The Next Generation of Leaders in Disability Advocacy: Ellie Stitzer

Ellie smiles for the camera while waiting in Mizzou Student Center.

Meet Ellie. Ellie is a senior at Mizzou studying Health Sciences with an emphasis in Leadership and Policy. On her return to school this past August, she came back to Columbia with a renewed focus and gained knowledge on the disability rights movement. Ellie was one of 27 students nationwide who earned a 2018 summer internship at the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) in Washington D.C.

According to the AAPD website, each summer, AAPD places college students, graduate students, law students, and recent graduates with all types of disabilities in summer internships with Congressional offices, federal agencies, non-profits and for-profit organizations. Each intern is matched with a mentor who assists with specific career goals. AAPD provides the interns with a living stipend, transportation to and from Washington, DC, and fully-accessible housing. As part of the AAPD network, interns also receive opportunities to attend events on Capitol Hill, conferences, community events, briefings and more.

Ellie’s internship placed her at the Administration for Community Living in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Like any other job, she worked a full day and attended networking opportunities in the evening, but also learned how to balance her personal and professional life while having a disability. Ellie feels a sense of validation in being able to work in the government and do disability advocacy, which is what she wants to do after graduation.

“I have never lived out of Columbia,” said Ellie. “It was exciting, but scary moving away for three months. I have people here who help me with my personal care and my parents here, if I get into a bind. It was a little daunting to go out there, but it ended up working out really well. And I’m glad that I did it.”

Ellie was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type 2 shortly after birth, a neural muscular disease. She has been served by Boone County Family Resources since she was a small child, and is grateful for the impact they have had on her life including equipment, resources, and wonderful support coordinators like Sherry Nemeth.

“Something I’ve learned, growing up and becoming more independent, there is a lot of things with being disabled that’s not clear with what you need to do to get things done,” said Ellie. “Sometimes it’s a mess of paperwork and things I don’t really understand. So it’s really helpful to have someone like Sherry, my support coordinator, to help navigate those difficult things.”

Accepting the internship in DC was a transitional step that Ellie felt ready to take, and considers the opportunity one of the best summers of her life.

“It gave me more self-confidence for one thing. When you have the disability that I have, there are a lot of extra things that I have to think about when it comes to getting a job. I think this program [AAPD] made me feel more confident in my ability,” Ellie said of the internship. “And to set my goals really high because now I know the tools I will need, and resources I can access.”

The AAPD Summer Internship Program strives to develop the next generation of leaders, and looks like they have done just that with Ellie.

“She’s always been a great self advocate, that voice has just gotten stronger in recent years,” said Support Coordinator Sherry Nemeth about meeting with Ellie after she returned from her D.C. experience. “Learning more about herself and what she really can do, not focusing on what she can’t do, she’s really turned a corner … She’s brilliant. She’s got such a strong mind, and a lot of connections. That’s going to get her far in life.”

As Ellie ponders over her future deciding between the six different law schools she was accepted to, ranging from the University of Missouri-Columbia to Washington University in St. Louis to George Washington University in Washington D.C., there is no doubt she will succeed in whatever she puts her mind to.

“I’ve always thought I had the smarts to be a leader, some of the more logistical parts have been something that are more questionable, and this program really helped me with that,” said Ellie.