Skip to main content
Meredith O'Brien smiles at the camera.
Photo by Nancy Gould

News

Raising Awareness of Chronic Illnesses

Play audio version

Meet DJP Mentor Meredith O’Brien

October 5, 2021

Disability Justice Project mentor Meredith O’Brien has always loved reading and writing. “As a kid, I was often reading and trying my hand at writing little stories,” she says. “I’d find notebooks around the house and just start writing stories in them.”

Today, O’Brien is a 52-year-old author of four books and has been a School of Journalism instructor at Northeastern University for the last six years. She previously taught journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Framingham State University, and she has written for multiple publications, including The Union-News (now called The Republican) in Springfield, Massachusetts, and The Boston Herald. Additionally, she’s worked for the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to inspiring change through investigative reporting.

O’Brien is a Massachusetts native. She grew up in West Springfield and is the oldest of two children. Though she’s had an affinity for literature since childhood, a pivotal pop quiz in an AP history class during her high school senior year partially prompted her interest in journalism.

O'Brien reads from her book, Uncomfortably Numb.
O’Brien reads from her new memoir, Uncomfortably Numb: The Life-Altering Diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis, at Tatnuck Bookseller in Westborough, MA.

Her AP history teacher made her realize how little she knew about domestic and international news. “… As soon as I was a freshman at UMass Amherst, I decided to take a journalism class and got involved with the student newspaper there … and from then on … it just whet my appetite,” she says. O’Brien ultimately received her undergraduate degree in journalism and political science. In 1994, she pursued a master’s degree in political science from American University to gain a deeper understanding of politics and to enhance her reporting on the topic.

O’Brien likes to write on social media too. She is a news and Twitter enthusiast; her commentary includes pop culture, news analysis, sports, and literature. When she’s not tweeting in her spare time, she’s reading books, watching films, or spending time with her two dogs. She is also married and a mother of three.

To make [disability] part of life, that’s what I would love for it to be – part of life that everybody’s respectful of and aware of and understanding.

Meredith O’Brien

In recent years, O’Brien has shifted her focus mainly to teaching and book-writing. Last year, she published Uncomfortably Numb, a memoir about her experience with multiple sclerosis since her diagnosis in July 2014. The book was originally a thesis for her master’s degree in creative non-fiction at Bay Path University from 2016. “Writing a memoir was very scary,” she says. “It was natural when I started it for my MFA program but to actually launch it out to the world was scarier than any … of the other pieces of work I had written.”

O’Brien believes educating people about chronic illnesses and invisible symptoms is important. She herself has experienced harassment due to a lack of widespread awareness of chronic illnesses. Her involvement with the Disability Justice Project, however, is an avenue to prompt awareness of disability via journalism. She wants to see fellows of the DJP write about disabilities in a fearless and thoughtful way. “For the world to be able to come to terms with everybody’s different abilities … to make [disability] part of life, that’s what I would love for it to be, part of life that everybody’s respectful of and aware of and understanding.”

News From the Global Frontlines of Disability Justice

Retta Maha poses for the camera. She is wearing a red shirt and her hair is pulled back.

As Long as You Have a Story to Tell

DJP Fellow Retta Maha is the first blind filmmaker the DJP has worked with, and she’s paved the way in showing how individuals who are blind or low vision can tell video stories: “I found that blind people also can be filmmakers, as long as they get support. The blind have their own idea of … what the story is, and then the sighted people can help them make it real.”

Read more about As Long as You Have a Story to Tell

A shack located in Jongaya, a leprosy community in South Sulawesi, Indonesia.

‘Everyone Has Dreams’

Misconceptions surrounding leprosy continue to have significant impacts in Indonesia, a country with the third-highest incidence of leprosy in the world. In Jongaya, people experiencing leprosy live separately from the rest of the population in South Sulawesi. One former resident shares her story.

Read more about ‘Everyone Has Dreams’

Sustia Rini poses for the camera.

The Right to Health

Six years after Indonesia passed its disability law and 11 years after it ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Indonesians with disabilities still do not have equal access to healthcare. Forced to go without medical treatment, many become sicker and perhaps more disabled and fall deeper into debt.

Read more about The Right to Health

Ariani Soekanwo poses for the camera.

Rule of Law

Ariani Soekanwo became a disability rights activist as a college student. Since then, she has helped start several Indonesian disability rights organizations. Age is not an obstacle for her. Her enthusiasm for encouraging the fulfillment of rights for persons with disabilities in Indonesia pushes her to never stop thinking and creating.

Read more about Rule of Law

Naufal Asy-Syaddad stands outside homes in Indonesia.

Sticks and Stones

After DJP Fellow Naufal Asy-Syaddad was diagnosed with autism, he experienced bullying and exclusion in his early school years. Now, he’s found a home at Yogasmara Foundation, where he advocates for disability rights and raises awareness about autism. People with autism, he says, “are highly misunderstood.”

Read more about Sticks and Stones

Dija poses for the camera.

‘Treat Me Like Everyone Else’

DJP Fellow Dija spent the beginnings of her life indoors and away from others. “In my village, people with disabilities are pitied,” she says. In recent years, she has been on a mission of acceptance and opportunity for persons with disabilities. No longer afraid to leave her home, Dija draws from her own experiences in her advocacy work.

Read more about ‘Treat Me Like Everyone Else’