Ask the Ambassadors
Abilities Expo Ambassadors are leaders, artists, athletes, writers, veterans, lawyers, journalists, advocates, entrepreneurs, students, parents of special needs children and very active members of the community of people with disabilities. To read their bios, click here.
If you have questions relating to disabilities, these inspiring men and women may be able to help you. Please pose your query and you will receive a response by email.
Local disability activists lead Abilities Expo’s community outreach efforts through ambassador program
For each regional event, our Ambassadors—members of the local community of people with disabilities—spearhead our community outreach initiatives. These individuals will meet face-to-face with rehab institutions, independent living centers, local manufacturers, service providers and local associations to generate excitement and increase attendance at each event.
From athletes to playwrights to artists, meet the impressive men and women who have chosen to represent Abilities Expo to the Community.
New York Metro Ambassador
A native New Yorker with Cerebral Palsy, Sarah resides in Westchester County, just outside of New York City. She is determined and driven to go places and do things that she is passionate about. She says, "I get things done because I have learned that nothing in life comes easy. Everything requires work. Sometimes the work is very, very hard, like physical therapy. It is difficult for me to walk because of my CP, but I try. I work on my muscles and coordination." Sarah currently works in the Marketing Department for Convaid Products, a pediatric mobility equipment manufacturer. She loves to spend time with her family and friends and her service dog, Edison.
"I am so thrilled to be part of Abilities Expo and love the strong sense of community it creates," she said. "I truly enjoy meeting all the people who attend the expo and have made great friends along the way!"
Ian James Brown
New York Metro Ambassador
Ian James Brown graduated from the United States Air Force Academy. Extremely active, he played football, rugby and volleyball as well competed in boxing, power lifting and martial arts.
Ian became a paralyzed veteran during his service in the United States Air Force.
Undaunted, Ian began a post-baccalaureate program to finish the pre-requisite courses in preparation for medical school.
Ian is heavily involved in neuro-spinal research and volunteers at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation and the James J. Peters Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center. He focuses on the consequences and rehabilitation of spinal and traumatic brain injuries. Ian has worked for Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs in order to help fund responsible medical research.
In addition to his academic pursuits, Ian also works to help fit customized wheelchairs to the disabled population as a representative for Lasher Sport, LLC. As a volunteer for Lasher Sport for more than a year and a half and an ambassador to the Abilities Expos, Ian meets local clients, and travels abroad to meet patients with varied diagnoses to help find and suggest durable medical equipment, disabled resources and medical research programs.
Ian is also affiliated with the Accessible Racing program where he not only competes, but he helps design and develop the arrive and drive experience which enables people of varying disabilities to learn autocross and race driving in a fully accessible race car.
Ian is a model, spokesperson and representative for LegaWear where he helps to provide custom tailored fashion for people with varying levels of ability.
Though a retired military officer, Ian hopes to rejoin the working force in Neuro-spinal research—specifically in neuro-technology and cure research—following medical school.
Ian is also a wheelchair athlete and competed for the first time post-injury in power lifting and archery at the 2008 Veteran’s Wheelchair Games in Omaha, Nebraska where he brought home gold medals in archery and weightlifting.
It was at the University of Houston-Downtown that Ana Calvo became the president of the student organization for people with disabilities and, through this role, that she discovered her love for advocating for the rights of others with disabilities.
Ana received her Bachelors in Arts of Social Science with concentrations in Psychology and Sociology and a Minor in Political Science in 2002. She went on to get her Masters in Social Work from the University of Houston College Of Social Work in 2007.
Over the last decade, she has been the subject of much media attention. When she received her undergraduate degree, Ana was featured in the Texas Magazine for her accomplishments. In addition, she appeared in the Houston Chronicle in 2002, has done numerous television appearances locally—including the Patricia Gras PBS show and Telemundo with Marcelo Marini—and was recently featured in HTexas Magazine.
Ana currently works at the Houston Community College Vocational Advancement and Social Skill Training (V.A.S.T.) Department as director of transition services where she prepares young adults with cognitive and physical disabilities to lead a healthy, productive and independent life. She is very active in the community and also serves as Chair for the City of Houston’s Commission for People with Disabilities.
In May 2008, Ana was awarded the Dorothy Caram Commitment to Leadership Award from the United Way Foundation. At the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant in August, she received the Nicki Ard Award for her advocacy accomplishments. Recently, Ana was also recognized as one of the 100 Houston Latinas Women in Leadership.
