promotes and supports opportunities for people with developmental disabilities to live, work, learn and fully participate in their communities. In a nutshell, what she does, she told me is, “help people to find their voice, and what they believe in and what they want to do in life.”
She has been referred to time and again as one of the best, most effective advocates in Ohio. She has spoken at conferences and events, in the community and before local, regional and statewide public officials; and she provides her peers with information and encouragement to have a voice…to be included.
Diana is also past president of the Ohio Self Determination Association (OSDA) and chair of Advocacy United, a group of professionals and advocates whose mission is to help move people with disabilities into places of power so their voices can be heard.
A driving force behind positive change
That seems to be the theme when it comes to Diana.
She has testified before President Obama’s Election Commission for accessible elections. On behalf of OSDA, she testified before an Ohio State Senate Committee last year about concerns that an amended House Bill would take away opportunities and rights of people with disabilities.
And she is the major reason for the removal of the word ‘handicapped’ from the blue accessibility signs local, and statewide. Diana told me, it was when Ohio changed the name from Mental Retardation Developmental Disabilities Services to simply Developmental Disabilities Services that spurred her quest to change those signs in public places and parking lots. It all began with the Hamilton County Commissioners around the time when the Banks new garage was opening. “I told them the importance of reading symbols and showing respect in the community,” she told me. “After that I took my advocacy idea to the next level. I asked the City of Cincinnati council members to vote yes for the City and for it to also be a budget neutral law. At that time I also helped other counties and cities to remove the word ‘handicap’ from Ohio, and spoke with Eric Kearney about introducing this bill to make it a law.”
That law took several years to happen, but it happened! “I really like the accessible symbol. Symbols help everybody everywhere,” Diana said. “It is a simple way to respect other people. My grandma is 102. Elderly, children and adults with disabilities, family members and friends benefit.
“Advocacy comes from ideas and hopes and dreams. When I see the accessible symbol I smile for a positive change in the state of Ohio.”
Diana has a lot of reasons to smile.
Twenty five years ago, July 26, the historic Americans With Disabilities Act was signed into law. It was the first federal legislation that broke down the barriers, at least from a physical standpoint, that had served to exclude people because they did things differently from the norm. The law brought to the forefront a consciousness of creating spaces where everyone can access. Wider doorways and wheelchair ramps are some of the mandated changes seen in buildings and curb cuts throughout the country.
The law was a magnificent first step toward change. According to the ADA, no individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal participation of goods, services, facilities, privileges, and accommodations.
The thing that I want to remind everyone is that, while laws and these physical changes are important, true inclusion begins and ends with each one of us. Disabilities affect people of all race, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status, and age. Disabilities may be visible or they may be invisible. And disabilities may impact any one of us in any given moment of our lives.
But disabilities do not define people.
Still, people who experience disability are among the most socially and physically isolated. They are more vulnerable as targets of bullying. They are often misunderstood, and their intelligence and feelings very much underestimated.
I have always been someone fully aware of the importance of including and valuing others; however, my work with disability related organizations has heightened my awareness of this impact on individuals and on communities.
I have heard about stories and know people personally who have felt the pain of being excluded, and of not being given the opportunity to realize their full potential. Students who have been admonished by their peers. Parents who have feared adopting from the United States because of policies that could take their child away, for no other reason than their mother and father do things differently. People of working age who want to contribute and are very capable of contributing (not to mention have valuable skills) but are working in a job not up to their abilities because of limitations put on them by others.
But I have also seen the beauty in watching how kids…and adults grow…when they lose sight of each other’s differences and see each other as human beings. All of us, no matter our religion, culture, ethnicity, color or mode of doing, communicating and experiencing things grow when we include each other. We learn to see situations from new perspectives, we appreciate the gifts of our diversity, and together we are capable of accomplishing great things.
In a wonderfully spoken guest editorial to the Cincinnati Enquirer, Kat Lyons, advocacy coordinator for The Center for Independent Living Options Inc., shared, “We (people with disabilities) see ourselves as fully human, with strengths and weaknesses like any human. We know that any human may, in an instant, join our ranks.
