Raising Awareness of Chronic Illnesses
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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.
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
For decades, Rwandans with disabilities faced significant challenges to accessing health care. Now the country has embarked on an ambitious plan to renovate all of its outdated facilities, with accessibility as a priority. Thirty health centers have been updated so far, changing stairs into ramps, adding Braille signage and more. “Having access to health services to persons with disability in Rwanda is like dreams that we all wish to be true,” says Aimable Irihose of the Rwanda Organization of Persons with Physical Disabilities and Wheelchair Users.
Terubeimoa (Ruby) Nabetari has been using the skills she learned as a composer of music and drama to help her organization, Te Toa Matoa, get their messages across about the rights of persons with disabilities in Kiribati. When she first became disabled from an accident, “I felt sad and confused … because I was well-known as a person who composed music and drama in my country,” she says. “But as time went on, I thanked God that I changed my mind and started to realize what I have to offer people with disabilities.”
DJP Fellow Melvina Voua is advocating for the full inclusion of Solomon Islanders with disabilities in all aspects of climate change adaptation and mitigation. “When the crisis or the disaster happen, we always find it difficult to evacuate or access or even get prepared or respond,” she says. “All … plans must be inclusive and not excluding people with disability, like when designing evacuation centers or developing policies for climate change or disasters.”
DJP Fellow Ari Hazelman is drawing on his region’s rich storytelling history to further the cause of disability rights. “When we think about our myths and legends that we have in our Pacific culture, that’s part of the stories that we grow up with,” he says. “So when you put it to the disability field, using the stories that we can document through the knowledge that we learn in this [DJP] workshop will help us to tell our stories and use those stories to make a positive change in our society.”
DJP Fellow Isoa Nabainivalu is a Deaf disability rights advocate for his country of Fiji. Since 2019, he has been focusing on advocating for the rights of one of the more marginalized groups in the Pacific – LGBTQI+ persons with disabilities. “First and foremost for us is for our members to come out, to feel comfortable, to know their rights and know how to use them in different spaces,” he says.
Faaolo Utumapu-Utailesolo is a program officer for the Pacific Island Countries with the Disability Rights Fund. She is a longtime disability rights activist in Samoa. “As an advocate, you get knocked down by things,” she says, “and you keep going because you know that there are other people with disabilities who need a lot of support and who will need you to be paving the way.”