As Ms. Wheelchair Texas 2009, Ana promoted her platform of helping the youth to embrace their disabilities and achieve their dreams through education, employment and community involvement and will continue to be an advocate for people with disabilities.
A native Houstonian, this former Ms. Wheelchair America (2009) and Ms. Wheelchair Texas (2008), graduated Summa cum Laude from the University of Houston and earned her Master's degree in Health Promotion from the University of Texas School of Public Health. Born with spina bifida, Michelle has used a wheelchair since the 6th grade, but those who know her don't think of her as "disabled."
With her background in health research, Michelle emphasizes the importance for everyone to make their own health a priority. She reminds us that those of us who have physical limitations can still be healthy and active. She herself stays active with daily exercise at her gym, and through recreational activities such as snow skiing, wheelchair sports, kayaking and Taekwondo.
Through her volunteer work, Michelle is an active advocate for all people who have disabilities, not just those who use wheelchairs like herself. From 2003 through 2007, Michelle served as a commissioner on the Houston Commission on Disabilities before being appointed that committee’s chair. She also served on two other city commissions and coordinated efforts to better serve Houstonians with disabilities. Michelle is also the winner of the prestigious Jefferson's Award in recognition of her volunteer service which includes her involvement in Playgrounds Without Limits, Houston's first inclusive playground for all children.
In addition, Michelle previously served as Executive Director of the Houston's Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities and, in that capacity, led a number of successful disability initiatives. Thanks in part to her efforts, Houston was honored by the National Organization on Disability as the recipient of the 2007 Accessible America Award. Michelle currently works at a major cancer center and continues to volunteer as a disability advocate on collaborative initiatives. She also recently joined the Colours Wheelchairs team, a manufacturer of innovative and stylish wheelchairs.
Michelle’s philosophy is to never refuse a true adventure. In her spare time, she races her MINI Cooper in autocross competitions, and has even taken first place in her class and "Driver of the Year."
Los Angeles Ambassador
Margarita Elizondo, Ms. Wheelchair California 2013, is a Spinal Cord Injury survivor who sustained a gunshot wound to the neck, leaving her paralyzed from the chest down after an intruder broke into her home in 2006. Now a single mother of three, and proud grandmother of two, she attends Grossmont Community College in pursuit of a bachelor's degree in Communication. She is employed by Axia Management where she holds the position of Director of Social Initiative Strategies, marketing wireless telecommunication services by True Wireless and Heart Mobile.
Her everlasting passion of encouraging individuals with disabilities of all ages to further their education, be self- advocates, and inspire others through the pursuit of their individual dreams despite their challenges is demonstrated through her involvement in numerous organizations, and volunteerism.
In 2007, she founded Blessed with Life, which is a faith based peer support program for people with disabilities and their families. In 2008, she became a Peer Support Advisor for SHARP Memorial Hospital and by 2009, she established the SHARP/HeadNorth Mentor Program for individuals affected by spinal cord injuries. In 2011, she continued to pursue her passions when she founded a Joni and Friends San Diego Chapter, which teaches and encourages churches to disciple and minister to individuals with disabilities. She is a motivational speaker and leadership development trainer for the San Diego Unified School District working with at risk middle school and high school students through 2nd Mile Ministry and she is a radio talk show host for an internet radio show she produces herself, Wheel Talk Wheel Issues, and celebrates diverse abilities through her blog, Celebrating ADA & Ability Awareness.
Mike Ervin is a writer and disability rights activist living in Chicago. His plays have been produced in theaters across America.
As a journalist, he has written extensively about the community of people with disabilities for several national newspapers and magazines. Currently, he is a columnist for New Mobility magazine and spinalcord.org. Mike is also a founding member of the Chicago chapter of the direct action disability rights organization ADAPT.
Olga L. Guerra
My name is Olga L. Guerra and I am a parent of an adult child who has cerebral palsy. I am a very involved parent and have been advocating for Araceli since she was diagnosed at the age of six months.
Araceli was born “normal,” but as she grew she was not meeting developmental milestones. Her pediatrician suggested we see a neurologist, so we did. Dr. Bohan diagnosed Araceli with microcephaly, but he explained that he was going to label her with CP so she could access more resources. This was Greek to me but I agreed. Little did I know that having the CP label was a good thing. As she grew, she was also diagnosed with mental retardation, speech impairment, an orthopedic impairment and a physical impairment.
