Disabled Women Make History: Maria Sotnikova

Posted by Stephanie Woodward in Daily Dose on January 10, 2023 # Disabled Women Make History

Maria SotnikovaDisability Rights are a start; Disability Justice is the future.”

When I was just a child, my family immigrated to the United States from Russia, making me a first-generation American. This move opened up an immense amount of opportunities for me, including access to education, employment, and independent living,” said Maria Sotnikova, thirty-something year old cat mom and urban planner living in Atlanta, Georgia. “I now hold degrees in engineering, public policy, and urban planning.”

While Maria works full time at an urban planning agency, she describes herself as more of a Data Scientist. “This means I do what's called data visualization: Taking numbers about people, places, and things and turning those numbers into pretty maps, infographics, and dashboards,” she explained. “Within the urban planning field, the hope is that by visualizing data we can make complex topics more accessible to people and tell a story with the data that drives those in power to make better decisions about the places where we all live.”

Having the disability voice in urban planning is invaluable and Maria fully understands the key role that she plays. “I have a vote in deciding which stories get told and how they are told to the general public and decision-makers. Making sure disability is included in any storytelling from the start is critical to the Disability Community being heard and our needs being met.”

For Maria, being able to include stories about the Disability Community when presenting data is just one way that she helps to advance Disability Rights and push for Disability Justice. “The more that disability rights are codified in our public policy as civil rights, the easier it will be for disabled people to access basic human rights, like healthcare and therapies. However, what matters even more to me is Disability Justice and recognizing the intersectionality of disabled people who belong to additional marginalized communities. Disability rights are a start; Disability Justice is the future.”

While urban planning keeps Maria busy, she also makes time to give back. She has a history of extreme couponing and donating the proceeds to local food banks and she enjoys volunteering at the local animal shelter by walking the dogs. Maria is also an avid supporter of the arts and takes every opportunity she can to safely see a show or a concert. All of these activities help her to feel connected to her community.

Maria Sotnikova

Part of Maria’s passion for serving both the Disability Community and her local community comes from the support she’s received from her community. Growing up, Maria had two disabled women mentors that she looked up to: Liz Persaud, Bethany Stevens, and Jessica Blinkhorn. “They calmed my fears any time I ran into a disability-related obstacle and provided me with immeasurable community support, allowing me to be as successful as I am today,” Maria said of her mentors. “They gave me the most valuable thing there is: Hope for a future.”

Hope is something that Maria needed, especially as she navigates one of her most frustrating barriers as a disabled woman: not being heard. Whether it’s in her male-dominated career field, in social settings, or just generally throughout the pandemic, Maria has encountered many scenarios where her voice as a disabled woman was not being heard. “The only way I've figured out how to address these barriers is to do just that: SPEAK UP! Be loud, both literally and figuratively. Take up space. Make room for other marginalized voices. It's often exhausting, but it is necessary to do every time you're able to do it and it gets easier with practice.”

This is not the only tip she shared; Maria’s last piece of advice for girls and women with disabilities is this: “Look to those that came before you for guidance, work hard, and once you are a leader, pass the wisdom you've gained to those younger than you. Find your community, and then build upon it. We all need each other to succeed!”

Stephanie Woodward is an attorney and Executive Director of Disability EmpowHer Network, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering girls and women with disabilities. Stephanie is passionate about seeking justice for marginalized communities - and has an arrest record to show for it. As a proud disabled woman and civil rights activist, Stephanie is committed to bringing more women and girls with disabilities to the forefront through mentoring and activism.

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