There’s no stopping social worker and activist Jackie Jackson. She lobbies in Washington, DC, and Trenton, New Jersey’s state capital, for parking spaces, automatic doors, ramps — an end to any barriers that hinder people with disabilities from gaining access into public and private places. Education is equally important: “I believe if you change attitudes, it promotes inclusion and change,” she said. To that end, she regularly teaches sensitivity and etiquette workshops. For her work in making communities accessible, she was named by the National Association for Social Workers as the 2010 National Social Worker of the Year.
A wheelchair user, Jackie said she has struggled to be a regular consumer. “If I can’t get into the town hall and pay my sewer bill, that’s a problem. At some health-care facilities, exam tables aren’t accessible. That’s another problem,” she explained. “Accessibility means a lot for people with disabilities. It means the right to enter, to communicate and to use. My advocacy work is centered on accessibility because it fosters inclusion and independence. I strive to educate and empower society to treat people with disabilities with dignity and respect — to put the person first."
Seven years ago, Jackie initiated a project called Accessibility Tours, whose purpose is to educate and heighten awareness about barriers to accessibility in the community. She challenges public officials and community leaders, such as mayors and chiefs of police, to “roll with me. I provide manual wheelchairs and they ride around town and experience what I experience on a daily basis. It’s eye-opening for them. They become more willing to make changes.” In 2009, she partnered with the Society to lead tours of the New Jersey State House and in 2010, on the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, she was invited to the White House to witness President Obama signing an executive order increasing federal employment of individuals with disabilities. (Watch Jackie giving an Accessibility Tour and learn more about her advocacy.) She also sits on the boards of the Society’s New Jersey Metro Chapter and the National Association for Social Workers, where she chairs the Disability Special Interest group. Not only that, she’s currently pursuing a Masters of Divinity degree at the New Brunswick Theological Seminary, with the ultimate goal of a doctoral degree.
Jackie has two adult children, a son, Caliph, and a recently married daughter, Shahieda, who was diagnosed with MS in 2002. “When I see her struggle with some of the same symptoms I struggled with at her age, it’s very heartbreaking,” Jackie said.
As for Jackie’s MS, “I can be fine one day, then wake up the next and not be able to do anything but lie in bed,” she said. “But I don’t focus on my disease. I don’t let it defeat me. I just press on. You have to have a positive attitude — you can’t let MS take over your life.”
Especially when she has so many attitudes to change and barriers to demolish.