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Disabled Lives Matter

Season 1, Episode 13

Co-Hosts: Nadine Vogel & Norma Stanely

Guest: Bonnie St. John

Intro: [Music playing in background] Disabled Lives Matter… here we go!

Voiceover: Hello and welcome to this week’s episode of the disabled lives matter podcast with co-hosts Nadine Vogel and Norma Stanely... yay!

Nadine Vogel: Hello, hello everyone, this is Nadine Vogel your co-host of disabled lives matter, and of course I am with my co-host Norma.

Norma Stanely: Great. Hi everybody, it's been great to be here and I’m so excited about today's show.

Nadine Vogel: Me to, because we have, and let me, let me just say this, we have what others have said, one of the most five, no, one of the five most inspiring women in America and this woman I’ve known a really long time, and let me just tell you ditto ditto ditto so with that Bonnie St. John. Hey Bonnie, how are you.

Bonnie St. John: I’m great thank you what a great topic.

Nadine Vogel: I said an important topic, and one that we can't do without you so let's just get right into it um you had a I think it was your right leg amputated at age five.

Bonnie St. John: That's right, it was a birth defect, so the growth was stunted before that I had braces, so I never had a normal leg, I was in and out of hospitals from the time I was born, you know, up until I was 18 I had surgeries and spent months at a time in the hospital so yeah.

Nadine Vogel: So, let's just start right with a bang right. That happens yet you've become you became the first African American ever to win medals in winter Olympic competition, you took home, I believe, a silver and two bronze medals in the 84 winter Paralympics. How the heck, oh see look hey isn’t that cool.

Bonnie St. John: So, for those of you who are listening I’m waving my medals at them.

Nadine Vogel: Waving her metals and if I could reach and grab them I would but since I can’t, so Bonnie how did that happen, how do you go from being a five-year-old who has your leg amputated to this medal winning athletes.

Bonnie St. John: So, I’m black and there weren't a lot of black skiers and I had one leg, but I went into sports, which is a lot more normal now than it was back when I was doing it, which was a few decades ago. It was not a normal thing, but one of the hardest parts about that whole story is my family had no money you know it's hard to ski on one leg is really hard to see with no money. I had to raise money, I had to my end we were in San Diego my mother stayed in San Diego the whole time I had to find a way to get to Vermont and to find a way to get to Colorado. I spent a couple of summers on a glacier in Oregon. I had to find my own apartments my own airline tickets the money you know it's like if you are going into sports as a boy and football and you're good you're going to get recruited you're going to get taken places you're going to nobody's recruiting one legged black skiers in San Diego. I had to find my own resources and get my own self there.

Norma Stanely: wow.

Bonnie St. John: It’s a crazy story, isn’t it Norma. It’s a lunatic story.

Norma Stanely: What a blessing that you were able to find a gift, how did you know that you would be a skier did you always have a goal to ski is that something just came about because you just decided to try it.

Bonnie St. John: So, a friend of mine in high school Barbara Warmat invited me to go skiing with her family over Christmas vacation she gave me a coupon stick notebook paper and threw up a coupon for one week of skiing. And now, so she invited me, but I needed special equipment, so I had seen Teddy Kennedy Jr on TV skiing and he had those little outriggers right, so I knew I needed those, and I didn't have any winter clothes I’m from San Diego I didn't even have mittens you know nothing. And so, I got a pair of Ski pants from the Salvation Army. Because I again, I had no money and I, and they didn't have a jacket that fit me, but I found one at Kmart in the same color as the pants which was a scary color. And I hunted around for the equipment, but I finally ended up borrowing it from the President of a club of amputees that skied so I had to be resourceful I had to be very entrepreneurial. To be able to even go skiing and then, when I went with barb poor barb you know she could have skied anywhere on the mountain right, but I was on the bunny hill falling and falling and falling and falling I wasn't even moving anywhere.

Norma Stanely: Wow. That’s tenacity.

