"About Us" is a series of interviews with accomplished self-advocates in Florida.
Natalie Jean has spent her life working toward inclusion for people with disabilities.
She currently works as the ombudsman for the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, which means she is the primary point of contact for addressing concerns or unresolved issues expressed by clients, providers, and other stakeholders. Natalie earned a Bachelor of Science degree in information studies and Master of Science degree in library and information studies from Florida State University.
In this edition of “About Us,” Natalie talks about the importance of full inclusion and humanizing people with disabilities.
Question: How important is being a person
with a disability to your identity?
Natalie: It depends what you think disability is. I don’t see myself as having a disability, because what is normal? Society has decided somehow that if you couldn’t do this, then you’re impaired, or if you couldn’t walk a certain way then there’s something wrong. If you have trouble hearing then there’s something wrong. For myself, I cannot think of myself as having a disability. If “disability” is something, then I see it as a “unique” way to say I am unique, because everyone is unique.
Question: When did you begin to identify as a self-advocate?
Natalie: When I left home to study at FSU. It’s not that I didn’t already make my own decisions or speak up. It’s just that I never had to be the person who advocated for what I wanted or needed. I didn’t have to do the leg work. My mom and my sister did the advocating for me. When I left home, I had to start advocating for myself.
Question: What is your funniest disability-related story?
Natalie: I don’t really have a funny disability related story. However, what comes to mind is that my sister often says that I “motor around,” referring to the fact that I use a motorized chair.
Question: What disability-related issue is most significant to you?
Natalie: People with disabilities aren’t humanized. Their disability is seen as a thing, as a bad thing, so they’re seen as totally different from others -- like they don’t have the same values and needs -- and as people that can’t do things. If people with disabilities can be seen just like others that would help change the system. People are your greatest resource so if people start changing inside themselves and start seeing people with disabilities as people it would help spark change in the system.
Question: Can you share a time when your disability inspired a behavior, comment, or reaction that you found particularly obnoxious?
Natalie: The negative experience is beyond obnoxious, it’s actually inappropriate. While pursuing requirements for my degree in library and information studies, someone made the comment that I couldn’t be a librarian because there was too much lifting and then wanted to know how I would be able to use the bathroom.
Question: What about a positive experience?
Natalie: The positive experience was when I was asked to be the keynote speaker for Ms. Wheelchair Florida. My speech was about self-advocacy. Afterward, a few of the audience members came to me and said they appreciated my presentation. It made me relaxed and relieved.
Question: If you could invite one person with a disability, living or dead, to have a conversation over coffee, who would it be? Why?
Natalie: It would be Helen Keller. Words are powerful. Many times, words affect my thoughts. My thoughts can impair me. It’s not the “disability” that impairs. She has so many inspirational quotes but it’s not the same as talking to her. I would like to know how she got through things.
Question: In 10 years, what would you most like to be different in the lives of persons with disabilities?
Natalie: That disability isn’t in people’s vocabulary. That may help what needs to be changed to ensure full inclusion. I would like the whole concept of disability to go away, so that there is no such thing. People with disabilities aren’t humanized, and as I said, words are very, very powerful. If we get rid of the whole concept of disability, I would love it. It could help make full inclusion in employment, housing, relationships, friendships, leadership roles, anything, possible.
Question: If you could pick one song as your theme song, what would you choose?
Natalie: I really identify with the Florida SAND anthem song “My Voice Matters.” It’s exactly how I feel and it’s simply said. Sometimes I falter a little bit and wonder, does my voice really matter, but in terms of really being truthful that your voice really does matter, I do identify with that and it’s really special that self-advocates have identified with that song. It sometimes makes me teary when I hear the self-advocates singing it. The other song is “Happy” from Pharell Williams. My twin set it on her phone for my ringtone because she said, you’re always happy, you're optimistic in the way that you see life and your disability. That is the way she thinks of me. She says I am always smiling. I won’t say that I am always smiling, but I guess I am a happy person. Honestly, I don’t have the energy or the time to be sad or depressed.
The FSACentral staff would like to thank Natalie Jean for taking the time to participate in the interview.