Nothing about us without us. This is the rallying cry of the disability rights movement and the heart behind an award created this summer by Florida Self-Advocates Network’D (FL SAND) to honor Florida self-advocates who advance the movement in a significant way.
First proposed to FL SAND’s membership by members of its Fellows Program, the Zack Gottsagen Aspire, Advocate, Achieve, or “A+ Award,” was presented to its namesake at the 2021 FL SAND Conference - “Mission Inclusion,” which took place in Orlando July 30—August 1.
This new honor is designed to be unique in several ways. The nominating committee for the award will be made up of self-advocates exclusively, making the A+ Award a recognition both given and received in the true spirit of self-determination. Additionally, while a nomination period will occur yearly, the nominating committee reserves the right to only present the award when and if a nominee’s accomplishments rise to the level that the committee feels is deserving.
While the specific criteria for what “significant achievement” consists of going forward is evolving and will be a major consideration for the award committee’s fall meeting, the A+ Award’s namesake and first recipient is a great example of advocacy in action and the kind of spirit and far-reaching awareness and impact that FL SAND wants to recognize with the creation of this honor. A long-time FL SAND member from it's SAIL group in Palm Beach County, Gottsagen’s role in the critically acclaimed “Peanut Butter Falcon” and subsequent fame, was the direct result of self-advocacy, true inclusion, and friendship.
Zack was an actor for years before receiving his big Hollywood break. His role in "The Peanut Butter Falcon" was specifically created for him after he voiced his goal of being a move star to aspiring filmmakers he befriended at a drama camp. But his work as a self-advocate started long before he became the Peanut Butter Falcon. He was the first child with Down syndrome to be fully included in the School District of Palm Beach County and was also involved in one of the first Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) litigation represented by the ACLU against Little League, resulting in mandatory training of all coaches and assistant coaches in including children with disabilities nationwide. Zack has over 15 years worth of experience in the arts, including but not limited to, as a teaching assistant, an internship with the Kravis Center for Performing Arts, a lead role in the Royal Playhouse's production of "Artie," and a feature in "Becoming Bulletproof."
Zack’s drive to achieve his acting dream in the face of an industry that has been historically not inclusive, is self-advocacy and determination at its best. And his resulting opportunities, such as being the first person with Down syndrome to present at the Academy Awards, haven’t just benefited Zack. They have unquestionably advanced representation of people with disabilities as a whole. Of course, very few of us, disabled or otherwise, will likely achieve such widespread recognition. And that isn’t what the A+ Award is designed to honor or why it was given to Zack. Rather, at its heart, FL SAND’s Fellows and membership hope that this award will become a leading testament to the varied and numerous substantial contributions that self-advocates make, both inside and outside the disability community.
*Further information about the nomination process for the Aspire, Advocate, Achieve Award, which is open to all self-advocates statewide, will be forthcoming this Fall.