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TSF Celebrates National Disability Employment Awareness Month

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October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. It is a time to celebrate the contributions of those with disabilities, including people with chronic conditions like Turner Syndrome (TS), who may have other physical or cognitive disabilities. The Turner Syndrome Foundation (TSF) would  also like to introduce you to Donna Russo, an inspiring woman, dancer, actor, and activist who is living with TS and also a form of muscular dystrophy.

National Disability Employment Awareness Month

Origins

We celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) each October to commemorate the many and varied contributions of people with disabilities to the U.S. workforce and economy. The theme for 2021 is “America’s Recovery: Powered by Inclusion” (U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy). This theme reflects the importance of ensuring that people with disabilities have full access to employment and community involvement during the national recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

NDEAM was declared in 1988 by the U.S. Congress for the month of October to raise awareness of the employment needs and contributions of individuals with all types of disabilities. 

U.S. Department of Labor

We observe NDEAM by paying tribute to the accomplishments of the individuals with disabilities whose work helps keep the nation’s economy strong and by reaffirming the commitment to ensure equal opportunity for all citizens.

In 2020, 17.9% of persons with a disability were employed, down from 19.3% in 2019. For persons without a disability, 61.8% were employed in 2020, down from 66.3% in the prior year.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

People with Disabilities in the U.S.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a person with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. This includes people who have a record of such an impairment, even if they do not currently have a disability. It also includes individuals who do not have a disability but are regarded as having one.

The ADA makes it illegal to discriminate against an individual because they have, have a record of, or are regarded as having a disability.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Census Bureau, as of 2019, one in four (25%) of U.S. adults and over 3 million children (4.3% of those under 18) lived with a disability. The most common types of disabilities are:

  • mobility (serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs);
  • cognition (serious difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions);
  • hearing (serious difficulty hearing);
  • vision (serious difficulty seeing);
  • independent living (difficulty doing errands alone); and
  • self-care (difficulty dressing or bathing).

Not all disabilities are visible or readily apparent. In simple terms, an invisible (or hidden) disability is a physical, mental, or neurological condition that is not visible from the outside, yet can limit or challenge a person’s movements, senses, or activities. Unfortunately, the very fact that these symptoms are invisible can lead to misunderstandings, false perceptions, and judgments.

Donna Russo's Story

During this National Disability Awareness Month, we would like to introduce you to TS butterfly Donna Russo and her inspiring story.

TS Diagnosis

I was diagnosed with TS at about 10 years old. My stature was always short, and as an adult, I am 4’5” tall. Size was always a concern for my parents, and they looked into possible reasons when I was between four and five years old. It took a while to get a diagnosis.

As a child, I had many ear infections, which caused a hearing loss in my left ear. My parents didn’t know this could be related to TS; they thought my hearing problem had been caused by the mumps. We later found out that hearing problems are common in individuals with TS.

Math and spatial relationships/sequencing were very hard for me. I am horrible with directions, and I had to ask for special help with math. This occurs with many, but not all, people with TS. I strongly suggest not hesitating to ask for help with any school subjects you or your child may be struggling with.

Donna Russo

Another Diagnosis

Donna Russo and dancer Scott Hislop

When I was in my late 40s, I was diagnosed with Facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD). This condition is a form of muscular dystrophy that most commonly causes progressive weakness of the face, upper arms, and shoulder regions, though symptoms can also affect the legs. The only thing that could have given me a clue that I had FSHD was that, when I was a little girl, I had to try to whistle as a Christmas doll in a play. I couldn’t

do it, as hard as I tried. I later learned that FSHD can affect facial muscles. As a little girl, I just thought I couldn’t whistle, and that was OK. The disease is caused by degeneration of muscle due to a missing chromosome in the person’s genes, much like TS. To learn more about FSHD, go to FSHsociety.org.

It is important to note that TS and FSHD are not related. Prior to being diagnosed with FSHD, I had danced since I was 10 years old. I was a serious student of ballet, jazz and modern dance. I graduated from Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania with a BA in dance. After college, I taught dance and aerobics classes in Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

I have also toured with shows such as “Alvin and the Chipmunks and the Magic Camera,” in which I played Alvin. I have toured with modern dance companies, as well. I’ve enjoyed playing many characters on film and television, such as ninjas, elves. aliens, dolls, robots, monsters, and also regular roles. With the character roles, my smaller size was to my advantage

"Donna on the Go"

One of the projects I am most proud of is our YouTube web series, “Donna on the Go,” which was created and executive produced by Peggy Lane. The show is a lighthearted view of the challenges that people with disabilities face. It conveys a poignant message through laughter. 

Peggy got the idea for the series one day when we went for a Target run. I have so much trouble using the electric cart. I’m petite, and my weight doesn’t register, so I have to sit on the edge of the seat. I keep bumping into things, and my cart doesn’t move sometimes when I press the button. It is so hard to grab things from the shelf when they’re up high. Peggy decided to film this to make me laugh. When we got home, we were hysterical. She thought we were onto something, and we were. Peggy is very talented, and she made the camera move when I came down the aisle. It turned out amazingly.

We have an episode called “Turner” that is devoted to TS. Jennifer Woods, my close friend and fellow TS butterfly, is in this episode, as well. You can learn more about “Donna on the Go” on the official website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Donna Russo and choreographer Tam Warner, whose work is highlighted in the series.
Scene from "Turner" episode of “Donna on the Go; Donna Russo (front), Jennifer Woods (behind Donna), JC Henning (back left), and Marbry Steward (back right)
Peggy Lane, creator and executive producer of "Donna on the Go"

What I Want People To Know about Living with TS and a Disability

People should understand that every individual with TS has different challenges. You can live a full and productive life with TS. We are teachers, dancers, lawyers, doctors, healthcare professionals, and much more.

People with disabilities have all kinds of jobs and do many things in real life. Our disability doesn’t define us; it is just part of who we are. Try to adapt to the changes that happen in life. Because of FSHD, I have learned to dance differently. Since dance is such a passion of mine, I adjusted the way I move. I dance the way I can, and for me, it’s healing. I still dance, and I will continue to as long as I can.

During NDEAM and all year, my hope is that we can make more people aware of and empathetic towards people with disabilities. We are not helpless, but you can ask us if we would like assistance. We have rich, unique life experiences and can bring so much to the table. 

© Turner Syndrome Foundation, 2021

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