As a first-time mom, it was very difficult for me to be told that the child I thought I was going to have, I was no longer going to have. I felt all the emotions that we all go through when there is a great sense of loss. But, I had to pick up the pieces and move forward because my daughter needed her mommy and, gosh darn it, she was going to have her mommy!
Thus my quest began to ensure that she would receive any and all services she needed to be successful. This also meant making sure she had devices and equipment that would assist her in being the best that she can be.
I did not think Araceli would ever walk but she had other ideas. A few years ago, she just got up and walked from one room to another. This, of course, comes because of therapy, a gait trainer, leg braces and endless doctor appointments. Araceli is non-verbal, but she does have lots of communication so I was able to get her a DynaVax MightyMo through the Specialized Telecommunications Assistance Program (STAP) in Texas. This is an augmentative communication device which allows Araceli to convey her desires. For example, when Araceli wants French fries, she can press the corresponding picture and it says, “French fries.”
She has a Tandem trike from Freedom Concepts thanks to The Heart of Variety organization. She has gone to Disney World courtesy of Make a Wish. I could go on and on but, bottom line, there are many resources, services and equipment that will help our children with challenges get that much closer to being “normal.” I tell parents all the time that all they have to do is ask. The worst thing that could happen is that the answer will be “no” and you are no worse off than when you started. What if the answer is “yes?”
I believe in allowing all children with disabilities to be the decision makers as to what they can or can‘t do. Granted, Araceli may not become a rocket scientist, but who I am I to put any limitations on her abilities?
Part of my job as her mother is to ensure that ALL doors will always be open for her. Araceli will be the only one who will decide if she can or can’t do anything.
Vanessa Harris, P.E. is an able-bodied/disabled licensed professional engineer and artist who creates short documentaries which can be seen at Fun 4 the Disabled to inspire joy for disabled and non-disabled persons alike about fun topics. She is constantly seeking new subjects around accessibility and aspires to make work that is both entertaining and educational. She documents and shares entertaining people, pastimes and products, because she wants people who are disabled and their friends and families to enjoy life with no one excluded for fun activities. Her short subjects are shown on her website, YouTube, and the Chicago Access Network Television Station.
As an artist and engineer, Harris has always worked to solve problems and is now focusing on how to provide solutions for topics as diverse as: buying an accessible car if you are a wheelchair user; interviewing disabled authors of comics; and discovering a ranch that has therapy equine animals. She covers each subject simply, clearly and with a sense of humor.
Harris has 30 years of experience in engineering and has won ten awards in the Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics arena. Her most recent honor was the Global Leadership Forum Superstar Award. She is an Ambassador for the Chicago Abilities Expo, and has been nominated to be a 2020 ADA25 Advancing Leadership Fellow. She not only loves film, but also music and dance and has featured several integrated dance companies and professional disabled dancers in her documentaries.
Paul Amadeus Lane
Los Angeles Ambassador
Accessibility Consultant | TV & Radio Personality | Brand Ambassador | Keynote Speaker
Over 20 years ago, after being involved in a multi car collision that left him a C-6 Quadriplegic and confined to a wheelchair, Paul's life was nowhere near where it is today. In fact, there was a time when he and his doctors believed that he only had 72 hours left in his life. Paul ended up spending 8 months in a hospital recovering. Undeterred and inspired to live his dreams, Paul attended the Academy of Radio and Television Broadcasting in 2006. He went on to graduate from the school with honors.
In 2007, he landed his first paid radio gig at CBS Radio KFWB-AM as a News Production Assistant. while working at CBS he landed an additional radio job in which Paul earned the title of Bureau Chief for NBC News Radio, KCAA 1050-AM, in Southern California's Inland Empire. He also served as a Host for their weekday morning show until 2014. By 2015, he became the Bureau Chief of ABC News Radio, KMET 1490-AM. Here, he hosted the morning show.
Paul has long been a self-proclaimed nerd and techie. When January of 2016 came around, he decided to use his love for all things nerdy on his new show, TECH ZONE. He discusses technology and how it has changed everyday life, gaming, entertainment, sports, health and education. At comic-con 2018 in San Diego, he debuted his new show, Entertainment Zone.
As an Accessibility Consultant Paul uses his unique experience as a former able-bodied consumer and now a disabled consumer. This helps him to see the challenges from both angles. Paul has worked with video game developers and game console manufactures in helping them make gaming inclusive for all. He has also worked with different consumer technology companies assisting them in areas where the disabled community can use their products more fully.
