Disability as Diversity

By Laura Hoxworth

2019 Ridley Lecturer Anjali Forber-Pratt shared parts of her story as a wheelchair user, two-time Paralympian and an adopted woman of color.

Photo credit: Betty Shilman

As an infant, Anjali J. Forber-Pratt was adopted from India and brought to the United States. Shortly after her arrival, she was diagnosed with transverse myelitis – inflammation of the spinal cord. She doesn’t remember a time when she didn’t use a wheelchair. But she does remember the moment, as a preschooler, when she realized that her disability was going to be a part of her life forever. It was a kind teacher who helped her through that realization.

“She gave me the choice,” Forber-Pratt said. “I could stay crying in the bushes for the rest of my life, or I could come out and live my life, disability and all, and she would help me.” From that moment, Forber-Pratt started learning how to construct an identity and create meaning around her disability.

Now an assistant professor at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education, Forber-Pratt researches disability identity development, perceptions of inclusion and disability, and victimization experiences in schools. On Tuesday, she delivered the annual Walter N. Ridley Lecture. To a packed room in Bavaro Hall, Forber-Pratt shared parts of her story as a wheelchair user, two-time Paralympian and an adopted woman of color.

The lecture is part of a larger initiative to bring discussions of disability and diversity into the Curry School community. For example, this year’s Curry Common Read focused on autism, and a recent partnership with UVA Libraries invited Curry School students to “Hack the Stacks” and suggest books and research materials related to diversity and disability.

Curry School Dean Robert Pianta kicked off the annual event by welcoming Forber-Pratt to UVA and sharing the mission behind the annual lecture series. “Here at the Curry School, we value diversity, equity and inclusion and all of its complexity and richness,” he said in his opening remarks. “Through our annual Common Read, lectures, workshops, as well as formal and informal conversations, we aim to provide venues for learning, share diverse points of view, foster open discussion and build respect for one another and new ideas.”

Forber-Pratt shared details from her ongoing research on disability identity, which includes research on young children, the role of athletics, and international communities. Throughout all her work, she centers disability as an important aspect of diversity. She also advocates for the #SayTheWord social media campaign, which encourages the disabled community to share their experiences and speak openly about disability.

“Having a disability is not something to be ashamed of – we need to value disability as an aspect of diversity,” she said.

Forber-Pratt said her personal journey and her own identity development have been an important part of her work. Whether it was taking her school district to court at 14 years old to fight for better accessibility or competing in the Beijing and London Paralympic games, Forber-Pratt said her experiences as a disabled person have informed and enhanced her research.

“Researchers should not ignore lived experience,” she said. “It’s been an incredible journey to be able to embrace all these different identities and to allow that to be my research agenda.”

Ultimately, she said her long-term goal is to use her research to inform interventions that can improve the lives of people with disabilities. Following her address, she was joined by Stanley C. Trent, an associate professor at the Curry School, for further discussion and a Q&A with the audience.

Speaking from both her research and her experience leading professional development workshops for teachers, Forber-Pratt encouraged educators in the room to integrate positive images and perspectives of disability throughout day-to-day learning environments. “What are the ways that we can embed these messages throughout the school?” she asked. “Are there books in the library? Posters? Resources?”

For those looking to be a better ally – educators and non-educators alike – Forber-Pratt advised the audience to always take the lead from people with disabilities and look for ways to center disability in everyday life. And if you notice an accessibility issue? Report it. “We don’t have to have fancy job titles or be leaders of world organizations to do this,” she said. “We change the world by changing ourselves.”

About the Walter N. Ridley Distinguished Speaker Series

Walter Ridley was the first African American to graduate from the University of Virginia, with a doctorate in education from the Curry School. The annual Walter N. Ridley Distinguished Speaker Series was created to honor his legacy at the University and his contributions to the field of education. This year’s lecture was also supported by the Curry School of Education & Human Development, the Ridley Scholarship Fund, the UVA Disability Advocacy and Action Committee, the UVA Disability Studies Initiative, the UVA School of Nursing, the UVA Women's Center, and the UVA Office for Diversity and Equity.