Disabled Women Make History: Naomi Hess

“We need a world that understands the challenges of being disabled, while also understanding how to support and empower people with disabilities to be their best selves without pitying and further marginalizing them,” Naomi Hess explained. Naomi, a recent Princeton University graduate who recently started working at the Administration on Community Living (ACL), is no stranger to experiencing challenges as a disabled woman - but she’s also no stranger to empowering herself and others.The Clarksville, Maryland native has been rolling around in her power wheelchair for most of her life, and clearing paths for people with disabilities who will come behind her.

Naomi HessWhile studying at Princeton, Naomi founded the student government disability task force, which allowed her to advocate for disabled students during the pandemic by regularly communicating with campus administrators about accessibility improvements. Her efforts led to the installation of an elevator in Nassau Hall, the oldest building on campus, and Naomi became the first person in a wheelchair to enter this extremely historic building. As if that was not enough, Naomi also worked with the Center for Jewish Life to run Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month Shabbat every February, and as an associate news editor for The Daily Princetonian, the campus newspaper, Naomi helped found an accessibility working group to make the newspaper more accessible to readers. For example, Naomi led a project to embed audio narration into every article.

As a recent graduate, Naomi is continuing to serve Princeton as the Young Alumni Trustee from the Class of 2022. “I feel so honored that my peers believed in me and elected me to this position. In this role, I get to give back to the university that gave so much to me,” Naomi explained. “I am grateful for the opportunity to help shape the future of the university while bringing my perspective as a disabled woman to every conversation about university proceedings.”

Now living in Washington, D.C., Naomi is working as a Management and Program Analyst at the ACL, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that protects the right of people with disabilities and older adults to live as independently as possible. “It’s really wonderful to work at ACL because so many of my coworkers have disabilities themselves. This is important on a policy level, because this means that disabled people are the ones writing policies and managing programs that affect the disability community. Having a disability makes me extra passionate about the work ACL does.”

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Naomi Hess

Being surrounded by coworkers with disabilities is also impactful for Naomi. “This is the first time that I’ve been surrounded by adults with disabilities. I don’t think I realized before starting this job how exhausting it’s been my whole life to almost always be the only person with a disability, or at least a visible disability, in any room I enter. At my job, I don’t have to always feel the need to advocate for myself and for disability awareness because everyone around me at work just gets it.”

The impact of working with disabled people is especially meaningful for Naomi because she did not have disabled women mentors growing up. While she attended multiple camps for children with disabilities where she met peers, she was not exposed to mentors with disabilities. “I feel very fortunate to have been surrounded by such incredible disabled people growing up, but I wish I had seen more disabled adults,” Naomi shared. “I wish I had had more disabled women to look up to because it would’ve made me less nervous and more confident in my transition from high school to college and beyond.”

Now Naomi counts herself lucky because she has many disabled women mentors, both professionally and personally. With the wisdom she has gained from her mentors and from her own experiences, Naomi’s advice for other girls and women with disabilities is to create your own support network. “Whether it’s with a Disability Community, family, or nondisabled people, everyone deserves to feel love and support as they follow their dreams.”

About the Author - Stephanie Woodward

Stephanie Woodward is an attorney and Executive Director of Disability EmpowHer Network, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering girls and women with disabilities. Stephanie is passionate about seeking justice for marginalized communities - and has an arrest record to show for it. As a proud disabled woman and civil rights activist, Stephanie is committed to bringing more women and girls with disabilities to the forefront through mentoring and activism.

Stephanie Woodward

The opinions expressed in these blogs are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.