Dear Amy and the Smart Girls:
I just visited your website where I read- with the same disappointment one might read the phrase “Sorry, we’re all out of pizza”- that Smart Girls has no contributor/intern/job openings at this time, but to check back later. I can assure you I will check back later, but in the meantime, I hope you will take a few minutes to read this letter due to your general awesomeness, your interest in story-sharing, and my bone-deep conviction that I am your long-awaited best friend. I have been trying to be more courageous lately, and this is borderline crazy, so I thought I’d go for it and see what happens.
I am a 29 year old woman (or Girl, to stick with the vernacular) from Nashville, TN. I have grown up here, and- apart from an internship for the Federal Government in DC and about 15 months of graduate school in Athens, GA- I have lived here all my life. Doing the best I could in school was a good decision; I was able to go to both undergrad and graduate school with several scholarships in tow, and to receive honors over the course of my education. Because I have always loved learning and put a great deal of pressure on myself to succeed, I started college at 17, finished my bachelor’s shortly before 21, and completed my Master’s within a few days of turning 23. [I realize that not enough people get an opportunity for an education, so I am profoundly grateful to have had it]. It is uncomfortable for me to write this part of the letter, because I was raised to be modest, which I kinda took to an extreme by never talking any of about my accomplishments with my friends. I am also leaving some stuff out because I am terrified that someone reading this will think I’m- gasp!- kinda braggy, or even worse: that I’m no fun at parties. Anyway, bear with me, I promise that not only do I have a point, it’s on it’s way. Also, I’m super fun at parties. Ask anyone.
My bachelor’s in Sociology [“Oh, wow. This world is kinda messed up for all these reasons that seem to be cemented in the social and economic fabric, and here are a bunch of depressing books and papers about just how bad it is.”] paved the way for my Master’s in Nonprofit Organizations [“Maybe it’s more like peanut butter than cement: it’s sticky and messy and gross when it gets on you, but malleable. We can change it, we will change it, as soon as we get enough grant money.”], and I have been working in the nonprofit field as a volunteer, intern board member or staff member, for about 10 years now.
But a traditional education and list of 9 to 5 jobs do not necessarily a Smart Girl make. We have all met plenty of people who have the appearances of success that are really just Mean Girls [“One time, she punched me in the face. It was awesome.”]. And of course there are plenty of Smart Girls who are so because they have found joy, success, and contentment and human connection by their own unique and innovative means. There is so much room in this world for Smart Girls, and so many Smart Girls looking for voices. I know this not just because I have met those girls, but because I am one.
I was born with Cerebral Palsy, a disability with onset at birth that affects everyone who has it in ways unique to them. Most commonly, mobility, motor skills and speech are affected first, with other secondary effects. However, just like with any other experience of disability, the challenges faced when living out that experience are not merely physical. Beyond my own story, I know that many people experience intellectual disability, and many have a disability that is not visible but still plays a great part in the challenges they face [such as Autism Spectrum Disorders or Traumatic Brain Injuries, among many]. And while a life with a disability is certainly just as full of joy, blessing, talent and strength as anyone else’s, there are also many other factors at play that too often silence the voices of so many Smart People out there. People with disabilities face far more hurdles to employment, education, and acceptance in community life than their typically developing peers. People with disabilities are almost entirely absent from popular culture and media, with the few exceptions still placing all the focus on their “otherness”. And the rate of depression, anxiety, and similar emotional challenges amongst people with disabilities is extremely high.
Here I’ve spent a decade working for people with disabilities, with many of my peers working twice as long as I have, and it is still remarkable to people that I have an education, a job and a partner. While I am not in any way downplaying the very real work myself and so many people I know have done to reach such milestones, I dream for a world where stories like mine are no longer the exception, but the rule. And I am at a point in my life where I am realizing that sometimes in order to do big work, you have to think big. You have to try something new; you have to leap and see where you might land.
Why Smart Girls, you ask? Why not one of those spiffy nonprofits I alluded to like a hundred paragraphs ago? Well, because the Smart Girls are all about acceptance, celebration, and inclusion. They’re all about having a voice that gets heard, not by shaming and negativity, but by affirming, by celebrating and building connections. Yes, nonprofits serving people with disabilities crusade for all these things, but the whole point of doing so is for our story to be heard, and not just by people who already know it. To make lasting change, I have to tell the story of disability experience in a way that causes someone to snap out of their comfort and familiarity zones and realize, “This is not just a cute, inspirational article. This is my story. These are my neighbors and friends. This is my family member or partner.”
Working in the disability services field the power of connection is apparent. We work hard to cultivate a spirit of empathy, and an attitude of saying “you can do anything you set your mind to, and I’m here if you need any help or support in making it happen”. I was very fortunate to have a community, a support system, a means of finding my voice. But in this age of information overload and lack of true connection, I have often wondered: are there other people out there needing that community, that sense of voice? I believe the answer is yes, and I believe that need will always be present. I also believe that Smart Girls can be one of those voices
Recently, I re-entered the job market. My husband suggested I contact you guys (because he’s smart, too), and I considered that suggestion a huge vote of confidence. Of course I realize sending this letter provides no guarantees of a response, or of any action on your part. I am just reaching out in hopes that perhaps somewhere in my story, you will see an opportunity, or that when one arises, you will remember this letter. If you want to think of ways to make your curriculum more accessible to people with disabilities, if you need help finding great stories of people with disabilities to tell, if you ever want to make sure that eliminating ableism is a clear part of your values, or if you just want to eat some nachos, you know where to find me.
Thank you for all you do, you beautiful unicorns of the sea.
Beth H. Thielman
Aspiring Smart Girl