By PK DAUER
Brittany Dejean was a mover and a shaker from way back. Her father made sure of that because he loved to move around the dance floor and he passed on his enthusiasm to his family.
“The reason I love to dance so much is because of my Dad,” Brittany says. “As an awkward kid, the only thing I had going for me was that I could come home to the sounds of Queen or Will Smith and have fun and dance.”
But that happy family tradition ended tragically and irrevocably when Brittany was just 12 years old. In one shattering moment, her father’s car was broadsided as he drove home with Brittany’s brother beside him.
Her brother was killed instantly; her father was rushed to the hospital in critical condition, where doctors had more devastating news. Brittany’s Dad had lost the use of his legs and most movement in his arms. He was a quadriplegic, destined to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
“That moment was one of the most difficult things my family went through,” recalls Brittany. “I found out about my brother first and then I really wanted my Dad to survive. I was just happy to take my Dad in the form I was going to get him in.”
But for her father, the reality was more difficult to accept. His initial reaction was of shock and despair.
“The first time you look at your feet and you can’t move them, you’re going to freak out,” he says.
But as the reality sank in, his thoughts turned to his little girl.
“I used to dance quite a bit. And I do remember thinking, I’ll never dance at her wedding.”
In the months and years following the accident, Brittany’s Dad underwent physical therapy. She watched as he learned how to adjust to life in a wheelchair.
“A lot of it is mindset. I took a lot from my Dad about adaptation. We had access to a great rehabilitation hospital and they had mentor programs so that within the first six months of the accident we were meeting people in the same physical situation but sometimes years ahead of my Dad. It showed us what was possible.”
But the accident left an invisible imprint on Brittany that would become evident in college. While studying in China, she began exploring the lives of people with disabilities. One man she met there, who had far more body movement than her father, told her he was doomed to spend the rest of his life in bed.
“I saw that people with disabilities faced similar challenges worldwide. That made me realize how lucky we had been to have the resources we had for my Dad.”
Brittany calls it her “moment of obligation.”
“Once I realized that what we had wasn’t the norm, I knew that I needed to do something to make sure everyone has the support and resources to adapt and thrive with a disability. People with disabilities are humans with unique potential, and everyone deserves a chance to thrive.”
In 2014, Brittany founded AbleThrive.
According to The World Bank, one billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, experience some form of disability. Between 110 million and 190 million people experience significant disabilities. And while there are millions of articles, videos and resources online about how to live well with a disability, there are barriers to accessing this potentially life-changing information.
AbleThrive works to break down those barriers with a one-stop online platform featuring curated resources for people living with disabilities and their families.
AbleThrive culls the best resources from blogs, organizations, hospitals and companies around the world and delivers them to users based on their specific needs. Partnering with resource providers ensures that their materials, products and services reach those who can benefit from them.
“I also work with people who have zero disability experience to help them reframe their perception of disability and so recruit more disability allies.”
The organization strives to be a resource for the entire disability community, but it is starting small to achieve its goals. Currently, AbleThrive is sourcing content to benefit people facing paralysis, including spinal cord injury, muscular dystrophy, spina bifida, cerebral palsy, MS, and post polio. Once that goal is effective, AbleThrive plans to expand to reach new communities.
But AbleThrive wasn’t the only exciting, new venture in Brittany’s life. In 2015, she was planning her wedding. Like many brides, she dreamed of sharing the tradition of a father-daughter dance. It had been nearly 17 years since the accident that paralyzed her father and, although he had worked hard on his rehabilitation, he had given up on the idea of ever dancing again.
“For my Dad, it wasn’t about the physical issue of dancing, it was this emotional block, a door he had shut. I respected it being shut but he had danced so much before the accident, I thought if he could be there for me for the moment, it would be something I would cherish forever.”
So Brittany made her father a proposal. If she could find a way for them to dance together at her wedding, would he be willing to give her that gift?
Brittany hired a choreographer who works with people with disabilities and on June 6, 2015, a father’s love and determination won the day.
Surrounded by family and friends, father and daughter moved together around the floor to “I Hope You Dance,” a song Brittany chose because, she says, it represented everything her father ever taught her.
“Being so young when he was injured, I followed his lead and learned by example. He takes every challenge he faces in stride and is the epitome of resilience. I learned from him to make the most of every situation, and always look for a silver lining. These lessons have been invaluable to me as a social entrepreneur.”
Brittany admits that starting AbleThrive and trying to do her part to change the world is a difficult and sometimes lonely endeavor. But living a life of purpose, she says, is worth the struggle.
“When you push the limit of what you think is possible, you start to discover that more is possible than you might imagine and that’s not specific to disability.”
A 2008 Harvard University graduate, Brittany has worked with disability communities in five countries. She specializes in debunking misconceptions associated with disability to foster a more inclusive society.
She is a 2014 Echoing Green Global Fellow and 2017 Global Good Fellow.
And, now, thanks to the collaboration between Hearts on Fire and Skype in the Classroom, students across the country can talk with Brittany face to face and ask their own questions about her family, her life and her challenges with Able Thrive.
To request to become an AbleThrive Ally and have your articles, blog and YouTube Videos featured on AbleThrive, go to www.ablethrive.com