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Rolling With Nia, Chatting with Dana: Honoring a Friend, Colleague, and Mentor

 

By Reza Corinne Clifton
 
According to a special brief issued by the U.S. Census Bureau in July 2005, approximately 20.9 million American families reported having at least one household member with a disability. Responding to the 2000 Census, these families indicated having one or more residents that had a long-lasting condition such as a severe vision or hearing impairment; a condition that causes difficulty learning, concentrating, dressing, bathing, or going outside the home alone; or, like 12 million families reported, a household member with a physical disability – a condition that limits walking, climbing stairs, reaching, lifting, or carrying.   Rather than highlighting a rarity, the “Disability and American Families” report detailed how it was nearly 30 percent of responding families who indicated one or more conditions and 2.8 million families that identified a child as the member in the home who had the disability.
 
Throughout the course of what was a short but busy life, Dana Wright of Providence, RI spent a lot of time thinking about these children, families and community members. Her interest was due, in part, to her own life experiences. Born on June 23, 1983, doctors diagnosed Wright with Marfan’s Syndorme, a health condition known to attack all of the body’s tissues. As an early adolescent, Wright started using a wheelchair to aid her with navigating the halls of her high school and to keep her stamina during longer distances or sessions requiring frequent movements. Shocked by the absence of resources for people with physical disabilities, and faced with a new set of barriers in relation to accessing buildings, sidewalks, entrances and exits, Wright began working on disability awareness and access issues in high school, and continued as a college student. 
 
At Rhode Island College in Providence, RI, Wright started a website she called MakingAccess.com, to write about and post disability-related resources, and she founded an initiative she dubbed The Access Challenge. The challenge was a program in which participants volunteered to spend several days as they would normally, with the exception of limiting their mobility to what they could do in a wheelchair. Her goal was to have participants experience the structural and physical challenges that people who use wheelchairs face everyday. She continued working on both projects after graduating from college, and that is when we met.  
 
I got to know and work with Wright, and stayed abreast of her different programs. That is why I was so saddened when I learned that she passed away recently – on Sunday, December 27, 2009. Suddenly a colleague, mentor and friend was gone, and at the young age of 26; it was of complications associated with her disorder. Wright’s untimely death came several months after she had launched a new disability awareness project that was engaging a whole new demographic: a children’s book and series called “Rolling with Nia” about an everyday African American girl who happens to use a wheel chair. The series was to be based on her experience of growing up and never seeing “a character with disabilities in children’s books or on TV” or ever seeing kids with disabilities treated “as normal.”  She was on a mission to redefine normal, and Rolling with Nia was one of her tools. 
 
I did get to see Wright in action and in the field before she died, and I got to talk one on one with her. We started alongside her aunt and the book’s editor, Adrienne T. Irish-Newsome, at a reading and presentation last spring for students at an Elementary School in Providence. Join those students, me and the 400 people who attended her recent memorial service – to hear her message and honor the life of an inspirational woman who accomplished and overcame a lot during her short time here on earth.      
For more of Reza's work visit:  www.RezaRitesRi.com