Disability activist Aubrie Lee shares her biggest tips for young people who want to make a difference

Aubrie Lee describes herself as “a namer by trade, an engineer by training and an artist at heart.”

Lee, who is 29, studied engineering at Stanford before starting her career at Google. That’s where the “namer” part comes in: Since 2013, Lee has worked for the company’s marketing department, helping the dream up ways to describe its products.

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The artist part is obvious to anyone who follows her on Instagram or has read her website. She’s immensely creative, crossing her professional and personal life with the worlds of poetry, graphic design, fashion, modeling and painting.

But there’s another part of Lee’s resume, too. It’s something that, within minutes of meeting her, is readily apparent. That’s her other job — the one she didn’t necessarily choose.

“I call myself an artist because I want to be, and an activist because I have to be,” she told In The Know.

At every step of her career, Lee has thought about diversity, inclusivity and access. She was born with a rare form of muscular dystrophy, which has shaped the way she thinks about her career.

“Every space I have entered, I have had to carve out a place for myself and others like me,” Lee said.

At Google, Lee’s activism has found a home. In her eight years with the company, she’s spoken on panels, appeared in keynote speeches and marched with her co-workers in a Disability Pride Month parade. Last July, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), Google featured Lee on its Instagram page.

Laughing, Lee added that all of this is in spite of the fact that, as an intern, she almost “ran over” Google co-founder Sergey Brin in a hallway.

“Something that is so great about Google is how genuine people are and how much they clearly care about doing the right thing,” Lee told In The Know. “Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information in this universally accessible and useful [way] … It gives me so much hope at how committed people are to that improvement — to making happiness better, to making the experience for employees better.”

Lee’s activism doesn’t stop at her job. Beyond Google, the 29-year-old has written about access and the representation of people with disabilities — and founded Crips Corps, a disability justice blog.

The blog is part of a larger goal for Lee. Like many in the disability community, she’s worked to help reclaim the word “crip,” which, historically, has been used as a derogatory term.

Lee acknowledged that she needs to do more research about how to use the word in a fully “ethical” way, but, as a professional namer, she can’t help but get excited about the possibility of redefining a formerly negative term. That’s why, in 2019, she helped fight for the creation of a Wikipedia page for the word “crip.” Now, the page’s opening sentence defines the word as in the “process of being reclaimed by disabled people.”

It’s an achievement that, for Lee, is part of a continuum. In her mind, the work she does today builds on the back of decades and decades of work by the activists of previous decades.

“The disabled people who fought before me paved the way for me, and people like to me to get further than they ever could,” Lee said. “And now it’s up to me to keep paving that path forward for the people that come after me.”

Despite her age, Lee sees herself as a mentor. As Gen Z enters adulthood and carves out their own space for activism, Lee hopes she can show young people just how much they can improve their cities, schools and workplaces.

So, where can those younger activists get started? In The Know asked Lee about her biggest pieces of advice — and she had plenty to say. Her first tip, learn your history.

“When I was younger, I never really cared about history — I never cared about learning from the past,” she said. “I had heard the phrase, ‘Those who do not learn from the history are doomed to repeat it,’ but I thought, ‘Oh, that is just old people saying that. But now that I am older, I see how true it is.”

Lee is focused on continued progress. Just as she owes a debt to the generations before her, she knows that the next generation will have to do the same. They’ll have to, in her worlds, “study the past and use it to make the future better.”

Another thing Lee’s learned: Don’t let anyone lower your expectations.

“Sometimes when I talk about how much better access can be, and how much more actualized and autonomous disabled people can be, some of the responses I get from abled people or abled friends is: ‘You should just be grateful for what you have,'” Lee said. “It makes me so frustrated.”

Lee noted that she is grateful for the progress people with disabilities have made in the workplace, the arts and beyond. Still, that doesn’t mean she’s complacent. There’s still so much work to be done, and in her mind, you have to be relentless to accomplish it.

“Don’t limit your imagination,” she added. “Keep your standards so high that no one else can put them down.”

It doesn’t sound easy, but if Lee’s career is any evidence, it’s possible to make major changes in even a few short years. To her, being where she is now, and being seen, is a huge part of the fight toward inclusion. It’s a lesson she hopes others can learn as well.

“There are many different layers of activism,” Lee said. “And in a way, when a thing is not accessible, and we show up anyway, that is an act of resistance and it is an act of exhibiting our own authentic side — our own self-respect — and hoping that others will see that and return that respect.”

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