Education is Power

[lightbox link=”” thumb=”” width=”235″ align=”right” title=”Elaine Stefanowicz” frame=”true” icon=”image” caption=”Courtesy of Elaine Stefanowicz.“]

1982: “The world was not as accessible then,” says CIRI shareholder Elaine Stefanowicz (Iñupiaq) of Tacoma, Washington.

There was no such thing as the Americans with Disabilities Act then – the law would pass in 1990 – so Stefanowicz recalls her early days using a wheelchair at a time when awareness was a real hurdle to overcome. She was 17 when she got into a car with an impaired driver and found herself involved in an accident that injured her spinal cord.

But she quickly began to see herself as an advocate for the rights of those with disabilities.

“I guess you don’t know until you’re there yourself, and I’m sure that was God’s plan for me,” she says, then laughs. “I was born with a big mouth, and it turned out to be for a reason! I feel like I need to speak for people who can’t or won’t speak for themselves.”

As of this October, Stefanowicz has a new platform from which to speak: She was appointed to a two-year term on the Washington State Governor’s Committee on Disability Issues and Employment. Stefanowicz is one of thirteen appointees chosen from an applicant pool of 130, and she intends to use her new position to educate people – particularly teens – about the dangers of distracted driving.

“It scares the heck out of me, people who are texting and driving, and their eyes are completely off the road,” Stefanowicz says. She cites a statistic that those who text and drive are eight times more likely to be involved in an accident. “It’s scarier than drinking and driving – and that’s scary enough as it is.”

Other issues close to her heart include disabled parking abuse and the 70 percent unemployment rate among people with disabilities.

“I think there’s still fear around hiring someone with a disability – that it might be expensive or an employer will have to do some type of remodeling,” Stefanowicz explains. “That’s really troubling because I think there’s a lot of value in work. That’s the reason I got my master’s degree in human resources.”

Stefanowicz received support from The CIRI Foundation to earn that degree, as well as her bachelor’s degree, but her first scholarships came from being crowned Ms. Wheelchair America in 1997. She was the first contestant from Washington state to take home the title. Her platform was “Education is Power.”

Her tour as Ms. Wheelchair America took Stefanowicz across the nation, from Washington, D.C., where she met President Clinton and quadriplegic actor Christopher Reeve, to Alaska, where she seized an opportunity to find her birth family.

“It was like a game of Clue, where one thing led to another,” Stefanowicz recalls. She guessed that her mother must have belonged to an Alaska Native corporation; when she called the NANA Regional Corporation, the woman who answered turned out to have grown up with Stefanowicz’s mother. Soon, she was talking on the phone with her birth mother for the very first time.

“I learned my mother was working on her Ph.D., and that my birth sister has a Master s of Business Administration,” she says. “I always wondered where my love of education came from, because I was a first generation college graduate in my adoptive family. It was nice to know where that came from.”

Serving on the Governor s Committee is something she’s always wanted to do. Now that her son is fifteen, she’s excited to be an ambassador for people with disabilities and to use her new position to educate others.