In May 2018 Paul was invited to speak at Sony Interactive Entertainment (PlayStation) in San Mateo California for global accessibility awareness day to give a TED TALK. He shared his story about his injury, overcoming obstacles, career, advocacy, mentoring and love of gaming. A career highlight for Paul was being asked to moderate the first-ever "ACCESSIBILITY IN GAMES" panel at E3 2018 in Los Angeles, California.
Outside of his work on TV and Radio, Paul has served on the Board of Directors for the American Advertising Federation's, Inland Empire Chapter. Paul is also a Brand Ambassador for Abilities Expo since 2014 and Host of the Abilities Zone. In June of 2015, he was given the privilege of being the Keynote Speaker for the United States Equal Opportunity Commission's annual training. He served as a Moderator at the Black Enterprise TechConnext Summit in 2016.
Gina Jenkins McWilliams
Dallas AmbassadorGina lost her right leg below the knee as the result of a car accident 16 years ago. As she delved into the world of adaptive sports, she was continually in search of volleyball opportunities for women with disabilities. She finally found them when asked to attend the first ever women’s sitting volleyball camp, held at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, CO, in February 2003.
Gina has been a member of the U.S. Paralympics Women’s Sitting Volleyball National Team ever since, winning Gold, Silver and Broze medals. She is a mother of two, a healthcare advocate and a certified peer visitor & trainer at Amputee Coalition.
Anthony R. Orefice III
Los Angeles Ambassador
I was 19 years old and thought I had the world at my fingertips. I loved to ride dirt bikes, surf, snow board, wake board, fish and work out. On November 27, 1993 just after Thanksgiving, my parents and brother joined some of our family in Laughlin, Nevada, while I stayed home since I had to work. Believe it or not, this was the first time my parents left me home for an extended period of time. Since they were gone, I thought what better time to have some friends over. A good friend came over with his street bike—which I loved to ride—and I later took another friend for a ride on the back of the bike late that night. While I was driving the motorcycle with my friend, he fell off. With the balance was thrown off, I was not able to keep the bike on the street. The bike swerved off the road and I hit a telephone poll. I would soon learn that my life would not be the same.
According to the reports, I needed to be resuscitated twice and, due to my internal and external injuries, I only had enough blood to keep my heart pumping. I remained in ICU for 6 weeks on life support. After I was taken out of ICU, I was transferred to several hospitals. During that time, I had 9 surgeries and remained in the hospitals for 6 months.
As a result of my accident, I am a T4, T5, T6—incomplete paraplegic. Fortunately, I have had the opportunity to meet several others with spinal cord injuries. They have shown me a new way of life and given me hope. Today I still remain friends with many of those people that gave me hope and so much encouragement. I thank God that they were sent to show me that my life will go on, but in a different way.
I have learned so much in the last 17 years, living with a spinal cord injury. I thought it was a life I could never live, but it became easier in time, with lots of practice and prayers. You learn to be creative.
Today, I am happily married to my girlfriend at the time of my accident, who I only knew for 6 months, and we have a 3-year-old son. I am CEO of Wheelie Medical Supply, owner of Wheelie Distribution, a realtor for Keller Williams VIP properties, an ambassador for the Abilities Expo Los Angeles and a proud Rider for Ralphs Riders, a nonprofit which helps people with spinal cord injuries. I enjoy helping others who face challenges similar to my own and various other disabilities. I want them to be able to overcome some of the obstacles that I was able to.
When I am not working or volunteering at hospitals, I enjoy spending time with my family.
I tell people that I have been blessed to have bonus time for the last 17 years. Although some days present more challenges than others, I would never trade them for anything.
NEVER SAY NEVER!
Dylan Rafaty of Plano serves as the Vice Chair of the Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities. Dylan is currently Director of Business Development & Partnerships for C-Hear, Inc., a company that developed a way to make images accessible and heard. He is Founder / Chief Navigation Officer for DylanListed, LLC, a transition and support services provider for people with disabilities and veterans. Dylan also proudly sits on seven boards/committees benefiting local school districts, nonprofits and community organizations.
Dylan is a self-published author, national public speaker, diversity and inclusion trainer and advocate on important legislative matters in Texas and across the United States. He cares about a variety of issues affecting people with disabilities, such as accessibility, affordable housing, education, emergency preparedness, transportation, workforce, etc. Dylan received his associate degree at Collin College in Frisco and Bachelor of Science degree in Industrial Organizational Psychology at University of Phoenix online.
