Learning to Thrive

September 30th, 2018

Brittany Dejean

Brittany Dejean is an Echoing Green Fellow and founder of AbleThrive, an online platform built to empower people with disabilities. On September 27, Kravis Lab hosted a conversation with her. To understand, as much as we can, the impact Brittany Dejean has on the disabled community and on the many communities she is a part of and an ally to, we have to understand her background.

When she was younger, her father and younger brother got into a car accident. Her brother died and her father became quadriplegic. Her father’s recovery was slow, but due to a supportive family and healthcare staff, was guaranteed. With physical therapy, he gained mobility in some of his limbs. He is in a chair now, but has full autonomy. Brittany began to learn that that level of recovery and autonomy was not the norm. Her father was an anomaly, but she believes that he can be the expectation.

She highlighted a few moments that contributed to her development as a person and entrepreneur. She called these moments the inflection points of life, or the moments that spin you in a different direction. She spent the fall of her junior year of college in China, and there, connected with people with disabilities, people who had a drastically lower level of access to resources. In the stories she told, what stuck with me was her emphasis on being vulnerable. When she shared her family story to people, they immediately opened their hearts and homes to her, connecting over the understanding that they and their family were treated differently because of their differences.

I was given the privilege to not only introduce Brittany, but to engage in conversation with her before the talk started. She told me that college completely burst her bubble. She went from a tiny, almost homogeneous town in Pennsylvania to a community of people of vast identities, and learned from their experiences. More than anything, she learned to be an ally to people of color, queer people, and other differently identified folks. In hearing her development as an ally, I started thinking of my own. Although the majority of my identities place me in marginalized groups, what is my privilege? I find myself advocating for diversity and inclusion in every space I enter, but does my diversity and inclusion include a wide range of identities? Does it include disability? Her own self-development inspired me to heighten my own. And she inspired me to embrace failure.

She applied to Echoing Green four times before she was accepted, stating, “Persistence pays off.” When she came back from China, she told her friend that she wanted to start a website. It wasn’t easy then, but her friend helped her create her mission statement and other tasks that were necessary to make her dream a reality. It’s important to find the right people to help you, she said. And it’s important to have hope. An active, concrete hope. It kept her going.

The structure of the conversation itself was quite compelling. Brittany paused halfway through question-and-answer to ask us our names, our hometowns, and a fun fact about all of us. We all learned something interesting about her, but about each other as well. She effortlessly engages the people around her, an important skill in building community. She convinced me that her community, what she is building and promoting with AbleThrive, is possible. A community in which people with disabilities should not lose their humanity; that empathy, not overextended sympathy, is what we need. And of course, there is more to be done in terms of providing resources for people with disabilities, but if there is hope for a high-functioning life, and if we are supportive allies, then we are more than halfway there.

Written by Toluwani Roberts ’22