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

A collage of photos showing inaccessible polling stations.

Democracy Denied

In 2024, a record number of voters worldwide will head to the polls, but many disabled individuals still face significant barriers. In India, inaccessible electronic voting machines and polling stations hinder the ability of disabled voters to cast their ballots independently. Despite legal protections and efforts to improve accessibility, systemic issues continue to prevent many from fully participating in the world’s largest democracy. ““All across India, the perception of having made a place accessible,” says Vaishnavi Jayakumar of Disability Rights Alliance, “is to put a decent ramp at the entrance and some form of quasi-accessible toilet.”

Read more about Democracy Denied

An illustration of DJP fellow Esther Suubbi and some of her peers.

Triumph Over Despair

DJP Fellow Esther Suubi shares her journey of finding purpose in supporting others with psychosocial disabilities. She explores the transformative power of peer support and her evolution to becoming an advocate for mental health. “Whenever I see people back on their feet and thriving, they encourage me to continue supporting others so that I don’t leave anyone behind,” she says. “It is a process that is sometimes challenging, but it also helps me to learn, unlearn, and relearn new ways that I can support someone – and myself.”

Read more about Triumph Over Despair

Daniel Mushimiyimana from the Rwanda Union of the Blind, sits in a row of chairs at a conference.

‘Our Vote Matters’

As Rwanda prepares for its presidential elections, voices like Daniel Mushimiyimana’s have a powerful message: every vote counts, including those of citizens with disabilities. Despite legal frameworks like the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, challenges persist in translating these into practical, accessible voting experiences for over 446,453 Rwandans with disabilities. To cast a vote, blind people need to take a sighted relative to read the ballot. An electoral committee member must be present, violating the blind person’s voting privacy. “We want that to change in these coming elections,” says Mushimiyimana.

Read more about ‘Our Vote Matters’

Srijana KC smiles at the camera. She has long dark hair and is wearing a red scarf and green cardigan sweater.

Voices Unsilenced

Often dismissed as a personal concern, mental health is a societal issue, according to Srijana KC, who works as a psychosocial counselor for the Nepali organization KOSHISH. KC’s own history includes a seizure disorder, which resulted in mental health challenges. She faced prejudice in both educational settings and the workplace, which pushed her towards becoming a street vendor to afford her medications. Now with KOSHISH, she coordinates peer support gatherings in different parts of Nepal. “It is crucial to instill hope in society, recognizing that individuals with psychosocial disabilities can significantly contribute,” she says.

Read more about Voices Unsilenced

Three fellows with the Disability Justice Project stand behind their cameras in a room. One is blind and one is low vision.

Capturing Vision Through Sound and Touch

Last summer, the DJP trained Indigenous activists with disabilities from the Pacific on the iPhone camera to create a documentary series on disability and climate change. With VoiceOver, the iPhone provides image descriptions for blind and low-vision filmmakers and offers other accessible features. “If you think about it, it doesn’t make sense for a blind person to use a camera,” says DJP filmmaker Ari Hazelman. “The iPhone gives you more avenues to tell your story in a more profound way as a blind person.”

Read more about Capturing Vision Through Sound and Touch

Sharma sits next to one of his subjects - a man from the nomadic Raute people.

Beyond the Frame

DJP mentor Kishor Sharma is known for his long-term photography and film projects exploring community and change. Over the last 12 years, he has been documenting the nomadic Raute people in mountainous Nepal. With any project, Sharma aims to actively engage participants, sharing photography and videography techniques. In September, Sharma became a mentor to DJP Fellow Chhitup Lama. He was eager to connect “this idea of sharing the visual technique with the storytelling idea and the issue of disability inclusion.”

Read more about Beyond the Frame