We are not unable, just because we are disabled. We are just people, and we’d like to get to know you. We’d like for you to know and include us.”
Instead of simply applauding the ADA on its merits, let us see the ADA as a stepping stone toward a world of togetherness for all of us, a world that is better because we are a part of it.
When I was hired by the Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival (organized by Living Arrangements for the Developmentally Disabled and presented by Macy’s) late summer of 2014, much of Greater Cincinnati had never heard of it; and few people who I reached out to had any idea of the scope of the event or its value to our community – including me, admittedly. Even those who worked for the nonprofit host agencies did not realize the magnitude of what was to unfold.
People experiencing a disability or cognitive, genetic, physical and behavioral difference are often misunderstood. They are portrayed in photos and sometimes news stories as ‘less than’ normal or super human just by virtue of their own being. They are often not included, or at least not to the extent that they are people first with interests, hopes, dreams, talents, and even bad days, just like everybody else. Yet ‘they’ are about 20% of our population. And ‘they’ are the only minority population in which all people will be counted among them at some point in their lives.
The overarching goal of LADD and ReelAbilities in hiring me to serve as the director of public relations and communications was for me to support the unrelenting drive of determined volunteers and staff organizing the events by being a catalyst for change – to bring the community together in support of not only an event but a cause so powerful as to have impact on each and every one of us in a direct or indirect way. I wanted to get people in this region talking to each other and realizing that inclusion and togetherness is not about ‘other people’, it is about themselves and each other. I wanted to get people excited about ReelAbilities as a world class film festival, and come out to support and learn from it. The challenge was to do all of this with a very limited budget including for my own time, but I was up for the challenge as the cause is something very important to me.
For eight days beginning February 27, Greater Cincinnati was transformed into a film screening mecca with out-of-town celebrities helping Cincinnati explore our differences, and our shared humanity. Internationally acclaimed photographer Rick Guidotti; Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein; Project Runway fan favorite Justin LeBlanc; Cincinnati icons Ted Kremer, Drew Lachey, Nick and Nina Clooney, Dave Parker and Ken Anderson; former snowboarding champion Kevin Pearce; and actors Danny Woodburn, Kurt Yaeger, Daryl ‘Chill’ Mitchell, John Lawson, David DeSanctis (from Where Hope Grows), Jesus Sanchez-Velez (from Stand Clear of the Closing Doors); veterans SSG Travis Mills and Michael Schlitz; and Steve Wampler, who climbed El Capitan, where just some of the big name personalities who came to Cincinnati to be part of ReelAbilities. Academy Award Winning Actress Marlee Matlin was our keynote speaker for our Kick Off Celebration Luncheon that hosted hundreds.
The films of ReelAbilities were selected from some 500 plus submitted for jurying, many of them with wide international acclaim and awards to their name. Their common thread was that they celebrated the lives and stories of people experiencing disability. Many were shown with the film actors/subjects as special guests; and all screenings included a thought provoking discussion at the end.
I saw and still do see ReelAbilities as an opportunity to open dialogue and doors about topics that, for the most part, have been barricaded from our conversations – or at least in productive ways out of discomfort or lack of interest or personal connection.
There were so many strategies that I put into place (with help from wonderful volunteers and staff) to reach out to our community and pull people in through their personal stories and connections – their differences, and their shared humanity. And, in the end, it all came together to create a community that supported the film festival beyond our wildest dreams in classrooms, board rooms, businesses, entertainment venues, stores, nonprofits, and universities. Nearly 4500 people attended our events, with numerous film screenings having sold out.
The honest questions that were asked, the open answers that were shared, and the comments afterward from film goers told all of us that others grew from it too with expanded and even new perspectives.
There were so many people whose words and actions touched me in meaningful ways that it has been difficult to find the right words to capture its impact on me.
There was Kevin Pearce who took us into his life and shared his family tradition with all of us, ringing a Tibetan singing bowl to facilitate awareness of the moment – even at our formal Mingle with the Stars Gala. And, speaking of the Gala, anytime you have comedian actors in a room together and give them center stage to improvise, laughter is bound to follow. That was the genius idea (and somewhat brave too) of Festival Managing Director Susan Brownknight.
