Disabled Women Make History: Jessica Hunt

Posted by Stephanie Woodward in Life After Paralysis on October 14, 2021 # Disabled Women Make History

Jessica at a conference smiling and wearing a leopard jacket and red shirtTo celebrate the achievements of women with disabilities, the Disabled Women Make History blog series is based on interviews with passionate, determined, and talented women with paralysis. Join us monthly as we celebrate these women and acknowledge the complexities, struggles, and accomplishments of women with disabilities.

“Helping disabled people to gain the information they need to live their best lives is the reason I get up every morning.”

Jessica Hunt on disability rights, empowering others through access to information, and paving her own path as a lawyer in D.C.

“Disability rights is all about community integration. If you ensure that a business or a building or a swimming pool is accessible to people with disabilities, you are ensuring that our communities are welcoming to everyone regardless of any other characteristic,” says Jessica Hunt, a Kentucky native and attorney who oversees the ADA Information Line, a toll-free resource operated by the U.S. Department of Justice that anyone can call to get information and resources about the Americans with Disabilities Act. “Accessibility promotes universal design, which promotes aging in place. If we want to create inclusive communities with all races, ages, and socioeconomic backgrounds, putting accessibility first makes that inclusion possible.”

Jessica outside using a wheelchair. She is wearing a suit.Jessica has always had a passion for Disability Rights but, as a farmer’s daughter who grew up judging cows in her 4H chapter, she had no idea how she could get involved in the Disability Rights movement until she was in college.

“My brother’s special education teacher nominated me for a presidential task force on employment of adults with disabilities,” Jessica explained. “I became the youth advisory chair and after multiple trips to Washington DC, I realized that in order to make change for the disability community, I needed to move to the place where laws and policies were made.”

With that, Jessica decided to move to Washington, D.C. where she worked as an employment specialist at the Pentagon. After a few years working at the Pentagon, Jessica was offered the position of Attorney-Advisor for the D.C. Office of Disability Rights, where she was responsible for ensuring the city’s ADA compliance in employment, programs and services, and emergency preparedness. As the only attorney for the agency, Jessica had to know many different areas of law and be comfortable with working independently.

Jessica riding an adaptive bike in the mountainsThis position came with its challenges, but some of the most frustrating parts of the job were not the work that Jessica had to do, but rather, the assumptions held by the people she had to work with. “Other lawyers, often male, would assume that I worked for the lawyers, not as a lawyer,” Jessica shared. “I dealt with these assumptions by coming prepared to every meeting. Once I started talking, and it was clear that I had done my homework, their tone often changed.”

Jessica’s ten years at the D.C. Office of Disability Rights prepared her for her current job as the Supervisory Accessibility Specialist for the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division’s ADA Information Line. In this role, Jessica supervises the 1-800 number that anyone can call to learn their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and other disability-related laws. Specifically, Jessica helps to ensure that the Department of Justice provides accurate and complete information to individuals who call who may have a complaint against their State or local government, a business, or university or college.

“The impact of having a disabled person in this role is that I can combine my knowledge of the law with my personal experience living with a disability. Every person may bring empathy to their job, but I can contribute to a greater understanding of the obligations and requirements of disability rights law nationwide,” Jessica thoughtfully explained. “Also, being part of the Disability Community allows me to anticipate the types of issues that might be important to the Department when we are looking for areas of interest or hot button topics to investigate.”

Jessica's dog wearing a red harness and Jessica in the back reading a bookAs a proud disabled woman, Jessica prides herself in helping other people with disabilities have access to information. “What motivates me is sharing information with others that will help them succeed. Helping disabled people to gain the information they need to live their best lives is the reason I get up every morning.”

Jessica has come a long way from being a small-town Kentucky girl who did not know any other people with disabilities outside of her hometown. She did not have any mentors with disabilities, but she credits her mom with helping her learn about advocacy.

Part of Jessica’s drive to help other people with disabilities advocate for themselves stems from watching her mom do the same thing for her and her brother. “My mom was a special education teacher. She had chosen to be in the field before she had either of her children with disabilities. I watched her advocate for my brother and me and other children with disabilities who would have been left out without an advocate in our corner.”

After growing up without any mentors with disabilities, Jessica has advice for other girls and women with disabilities: “I want girls and women with disabilities to know that you do not have to have a mentor with a disability who shows you the way. You can forge your own path. You will eventually meet other disabled women who are fighting the same fight and those people will encourage you by just being there and taking up space.”

Her last piece of advice? “It does help to dress for success. It does not matter if you have to wear tennis shoes with your suit. A good lipstick and knowing your passion goes a long way.”

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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