Bonnie St. John: It took me three days, so you have to understand anybody who's listening if you've been skiing you know you snowplow right, they tell the kids pizza pie right it's a snowplow when you need to slow down well if you're on one ski you can't pizza pie, there ain’t no pizza pie for one leg. So, I, so I had to learn how to turn you know do a hockey stuff to be able to slow down it took me three days to learn how to do that because I couldn't pizza pie. So for the first three days I couldn't stop I was on the bunny he'll just crashing into men, women and children.

Nadine Vogel: You didn't discriminate who you ran into.

Bonnie St. John: No. There was this one woman, I remember I slammed into her and knocked her down and she's looking up at me and she says, I only have one leg, and she says I’m sorry.

Norma Stanely: She got in your way.

Bonnie St. John: She felt bad.

Nadine Vogel: That's right well bonnie you know it's interesting because we were talking in a in a previous show about role models. And that you know the children today who have disabilities, whether they are born with them, they acquire them, they need role models. And, and you are that role model right because you show that nothing is impossible and to that end, you know for those listening so not only is Bonnie you know, but an award also winning medal winning skier. She served as the White House director of National Economic Council during the Clinton administration; you had a Rhodes scholarship I think to Oxford while you were going to school at Harvard, so you know you, you're such an underachiever I just.

Bonnie St. John: it's funny it's funny you say that because I went back to the hospital, where I had my leg amputated to talk to some of the kids that were in the hospital, I told them all these stories like what you're saying Olympic medals Harvard and stuff. And at the end of my speech, there was a mother there who was with her son and he was badly burned over 90% of his body. And she said to me that her question to me was yes all that's really great, but will my son lead a normal life. And I kind of froze up in that moment, because I, you know I just like I didn't know what to say. Will my son live a normal life, I finally blurted out no, aim higher, aim higher. And so, you know I didn't get a normal life, but I did extraordinary things and I think as a disabled child, you often just wish and hope for a normal life, I tried so hard to be like the other kids and I really confused in my head the difference between normal and perfect.

Norma Stanely: Yes.

Bonnie St. John: I thought that normal kids are perfect so, for example, like kicking a soccer ball. I was kicking a soccer ball in the backyard with my brother and I, and I finally got so frustrated I said Wayne I can't, I can't make the ball go where I want you to have a rubber foot, because I stand on my real foot and I could kick with my fake foot and I said I can't my fake foot can't control the ball I don't I can't control where it's going to go this is this is hopeless, and he looked at me and he said everybody has trouble controlling where the ball goes. And so, I often confused normal with perfect. I thought, people with two feet can make the ball go wherever they want it to. Well, no it's not like that, so there were so many things like that in my head that I thought normal people were perfect and normal is not perfect normal is way overrated you know so for disabled people aspiring to be normal is crazy don't aspire to be normal, be great.

Norma Stanely: Amen.

Nadine Vogel: Well, it's all about perspective.

Norma Stanely: That's right.

Nadine Vogel: It’s about perspective and how your perspective is or changes, and you know Norma, like me, you know we have adult children with disabilities, and you know our perspectives are different because of our roles in our kids’ lives different than you know our daughters’ lives. And I think that it's something that you know it's about making shift in perception and making shifts into your point, what's acceptable what's normal what's better than what's typical you know words matter.

Norma Stanely: Yes.

Nadine Vogel: Words create images, and we act on those images. So, bonnie you know, one of the things that you do fast forward a little bit today is you're a leadership expert. And you train leaders in corporations and other organizations, so when you're doing that, how do you convey to them how these words matter, especially as leaders.

Bonnie St. John: And are you thinking about words about people with disabilities or.

Nadine Vogel: It could be anything could be anything.

Bonnie St. John: it's funny to Norma and I are both black to and the word for black has changed so much over time right, we were negro we were colored we were Afro American, which is a hairstyle.

Norma Stanely: Absolutely.

