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"Disability Pride Month is important because it is one month out of the year where the largest minority group in this country can start raising awareness and having conversations. It’s important to me because it’s my life and it’s what I’m passionate about — not only personally, but professionally," says Sydney Clark.

Since growing up in Frankfort, Kentucky, every day still presents some challenges for alumna Sydney Clark.

She was born with a genetic condition that resulted in losing her vision over time. However, Sydney never allowed her disability to stop her from achieving her academic and professional goals, which was to attend the University of Kentucky and become a public health influencer and champion.

“I’ve always been passionate about disability and emergency preparedness,” says Sydney. “With 25% of our population having a disability, disabilities should not be an after-thought. They should be thought of beforehand.”

When she first enrolled at the University of Kentucky, many instructors were unaware of the resources and considerations needed for students who are blind. Fortunately, Sydney had a great support system at the UK College of Public Health that helped her navigate her way through a myriad of science courses and graduate.

“I loved everyone at the University of Kentucky and at the College of Public Health,” says Sydney. “The professors really care, and they all made a sincere effort in helping make classes more accessible.”

After graduating with her bachelor’s in public health (BPH) in 2017 from UK, Sydney then got her MPH at Western Kentucky University and did research on disability inclusion, and emergency and disaster preparedness.

Disability and Preparedness Specialist

After working as an epidemiologist for the state of Kentucky, Sydney is a Disability and Preparedness Specialist for the Tennessee Department of Health (TDH), which is a state agency with the mission of protecting and improving the health of people in the state of Tennessee.

“We are researching and bridging the gaps between disabilities and emergency preparedness every day,” says Sydney. “I’m excited to be collaborating and communicating with stakeholders that will help us give voice and solutions to those that sometimes are forgotten.”

Sydney is working on building partnerships with the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, which represents the public health agencies of all states in the U.S and the approximately 100,000 public health professionals those agencies represent.

Some projects Sydney is working on at TDH are creating a state-wide disability, functional and access needs work group. 

“These projects include a tips document for assisting people with functional and access means during emergencies and disasters,” says Sydney. “Furthermore, it contains different types of disabilities including visual impairment, DEF/heart of hearing, mobility impairment, autism spectrum disorder, children, and more."

"The purpose of this resource is for anyone to use it as a quick reference guide, to be able to look at, and have more knowledge on ways to assist more appropriately someone in a time sensitive situation," adds Sydney.

Sydney is also working on a Pictogram project, which involves creating a group of icons that can be used for communication in a public health situation, a point of dispensing, community reception center, and more.

“Maybe someone is deaf or hard of hearing, doesn’t speak English, or is nonverbal,” says Sydney. “Whatever the situation may be, this will be an alternative form of communicating if the traditional form is not the most efficient. We want this to eventually become a database of icons that can be customized for any situation and may be customized for specific populations based on need.” 

In addition, some of her other projects have included examining emergency plans for inclusivity, providing preparedness for people that need electronic medical devices, and creating a database preparedness contacts and influential stakeholders.

What it means to be a health champion

Being a health champion, personally and professionally, and standing up for people that are not being heard are all important to Sydney.

“I have a disability. I’m blind. I know what you go through,” says Sydney. “Public health should be universal and equitable. I’m in a position where I can get people connected that can help make a difference.”

When the tornado storms that devastated areas of Western Kentucky in 2021, this heightened the importance of inclusion and accessibility for Sydney.

“I was contacted about helping to find accessible shelters for individuals with disabilities having difficulties finding a place to stay,” says Sydney. “This shouldn’t be an issue, but when disasters take place, inclusion and accessibility aren’t on the radar – it shouldn’t be that way.”

Regarding a career in public health, Sydney advises:

“This is a versatile career path. There is so much you can do to make an impact. If you want to help people and make a difference, I cannot think of anything better.”

Disability Pride Month

Disability Pride Month is celebrated every July and is an opportunity to honor the history, achievements, experiences, and struggles of the disability community.

July marks the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a landmark legislation that broke down barriers to inclusion in society. But barriers, challenges, and misconceptions still exist.

“I think just being open to having more conversations and asking questions is important,” says Sydney. “So many people with disabilities get looked over or talked over or talked around. If everyone would just take the time to actually have those conversations, and just realize that we are people to, it would just open the floodgates to realize that all these things that we see as taboo, or difficult, are not those things at all.”

Disability Pride Month, for Sydney, relates strongly back to public health.

“Disability is a huge health disparity, and there are tons of different intersectionalities that public health already looks at: race, gender, ethnicity, and more,” says Sydney.

“There are tons of research on these topics, and these things are not so much hot topics anymore. Not saying they’re not important, they are, but we know that these are issues when it comes to public health and disparities. It’s still a little bit uncomfortable to bring up disability in these spaces, so this pride month is exactly the perfect time to add that into the mix," concludes Sydney.

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