Champions Of Change: White House Honors Disability Advocates

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Talila A. Lewis--an honoree

On Monday, July 27 the White House will honor nine disability advocates across generations.

The event will be held in conjunction with celebrations of the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a landmark civil rights law that promises equal access and equal opportunity -- regardless of ability. The event will celebrate the success of the ADA and recognize both long-time disability advocates and young Americans with disabilities who are working to uphold and expand the spirit of the ADA.

The program will feature remarks by Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett, Director of the Domestic Policy Council Cecilia Muñoz, former baseball player Jim Abbott, and American football fullback Derrick Coleman.

The Champions of Change program was created as an opportunity for the White House to feature individuals doing extraordinary things to empower and inspire members of their communities. The event will be live streamed on the White House website. To watch this event live, visit on Monday, July 27 at 10:00 AM ET.  To learn more about the White House Champions of Change program, visit Follow the conversation at #WHChamps.

Dilshad D. Ali, Richmond, Virginia: Dilshad D. Ali has been working in the field of autism and disability advocacy for nearly ten years. Through her work as an advocate with the Virginia Autism Project, she helped facilitate the passage of landmark autism insurance legislation. She is also on the advisory board for Enabled Muslim and MUHSEN, the first ever disability advocacy organizations focused on creating programs of inclusion, mentoring, and resource-sharing in the American Muslim community. Ali serves on the Faith Advisory Council for the Autism Society of America, which is working to create literature for advising houses of worship on creating an inclusionary atmosphere for special needs congregants. Five years ago she began chronicling her son’s and family’s autism journey in her blog, “Muslimah Next Door.” By the sharing of her son’s personal struggles and triumphs, she has sought to dismantle stereotypes that often relegate individuals with special needs to a hidden or “less than” status in her faith and cultural communities.

Mike Ellis, Broomfield, Colorado: Mike Ellis is the National Director for Sprint Relay, the nation’s largest Telecommunications Relay Service (TRS) provider for the past 25 years. Under his leadership, Sprint Relay continues to develop innovative solutions that increase communication and information access for individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing, deaf-blind, or have a mobility, cognitive or speech disability. Mike has testified before numerous government committees across the country and in New Zealand. He currently serves on the Foundation Board for the National Technical Institute for the Deaf and Gallaudet University’s Board of Associates.

Douglas Garner, Arlington, Texas: As the Assistant Director of Campus Recreation for Adapted Sports and Recreation at the University of Texas at Arlington, Doug Garner works to provide sport programs and opportunities for active participation of students with disabilities, injured service veterans and members of the community who face physical challenges.  He also serves as Head Coach of the University of Texas Arlington Intercollegiate Wheelchair Basketball Team - the Movin’ Mavs. Over the past seven years, he has worked to increase the number of students with disabilities attending the University and has increased programs for and participation of students with physical disabilities from a wheelchair tennis team, to an adapted track and field team and has introduced a Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Team, the Lady Movin’ Mavs to the campus.  Under his leadership, participation of students on campus in adapted programs has risen to almost three dozen UTA Students in 2015, over 1,700 community participants in a variety of adapted special events, and over 500 annual participation opportunities for this population.

Sandy Ho, Weston, Massachusetts: Sandy Ho serves on the Easter Seals Massachusetts State Board of Directors and is the Chair of the Youth Leadership and Transition Committee. She graduated from Lesley University with a degree in Global Studies. As a student, she served as President of Students for Social Justice, an intern on the Service Nation campaign, a research assistant at the Carr Center for Human Rights at the Kennedy School of Government, and was a research associate in the area of human trafficking for the Protection Project at Johns Hopkins University. Following graduation, she dedicated a year of service through more than 1,700 hours as an AmeriCorps member by developing a mentoring program for first-generation students at Roxbury Community College in Massachusetts. Sandy continued her dedication for youth advocacy by developing and expanding the Easter Seals Thrive Mentoring Program for young women with disabilities, and founded “Letters to Thrive,” an international project where disabled women around the world share life experiences through letters to their younger selves.

Catherine Hutchinson, Taunton, Massachusetts: Catherine Hutchinson had a brain stem stroke at the age of 43, and the stroke left her quadriplegic and nonverbal. Cathy was institutionalized and went on to share her experience of institutionalization while serving as the named plaintiff in the class action Hutchinson v. Park. As a result of her efforts, a Statewide Settlement Agreement secured access to home and community-based services for hundreds of other Massachusetts residents with Acquired Brain Injury. Ms. Hutchinson works to promote quality services and supports for waiver clients, volunteering her time on provider advisory boards and associations.

Talila A. Lewis, Rochester, New York: Talila A. Lewis is an activist-attorney whose advocacy and research primarily focus on creating equal access to the legal system for individuals who are deaf and people with disabilities.  As the creator of the only national database of deaf prisoners, Talila advocates with and for hundreds of deaf defendants, prisoners and returned citizens, and trains justice, legal and corrections professionals about varied disability-related concerns.  Talila leads intersectional campaigns that advance the rights of multiply-marginalized people, including the #DeafInPrison Campaign, the Deaf Prisoner Phone Justice Campaign, and the American Civil Liberties Union’s "Know Your Deaf Rights" Campaign. Talila founded and directs Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD), an organization that works to correct and prevent deaf wrongful convictions, end abuse of incarcerated people with disabilities; decrease recidivism rates for deaf returned citizens; and increase representation of the deaf in the justice, legal and corrections professions.

Brian Meersma, Princeton Junction, New Jersey: Brian Meersma is a sophomore at Cornell University studying Industrial and Labor Relations. After realizing the ways in which assistive technology helps him as a student with dyslexia, he started an assistive technology blog to help others with disabilities learn about available resources. He also gives presentations demonstrating the ways in which these technological tools work. Brian advocates for improved dyslexia-related legislation at the state and federal level. He is a member of Bookshare’s National Advisory Board and is a Learning Ally National Achievement Award winner. As part of the American Association of People with Disabilities summer program, he is interning at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), where he supports disability inclusive emergency management.

Max Barrows, Montpelier, Vermont: Maxwell Barrows is a young man with Autism, who works for Green Mountain Self-Advocates, a disability rights organization in Vermont. As the Outreach Director, he mentors youth and adults with developmental disabilities to speak up for themselves and become leaders. Max connects with people on all levels advocating for true-inclusion of people with developmental disabilities. In his work, he advances the message that when you meet an individual with a disability, presume competence. Max is currently on the board of Self-Advocates Becoming Empowered (SABE), the national self-advocacy organization. His goal is to travel internationally to spread his messages of true-inclusion and self-advocacy.

Dior Vargas, New York, New York: Dior Vargas is a Latina Feminist Mental Health Activist. She is a CrisisTextLine crisis counselor and a facilitator for the Young Adult Support Group at National Alliance on Mental Illness-NYC Metro. She was chosen as a Voices of the Year honoree at #BlogHer15: Experts among Us Conference for her online photo project, People of Color and Mental Illness Photo Project. She was also chosen as a member of the 2014 class of the Women's Media Center's media training program, Progressive Women's Voices. Dior Vargas is a member of NAMI-NYC Metro’s Young Professionals Advisory Board; she holds a B.A. in the Study of Women and Gender from Smith College and an M.S. in Publishing from Pace University.

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