Bonnie St. John: Then it went to African American which was kind of interesting because then it's like you say Polish American or Chinese American it was like oh yeah let's say where you're where you're from on the planet, that makes sense, but then that stopped working because corporations that have international people kept saying African American.

Norma Stanely: Right, I’m from the Caribbean.

Bonnie St. John: So yeah, so we went kind of back to basic black.

Norma Stanely: That was the same thing with the disability community because Special Needs was something that everybody said then differently abled.

Bonnie St. John: Back to disability. I went to the UAE and when I landed, they have a term oh now I’m not gonna be able to remember when in the airport there's a special line, and it has the picture of the symbol, with the wheelchair, but it says it says something different. Do you remember what it says Nadine, It says like people with special abilities or something.

Nadine Vogel: Yeah, it did, they have one in India as well same the same thing.

Bonnie St. John: And I loved it and I took a picture of it and I sent it to my friends who are who are in the disability community and they hated it.

Nadine Vogel: Right.

Bonnie St. John: And they said, you know that's like a euphemism that's like you know and I’m plus, I think, because we've worked so hard to imbue the word disability with power and interest in diversity it's sort of like don't take that away from us we've worked really hard to empower that word.

Nadine Vogel: Absolutely, so you know if you're talking to business leaders and they are interested in maybe hiring individuals with disabilities or they have individuals with disabilities in the workplace, which we know they do, even if they think they don't. And they're wondering how best to communicate at a level that's appropriate and nondiscriminatory and then, when I say nondiscriminatory I don't mean from a compliance standpoint but from an inclusive standpoint, what is it Bonnie that you would share with them.

Bonnie St. John: I guess, I guess, one of the things that is good is, if you have ERGs to start an ERG or affinity groups, whatever you call them business resource groups to start one for people with disabilities. And you know, the etiquette is to say, people with disabilities, not disabled people but because we're you wouldn't say a cancer, you know you say a person with cancer right so it's a person with a disability. So, if you can start a group an affinity group for that you can get them to start discussing what words do you want to use what feels comfortable in our culture and so they let them be self-determining. Now, what I’ve heard from a lot of companies, is they like these groups to sort of spontaneously start somebody comes in and says, I want to start the group, and then they say we don't make group start, we just support what's there and often the disability group never starts. And it could be because people are covering it up people don't feel comfortable so you're sort of asking for the chicken or the egg well until a group forms and people get more comfortable nobody wants to raise their hand and say they have a disability and everybody's hiding it so waiting, whereas like that policy might work great for the women's group let's get the women to start it. But it's not necessarily going to work well for the people with disabilities group, you may need to go out and make sure it starts and that could be a comment on your culture to if people don't even feel comfortable enough in your culture to start the group to say, well, you better start the group that's not really a good way to address it.

Nadine Vogel: Absolutely, and I think that you know that that goes back to, and we have these conversations about corporate culture and people's comfort right with just difference in general and leaders have to be comfortable with difference, including Oh, by the way, leaders with disabilities, which we could have right it doesn't matter. Right, the person with the disability is not always the entry level person. We have to go to commercial break, but what I want to do when we come back Bonnie, I want to talk a little bit about and go back to the Olympics little bit and talk about the museum the Olympic Paralympic museum, because I think that's pretty cool and I’m not sure if enough people know about this yet.

Norma Stanely: I certainly didn't, I would love to hear more about it.

Nadine Vogel: Okay, so, ladies and gentlemen, we'll be back in just a minute with St. John


Nadine Vogel: Well, hello everyone and welcome back to disabled lives matter, not just a podcast but a movement. Norma and I are here today with Bonnie St john and having an amazing conversation about so many different topics. Bonnie let's talk a little bit about this, what I think most people don't know this new Olympic Paralympic museum.

