Editor’s Note: We all have challenges that we have to face in life, but for people with disabilities—visible or invisible—it can be a constant burden to prove to potential employers and coworkers alike that they are just as hard-working and capable as their able-bodied peers. (The current unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 10.4 percent, almost twice as high as the rate for people without disabilities, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.) Every day this week, you’ll meet incredible women whose disabilities haven’t defined them—in fact, their resilience and strength have propelled them past Triathlon finish lines, onto The Huffington Post, and even into the Chicago Mayor’s office. What we hope will come of this? Not only more acceptance and understanding in the workplace—but also for you to know that you can do and be anything you want. And whatever you fear might hold you back? It doesn’t make you weak—you’re stronger for having gone through it.
Name: Vilissa Thompson
City: Columbia, S.C.
Job: Social worker and founder of Ramp Your Voice!
Here at Levo, we’re all about entrepreneurial ventures and super-cool side hustles. After all, if you just can’t seem to find the right job for you, why not create one?
Take it from Vilissa Thompson, 29, who was born with osteogenesis imperfecta (a congenital disorder also known as brittle bone disease). Back when she was a recent grad and couldn’t find a job in social work that really suited her, she made one for herself. Today, Thompson’s not-so-side hustle is fully up and running. On her website, Ramp Your Voice!, you’ll find articles that she writes and a selection of services that she offers for the disability community. Awesome, right? We sat down with her to talk pursuing one’s passion, educating others on disability issues, and the importance of self-advocacy.
Levo: You run an awesome website for the disability community. Tell us more.
Vilissa Thompson: Let me start by giving you a little background. In 2012, I graduated with my master’s in social work from Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C. I was doing a job search then and I really wasn’t liking any of the jobs that were available. I had a few leads, but nothing really materialized, so I did some volunteer work for the Obama campaign to kind of pass the time. By the summer of 2013, I had gotten my social work license—I’m a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)—but I still didn’t like what was out there. So I thought, “Why don’t I just create my own thing?”
That’s when I created Ramp Your Voice! I didn’t see much out there about disabled women of color, either advocating for themselves or being visible in the disabled community. With Ramp Your Voice!, I have different services that I offer, from consultation to life coaching to presentations and motivational speaking. I’m also beginning the process of going to law school. I want to add a legal component to what I’m doing because I know those outside of the disability realm aren’t very educated on the law. That’s something that I want to be educated on so I can know my own rights better and also tell other people what their rights are.
It sounds like you’ve got a lot going on!
VT: Yes! And that’s just one of my main projects. I’m also a board member for The Arc of South Carolina, which is an organization that focuses on treating adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I’ve been a board member for almost three years. And I’m also a member of a committee for The Arc, which is the national organization for the whole Arc system. I’m part of the diversity committee, where we focus on how our chapters, both on the local and state level, can reach the disability community. I’ve been a part of that for about two years, and it’s really connected me to other advocates, and particularly it’s allowed me to connect to other disabled women of color.
Tell us a little bit about your own disability. What role does it play in your everyday life, and what role does it play in your advocacy work?
VT: I’m in a wheelchair and I have osteogenesis imperfecta. If you’ve ever heard of brittle bone disease, that’s what that is. I’ve always been disabled, but disability hasn’t really been a big aspect of my life. I was always connected to being Black and to being a woman, but being disabled wasn’t a big part of my life. I was always in a mainstream classroom, and I really wasn’t around a lot of disabled people when I was younger. I didn’t really have the ability to connect to and form friendships with other disabled people who were similar to me. I started Ramp Your Voice! to start making friends with other disabled people, and give us a support system has really helped me grasp more of my disability identity. My disability hasn’t stopped me from achieving my goals, but I am well-aware that because of those achievements that I’ve been afforded, I do have a certain privilege. I try to use that privilege so that those disabled persons who may not or can not attain those same things because their disability does block them don’t feel like outcasts.
