With her tiny frame perched atop her wheelchair and her service dog at her side, activist Mia Ives-Rublee deftly maneuvers through a restaurant brimming with a busy lunch crowd. She is adept at making space for herself in a world that hasn’t always been welcoming.
She proved that point on a national scale last weekend, leading the Disability Caucus of the Women’s March on Washington.
Ives-Rublee was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, commonly known as brittle bone disease. It’s a genetic mutation that leaves bones extremely fragile, prone to breaks and fractures.
She recalls how growing up in Greensboro, surrounded by adults worried about her health, there wasn’t much room in her life for childhood dreams and ambitions.
“When you grow up with a disability, a lot of times you’re told by a lot of adults and professionals about what you can’t do,” she said. “That made it very hard for me to figure out what I wanted to do.”
A trip to the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta helped change that.
“I saw people, everyday people, just getting along with their lives, maneuvering the city and interacting with each other,” Ives-Rublee said. “That really opened my eyes, and my family’s eyes, to this whole group of people that have a community, and have a sense of self and identity, even a sense of disability pride.”
That experience broadened her horizons. She was inspired to pursue adaptive athletics, and as she grew physically stronger, she gained more confidence and greater independence.
She went on to compete internationally in wheelchair track and field, fencing and cross-fit events, all while pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in sociology and social work.
Now at 32, she works as a research assistant at UNC, enjoying a level of independence and self-determination her parents and doctors never thought possible.
She still trains regularly and also works as a coach, teaching others about adaptive athletics. It was through this process of reaching out to people living with disabilities that she found her focus shifting from personal achievement to political activism.
“For a long time I wanted to disassociate and show people I wasn’t disabled,” Ives-Rublee said. “As I grew more independent and more self-aware, I started to get more involved in the disability community. It’s been a slow transition. Becoming more connected with disability rights advocates changed my outlook and what I’m passionate about.”
She shied away from advocacy in the past for fear of being pigeon-holed. Now she wants to take a more active role in developing public policy that guarantees equal rights for disabled people.
“I’ve come to the realization that other people aren’t going to fight for us,” she said.
Increasingly, Ives-Rublee sees the need to bring disability issues to greater prominence in the progressive movement. When she heard about the Women’s March on Washington, she reached out to the organizers to make sure the march would be accessible and inclusive.
“For a long time, people with disabilities have had a hard time accessing these mainstream marches,” she said. “My thought process was, if we can create a caucus, a group of individuals who are vocal, who are active, to then talk to national (organizers) about our concerns and our issues, then maybe we can get somewhere.”
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