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  • Larissa Martin

Disability Advocate Taking the South by Storm with New Nonprofit

I pride myself on being an advocate of many things including disability rights and justice. As a person with multiple disabilities, being an advocate for yourself and telling your story your way is important, so others can’t create a narrative about who you are and what you’re all about. That was exactly Vicki Kelly’s thinking when she put her three young triplet sons — Dom, Sean, and Paul, all diagnosed with cerebral palsy — in front of a room full of high school students to talk about their disability. That was Dominic Kelly’s first taste of disability advocacy but it would most certainly not be his last.

Since then he has had a pretty impressive resume with Stacy Abrams for her organization, Fair Fight, where he was both strategic advisor for disability and senior fundraising manager. Then when Abrams was running to become governor of Georgia, Dom worked on her campaign continuing his work as senior advisor for disability and also took on the role of Georgia Fundraising Director. I recently was given the opportunity to talk with Dom about his new nonprofit organization New Disabled South and what it is all about.

Larissa: What inspired you to start New Disabled South and what is it, for people that don’t know?

Dominic: New Disabled South is a disability rights and disability justice organization working in 14 Southern states. We’re the first regional disability organization in the United States, and we are working to create both policy change and narrative change around disability in the South. I started working on my idea for New Disabled South three years ago, and over that time, the idea evolved. I knew that we needed to build power in our community and that the same old things weren’t working, but I wanted to make sure that we could bring our folks together rather than continue to work in silos. Disabled people in the South face the disproportionate impacts of systems of oppression, and the vast majority of those people are BIPOC. I knew we needed to take that regional perspective and bring everyone to the table in order to best create change and achieve justice and liberation for our community.

Larissa: What is New Disabled South Rising? Can you tell me a little more about that and how it correlates with New Disabled South?

Dominic: New Disabled South (NDS) is a 501(c)(3), and New Disabled South Rising (NDSR) is a 501(c)(4). While they are legally two separate entities, we are really one organization with two different arms. NDS is where the core of our work happens, but NDSR allows us to do things like unlimited lobbying, political organizing, and more. We aren’t as restricted with what we can do with NDSR funding as we are with NDS funding. They are two different vehicles driving toward the same goal!

Larissa: As a fairly new organization why is the home-based community service such a top priority for you?

Dominic: Home and community-based services (HCBS) are critical for our community to realize our vision of a country where we can live independently and freely. It’s what the Independent Living Movement was created for, and yet so many disabled people still are being forced into nursing homes and institutions. With Medicaid, we have what’s called the institutional bias when it comes to long-term care; that means that you are guaranteed institutionalization, but you’re not guaranteed care in your home. HCBS waivers through Medicaid mean that people can get that care in their homes and communities. Growing up as a kid with cerebral palsy, my brothers and I needed services at home and my parents relied on Medicaid to get them for us. Millions of people are in the same boat right now, waiting for 10, 15, and sometimes 20 years just to get the funding they need. We are committed to this issue because it’s critical to our work to help lift disabled people in the South out of poverty and achieving justice for all of us.

Larissa: You are a huge disability advocate. I know it is important to you to staff your organization and board with people that have different disabilities. Can you tell me what that looks like for your organization? And how that separates you from other disability rights organizations, whether that be  pay, work, environment, etc.?

Dominic: Both our entire staff and our entire governing board are made up of disabled people. This is a non-negotiable for me as a leader because our community often doesn’t get these kinds of opportunities. I am sure there are other disability organizations who prioritize disabled people as staff and board members, but to me we had to commit to both being 100% disabled. Our advisory council is mixed with both disabled and nondisabled people, but the day-to-day staff and governing decision makers are disabled, and that to me is critical to achieving our goals and ensuring we reach the community we serve.

Larissa: What is your hope for New Disabled South a year from now? Five years from now?

Dominic: One year from now, I hope to see New Disabled South in a completely stable position, having grown to a fuller staff, and being able to point to a number of tangible wins that we can be celebrating. Additionally, I plan to start a national organization with a chapter organization for every region in the country, and five years from now I plan to be getting that off the ground.

Larissa: What do you hope people can learn and take away from your organization and from your work?

Dominic: I hope that disabled people in the South find their political home with us. I hope they feel like there’s a real chance for them to not only be involved in organizing efforts in their community, but for their voices to be heard by those in power. We want to elevate the most impacted in our community, and we want people to feel empowered to tell their stories and demand more from their elected officials

Larissa: Where can people find you and what can people do if they want to be involved in this work that you’re doing?

Dominic: They can go to New Disabled South and New Disabled South Rising, or check out or New Disabled South Facebook page. To find out more, and if they’d like to volunteer, they should go to the Contact Us page on New Disabled South to sign up. We need all the help we can get.

 

I often wonder what the future of disability advocacy looks like without our iconic Judy Heumann and Lois Curtis’s of the world, and I can tell you that yes they paved the way for many of us disability advocates, but the work this one of this kind organization and that Dom Kelly are doing is changing the way advocacy efforts are done. They are showing the rest of society what disabled people can do when given the opportunity, what is possible, and what the future holds for the disability rights/justice movement. More importantly, their work is effectively creating impactful change that will better the disability community and society as a whole.




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