Program Profile

Feature Issue on Disability Rights, Disability Justice

EmpowHering Through Interdependence


Sophie Poost is director of programs at Disability EmpowHer Network in Rochester, New York.

Two campers, one wearing a blue baseball cap backwards and the other wearing a gray sweatshirt, look over their shoulders while sitting in a colorful activity room.

Program participants enjoy an EmpowHer Roc activity. Photo courtesy of Disability EmpowHer Network.

After spending years living and working in the disability community and feeling frustrated at the prioritizing and centering of disabled men’s experiences, Stephanie Woodward and Leah Smith began to discuss their dreams to start an organization that centered on the lives and experiences of women with disabilities. They had both seen the limited research, which showed that disabled girls* have lower self-cognition and self-esteem and are more likely to experience depression, isolation, and abuse. They knew that women and girls with disabilities have fewer educational opportunities and higher rates of unemployment and low earnings, and that disabled women experienced more overprotection during childhood, more domestic violence, and had less access to positive representation.

It took a global pandemic and the death of disability justice leader and activist Stacey Park Milbern in May 2020 to push Woodward and Smith to make their dreams reality. In November 2020, they founded Disability EmpowHer Network, with plans for a year-long leadership and mentorship program for teenage girls with different types of disabilities. Disability EmpowHer Network has now served more than 400 women and girls with disabilities nationwide through seven different programs, and expanded from an entirely volunteer organization to a professional staff of six disabled women.

The non-profit organization connects, motivates, and guides disabled girls and women to grow, learn, and develop to their highest potential and to have the confidence to lead. We are a cross-disability organization run by and for disabled girls and women. We also welcome the participation, support, and love of trans and gender-diverse people in our spaces and programming. Our programs offer participants (or leaders, as we prefer to call them) mentoring and transformational learning experiences. In all of our programs, we focus on creating space for people with different kinds of disabilities to push past stigmas and stereotypes and dismantle the disability hierarchy with every interaction. We remind everyone that no matter what you can and cannot do, as a community, we can meet everyone’s needs through interdependence and advocacy. Throughout all of our programs, our team actively recruits a diverse array of women and girls with disabilities from different races, religions, sexual orientations, gender identities, and disability types. We want to foster communities where women and girls who often feel unheard, especially those with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), feel not only included but empowered to lead in our spaces. We encourage women and girls with disabilities to advocate and speak for themselves when often their parents, service providers, or care coordinators speak for and over them.

Three women, all wearing glasses, with one holding a microphone and looking at a piece of paper held by her colleague. The third woman sits at a table making a sandwich.

Sophie Poost and colleagues during a women’s retreat. Photo courtesy of Disability EmpowHer Network.

Our program work started with EmpowHer Camp, a year-long, multi-stage skill-building, empowerment, and mentoring program for girls and nonbinary teenagers with disabilities. EmpowHer Camp consists of a week of camping in the Adirondacks, followed by a year-long community impact project focused on emergency preparedness that each young leader completes with support from a disabled woman mentor. Then, a week-long reunion trip to Washington, D.C. during the following summer completes the experience. Since EmpowHer Camp was launched in 2021, 16 young leaders with various disabilities have made their mark on their community and, in turn, graduated. In our first two years of the program, we have been proud to see 100% of our young leaders complete their projects and graduate from the program. The results created by these young leaders and their projects cannot be understated. Each has addressed vital issues in their communities, from writing social stories about floods to helping people with IDD prepare for emergencies, to advocating for school districts to install emergency evacuation chairs. Each project, like each young leader, is unique and created based on that young leader’s interests, skillset, and personal community. They show just how each person’s disability, whether it be physical, intellectual, psychiatric, or something else, can give them a perspective that will help them be stronger leaders for their communities.

In addition to EmpowHer Camp, we offer six other programs addressing differing needs for disabled women and girls. EmpowHer Expressions is our virtual, eight-week public speaking program that teaches communication and leadership skills through weekly class meetings and 1-on-1 mentorship. Letter from a Role Model is our mentoring initiative that matches women and girls with disabilities (ages 8 -100) with a successful disabled woman to write them a letter of encouragement. We also provide two in-person programs, EmpowHer Roc and EmpowHer Roc+, in Rochester, New York, where our organization is based. These two programs offer monthly group meet-ups for disabled girls (EmpowHer Roc) and disabled women (EmpowHer Roc+), where they learn new skills, find new social connections and are supported by disabled women mentors to pursue their goals. In collaboration with the Christopher & Dana Reeves Foundation, we uplift the stories and perspectives of women with paralysis in our blogging program, EmpowHer Stories. And one of our favorite partnerships is with the Toledo Museum of Art, which collaborates with us each June for Disabled Women Make History and Art, an art show featuring pieces by disabled women artists with workshops for the artists to help them successfully market themselves and their art.

All of our programs have vastly different goals, commitments, and participants, but they all help women create the confidence to reach higher and provide the mentorship and support to know they are not alone. At our core, we focus on teaching women with disabilities of all ages to value their perspectives and ideas and to use those to advocate for what they want. We are firmly rooted in the saying “Nothing About Us Without Us” and are guided by the wants and needs of the people involved with our programs, whether learning about their rights or how to cook without a stove. We focus on the women in front of us and how we can help them reach their full potential and create a space where they can just be people. That is our justice.

Editor’s Note: The Disability EmpowHer Network uses both identity-first and person-first language.