Los Angeles Ambassador
Chris Rohan served as publisher of Disabled Dealer Magazine of CA, NV & AZ from August 2001 until the last issue August 2013. Chris and her husband of 43 years, Jim, have been actively involved with the disability community since 1989, when their oldest son, Bobby, became a quadriplegic after when he was seriously injured in an auto accident. Their youngest son, Matt, became a physical therapist in order to better understand and help his brother.
In 2001, Bobby heard that Disabled Dealer Magazine of Southern California was for sale and told his parents they should buy it—and they did! Chris put her heart, soul and impressive knowledge of resources, services and products available to the disability community into every issue of the magazine. Her endless energy and desire to bring the best articles, resources and equipment to people with disabilities and their families made Disabled Dealer Magazine of CA, NV & AZ an outstanding book each month as well as a must-read.
Children's needs have always been a priority with Chris. Having raised two very active, wonderful sons, she knows the importance of fun as well as education. Although Chris has published her last issue of DDM CA, NV & AZ, she is not retiring! Chris is bringing this same level of dedication and expertise to the Abilities Expo as an ambassador. If you need help finding a product or service, just ask Chris.
Los Angeles Ambassador
Donna Russo is proud to be an Ambassador for the Abilities Expo for the last 4 years.
Donna was born with Turners Syndrome, a chromosomal disorder in which a female is born with only one X chromosome, and now has adult onset FSH Muscular Dystrophy, a condition that slowly robs the muscles of movement. The two conditions are unrelated. She is 4' 5"tall, many women with Turners Syndrome are of small stature. Donna started dancing at the age of 10 with ballet and tap and later adding jazz, modern and acting classes.
She graduated from Mercyhurst University with a BA in Dance. Donna had her heart set on joining a ballet company, but she found out that for many companies she was considered too short. She was still determined to dance, and found a place in the dance world performing as elves, aliens, dolls and monsters in Television, Film and Music Videos. She was on the National Tour of Alvin and the Chipmunks and the Magic Camera as Alvin, performed in Lord of the Rings, Passions, Power Rangers and in many other roles.
In addition to dance, Donna was in the hospitality industry for 30 years, working her way up to an Entertainment Sales Manager position where she assisted music industry/television production clientele with accommodations. Donna received awards for sales and was voted "Top Dog" award recipient two years in a row by music industry professionals.
Donna has often been asked to speak to various groups, which has led her to becoming a motivational speaker.
She can be seen on You Tube in the video "I Won't Give Up." The video went viral. "I Won't Give Up" was performed live at the Expo. Donna says, "It is very exciting to perform at the Expo with "I Won't Give Up" and "Fall For You" both choreographed by Tam Warner. I love the connection with the other dancers and the audience."
Currently Donna is the Star of the series Donna On The Go which features the dance "Fall For You", from its live performance at the Expo to its professionally filmed version. The series was submitted for 8 Emmy awards this year. Donna herself was submitted as Outstanding Actress in a Short Form Series.
Donna On The Go can be viewed on the You Tube Channel : https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCHpQYW0ndh-bkyWOOYhrIdw
and also on the Official Website : https://www.donna-on-the-go.com/
Meridith completed a bachelor's degree in psychology with focus in child development and family studies from University of Houston and a masters degree in psychology from University of Houston Clear Lake. During graduate school she began working with special populations at an ABA (applied behavior analysis) clinic. After graduate school she continued to work with special populations in clinics, adult transition programs as well as rehab/ recovery centers. Meridith has worked with many populations of all ages with various diagnosis from autism and other developmental delays, to brain injuries including TBI and acquired. In her current role as Director of Adaptive Programs for the YMCA of Greater Houston, she provides adaptive sports and social opportunities for children and young adults with special needs across the city.
Meridith adopted a medically fragile child in 2008 when she was just under 2 years old. Her daughter was born at 24 weeks and still needed a feeding tube, multiple surgeries and in home therapy. Two short years later they were done with the feeding tube and surgeries but were about to embark on a new journey with an autism diagnosis. After many years of doctors, therapists, and school meetings Meridith has built an amazing team to support her daughter as she grows.
Meridith completed the Wrights Law Special Education Law and Advocacy training in 2014. This training has helped her advocate for her own children in school as well as help others through the ARD and 504 process.
