"About Us" is a series of interviews with accomplished self-advocates in Florida.
Michelle Zeman is a self-advocate with autism from Winter Springs. She spends her time advocating for people with disabilities in and outside of her career as a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst.
Michelle graduated from the Florida Partners in Policymaking class of 2023, is the advisor for MAGICAL, FL SAND’s self-advocacy group in Orlando, and is a FL SAND Fellow. In her limited spare time, she spends time with her dogs, goes to local concerts, and researches legislative priorities for the disability community.
Question: When did you start to identify as a self-advocate and why?
Michelle: As a person who has autism I have educated people on autism and had to advocate for myself; but I began to formally identify as a self-advocate very recently. I learned about the importance of self-advocacy and began researching legislative priorities for the disability community through the Partners in Policymaking class. By being a part of the class, it has inspired to me to move forward with my journey as a self-advocate and has helped me within my career.
Question: What advocacy related issue is the most significant to you?
Michelle: For me, inclusive education is the most significant advocacy related issue. More often than not, schools put students with disabilities in a box without providing an opportunity for students to integrate with age-appropriate peers in a general education setting. Additionally, general education teachers don’t have to learn about students with disabilities in college or through continuing education requirements. One of my personal legislative priorities is to advocate for more professional education requirements for teachers in working with students with autism and other disabilities. Students with disabilities deserve better.
Question: Describe a time when you had to overcome an obstacle related to your disability.
Michelle: I held shame about my disability until high school. I viewed my disability as a dirty little secret that no one was allowed to know about me. The shame was contributed to by my biological father. He did not accept the fact that I have a disability and did not attempt to understand me. If I had a meltdown or did something “out of the norm,” my dad would get upset and view it as “bad behavior.” When I was 14 years old, he called me an “autistic freak” out of anger, which is still a statement that carries with me today. Four years later, he attempted to apologize for saying that to me, but then in the same year, told me that I need to stop saying I have autism. Clearly, I didn’t comply.
Question: What did you find helpful in overcoming that obstacle?
Michelle: I overcame by seeing people with disabilities speak openly about themselves, and hearing about famous people with disabilities. The first time I ever spoke about having autism was in my 10th grade world history class. My teacher was talking about movies portraying disabilities in a positive light. When he started talking about that, I took that as an opportunity for me to say “I have autism.” I said it very low but my teacher realized I said something and asked me to speak up. I then openly spoke about it and I was met with kindness and acceptance by my classmates.
Question: How has your advocacy affected your career and personal life?
Michelle: From a career standpoint, I am able to help my clients work on speaking up for themselves. I also have been able to help my families advocate for their child when it comes to their medical and educational needs. From a personal standpoint, I speak up for myself when faced with adversity.
Question: What advice would you give to someone struggling to accept their disability?
Michelle: You are valid. Your presence is valid, your identity is valid, and you are loved far more than you know. Your disability does not make you “less than” anyone else, no matter what anyone says. If you ever need a safe space or someone to vent to, I am only a text message away (because I really don’t like phone calls).
Question: Describe a time when you were able to advocate on the spur of the moment?
Michelle: Oh yes — one particular memory stands out to me. In 2015, I was purchasing items from Staples for my job as a behavior technician. I was checking out, and the cashier asked me about my purchase. I explained to her what my job is, and that I have autism. The cashier asked me “were you misdiagnosed?” as she viewed me as being very articulate and independent. I had to explain to her that I was not, and in fact, required a lot of supports when I was younger (e.g., speech therapy, behavior therapy, and sensory integration therapy). I also explained that without these supports and without motivation from my mom, I am unsure where I would be.
Question: In 10 years, what would you most like to see changed in the lives of people with disabilities?
Michelle: There’s so many things that I would like to see change within the community. With education being my passion, I would like to see the educational system do better for students with disabilities by ensuring that all teachers, instructional aides, and administrators receive proper training on preventative strategies, de-escalation techniques, and how a teacher’s classroom can be more inclusive.
Question: If you could pick one song as your theme song, what would it be?
Michelle: My theme song would be “Fighter” by Christina Aguilera. When I feel down about myself, I will listen to that to get me pumped back up.
The FSACentral staff would like to thank Michelle for taking the time to participate in the interview. Let us know what you think about "About Us" on Facebook. If you know an accomplished self-advocate in Florida you think we should showcase in "About Us," contact us here or via Facebook.