What progress needs to be made in terms of treating those with disabilities equally in the workplace?
VT: There are technologies that can be acquired that can allow somebody to perform a job they’re qualified for, and that’s been the biggest form of progress. At the same time, there’s still a whole lot of work that needs to be done. Disabled people are disproportionately unemployed compared to the able-bodied population, and our employment rates are incredibly low. It’s not because we don’t want to work—it’s just that no one’s hiring us. When I was job searching after graduating, there were jobs that weren’t accommodating or required access to certain things like a driver’s license and other forms of transportation. That can deter disabled applicants from applying because if you don’t have a car or you can’t drive, you can’t do that job. So inclusion and accommodation for disability are still big problems for disabled workers, but there’s still that fear of disclosing that you’re disabled and worrying about being rejected because of it. That fear is still alive, and it’s something that we don’t really talk about outside of the disabled community until you see a lawsuit going on with an employer.
What is your biggest advice for a young person with a disability who’s nervous about starting out in his or her career?
VT: One of the quotes I live by was said by a professor I had in college. She said, “What makes your heart sing?” That’s what I would tell a young woman starting out in her career, to ask herself: What makes your heart sing? When you wake up in the morning, what comes to your mind and puts a smile on your face? What is that you can do in your career that doesn’t feel like work? What I’m doing doesn’t feel like work—it just feels like a part of my purpose. For me, I want Ramp Your Voice! and any other work that I do to leave the world a better place than it was when I came into it. Even if you’re working a job that you don’t like—start a side hustle. Start building a world that you want to live in, a career that you want to live in. If you want to start your own organization, do so. If you want to write a book, do so. If you want to be an artist, do so. Whatever it is that makes your heart sing, go for it, and don’t allow people to tell you that your disability prevents you from doing that, because you can do whatever you want to do.
What accomplishment in your own career are you most proud of?
VT: I’d say just really advocating for myself and feeling better about doing that. I had an issue with social security earlier this year and I had to advocate for myself, and I got in touch with Senator Lindsey Graham and he helped me out. It’s just being less scared of saying, “Hey, I have a right to this,” and going after it and pushing until the right people say, “Yes, I’ll help get the job done.” I think the self-advocacy component has really been the most powerful thing that I’ve learned and enjoyed, as well as encouraging others to do the same and meeting others who say, “You give me hope and encourage me to do this or that” or, “Your writing encouraged me to create my own organization or become a better self-advocate or just feel more proud of myself.” I’ve been getting those words of encouragement that remind me that what I’m trying to do each and every day is important and it does have value.
Who are your mentors, and what have they taught you?
VT: My support system and my friends have been great. I share my articles in a Facebook group that I’m a part of and I get such great responses with likes or comments from everyone from my sorority sisters—I’m a member of the Zeta Phi Beta sorority—to other people I know from college, to people I meet who like the work that I’m doing. I do also have a mentor named Pat Kelsaw. She was a former professor in my program, and the one who really got me to see I was meant for macro social work, which has more of a community focus, versus micro social work, which is more therapeutic and about interacting with people one-on-one. She encouraged me on the way when I needed it—when I still need it! There were certainly times when I felt like giving up and I felt really discouraged, and I have to give credit to those people in my life who love what I’m doing and support it. That really makes a difference.
What do you see for yourself in the future?
VT: I’ll be 30 in September, but in five or 10 years, I hope to have added that legal component to my work. I hope to have written a children’s book, so I can reach disabled children and girls to let them know they’re not alone. I hope to build Ramp Your Voice! up, and to tell more stories from disabled women of color. I also hope to continue growing myself as a disabled woman of color and to just continue to find out who I am. I think that, as young women, we put so much pressure on our 20s. But you continue to grow after your 20s, and I’m looking forward to being a 30-something. I put in the work to kind of figure out who I am now, and I want to continue to grow that as I get older.
Photo: Courtesy of Vilissa Thompson