As a professional, parent and advocate Meridith wears many hats when working with special populations. This gives her a deep understanding of the needs of the individual and their caretaker which she uses to serve in our community.
New York Metro Ambassador
After receiving degrees in Sociology and Spanish (with concentrations in Latin American Studies and Peace & Justice) from Villanova University, Amanda Sullivan pursued her life-long dream of working with the less fortunate. Amanda was an aid worker & missionary for the better part of ten years. She worked with orphans, refugees and abused women and children, mainly in Latin America and The Caribbean. She has lived in Costa Rica, Chile, Panama, Jamaica and Mexico. She's worked with indigenous refugees in the foothills of Guatemala and with people with Hansen’s Disease (also known as "Leprosy") in Ecuador. She was a first responder during Hurricane Katrina & planned a wedding between two beautiful evacuees from The 9th Ward of New Orleans. She was taught how to shine in the face of adversity by some of the most spiritually-wealthy & courageous souls on the planet. Amanda left her heart with the people of Merida, Yucatan, Mexico. During her three and a half years there, she ran an orphanage for little girls, ages 6-14, and taught Spanish classes to children who speak Mayan. She loves the outdoors, sports, meeting inspired people, camping, animals & discovering new places.
Amanda came home to New York City from setting up another shelter in Mexico, for Christmas of 2008. While home, she was involved in two major car accidents within a six-week period. Despite suffering traumatic brain injuries & fracturing/breaking/injuring her entire body from head to toe, Ms. Sullivan's smile was left unscathed in her accidents. She took this as a clear sign to NEVER STOP SMILING NO MATTER WHAT. An athlete her entire life, Amanda has never been one to shy away from a challenge. The last few years have proven to be her biggest challenge yet. Amanda is mobile thanks to her forearm crutches and wheelchair.
Since her accidents, Amanda has met a plethora of incredible people with disabilities. Connecting with other positive people in this beautiful community has helped keep the fire burning inside of her soul. Ms. Sullivan has recently decided to become a wheelchair athlete, thanks to these new friendships, and just purchased her first handcycle! She's keeping her heart and mind opened to all of the lessons that can be learned through adversity. Inspiration is Amanda's motivation!!
Amanda wants anyone going through a hard time to know that NOTHING can take the love in your heart nor the light in your soul away from you. Some things happen that are totally out of our control~ People can break our hearts or our bodies ~ But ultimately WE ARE IN CONTROL of our lives. Amanda believes that an inspired soul is IMPOSSIBLE to break. Feeling like a victim and thinking negative thoughts are the ONLY true disabilities in this world. Ever since attending The NY Metro Abilities Expo in May, Amanda has been focused on ENABLING herself however possible. She no longer feels as if she needs to be getting around without her mobility aids in order to be COMPLETE.
This experience has overwhelmed Ms. Sullivan's soul with more love and hope than ever before. She has been doing between 4-6 hours of physical therapy every day for over three years & feels more empowered than ever. Amanda has become involved in many organizations which give hope to people with disabilities. She will begin giving motivational talks at schools sometime next year (when her brain is hopefully more healed) & has decided to write a book someday, as well. She wants to share all of the wonderful things that she's learned from her travels & her accidents & is excited to learn new lessons from all of you, as well. Ms. Sullivan is elated to be a NY Metro Ambassador. She feels honored to have the opportunity to make new friends & share this journey "on the cripp side" together. Finally, Amanda wants you to know that we may have been disabled by chance, BUT WE ARE ENABLED BY CHOICE.
For some it would seem like an impossible situation being told that you would never walk again and not to bother, but for Vincenzo it was a challenge worth meeting head on. The former aspirations of becoming an EMT were a thing of the past as, after a fall and a diagnosis of Muscular Dystrophy, he was paralyzed on his whole right side. It would take around five years for Vincenzo to be able to gain enough function in his arm to use a manual wheelchair and begin his journey into a new life he never thought was possible.
In 2016, Vincenzo began adaptive rowing with the Chicago Rowing Foundation and competed in several races, even taking first place home twice. However, his love for rowing was overshadowed by his passion for dance. He yearned to perform again! In November 2016, his dream became a reality when the director of Momenta Dance Company saw him dance in a workshop and invited him to join the company. Since then, he has performed with Momenta, dancing a duet with another male able-bodied dancer, and with the Academy of Movement and Music, which is the school that Momenta calls home. He was also honored to choreograph and perform a solo piece of his own for the 2017 Chicago Disability Pride Parade.
