Exploring Identity

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Madelynn WellonsExploring Identity
By Madelynn Wellons

When I was selected to be the inaugural Dinah Cohen DREAM Fellow at the National Disability Mentoring Coalition (NDMC) last year, I had no idea what was in store for me. It was an incredible journey—from networking with disability advocates, to attending conferences, to meeting with Members of Congress and their staff on Capitol Hill.

That’s not even counting the research I conducted on a topic near and dear to my heart, disability disclosure. While I had already done a lot of reflecting on my own identity as someone with a disability, this aspect of my fellowship allowed me to apply my personal experiences to a real-world issue impacting America’s workforce, both current and future.

Today, disability is increasingly understood to be an important part of workplace diversity and inclusion; yet, for a variety of multifaceted reasons, people with disabilities may be reluctant to disclose a disability in the workplace. Learning why is important to helping other young people with disabilities navigate decisions as they transition from childhood to adulthood and the world of work, and I am proud to have had the opportunity to contribute to this growing field of knowledge. It was a privilege to interview various people with disabilities at different points of their lives and careers.

Although each of these individuals had a different story to tell, there was a recurring theme: one of intersectionality, or how disability (or any other diversity factors, for that matter) interacts with other aspects of one’s identity. Understanding intersectionality is important because disclosing a disability can be an entirely different experience for different people, depending on their various identity factors. For example, disclosing a mental illness to family or friends in a culture where conditions such as depression are stigmatized—and perhaps even considered “not real”—is entirely different than disclosing it in a culture where mental illness is more accepted and understood. Thus, the decision processes someone goes through will also be different.

This fellowship was one of the best experiences I’ve had during my college career, and I am proud to have had the opportunity to work with many incredible collaborators to complete it, including my own mentors, Derek Shields of NDMC and Kim Elmore of Disability, Rights, Education, Activism and Mentoring (DREAM). They’ve played an important role in my career, and through my fellowship experience and future endeavors, I intend to pay it forward.

The CDE’s “Who I Am” PSA explores issues of disability as part, but not all, of a person’s identity. It features nine people with disabilities—some obvious and some not—sharing the many ways they identify, from their personal interests to family relationships to occupations.

About the Author
Madelynn Wellons is a senior at Johns Hopkins University and the inaugural Dinah Cohen DREAM Fellow, a fellowship dedicated to advocacy for people with disabilities in memory of Dinah Cohen, a disability advocate who passed away in 2018.

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