Bonnie St. John: So, it's in Colorado Springs and it is really exciting what what's kind of exciting to me, is it is the first time we've had an Olympic Museum in the US, so it is, it is showing all of the history of the Olympics in the US and our Olympic teams and athletes and everything. But it was created as an Olympic and Paralympic museum. And the US Olympic Committee actually rebranded themselves as the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee and the museum is yeah and it's so funny, I’m so for years it's been the usoc it's hard for me to say the USO PC. But I love that the museum never got built until that real alignment had happened, and so they're not retrofitting Paralympians into the museum It is everything is just done that way and there's some really great multimedia stuff too like there's a segment where you can run a race against an Olympian so it's like you're in a you get in a starting block and you run, and they have a video of the Olympian or Para Olympian an literally run against you.

Norma Stanely: That’s awesome.

Bonnie St. John: I mean there's so much cool stuff there, so my joy, the fun part for me is I yeah, I got to be one of the voices in the museum when you walk around and like you push a button and it tells you about the exhibit some of the exhibits, you're going to hear my voice so it's me.

Norma Stanely: Very cool.

Bonnie St. John: The other person who does it so it's half me and half this other person who is john neighbor he's male and female he's white I’m black he's like six foot seven and I’m five to. Because he's a swimmer are tall because they can reach the other end of the pool faster right and he's a summer athlete and I’m a winter athlete so we're like as different as you can be and so the diversity in that museum is just incredible. And you get to hear the different voices yeah, I would totally encourage you to go.

Norma Stanely: Definitely want to check that out.

Nadine Vogel: Yeah, what I love about it as you're describing it is while the diversity is amazing what I’m taking away from it is the inclusion.

Bonnie St. John: Inclusion Oh, and that means, that's built into everything so as you're going through the museum to, the way you, you can I guess you can listen, or you can do Braille on the exhibit everything's very inclusive in the way it's designed it’s in what do you call that inclusive design.

Norma Stanely: Universal Design.

Bonnie St. John: Universal Design, thank you it's so again because they only opened it unfortunately, they opened it during the middle of the pandemic I have not actually been there myself yet, but um but it's because it's done now it's very now so it's very inclusive it's universal design it's so great.

Nadine Vogel: And Bonnie you are telling us about a documentary on Netflix I think it’s called rising.

Bonnie St. John: Rising phoenix yeah so go on Netflix and watch rising phoenix and it's a documentary about the Paralympics and they feature several athletes and I remember one of them is a Slavic I don't know if she's Russian who immigrated here and she's dispensing but she's both of her arms are somewhat amputated and she sits in a wheelchair and does fencing But she is stunningly beautiful and she's scarred on her face too, but beautiful the way and you realize that beauty is about the way you carry yourself. Because she carries herself like I am the most badass beautiful woman you have ever seen. And then there's a black man who was in a war zone that he grew up in and has a disability and he runs track and the photography in this thing is so incredible they show him doing a long jump in the sand coming up in slow motion and it's just it's luscious photography it's a great story, and then they do some background things where they go into the start of the Paralympics and how that got going and what some of the history is and it's just a great I watched it with my whole family, and you know, even though I’ve been in Paralympics we all learned a lot to. I highly recommend rising senior trip camp, we were talking about kripke camp to, great piece of information about the history of some of the people who became leaders in the disability rights movement. And sort of how they got empowered as children going to these camps, and I think that opportunity to have exposure when you're a teenager to other people with disabilities is really important. I started skiing at about 15 and that was the first time I was around a lot of people with disabilities and as you're forming your identity and your sense of self-worth and all that that was really important to me and those memories came back watching that that you know is that for them, they were going to camp and doing sports, for me, I was going skiing and doing sports and meeting people with all kinds of disabilities arms legs wheelchairs it was very empowering.

Nadine Vogel: We definitely have to go back and watch.

Bonnie St. John: We're giving people homework here.

