​Why Is Disability Missing from the Conversation?

Posted by Sheri Denkensohn-Trott in Life After Paralysis on August 03, 2022 # Advocacy and Policy, Commitment

SheriBy guest blogger, Sheri Denkensohn-Trott

As a quadriplegic of almost 39 years, I am pleased that diversity and inclusion have finally emerged as important topics in society. Sadly, this awareness came only after tragic events like George Floyd’s murder, but it is happening. Because of my interest, both personal and professional, in civil rights for individuals with disabilities, I have paid attention to the diversity initiatives as they rolled out both in the public and private sectors. I have read many of their mission statements and discussed the topic with many of my friends in the corporate and government worlds. No question, these initiatives are a huge step forward for our country. But something kept nagging me. While race, gender, and LBGTQ+ are critically important, there was a large gap. Disability was not mentioned. How could this be?

I pondered this. Was it conscious bias that organizations did not want to deal with people with disabilities? Was it unconscious bias that at any time in a person's life, they could experience disability? Or was it a mere oversight and, perhaps, ignorance? All were possible, but I didn't have the answer.

In January 2022, I enrolled in a certification class at Cornell University in Diversity & Inclusion. Although I know a lot about disability based on my own personal experience, and I am an attorney, I didn't know what I didn't know. I wanted to learn and learn I did. I gained a tremendous amount of useful knowledge in this course -- not only about disability, but about what it means to be truly inclusive and how that can be achieved in an organization. I went through the sometimes-uncomfortable process of looking at my own biases and examining how to intercept them. I studied how better to become a true ally.

Still, the question of disability inclusion remained. No individuals in my cohort had an apparent disability, and the subject was not talked about during the class as often as race, gender, and LBGTQ+. Finally, I asked why? The professor answered my question; and it was right in front of me.

In an organization, individuals must self-identify as disabled. If you are physically disabled and it is apparent, identification usually occurs. However, many disabilities are not apparent, and individuals feel a stigma and worry about retaliation if they disclose their disability. The result is that the reported numbers are low, and managers and leaders may be totally unaware of the presence of individuals with a disability in their workforce.

That makes perfect sense when we know that one in four individuals have a disability, and within 10 years, that number will rise to 1 in 3. If you add in the disability of mental illness after COVID, the number skyrockets. Based on sheer numbers alone, it is imperative that disability be a part of any discussion or initiative addressing diversity and inclusion.

One can question and complain, but I decided I wanted to act. The Reeve Foundation has taught me the power of advocacy. My husband, who also has a disability, and I run the company Happy on Wheels, LLC. With my new certification from the Cornell class, I have expanded our services to include consulting and training on disability in the workplace. I believe that it is vital to start with the basics of educating leaders, managers, and employees. I have the credibility to talk about disability in a way that makes individuals comfortable and can create a culture in the workplace where disability is more fully understood and included. Hopefully, the result will be that more individuals will be unafraid to disclose a disability, and an increasing number of individuals with disabilities will be hired. Stay tuned!

Sheri Denkensohn-Trott sustained a spinal cord injury in 1983 and is a C4 quadriplegic. She practiced law for the Federal government for 25 years and started her own business with her husband (who also has a disability) called Happy on Wheels, LLC. Their vision is to inspire others, with and without disabilities, to live happier lives through writing, speaking, mentoring, and consulting. Sheri is a columnist for New Mobility magazine and a regular contributor to other written publications. Additionally, she is a motivational speaker, professional storyteller, and mentors students and individuals of all ages. She serves on The Advisory Board of the Rockefeller College and is also a breast cancer survivor and Ambassador for the American Cancer Society. Sheri is currently writing her first book. Sheri and her husband reside in Arlington, Virginia. You can follow them on all forms of social media, and subscribe to their newsletter by accessing their website www.happyonwheels.com.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.