You’re an incredibly strong advocate for disability rights. What are three things that you wish more people understood about people with disabilities?
Only three things – that’s tough! Here it goes though:
- Disability is Natural. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, a person with a disability has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. With this said, people with disabilities include people with autism, physical disabilities, learning disabilities, diabetes, cancer, recovering from addiction, hearing loss, blindness, arthritis, mental health conditions, and this list can continue and be quite expansive. We can be born with disabilities (like myself – I was born with cerebral palsy) or acquire our disabilities as we age. For example, our bodies naturally break down as we age and live long enough. Hence, disability is natural.
- Disability represents Diversity. Our disabilities do not define us as individuals; however, I do believe my cerebral palsy is simply one element of diversity that I possess as a Filipino-American. I embrace this fact and reality. The presence of disability may influence or impact how certain daily activities are conducted by people, but know this – disability impacts each individual differently. For example, one person’s experience with learning disabilities may have difficulties with reading comprehensive, while another person diagnosed with learning disabilities may have challenges with mathematics. Disability represents diversity, particularly if people are able to receive the appropriate supports and accommodations along the way. In the end, from my perspective, there is strength in diversity.
- Disability does not Discriminate. There are nearly 140,000 residents with disabilities living with the District of Columbia. Disability impacts our sisters, our brothers, our fathers, our mothers, our grandparents, our families and friends, our neighbors, our office mates, our boyfriends and girlfriends, our life partners, our loved ones, our veterans, our returned citizens. Disability does not pay attention to one’s social economic status, level of education, sexual orientation, race, gender, or creed. In other words, disability impacts all of us in one or fashion. Disability does not discriminate.
What has been your proudest moment?
I have several proud moments to speak on, like being elected as the student body president of my high school, receiving my Master’s degree from American University, or being married to my wife, Melissa, for nearly 4 years now. These are indeed amazing feats. However, recent experiences in 2017 would be deemed my “proudest moment”. Early in 2017, I was diagnosed with Stage 3 Cancer. This serious medical diagnosis was followed by months of extensive treatment of chemo-radiation and chemotherapy. With 2017 coming to an end, I underwent surgery to remove the remaining cancer. Through many loving thoughts and prayers from my wife, parents, family members, friends, and loved ones, after several months of healing and by the grace of God, I am now cancer-free. Yes, 2017 represented a long and amazing journey for me. It was long because of my experience with cancer. Yet, 2017 was amazing, as well. My wife and I became first-time homeowners by purchasing a condo in the District. And, Mayor Muriel Bowser appointed me as Director of the Office of Disability Rights – the Americans with Disabilities Act Compliance Office for the District Government – in June 2017. Looking back on the previous year, though my circumstances could have absolutely been devastating, I am still here, pushing forward and smiling. How’s that for the proudest moment?!
What has been your biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge or the greatest opportunity that presented itself to me at a very young age was my ability to feel comfortable in my own skin and view my disability not as a deficit but as a strength. I cannot hide my cerebral palsy, because it is a physical disability which impacts my ability to move and speak. However, my intellect, my analytical mind was not impacted. I was always fully integrated inside the classroom which included students without disabilities. This was great, but I was always the only student with a physical disability in class and it did not help that I was socially awkward too. Though these factors were challenges growing up, I wanted my peers to understand, respect, and accept me as Mathew McCollough and not the “stupid kid with disabilities.” As I entered into high school, I learned that first impressions really mattered to teenagers. Not only that, first impressions were usually developed and dictated by others who did not know me, and those impressions were usually entirely inaccurate and wrong. It’s funny how high school operates, right?! In order to gain respect and acceptance from my peers, I first had to take ownership of the type of person that I wanted to be in my young adult life. This included accepting the fact that I am a person with cerebral palsy, who is also highly analytical and capable, handsome, and charming. Finally, I came to the realization – I like the person that I have become and you see what you get, no more, no less.
As both a resident and leader in DC, what do you love most about the city?
I have been a resident of DC since 2001, and I love the diversity of people who live in this great city. I love the fact that I extensively walked many of the different streets in all eights wards attending community meetings and connecting with all those diverse residents. I love there is always something to do and it is relatively easy to get around in the city. This city appeals to me because I am a political and social justice junkie, a sports fan (Go Cubbies – sorry Nats fans!), performing arts and music fan, movie goer, museum exhibit observer, and foodie. What is not to love about this city?!
What is one thing that people may not know about you that you would like to share through this #AAPIVoicesDC campaign?
In 2011, I was appointed by President Barack Obama to serve on the United States Access Board, an independent Federal agency devoted to establishing accessibility standards that promote the full integration and participation of people with disabilities. In 2015, President Obama reappointed me to serve a second term on the U.S. Access Board. And yes, I have been fortunate to meet and shake the hands of President Obama and his wife, Michelle. How awesome is that?!
Mathew McCollough is the Director of the DC Office of Disability Rights.