Nadine Vogel: I know, I know, but it's important homework. So, you know, in the time we have left bonnie I want to also touch on and go back to what I said before that. You know you travel the globe you're a keynote speaker business owner you're an author of seven books on you train as a leadership expert with blue you have your company's blue circle leadership. You know what's interesting for me is some of the folks is that we talked to they think you know I have disabilities and therefore I work in the field of disability. You have disabilities but you don't really work in the field of disability, which I think illustrates a really important point. That just because you have a disability, does not mean that's where you have to do your work and whether it's nonprofit for profit, you are an amazing contributor to today's corporate leaders talk to us a little bit about that, please.

Bonnie St. John: Thank you and I agree with you and I celebrate the people with disabilities who work in the field of disability, we need you there too. But you're right we don't have to be limited to that we have lots of ways to contribute, and so our company blue circle leadership does leadership development. And our sweet spot that we were we really went deep into was multicultural women in corporate America. So about five years ago, we started delivering a ot of virtual leadership training programs for people for multicultural women. And we expanded on that that is really grown and now we have programs that have multicultural men in them, we have programs, we have one now that has its for ERG leaders, so we have LGBT we have people with disabilities, we have men, women veterans everything, so it but being able to deliver virtual leadership development, especially during the pandemic became a really important option for people and we were really good at it, because we had been doing it for years. It allows you to provide customized training. Oh, another thing we do is leadership development for women in tech, you know, so we do we do very specialized things to address special needs, special needs and people and leadership and so getting to do that is really gratifying and we've had to push the barriers on a lot of technology I’ve had to hire a lot of programmers. We hire people who facilitators in addition to me so accessing a lot of experts in different areas to package together, something that really helps companies to grow and leverage their people.

Nadine Vogel: That’s so important that Norma and I have even had conversations about you know, helping leaders lead. And that’s what you do.

Bonnie St. John: Actually, what's interesting too is during this whole year of the pandemic and black lives matter. You know, first of all, the virtual became very important because we were all in lockdown and then during the black lives matter social justice movement, the fact that we were really equipping minorities to be successful became an important part of the conversation. And we had alumni Association for everybody who's been through our programs and the alumni association during 2020 started doing these safe space conversations because we were finding our grads were really getting stressed during the social justice movement because their companies were shoving them out front like oh here you explained it or hear you. And they were in pain, you know, and we had a lot going on during that so we were giving them support so that they could help their companies to meet the challenge and so yeah, it's been really rewarding work that we get to do.

Nadine Vogel: Well and I think that you know, your most recent book right micro resilience, you know you talk about how you can make small changes small shifts that will have a major impact on your focus on your energy and that's something I think we all needed before the pandemic, but certainly while we're in it and beyond, more than ever, so these fabulous books.

Bonnie St. John: Thank you yeah, I’ve been doing a lot of speeches on micro resilience during the pandemic and it’s very evidence-based hacks so really small hacks that you can do that help your brain to be less exhausted, I know about you, but I’ve had so much brain fog in this whole quarantine pandemic thing and helping yourself to be have more energy and to be able to make better decisions. And to be rooted in purpose, one of the ways to stay resilient is to stay rooted in purpose and you know it's an easy thing to say, is yeah, I have a strong sense of purpose but how do you let purpose give you energy at three in the afternoon on a Tuesday when you're tired. So, giving people hacks operation a lot of hacks that you can take action on that help you to really draw on your resilience and increase your resilience.

Norma Stanely: Awesome I look forward to reading that book.

Nadine Vogel: Well, Norma, I don't think you should let it get away with just that I think you have to share one of those hacks with us and our listeners.

