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  • Jillian Heilman

The Ripple Effect


Sometimes it only takes one person, one voice to create change. Now that I write that, I think OFTEN, change happens when one person takes a stand and shares a new perspective or offers a different lens through which we can see the world, and that act of bravery leads to a ripple effect that can change the world we live in. Today, Neeley used her voice to start her own ripple effect, and I couldn’t be prouder.

This morning, Neeley sat in her Kinesiology class where the TA was talking about longevity

of life and preventing aging to some extent. The TA made the remark, “how long can you go without having to use a disability parking sticker?” Stop for a second and let’s read that again. “How long can you go without having to use a disability parking sticker?” I know the doctoral student did not mean that in a negative manner and Neeley knew that too, however, the comment equated having a disability to being old. That is just not true. Young people use disability parking. Middle-aged people use disability parking. Disability parking spaces do not indicate a person is out of shape, rather it equates to an individual having a mobility impairment. Neeley has a disability parking permit. She doesn’t share that often, but today she did. She is a young woman who just ran her first half-marathon and placed 4th in her age bracket. She is in phenomenal shape. Yet, she has days when her body can barely get out of bed. She also has days when she passes out and gets violently ill and needs someone to grab her car quickly and drive her back to her dorm. Then she has days she runs 5 miles, takes midterm, and goes out with friends. Disabilities are unique to the individual but they do not necessarily equate to aging and poor health.

The comment from the TA was not meant to be malicious or offensive, but Neeley knew she couldn’t let the comment go without saying something. You see, living with chronic illness and /or a disability is part of a person’s identity, whether they chose to share it with others or not and it is often up to the individual with the disability to help the world better understand what that lived experience is like. Neeley could have ignored the comment and went on with her day, knowing the statement was not reflective of her own experience, or an accurate portrayal of others. But she decided to use her voice and begin a ripple.


While the rest of the class was in small groups, Neeley approached the teaching assistant and shared her feelings on the statement, as a young adult living with disabilities. Neeley trembled a bit, as confrontation, especially to an authoritative figure can be difficult. But as she continued to talk, her voice settled down and Neeley shared her own life experience, as well as the research she has done on invisible disabilities. The TA met Neeley with warmth and appreciation. In fact, the TA thanked Neeley for taking the time to educate her and admitted she is not an expert in the field and is always growing as a professional. She went on to tell Neeley she wants to learn from this experience and won’t use that comparison in the future. The ripple began to spread even further, as the TA asked Neeley if she would be open to sharing her story with others in the program and also asked if Neeley would be willing to share her research with her.


Neeley called me right after class to tell me this story. “I want to spread awareness on disabilities that are not as apparent. This could be a big opportunity to let professionals know more about people with disabilities.” As we talked, Neeley shared how she hopes to continue to share her story and use her voice to help professionals working with others like her. “There may be ways to incorporate exercise into treatment planning that we have not thought of for patients like me. Conversations like this can work to remove stigmas associated with people with disabilities. It took a lot to be vulnerable and share something that bothered me, but I am glad that I did.”


Sometimes it only takes one person to make a change. Every drop leads to a ripple.


Sidenote: I am super impressed with that TA. She took a Freshman’s feedback openly and authentically. She was not defensive or dismissive. She chose to use it as an opportunity to grow herself and that shows me the caliber of person she is.

Let's keep that ripple effect going that Neeley started, as we check out another person's perspective of living with disability in the 2nd Podcast in our series, Putting a Face with Disabilities. You can also hear more from Neeley in our 1st podcast. Enjoy

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