By Helen Lyons
Takoma Park resident Sara Luterman plans to use the grant money she earned as the winner of the 2016 Advocates in Disability Award to create an interactive website to serve as a central hub for the disability community.
She received a $10,000 grant from the HSC Foundation and the Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation.
The Advocates in Disability Award is a project of the National Youth Transitions Initiative, a signature program of The HSC Foundation. A major focus of the initiative is bringing together the collective resources of multiple organizations to help young people with disabilities build paths to independence.
“There are so many people in the disability community, but they’re all in different places,” Luterman said. “[Information] is really scattered and hard to find unless you’re hooked up to the community leaders, which isn’t accessible for most people.”
Called NOS, the site’s moniker refers to the “Not Otherwise Specified” category so often seen on medical forms, and aims to provide the disability community with relevant news and a forum in the website’s comments section and social media channels. Luterman describes the publication as something “that doesn’t fit into a neat little box,” the same way human beings, in particular those with disabilities, don’t fit into tidy categories.
She hopes to change people’s way of thinking when it comes to how they perceive those with disabilities. “There’s this new social movement called neurodiversity,” said Luterman. “It’s based on the idea that the differences people have neurologically are natural and should be accommodated, rather than corrected. It’s a much more humanistic approach.”
Luterman said she has been advocating for the disability community “for the last few years,” after a hospitalization for mental issues exposed her to many of the obstacles and prejudices persons with disability face. “It was so awful that I became invested in making a change,” said Luterman. “It really lit a fire in me.”
This fire turned into activism, and NOS will serve as a way for other members of the disability community to come together and talk about diverse topics ranging from pop culture to the news, in their own voices.
“A lot of people who aren’t disabled think that they know what’s best for people who are disabled,” said Luterman, “and ignore what people who are disabled actually want. A lot of times it’s benevolent. But when it comes down to it, what disabled people individually want is what’s most important.”
Diagnosed with autism and partial blindness, Luterman’s advocacy work began after graduating from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland in creative writing. In addition to creating NOS Magazine, she currently works as a program assistant at the Association of University Centers on Disabilities, sits on the board for the Association for Autistic Community and acts as a part of the Individual Advocacy Group to help protect the rights of adults who need assistance in living independently.
NOS will not only provide a forum for discussion, but it will also offer compensation for many of the disability advocates who contribute writing. Luterman said that paying people for their work is important. “A lot of the time, we’re kind of expected to work for free. Our experiences and expertise are undervalued even by people who are willing to say that they’re necessary.”
Those looking to get involved in writing for NOS may have to wait, however. “Right now I’m still in the preliminary stages, and am looking for an internet designer to help me revamp the page.”
Luterman’s advocacy work has been fruitful. “I have a very supportive community,” she said. “I like seeing the changes that I’ve made. I’ve been doing a lot of work in terms of working on cultural competence and understanding of what disabled people want and need. It’s rewarding to see results, and that’s motivating.”
While Luterman is somewhat new to Takoma Park, she believes she’s found another supportive community here. “I like living here a lot. I’m hoping to be here for a long time.”
This article appeared in the August 2016 edition of the Takoma Park Newsletter. The Takoma Park Newsletter is available for download here.