Bonnie St. John: Gosh there's a lot of fun hacks what one of them, and this one is so easy, you can do it with your team at work, but you can do with your family you do with your kids is to have a first aid kit for your attitude. You can make your own first aid kit, and this is something you know you can do as a team building event. And to think about you know what is it that would help you turn your attitude around and people put chocolate in our you can put in you know, inspiring pictures or quotes or something like that. I have a note that my mother gave me that says cherish yourself and she had that old fashioned penmanship. My mother passed away a number of years ago, but it says cherish yourself and my mother, she had to go to segregated schools, so she lived she grew up in Florida, and she had to walk past the beautiful school for white kids and go another mile to the rundown school with no textbooks for black kids. So, I know I get chills when I say this, she went on to get her PhD and to become an educator and to turn around some of the ghetto schools that that were you know not working for kids. And so, it was like and she said she was interviewed in many newspapers and she said it's like getting to go back to that rundown school, I was forced to go to and make it better. And so, when I see that note that says cherish yourself, you know it's like whatever you're dealing with today, you can kind of put that in perspective and say so, what can you put in your first aid kit that would help you to get perspective on you know okay, so my computer is having problems today, I can do it, I can deal with that right.

Nadine Vogel: So, you know I went to college in the south, so when you said that I was thinking well, maybe like a nice jug of some southern moonshine.

Bonnie St. John: Put it in perspective, you know, this is my first aid kit, Emergency moonshine.

Nadine Vogel: I gotta take a picture and send it to you.

Bonnie St. John: What would you put in your first aid kit, Norma.

Norma Stanely: You know um I don't know probably like you say some quotes I love quotes food I’m a foodie something that I love to eat I don't know I really don't know.

Bonnie St. John: My faith is important to me to and fun fact Nadine we were talking about Barbara Warmath who invited me to go skiing for the first time. One of the side benefits gifts of the pandemic is I’ve been going to church with Barbara so she lives in Chattanooga Tennessee but she's going to virtual church in North Carolina. So she invited me to go to the same so we're going to virtual church services together this wonderful church that has really interesting people and I get to see Barbara Warmath on a Sunday.

Nadine Vogel: Very cool and I, you know and going back to you know the note from your mom I mean it sounds like you know what she's saying is it doesn't matter what happens to you in life it's what you do with it. What you make of it.

Norma Stanely: Always.

Nadine Vogel: How you believe in yourself that really matters and.

Bonnie St. John: And she really struggled with it too it's not like she was just like Pollyanna like okay we're positive you know. If we're going to get real here, she was actually suicidal at various points, you know she had a lot of depression, but she fought it and struggled to stay positive and so I’m sorry I interrupted you.

Norma Stanely: Look what she did with you and help you then become what you became.

Nadine Vogel: Absolutely, you know and it's you know it's funny I as you were saying about you love quotes and so forth, one of the things that I never thought of it is my first aid kit but It has been in my wallet since my older daughter, since the second day of her birth and it's a poem called welcome to Holland written by Emily Pearl Kinsley she was a writer on sesame street when her son was born severely disabled. And my daughter with Gretchen was in the NICU for three months, and they assigned you know, a, I guess, a call it like a peer mentor someone who went through this and she handed me that poem and it had stayed in my wallet. And I share it I copy it is okay Emily gave you permission to put it in like gazillions of places thankfully. And but at the end of the day, what it is, is that you know you plan to the trip to Italy. Your child's born with disabilities, you find yourself in Holland you can't ever go to Italy, and your grief with that you can't but what you learn as a Holland is a beautiful place. Windmills and tulips and you really come to appreciate it and I probably put that poem at least once a day, here we are almost 30 years after she was born.

Norma Stanely: I’ll have you share that at my Mother’s Day event.

Nadine Vogel: So, Bonnie, oh my gosh you know I could talk to you for ever and ever and ever, and so we will have to have you back so we can talk more, but I think that you so clearly illustrate the purpose that we have here with this podcast which is disabled lives matter.

Bonnie St. John: Thank you, thank you for doing this.

Nadine Vogel: For helping us make us this a movement and for all our listeners take to heart everything Bonnie said, because you too can make a difference whether for yourself a family member or friend a Coworker, because disabled lives do matter.

Norma Stanely: Absolutely.

Nadine Vogel: So, Norma, take us out.

Norma Stanely: it's been another great show thank you guys and we look forward to talking with you again very soon.

Bonnie St. John: This was great you guys, bye.

Norma Stanely: Thank you talk to you soon.

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55 episodes