In addition, Vincenzo competed in the 2017 Chicago Triathlon as a parathlete and took home first place in the Wheely Division! He continues to train with Dare2tri, a group that prepares athletes with physical, cognitive and visual disabilities to compete in triathlons.
It is his courage and determination that has brought him to Abilities Expo as a new ambassador. He believes anything is possible as long as you believe and wants to bring others with disabilities the chance to shine.
National Disability Law Ambassador
Stephanie Woodward is a passionate Disability Rights activist and proud disabled person. She is the Director of Advocacy at the Center for Disability Rights, Inc. (CDR) a disability led, not-for-profit Corporation that works for national, state, and local systemic change to advance the rights of people with disabilities. Stephanie is also a member of ADAPT, a national grass-roots community that organizes disability rights activists to engage in nonviolent direct action, including civil disobedience, to assure the civil and human rights of people with disabilities to live in freedom. Stephanie has been arrested multiple times while advocating for Disability Rights.
Prior to joining CDR Stephanie worked as a litigator in Miami, Florida focusing on Disability Rights. Stephanie attended Syracuse University College of Law where she earned her J.D. with a certificate in Disability Law and Policy and her M.S.Ed. in Disability Studies. Stephanie previously worked for Senator Tom Harkin (IA) and assisted his Disability Counsel on the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions by researching, drafting legislation, and making recommendations for legislative action in regards to disability rights issues. Most recently, Stephanie, along with fellow members of ADAPT, assisted in drafting the Disability Integration Act (DIA) – a piece of legislation that, if passed, would affirm the rights of people with disabilities to receive long-term services in their homes, rather than nursing facilities and other institutions.
While Stephanie’s work spans across all areas of Disability Rights, she is particularly interested in deinstitutionalization, community living, ending violence against people with disabilities, and improving access in the community. She loves talking about legislation that will impact the Disability Community and helping others to become activists for Disability Rights. When Stephanie is not doing Disability Rights work, she can be found playing with her adorable nieces, taking care of her four cats, and eating copious amounts of cheeseburgers and onion rings.
I went to SMU, Meadows School of the Arts, on a music scholarship pursuing a degree in Vocal Performance and Music Education, hoping to be a professional opera singer. My life took a drastic turn in 1997 when I was hit by a car in front of my childhood home, which altered my path as a classically trained opera singer. This experience, as well as other life changes I experienced as a teenager, made me re-think what I was going to do with my life.
In November 2001, I gave birth to the most amazing son, who would change my life beyond my wildest dreams. My son, Cole, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at the age of 6. I knew he was different than his friends because he was this computer whiz kid by age 2. What I didn’t know at the time was that his repetitive nature of doing the same thing over and over was a classic sign of autism. I researched, found the best private speech therapist during his early, formative years, and had support in place for him in the public school setting. Cole is now 17 years old, a junior in high school, and is the most inspiring person I have ever known. I went back to SMU in 2009 and graduated with my degree in Music Education, because I always wanted to complete this massive accomplishment. Attending SMU was a lifelong dream of mine, as well as graduating from Meadows School of the Arts. My degree in music education gave me the tools to become a certified music teacher, as well as a special education teacher. I left teaching in 2017 because I felt a calling to become a special needs advocate.
My company, Erika Warren, The Special Needs Advocate, was created out of the love and support I have given my son, Cole. I also have helped other families through different volunteer organizations, so I decided to turn my passion into a business. I currently help families advocate for their child's educational rights in the public school setting. I have helped facilitate IEP implementation, BIP modifications, created CPI plans, as well as added accommodations for students who have a 504 Plan. I love giving back to those who need help in the special education setting because if you don't receive a Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE)in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), you are being denied a public education by your school district. I also help in areas of transition planning, modifications of environmental factors, private schools implementing a 504 Plan, as well as support at home.
I have lived an amazing life. I am eternally grateful to help families find their way by navigating and creating a plan to help them be successful at school, in public, and at home.
I am still singing and love spending time with my family! I am also an adaptive music teacher at our local YMCA, and I love seeing the genuine happiness on my student’s faces. I receive so much more than just clocking in at a regular job. I love seeing the relief and satisfaction on my client’s faces when we receive everything we have asked for and more. I have never lost a case because I prepare. My motto in life is preparing to fail is failing to prepare. I am always prepared, and I live life to the fullest!