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“You look like you’re too young to be here” – Disability policy seminar in Washington, D.C.

I was waiting to re-enter the main room of the Disability Policy Seminar in D.C., when I met a woman who amiably stated that I looked too young to be at this conference. She was curious to hear my story and what brought me there. It was then that it struck me: Almost everyone else in the conference had years and years of experience working in the field of disability, and, because of my age, I stood out from most of the attendees. In fact, at this national conference with hundreds of participants, I would estimate that there were no more than 10 students. 

As one of a few Johns Hopkins public health master’s students interested in the field of disabilities, this is something to which I have become accustomed. I’ve learned that my interests are unique. Disability is certainly not a “sexy” topic for research and funding in the public health world. It’s been a struggle at times for me to find disabilities resources and mentors interested in the field.  However, as a topic that will only continue to require increased thought and action in the future, it is very clear to me that we need people who are educated in the field of disability in order to produce the best outcomes for society as a whole. And this conference proved to be a great opportunity for me to increase my own knowledge.

The conference was incredibly informative about many different topics pertaining to disabilities. I was able to listen to experts discuss important national policy issues about housing, employment, education, transition to adulthood, laws, and access to medical services for people with disabilities. It became apparent that there has been tremendous success in the past few decades to increase the rights of people with disabilities, but there is still a great amount of work remaining to be done.

One of the most influential sessions for me personally was the luncheon honoring Senator Barbara Mikulski for her role in passing Rosa’s Law. This law eliminated the use of the phrase “mental retardation” in federal education, health, and labor law and replaced it with the term “intellectual disability”. It is based on the premise that “what you call people is how you treat them.” It was very inspiring to hear Senator Mikulski communicate her passion for bringing about social justice and equality for people with disabilities. 

Mikulski’s speech motivated me to continue my work with disabilities, and I hope that my career makes an impact in the field as hers has. The fact that there are few young people interested in this area has only furthered my desire to learn and gain experience. There is clearly a need for a generation of educated people who are motivated to pursue this field in the future, and I know the impact that I can have by following in the footsteps of pioneers in disability research and advocacy.  

I am very grateful to Dr. Christopher Smith and Maureen van Stone and the Maryland Center for Developmental Disabilities for the opportunity to attend such an interesting and eye-opening conference. I know that it is an experience that I will carry with me through the rest of my career. 

Carrie Bateman, MPH