I remember the first time I met Richard Bernstein. He was so filled with genuine flattery of everyone he met. That, I came to learn quickly, is just his way. It is a gift and something I came to treasure about being around him.
We brought our VIPs to the Seacrest Studios at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center where kids could interact with them. It is there where I saw the infectious laughter of Danny Woodburn, Daryl ‘Chill’ Mitchell and John Lawson banter between each other; and again when Steve and Elizabeth Wampler sat side-by-side. Steve shared this message with hospital patients, “Don’t let anyone tell you, no, you can’t do that. Anything is possible.”
Justin LeBlanc promoted literacy by reading a book about inclusion to an entire gymnasium filled with school children; promoted creativity by helping students who are deaf to design and show fashions; and promoted abilities by speaking about his own personal story. Young students at Ohio Valley Voices also got to ask Justin lots of questions – like ‘When is your birthday?’, ‘What is your favorite color?’ and ‘Do you have a dog?’
While here, SSG Travis Mills , one of five surviving quadruple amputee veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, met for the very first time a critical care doctor who provided medical care after his 2012 injury during his air care transport from Kandahar to Bagram. Together we took them to tour UC Health’s Center for Sustainment of Trauma and Readiness or C-STARS where Major Dr. Laurae Rettig was trained. I’ll always remember Travis’ wicked sense of humor…and his rotating hand that he can make go round and round and round.
I always welcome Rick Guidotti’s bear hug. The lens from which he sees the world has opened eye across the globe to see the gift of each individual and the beauty in difference.
I treasured all of the time I got to spend with my friends, Danny Woodburn, and his wife, Amy Buchwald. They are two incredible people who I look up to as examples of role models when it comes to integrity and perseverance. Equaled with their talent is their fearlessness when it comes to standing up for what they believe in.
ReelAbilities gave me the opportunity to get to know and admire John Lawson, an encourager and leader, with a gift for bringing out the best in others.
Then there is the Festival Chair Kathleen Cail, Co-Chairs Sara Bitter and Kara Ayers; Managing Director Susan Brownknight; staff team – Jesse, Hannah, Molly, and Jen; and all of the committee volunteers for whom I have so much respect. They are such an awesome group of passionate, hard working, and dedicated people without whom this would not have been possible.
The Festival was about people coming together, standing up for and embracing eachother. It was about opening eyes and minds to see beyond people’s differences to what we all share – our humanity. I celebrate LADD for having the vision, foresight, courage and strength to create and organize such a community changing event. I am especially in awe of Susan Brownknight as our leader.
In her luncheon speech, Marlee Matlin looked out into the audience and shared, “We need to keep opening doors when people want them shut. We need to shine the light on ignorance when people want to keep us in the dark. And we need to make noise when they want to keep us quiet. But most of all, we need to keep on being ourselves, follow your heart and in the end accommodation will happen. We are the ones who can make it happen.”
Yes, Marlee, you are right we are. Let’s make our voices be heard!
I was reminded the other day of how great it has been knowing that my public relations career has been focused on bringing awareness and relationships to some truly impactful causes and organization.
And a client about which I was so passionate and miss the most was an organization called the Inclusion Network. For eight years I worked with them year round promoting the message that everyone has gifts and abilities, and that bringing those unique gifts together we strengthen each other. We strengthen our community.
I was one of the lead producers of the Inclusion Leadership Awards Event responsible for the strategic messaging including hiring and working with speakers to keep their speech on target, writing the script and the videos, working on all facets of the program portion, coordinating the media relations and more. And I saw that event grow to where it was hosting more than 900 people at the end.
Business and community leaders, professionals, housewives, students, volunteers, people who walk and people who use wheelchairs, people who benefit from large print programs and open captioned video screens, sign language interpreters or cups with handles instead of glassware all came together for a two and a half hour event that was designed to somehow change the world as they knew it. They heard about stories of organizations that instinctively know how to uncover talent, and of people, whose abilities are no longer obscurities. Acceptance was no longer an abstract. Inclusion, they learned, was not about THEM, but about ME.
