Dr. Anjali Forber-Pratt, a world-renowned Paralympian, explains how education empowers everyone to be an agent of change.

August 2013

Dr. Anjali Forber-Pratt. Photo credit: Stan Kaady.
Dr. Anjali Forber-Pratt. Photo credit: Stan Kaady.

Paralyzed from the waist down since she was a baby, Dr. Anjali Forber-Pratt has led a remarkable life: She fought and won a lawsuit against her hometown school district in Massachusetts, paving a smoother path for students entering school after her; earned her doctorate; and has become an accomplished public speaker and mentor. Before her February plenary speech in Atlanta, she sat down to explain the value of mentorship and being a social change agent.

BRIEFLY TELL ME ABOUT YOUR CHILDHOOD AND THE MOMENT YOU REALIZED YOU COULD BE AN ATHLETE.

FORBER-PRATT I grew up just outside of Boston. My parents live on the eight-mile marker of the Boston Marathon. When I was 5 years old, I remember sitting on the curb with my parents and brothers. I saw people in racing wheelchairs go whizzing by. I had never seen anything like it before. Growing up in a small town, I didn’t know that a world of possibilities existed for people with disabilities. It opened my eyes not just to athletic opportunities, but also to the fact that I could go to college, get a job, and have a family. [In that moment,] I set the goal to go to college and to compete in the Paralympic Games. I wanted to achieve great things.

WHAT TYPE OF SUPPORT DID YOU RECEIVE FROM YOUR FAMILY AS A CHILD?

FORBER-PRATT My family has been extremely supportive of my ambitions. My mom raised me, my two brothers, and sister to be very strong, independent, and to chase what we wanted. That meant if you really wanted to do something, you had to find a way to make it work. My sporting events were upward of two hours away, so I got crafty at devising carpool arrangements. I learned how to be very self-directed at an early age.

WHY DID YOU BRING A FEDERAL CIVIL RIGHTS LAWSUIT AGAINST THE NATICK SCHOOL DISTRICT—AT AGE 14?

FORBER-PRATT In elementary and middle school, accessibility was my mother’s fight. In middle school, things got more complicated. You start moving from classroom to classroom, so all of a sudden the space you need to access is bigger. In high school, we found out that everything we had been promised by town administrators wasn’t available. We had been told, “Oh, it’ll be ready for you when you get there,” since I was in elementary school. I realized at that point that this was now my battleground. High school is an awkward and weird time anyway, but to have to go in strong and fight just to get to English or to chemistry class? I realized I needed to do something. I knew I wouldn’t personally benefit from the case, since it would be long and drawn out, but I also knew that I wanted to help to make things better for students who entered school after me.

WHAT WERE THE RESULTS OF THE LAWSUIT?

FORBER-PRATT It set a precedent. It was the first case where punitive and compensatory damages were awarded under the Americans With Disabilities Act in a public education domain. The school district had to make the school compliant and up to code. That involved structural changes, adding elevators, fixing ramps, and—one of the biggest things I fought for—mandated sensitivity training for everyone, from janitors through the superintendent. Everyone in the education system needs disability awareness training.

HOW DID ACCESS CHANGE ONCE YOU ENTERED COLLEGE? AND WHY DID YOU FOCUS YOUR DISSERTATION ON THE LAWSUIT?

FORBER-PRATT When I arrived at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I was like a kid in a candy store; it was so accessible. I got involved as an undergrad and emerged as a very strong student leader on campus. When I met Dr. Steven Aragon, who eventually became my Ph.D. advisor, he was fascinated by the case. After a lot of research into my methods and approach, I wrote an autoethnography. I took a critical look at my story through the lens of cultural capital and how I became a role model. I wrote it as a screenplay and included analyses and connections with the literature. I truly enjoyed writing it.

NOW THAT YOU’VE EARNED YOUR TERMINAL DEGREE, WHAT ARE YOUR CAREER GOALS?

FORBER-PRATT My work centers around my motto, “Dream, drive, do.” Those three words are how I live my life and how I shape everything I’m doing, whether that’s public speaking, working on my book, or engaging in conversations with kindergartners or corporate executives. It’s a mindset. I am also looking for a career that will allow me to continue doing research for minority populations I care so much about. Wherever my career takes me, I want to be actively involved in service and policy. Through those avenues, I can truly make a difference.

HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE A ROLE MODEL?

FORBER-PRATT I have role models I look up to. [Paralympian] Jean Driscoll is one of those role models for me, and it’s an incredible feeling to know that I am that person for others. When I was competing in the London 2012 Paralympic Games, two of my competitors were also my mentees. The fact that they were there with me on the starting line was incredible. That’s what it is to be a role model: to continue to nurture a relationship through the excitement and the frustrations and help people reach their fullest potential.

MANY OF OUR READERS ARE BUSY PROFESSIONALS AND PARENTS. WHAT ADVICE YOU CAN SHARE TO MOTIVATE THEM TO CONTINUE TO EFFECT SOCIAL CHANGE?

FORBER-PRATT Whenever you set out to achieve your dreams, there will always be obstacles, whether they are physical or you’re being pulled in multiple directions. It’s important to remember that obstacles are just opportunities in disguise. You have to keep your eye on the goal. We all are agents of change. I hope Walden alumni and students realize the power of their education; it will open so many doors and empower you to be a change agent.