"About Us" is a series of interviews with accomplished self-advocates in Florida.
Today, we shine a spotlight on Whitney Harris, Comptroller at the Florida Alliance for Assistive Services and Technology, or FAAST.
Whitney holds a bachelor’s degree in Orthotics and Prosthetics from St. Petersburg College and is a Certified Prosthetist by the American Board for Certification in Orthotics, Prosthetics, and Pedorthics (pedorthics is the management and treatment of conditions of the foot, ankle, and lower extremities requiring fitting, fabricating, and adjusting of devices).
Learning that her passion was in disability advocacy and not patient care, Whitney took a job with the Florida Chamber of Commerce Foundation after college where one of her duties was to coordinate an internship program that places Floridians with disabilities into temporary employment. Whitney is heavily involved in advocacy efforts that support youth. She is a long-time Florida Youth Leadership Forum volunteer, serves on the national Association of Youth Leadership Forums board, and helped found LIM359, a nonprofit organization that supports individuals with limb loss/limb difference.
Question: How important is being a person
with a disability to your identity?
Whitney: Very important! I often feel like I have to highlight my disability in social settings so that people without a disability will recognize that part of me. Though my reason for doing that is counterintuitive, because I eventually want them to see my disability as a characteristic like my hair color, a part of me that you can't change, that deserves to be accepted, but not necessarily obsessed over, if that makes sense.
Question: When did you begin to identify as a self-advocate?
Whitney: My senior year of high school. I had just attended my first Youth Leadership Forum and learned all about disability history and culture. That was when I first heard the term self-advocate and knew right away that was me.
Question: What is your funniest disability-related story?
Whitney: A few years ago, I had just given an incredible speech to an audience of 1,000 business leaders. As I walked off the stage, I had to switch out my prosthetic foot. I switched it out at the back of the room, and barely made it to the bathroom and back before the bolts came loose and my foot fell off! I felt so embarrassed knowing I had just crushed it on stage, and yet there I was, standing with my foot detached helpless. Luckily, a friend saw me and rushed to my rescue with a wrench.
Question: What disability-related issue(s) is most significant to you?
Whitney: It sounds silly, but dating. I want the people to feel loved and know they are worthy of love. And I especially want people without disabilities to accept us, and see us as people to value as partners.
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?
Whitney: I often have strangers asking me, "What happened?" Even when they are trying to be polite, it just instantly makes my blood boil and I feel powerless. On the flip side, I love walking into a room and knowing I've immediately gotten everyone's attention.
Question: If you could invite one person with a disability, living or dead, to have a conversation over coffee, who would it be? Why?
Whitney: I think it would be really neat to have a conversation with Ed Roberts. He truly created a movement by establishing Centers for Independent Living. Without those centers, I think independent living wouldn't look like it does today. I'd love to know if he's happy with the progress the community has made and pick his brain on how we can move forward even more.
Question: In 10 years, what would you most like to be different in the lives of persons with disabilities?
Whitney: I would like to see the future for people with disabilities to be a socially equal place. Outside of getting equality through laws, I would love for people to go about their day without being asked personal questions about their disabilities from people without disabilities.
Question: If you could pick one song as your theme song, what would you choose?
I wish to thank Whitney for her views. It is clear that she is a powerful self-advocate as well as an eloquent one. We need more advocates who are aware of the need for social perception change in society. As Whitney stated, we have come very far on a legislative front but have a great deal of work still left to do.
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