Lifting My Voice: An Advocate Reflects on MLK Day

By Denise Prehay, Mailman Center LEND Trainee

January 15, 2018

Denise Prehay
Denise Prehay

"An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Five years ago while I was shopping, the store manager stopped and asked me where I had gotten the item under my sweater. It was my purse, yet, I was mistaken for a shoplifter. When I spoke up, the store attendant noticed my physical disability, cerebral palsy, which affects my speech, and assumed I lacked intelligence. She was condescending and couldn't understand what I was saying. The police were called. It was a double-whammy: I was discriminated against for being a person of color and for having a disability.

I thought that moving from Jamaica, my country of birth, to the "Land of Opportunity" would mean the end of the barriers I had faced growing up. However, in America, it turned out to be no different. When I started my final semester of junior high, I was surprised to find all my classes had been changed to Special Education. After that, I learned nothing useful in my high school years. The only thing that I learned was how not to get pregnant.

Even though my Voc Rehab counselor discouraged me from pursuing a college education, I achieved my educational goals, including a Master's in Social Work. After landing my dream job at Parent-to-Parent I noticed how families were often challenged in knowing how to help their child. I felt it would give hope to parents if they saw more people with disabilities as professionals in the workplace. 

As Martin Luther King Jr. Day approaches, I reflect on the parallels between our lives. We have both dealt with adversities and injustices, and, as far back as I can remember, I have always spoken up for my right to be heard. Like Dr. King, many did not want to hear a person of color speak for justice and equal rights. I, too, have my voice; but, growing up, people didn't listen. Just because I have trouble speaking doesn't mean I don't have anything to say. Being inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led me to become a fierce advocate for people with developmental disabilities.

​Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement have taught us in the Disability Rights Movement to continue to advocate. As a self-advocate trainee at the University of Miami's Mailman Center for Child Development's LEND program, I am tackling a project dear to my heart which focuses on Disability Awareness month in the school system, and working to mandate the inclusion of Disability History/Civil Rights history into Florida's public-school curriculum.

The theme for AUCD's last conference was "Lift Your Voice," which really resonated with me. Today, like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., before me, I am lifting my voice, not only for myself, but for others. It's true what my parents always told me, now more than ever: "Denise, you may not speak well, yet you always speak up." I encourage you to do the same.