I’ve been fortunate to know Rachel for a long time – since she was a student at Cal.
I feel like our friendship has been a gift in that we both mentored one another at a particular period. She mentored me in disability studies, giving me a place in which I could ask hard questions, talk about things that I was learning regarding disability rights/activism. She shared with me her extensive library – many of my current favorites were introduced to me by Rachel.
Besides all the learning, I love Rachel. She’s funny, fun. A firecracker with style that I see too seldom.
Please meet Rachel Stewart.
Getting to Know You
1. Your name: Rachel Stewart
2. What’s your connection with disability?
I was born with spinal muscular atrophy and have used a wheelchair since the age of 5. It’s very much a part of who I am!
3. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Um… can I say neither?? I’m not one for sci fi, but give me a sappy drama or cooking show any day!
4. If you could live in any other country for 2 years, where would you go?
That’s a tough one, especially since the only time I’ve been out of the country has been to Tijuana for an evening (and I’ve been told that hardly counts as being to another country). If accessibility weren’t a question, probably somewhere lush and tropical – Fiji or Thailand. Taking accessibility into account, I’d love to check out England, France, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. Sorry, hard to pick just one!
5. What dish would your bring to our community picnic potluck?
That’s a tough one… probably a quinoa or bulgur salad of some sort.
Now That We’ve Been Introduced…
1. What do you do:
I’m staff manager of the California Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities. As part of that position, I also help to plan California’s Youth Leadership Forum for high school juniors and seniors with disabilities.
2. How did you come to doing what you do? How has your career trajectory flowed?
I’m lucky in that I’ve had a lot of great mentors and supporters in my past that pushed me beyond my comfort zone. In college at UC Berkeley, I took a lot of disability studies classes and got really interested in the field. One of my professors became a fantastic mentor (Dr. Mark Sherry) and he encouraged me to do an honors thesis, which gave me research experience to put on my resume.
When I was preparing to graduate college, my roommate at the time (ahem, Meriah) strongly encouraged me to interview for the Workforce Recruitment Program for college students with disabilities, and I was offered an internship (and later a job) at the US Dept of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy. I quickly realized that DC winters were not for me, and networked like crazy trying to figure out my next step.
Moving back to California, I found a grant-funded job working on work incentives and youth transition issues. Stayed in that position for about 6 years, then networked again to find my current job. So if there are two things that have gotten me to where I am today – it’s networking my butt off, and finding mentors in the field that helped guide me.
3. Where would you like to see yourself in 5 years?
Personally, I’d like to be married and settled down with a kid or two. Professionally, I’d really like to work for the Community College system. I’d like to start off as a Disabled Students Programs and Services (DSPS) counselor, and then eventually a director.
4. Not to be morbid, but what do you want people to remember about you when you’ve gone?
Tough one! Probably that I’ve made an impact in the overall employment rate of people with disabilities… whether it’s by creating policies, starting programs, or just spreading the word person by person about what’s possible.
5. Who or what inspires you?
Lots of people inspire me… whether it’s other leaders who have come before me, people I work with now, or the youth I work with through California’s Youth Leadership Forum.
1. If you could say something to yourself in the past – that is, the you that was really struggling with something related to disability – what would you say?
It gets better once the brooding teenage years pass!! You’re always going to struggle with how society sees you, but you will be a successful, productive individual. You will have great friendships and romantic relationships, and you will learn how to truly be happy and independent.
2. What do you like about your particular disability?
Probably the network of wacky SMAers I’ve met over the years! It’s amazing how many funny and amazing people with SMA I’ve met – I think it must be a side effect of having weak muscles.
3. Any one thing that you wish people would *get* about disability?
That we’re not waiting for a cure or only capable of sitting on our asses and collecting a disability check.
That the true disability is a result of societal viewpoints projected onto us (and internalized by us). That quality of life could be improved not by cure, but by redirecting funding to be used for assistive technology (if only I afford to buy a $150,000+ van I could drive myself!), personal care attendants, and services and supports to increase access to community life.
4. What single piece of technology makes your life easier?
My wheelchair is the most obvious one, but for the less obvious: my remote controlled door unlocker (because using keys is really a pain in the ass!)
- Where else can we find you online? linkedin
- Website (if you have one) + URL: (not sure if projects that I’m working on apply): www.dor.ca.gov/ylf and www.dor.ca.gov/ccepd
Meriah Nichols is a counselor. Solo mom to 3 (one with Down syndrome, one on the spectrum). Deaf, and neurodiverse herself, she’s a gardening nerd who loves cats, Star Trek, and takes her coffee hot and black.