Last night Ali Stroker, an incredibly talented singer and actress who uses a wheelchair, won a Tony award for best performance by an actress in a featured role in a musical for her role as Ado Annie in the revival of the show “Oklahoma!” Ali is the first wheelchair user to ever win a Tony, and she is also the first wheelchair-using actress on Broadway.
There is no denying Ali’s talent, and she completely deserves this recognition, and because we as a society are recognizing Ali’s talents and values, the entire Disability Community wins. Representation matters and, until Ali joined the cast of Spring Awakening in 2015, the Disability Community did not have visible representation of people with mobility disabilities on Broadway. It’s 2019 and Ali Stroker is the first wheelchair user to win a Tony. While I’m celebrating this moment, I can’t believe it’s taken us so long.
As the Disability Community celebrates this historic moment, I invite nondisabled people to join in our celebration of Ali’s talents and in the talents of all people with disabilities. However, we should go beyond celebrating and start thinking about how we can lift up more people with disabilities to ensure that disabled people are recognized for their talents and are able to take advantage of opportunities for which we would otherwise be overlooked.
Nondisabled people can be great allies to the Disability Community by sponsoring disabled people. When I say “sponsor” I do not mean that nondisabled people should give money to disabled people (though, if you are in the position to give, you should give to disability-led organizations with a mission that you believe in). I am talking about the kind of sponsorship that generally happens in the workplace. A sponsor is a person in a position of power who can advocate for another person’s success, remove obstacles to progress, and champion another person. A sponsor is a step above a mentor.
While the Disability Community can certainly use more mentors – both disabled and nondisabled alike – we are desperately lacking sponsors to help us further our achievements. I am willing to bet that Ali had some sponsors in her life to help her get to Broadway, and I am also willing to bet that there are countless more talented people with disabilities who are currently being overlooked because they do not have enough sponsors in their lives.
As much as I wish that our skills and talents would be enough to help us succeed, that’s simply not case. As a power wheelchair user and attorney, I am all too familiar with discrimination based on disability. Sometimes the discrimination is blatant, such as an employer saying “We don’t hire disabled people,” but sometimes discrimination is more subtle, such as when employers interview two equally qualified candidates for a position – one with a disability and one without – and choose to hire the nondisabled candidate without any explanation.
Sponsors can help people with disabilities by promoting our success. Is there an award committee seeking nominations? Suggest people with disabilities that you know are talented. Is there a job opening that you think would be a great fit for a person with a disability that you know? Don’t just suggest that they apply – use your position of power to help them. Perhaps you can be listed as their reference, or if you know the hiring manager, you can reach out to the manager directly to tell them about this great candidate!
Successful people with and without disabilities can use their success to help more people with disabilities rise up. Ali Stroker has had the opportunity to be recognized for her talents, and there are so many more talented disabled people in our world who – with the right sponsors – could also rise up. So reach out your hand and help us rise.
About Stephanie Woodward: Stephanie is a brand ambassador for Quantum Rehab® and works as a disability rights activist. She has received many awards for helping communities become more accessible, as well as for her actions in fighting for the rights of disabled individuals as it relates to Medicaid and other support services. Click here to learn more about Stephanie.