Actor Danny Woodburn continues to stand out to me as the speaker whose message I will always remember. Danny shared his story of an actor, comedian and activist whose talents were born in the hardships of a world unaccepting of a medical condition known as dwarfism. All too well, he knows the sting of rejection and ridicule because he has lived it his entire life. But Danny told our vast audience that through his work, he has had the ability to influence attitudes. Offensive words, he has found, are generally rooted in misunderstanding and he openly corrects producers, directors and other actors.
At the end of Danny’s speech I remember he told us, “Even though every script is a battle to see how much I will comprise, it is worth it as long as there is dialogue.” Then he looked into the audience and added, “It is inspiring to me as I look out at all of your faces and see that there are comrades in this battlefield.”
To this day, Danny’s words and character continue to impact me. Sure, I love the fact that every time we talk he can always make me laugh but what I love even more is Danny’s true depth of humanity. He is truly one of those unique gifts and someone who I feel so blessed to be able to call a friend.
And the reason I am bringing this all up is because it is all leading up to a new client that is allowing me to continue this path of bringing communities together through the differences that make people uniquely great.
Organized by Cincinnati nonprofit LADD (Living Arrangements for the Developmentally Disabled), the Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival is our region’s largest film festival that explores the world as experienced by people with disabilities. It will include a a star studded awards premiere luncheon, gala, and 30 film and speaking events throughout Greater Cincinnati. All of the film screenings benefit local nonprofit organizations that enhance the lives of people with disabilities.
The Festival will be February 27 to March 7, 2015 and next week I invite you to join us at our big red carpet unveiling party at the eloquent Obscura cocktail lounge in downtown Cincinnati from 7 to 9 pm. The films and venues will be announced before hundreds of guests by actor John Lawson and Q102’s Jenn Jordan.
Here is a link to register for the free event.
The ReelAbilities Film Festival was founded in 2007 in New York City by the Manhattan JCC and has grown to become the largest film festival in the country dedicated to sharing the stories, lives and art of people who experience disability. It is now headquartered in Cincinnati and is a division of LADD. It includes a total of 13 Festivals across the country. Cincinnati holds the second largest one.
Danny, who most recently plays the voice of Splinter in the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, was recently interviewed in Soapbox Media about ReelAbilities.
“Actors with disabilities are 90 percent less likely to be seen, and many characters with disabilities aren’t actually played by actors with disabilities,” he said. “It’s important for work like this to be done, and if I have the chance to speak out and be heard because I’m recognizable from being in the public eye, then I feel it’s my responsibility to do so.”
“But this isn’t just about actors getting work,” Woodburn continues. “Two-thirds of people with disabilities are unemployed; we need to raise awareness of that fact. If we want that to change, we as a society have to create an environment for change.”
The United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Cincinnati brought to my attention an essay contest they held for children. The purpose? To encourage expression of the students’ own or observed feelings toward those who have disabilities, and the impact of those thoughts, with the goal that insight will foster togetherness.
Wow did that bring back memories. For eight years, my favorite annual project was helping to produce the Inclusion Leadership Awards Event – an event aimed at encouraging people to think outside the box, break down communication barriers, notice AND appreciate skills that had been under the radar. Our main communication goal was to inspire a world where people with and without disabilities work and play together not because they have to, but because they want to.
I was charged with developing those messages through the speaker, the script, the acceptance speeches and the videos so that guests would leave with a real sense of vision. In 2 ½ hours, attendees were to learn a lesson that would somehow change the world as they knew it. They heard stories of organizations that instinctively knew how to uncover talent, and of people whose abilities were no longer obscurities. Acceptance, we wanted them to realize, was not an abstract. Inclusion was not so much about ‘them’ but rather it was about ‘me’.
