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Allison Cardwell, 24, had never given much thought to her Facebook posts, sticking mainly to photos, random status updates or what she calls the “stupid things people say.” But this recent election — the first she felt old enough to truly invest herself in — made her start paying attention. And when Betsy DeVos came along, Cardwell — who has cerebral palsy — was particularly compelled to listen and speak out.
DeVos, the newly confirmed secretary of education, has been under fire from disability rights advocates for seeming to lack of knowledge about and empathy for special-needs students. On Feb. 9, at the advice of a friend, Cardwell posted an open letter to DeVos on the “secret” Facebook group Pantsuit Nation.
“Actually, Betsy, I still have more to say,” Cardwell’s post (a shorter, public version of which is below) begins. “You say that accommodations for children with disabilities would be unduly burdensome on schools. Your goal is to cut government spending. You say that schools should have a choice. The thing is, for me, and so many others like me, an education is the only choice.”
It continues, in part: “Cerebral Palsy limits the use of both my arms and legs. There are virtually no jobs I could work without a formal education. If I tried to flip a burger, it’d end up on the floor. As much as I love shopping, you should see what it looks like when I fold a shirt. Growing up, I always knew that to make up for my physical limitations, I’d have to rely on my mind.”
Cardwell’s post has since received more than 27,000 reactions and more than 1,000 supportive comments. She’s encouraged those who have asked about sharing her words to do so, with the hashtag #AllisonsLetterToBetsy.
“It blew up so unexpectedly,” Cardwell, of San Diego, Calif., tells Yahoo Beauty. We reached out to find out more about the newly minted activist, and hear why she thinks her post resonated with so many people.
“I think I brought up a point that a lot of people hadn’t thought of before; maybe just a different perspective,” she says — particularly because there has been such an onslaught of post-election issues to grapple with that disability issues could be overshadowed. “It may not be on the forefront of people’s minds if they weren’t previously involved in the community. So I think it was just a fresh perspective, and an issue that hasn’t necessarily gotten a lot of attention.”
Cardwell says her first job was as a resident assistant while earning her BA in sociology at the University of Arizona, and it brought up many accessibility issues. “Just doing rounds and going around the dorms was challenging for me,” she recalls, “and resident assistants need to make a lot of decorations, and that was hard. So even in positions that you would think, ‘Oh yeah, of course you can do that; that’s easy,’ they have a lot of barriers that a lot of people wouldn’t necessarily even think about.”
As a student, Cardwell received Supplement Security Income of about $700 a month, she says — a fact that illustrates a Facebook post point she made about “providing children with a fair chance to learn is the first step in ending a cycle of dependence on public assistance. My education is the only reason I no longer rely on government benefits.”
She now has fears about quality education for disabled students across the country, especially because she’s lucky enough to know what a good one is.
“I’ve always gone to public school,” Cardwell says, “and my mom … told everyone, ‘Don’t give her special treatment just because she’s cute and disabled; I want to see what she can do.’ So I was never in any special-education classes, but I had a one-on-one aide until about third grade who would help me with any physical problem I might have, like cutting and pasting. I think my school was very good at accommodating the best that they could.”
So what worries Cardwell, who works mainly on corporate class-action litigation, about DeVos? “Everything,” she says. “Just her complete lack of understanding — not only on this issue, but on education in general. She’s just so underqualified for the job and has a lack of understanding that not everyone is a billionaire.”
Still, Cardwell says, she’s glad that DeVos’s appointment has provided an opportunity to speak out and “shed light” on disability issues. And while she’s on the topic, Cardwell says, there are a couple of things she’d like the public to know about folks like her, who live much of their lives in wheelchairs.
“People with disabilities are one of the last accepted minority groups,” she notes. “For example, in college I had a lot of friends also in wheelchairs, and we were out getting coffee or dinner or something people would say, like, ‘Oh look, it’s a parade!’ And it’s like, if you said that to three black people getting coffee it would be on national news. But to us it’s expected — and accepted widely.” So for herself, and especially for kids growing up with disabilities in this country, she wants more sensitivity.
“There’s so much more than people see,” she says. “I may be physically disabled, but I have so much more going on and so much more to offer and so much potential, so there’s really no reason to profile me or anyone just based on the obvious disability that they see.”