This is the first in a new series of interviews with accomplished self-advocates in Florida, aptly titled “About Us.”
I had the opportunity to speak with Amanda Baker, a veteran self-advocate from Panama City and a fierce advocate for persons with disabilities.
Amanda is the founder and leader of FL SAND’s Elephant Herds self-advocacy group in Panama City. She has volunteered countless hours over the years advising and inspiring people with disabilities to speak up for themselves and challenge instances of injustice and discrimination no matter how small. She is also a wealth of knowledge on disability benefits and support, having established a Qualified Trust and winning a battle to have her Medicaid restored after taking a full-time job more than a year ago.
Amanda currently serves as the President of Florida Self Advocates Network’d (FL SAND) as well as Vice Chair of the Florida Developmental Disabilities Council.
Question: How important is being a person with a disability to your identity? Has this always been the case? Amanda: I feel like it has always been important. I would not be the same person that I am today. My disability has caused me to fight for what I believe in and persist. It has inspired me to be driven. I do not know that I would have the drive that I do without my disability.
Question: When did you begin to identify as a self-advocate? Amanda: I would say I identified as a self-advocate early on, specifically when I was 7 and in the second grade. I began identifying this way because I felt concerned that people were going into my IEP and talking about me without my input. One day I asked my mom if I could attend my IEP conferences and my self-advocacy journey took off from there.
Question: What is your funniest disability-related story? Amanda: This one is hard because I have so many. If I had to pick one, I would use the “Waffle House” story. I used to go to Waffle House every Sunday after church. On one particular Sunday I was using a rental chair. This chair had a separate switch for the tilt function (vs. being built into the joy stick) and I had to use a booth. The craziness began when the switch got caught under the table, eventually my chair tilted so far back that the table fell on top of me. People gathered around and were unsure how to fix my chair. After several attempts the fire department was called. It was embarrassing at the time but I can look back on it now and laugh. Eventually, we were able to find the manual tilt switch and get me in an upright position again.
Question: What disability-related issue is most significant to you? Amanda: There are many issues that are important to the disability community. I personally would have to say employment is the most important to me. I believe that if persons with disability want to work they should have the same opportunities as everyone else. I believe we live in a society that does not value the capabilities of people with disabilities; if they did there would not be quite as many barriers in place.
Question: Can you share a time when your disability inspired a behavior, comment, or reaction that you found particularly obnoxious? What about a positive experience? Amanda: I wouldn’t say that I found the behavior in this story obnoxious but rather annoying. At my first job I worked at a senior center for 5 years. During the first couple of years, some of the older residents treated me differently, even going so far as to pat me on the head and say I was too young to have something wrong with me. I know they didn’t know any better because they had not been exposed to persons with disabilities. As far as a positive experience regarding my disability, I can clearly point to when I served as Miss Wheelchair Florida in 2007. It was through the pageant that I was able to develop friendships and networking opportunities that I still use today. The Miss Wheelchair pageant is not your typical beauty pageant. We were judged on our advocacy work and communication skills.
Question: If you could invite one person with a disability living or dead to have a conversation over coffee who would it be? Why? Amanda: I would choose Helen Keller because I’m amazed by what she was able to overcome despite her obstacles. I would ask her what advice she could give to a young person like myself.
Question: In 10 years, what would you most like to be different in the lives of persons with disabilities? Amanda: In 10 years I hope that the culture we live in that views disabled people so negatively is drastically different. I believe that there is such a problem with the culture that it is going to be a struggle for persons with disabilities unless the culture overall changes.
Question: If you could pick one song as your theme song, what would you choose? Amanda: I like a lot of music but I think I would chose Bon Jovi’s “Welcome to Wherever You Are.” The song keeps me grounded whenever I get discouraged because its message is to not get caught up in where you are going but rather embrace where you are at.
I enjoyed my conversation with Amanda very much, and look forward to working with her through Florida SAND.