About ME. That’s a concept. Norman Kunc, our 2001 keynote speaker, had this to share. “In our society, we have already figured out that achievement and mastery lead to self-esteem. Where we have gone wrong is that we have forgotten that self-esteem can only come out of a context of belonging…we have idolized this ideal of independence and self-sufficiency. And what we have forgotten is that human beings need to belong…in the words of the music of Cheers, ‘where everyone knows our name and everyone’s glad we came.’ “
Actor Danny Woodburn, who normally makes a living provoking laughter, briefly left Hollywood in 2004 to remind our guests of a message from Mother Theresa, “Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible tragedy,” he said.
Danny told us his story – the story of an actor, comedian and activist whose talents were born in the hardships of a world unaccepting of a medical condition. All too well, he pointed out; he knows the sting of rejection and ridicule because he has lived it his entire life. He still gets scripts that refer to him as a ‘midget.’
But, he said, he is lucky. Through his work he has had the ability to influence attitudes. Offensive words, he’s found, are generally rooted in misunderstanding and he unabashedly corrects producers, directors and other actors. Of his character on the NBC hit Seinfeld, he said, “All it took for the success of my character was an intelligent exchange of ideas and sensitivity to the issues of little people. As a result, both Jerry (Seinfeld) and I felt included.”
Danny’s candor has bridged cultural and generational gaps, and altered misguided perceptions. (Please stay with me, I’m getting to the connection with the essay contest.) He continued to tell us about his job after college teaching drama to 20 kids between eight and ten years old.
That first day he devoted to talking about himself. Most of the questions were pretty typical. “How old are you? How tall are you? Why are you that way?,” they asked.
Then it came. The comment that would open the door behind which acceptance stood poised and waiting. An indignant girl told Danny in front of the class what her father thought of him.
“To my daddy, you are just a midget,” she said.
Danny looked at her and politely replied, “Well your daddy is wrong. Nobody is just anything and that word to me is like a hate word. And we know hate words can affect people, how they can hurt people and how it is wrong to use them.”
After that day, Danny told us, his students wanted to have their acting class – with Mr. Dan.
“I think back and I think all it took was that one day of communication, including them in who I am and nothing else needed to be said,” he went on.
Wow. That’s powerful stuff, and yet, it really is that simple.
And that is why I was so interested in the United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Cincinnati’s project aimed at opening minds and dialogue, and encouraging young people to think about the impact of their words and thoughts and actions.
“Changing the attitude of one school aged child has the ability to influence an entire generation.” said Susan S. Schiller, executive director.
UCP presented Nicole Roberts, a student from St. Mary’s School, with a family pass to Kings Island for her essay entitled ‘Inspiring Swimmers with Amazing Attitudes.’ Below is an excerpt.
For the most part, I am a typical teenage girl. Nothing scares me. I’m not afraid of the dark, I laugh at horror movies and I absolutely love to ride roller coasters, the higher the better. However, when my mom suggested I volunteer to help the Special Olympics Swim Team, I was a little nervous. It wasn’t that I was scared of people with disabilities; instead I was scared of how I would act around people with disabilities. What would I say? How would I interact with them? Would I stare?
Before I became acquainted with disabled people, I felt sorry for them. I was sad for them because they have to live with hardships that limit them for the rest of their lives. I thought they were completely different than I. Wow, was I wrong! Now I see that people with disabilities are just like everyone else. They love to watch the same television shows, they go to school, they go to the movies, and even have sleepovers with their friends. They have hopes and dreams for the future, just like we all do.
My work with these amazing people has taught me so much. However, the most important lesson I’ve learned is that people with disabilities have abilities too. It’s not about what they can’t do, but should be about what they can do, what they give to society and how they inspire others. I think of my fearless swimmers when I hear these words from Thomas Jefferson, ‘Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.’ They’ve showed me that attitude is the key as to whether you will succeed or fail. My new friends definitely have the right attitude!
Just as in Danny’s classroom, all it took for the word ‘disability’ to become transparent in Nicole’s eyes was for her to get to know others who do things differently.
Who have you gotten to know lately?
I feel truly blessed to be able to say I have gotten to know Danny, not just as an actor, speaker, comedian, and humanitarian, but as a friend. Such depth of human character is a true gift.