They were all women living with physical disabilities and they gathered together to learn, connect and share on a deeper level than is rarely afforded them individually, if at all. Co-hosted by United Spinal Association and Independence Care Systems, the third annual free From Within conference, convened this year at the luxurious Marriot Marquis Hotel in Times Square to accommodate the expanding number of attendees (approximately 115), multiple vendors, speakers and workshop leaders.
Women of all ages and ethnicities arrived early at this Saturday event, meeting each other and interacting with vendors while enjoying a healthy continental breakfast of fresh fruits, coffee, tea and yes — also some sweet buns and bagels with a schmear; needed fuel for the active day that lay ahead.
“I never knew such an event existed,” remarked a young El Salvadorian woman named Fantasia Vasquez, who was brought to the conference by her friend Carmen Cruz, attending for the second time, both of whom live in New York City.
Ms. Cruz who uses a wheelchair due to rheumatoid arthritis said, “I feel good when I come here because I’m not the only one facing these
Shellaine Pointer, a 34-year-old woman living with Muscular Dystrophy, was also attending the conference for the first time. She came from Staten Island for information and fellowship. “It’s hard to find the time to have an intimate conversation with women like myself, because at therapy, people have a time limit,” she said. “I’m here because improving the quality of my life is important.”
Spiriting the day off to a start with humor and a ‘can do’ attitude, was the morning speaker Luticha Andre Doucette, disability rights advocate and co-founder of RocCity Young Professionals with Disabilities––a group based in Rochester, NY.
A wheelchair user since the age of 2 due to a car accident, Ms. Doucette sports a Mohawk hairstyle that reinforces her diverse interests in health, sports and fashion. An accomplished researcher in the field of structural biology at the Rochester Institute of Technology, she also enjoys fencing and sport wheelchair racing.
“It is my disability and all these  years of being disabled that have helped me be a better scientist,” Ms. Doucette said. “By seeing things differently, by experiencing the world differently, and so I can bring that aspect to my science …and hopefully make some differences in people’s lives,” she added.
The attendees came out of the banquet room starting gate, charging at full speed toward the first of many workshops designed to empower women toward a better quality of life. These women were on a mission and their enthusiasm was contagious.
The workshops offered information on intimate topics ranging from sexuality, breast and gynecological wellness and bladder control, to more straight forward and practical subjects such as access to healthcare, disability benefits, yoga and music therapy.
Eva Margot Kant, LCSW led a packed room in a discussion about sexuality, sensuality and intimacy. While breaking down myths about sex and women with physical disabilities, she stated “every person has a right to sex and sensuality,” as well as noting “everyone desires to be touched.” This writer must confess to taking copious notes during this workshop, as the information presented frequently applied to people without disabilities as well.
During lunch Diane Purnell, a middle-aged woman using a wheelchair, felt comfortable sharing that she found the workshop informative and on target. “We are all sexual beings,” she said and “having a physical disability does not mean you stop being a sexual person.”
Rarely would one find a free conference presenting the caliber of lunch with table-side assistance that was provided by the hosts of “From Within”. With fine foods catering to most anyone’s preferences, many availed themselves of the chocolate and sweet desserts while listening to the afternoon keynote address.
Ginny Thornburgh, this year’s From Within award honoree, serves as director of the Interfaith Initiative at the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) and in her long and distinguished career has been granted 11 honorary degrees. She is married to Dick Thornburgh, the former Governor of Pennsylvania and Attorney General of the United States.
Speaking with passion and gusto, Ms. Thornburgh, said people of faith “have a right to be welcomed in the house of worship of their choice.” She commented that in addition to physical barriers, there are attitudinal barriers that need to be addressed by religious congregations. For many, she said, “access to faith is just as important.”
The afternoon workshops came to a joyous conclusion with Latin Music pouring into the hotel hallway. A full blown Zumba dance-romp was being led by the eternally youthful Yvonne Puckett, a shapely and fit senior who teaches professionally. No spectators here. Everyone was shaking, clapping, and dancing exuberantly to the individual glory that they had each enabled from their power within.