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Conversations with the Inspiring Rachel Schlesinger

Today we’d like to introduce you to Rachel Schlesinger.

Rachel, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I never intended to be a counselor, disability advocate, and educator. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. However, advocacy and education became a passion that was ignited by the experience of standing up for my sister, Rebecca, who experiences autism, when she got bullied. It was ignited by the slut shaming I experienced from middle school and through high school and having my head physically slammed on a desk after confronting a much stronger male peer for calling me the most putrid names in front of my class while I innocently read the book “The Kite Runner.” It was ignited by the semester where I volunteered my time in a classroom which was considered to be “the lowest functioning” special education class in the Los Angeles Unified School District. It was when I saw the reality of how children with intellectual disabilities were segregated from the rest of the world and their families at a loss on how to support them and their own cultural backgrounds and socioeconomic status limited their access to the same resources my sister Rebecca had. Though my rebellion was ignited at an early age, it wasn’t fueled until much later, along with counseling.

You see, I come from a privileged background. We had resources and we saw the benefits from them as my sister Rebecca needed many years of speech pathology and other rehabilitation methods to get her where she is today. Thankfully, I made the switch from a Jewish private school to public school at an early age which opened my life to a diverse range of friends and community. I often went to friends houses that were in significantly different areas than mine. I shared meals with families of different cultures, grew up hearing different languages, and fell in love with diversity. I witnessed first hand the lifestyle differences and how a lack of resources or access to them could impact your life trajectory.

My personal life, though privileged was a dark place emotionally. I was severely depressed and anxious for most of my life which presented itself in anger. Anger towards my family and the world around me. I was a terrible student and I was misunderstood by my family and teachers for many years. I found out I was adopted when I was 15 and another traumatic life experience resulted in me becoming nearly 100% deaf in my left ear, overnight, at the age of 18. These experiences forced me to become my own self-advocate and to find my own identity. I learned about Deaf culture and what it meant to be hard-of-hearing. I learned that being “deaf” or “hard-of-hearing” was a source of pride for a community I had never heard of and began to take American Sign Language classes just in case I lost my hearing in my right ear.

I transferred to San Diego State University with the intention of becoming an Audiologist. As a student, I was hired to develop campus-wide programming focused on disability awareness for the Student Disability Services Office. In that process, I made friends from different backgrounds levels of abilities and found myself reflecting on my sister Rebecca’s life. The reason she was so successful was not only because of the resources we had but also because we never viewed her as being disabled. During my time there, I enrolled in the Disability and Society course, taught by my now dear friend, Mendy McClure.

For the first time in my life, I found a philosophy and approach to the disability experience that was in line with my values and the experiences I had volunteering and advocating for others growing up. I realized that it wasn’t an individual’s diagnosis that was disabling, but the stigma and bias society has historically shared. It validated my frustrations as to why I witnessed my sister being bullied, and why children with developmental disabilities were segregated, why people felt sorry for me when I told them I am deaf in one ear and it now fueled my passion for change.

This resulted in campus-wide disability awareness programming. Thanks to the people I met through that experience I became a part of the culture and embedded in the norms and experiences. I discovered the inadequacies in the system and how those from disadvantaged and minority communities lacked information to the resources available to them. I met advocates of all ages and invited speakers to spread the message of how disability is inclusion and how disability is a culture. A culture and community that has been oppressed, but a culture that does not discriminate on the basis of age, gender, sexual orientation, religion, socioeconomic status, an or race. I became a strong advocate for students to seek accommodations. I began to share my story and took pride in my identity as someone who experiences a disability.

Instead of becoming an Audiologist, I became a Rehabilitation Counselor which allowed me to use my experience as a springboard to empower individuals with disabilities to lead meaningful lives while highlighting their abilities. My rebellion was fueled by the need for advocacy, awareness, and access to education to those who experience disability, but most importantly those who do not.

Now, I co-teach the Disability and Society course alongside Diana Pastora Carson and together we challenge the concept of disability to our students. In addition, I am a career counselor for adults with developmental disabilities, utilizing person-centered approaches. My advocacy, counseling, and education trajectory will soon be heavily focused on socio-sexual aspects of disability, specifically for individuals with developmental disabilities who have been limited access to this education and or have been sexually assaulted and or abused. I strive to live a life fulling my mission for disability advocacy, education, and awareness to ensure that those who may not speak can be heard and to be valuable and contributing members to our society.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
If my journey had been smooth, I probably would not have been in this field empowering others through counseling and education. Having discovered that I was adopted during my teenage years which opened pandora’s box which uncovered an identity crisis and disconnect from the life I thought to be true and truth itself. It was a personal struggle that resulted in a series of repercussions and angst for years that I needed to figure out on my own. I know many others who are adopted who are ashamed to talk about these things because there’s the idea that adoptees should be grateful for the opportunities we’ve been provided (which we are), but we cannot deny the adoptee experience and I encourage more people to talk about it.

My experience with depression, anxiety, and PTSD since childhood were presented with periods of time where I wasn’t sure there would be a light of the end of the tunnel. I spent years in therapy and at some points using medications. I’ve had an incredible support system of friends and mentors who let me feel what I needed to feel and walked with me during the darkest parts of my journey and were patient. As I reached adulthood, sharing my story became easier, I became more confident and no longer tied to diagnosis or label. I focused my life on education and contributing to the lives of others and most importantly, putting my self-care before anything else. I eat well, sleep well, take time to myself, and only do the things I love doing. I recently adopted a minimalist mindset and that’s been a great tool for keeping me present. I’m not on social media much these days either as I’ve found it’s a distraction and there’s nothing appealing about sharing my life and comparing it to the lives of others.

Becoming completely deaf in my left ear brought me balance and taught me the value of communication. I had withdrawn for many years from social interactions but realized that isolating myself was not going to get me anywhere so I’ve learned to adapt. It allowed me the opportunity to learn about a culture different from my own and advocate for the Deaf community and the equitable access to information and communication in all aspects of the community.

For the young men and women who feel defeated and lonely in their efforts to change the community we live in, I encourage you to be unapologetically persistent. Take the time you need to nurture yourself. Take risks because most often facing uncertainty can open up opportunities you wouldn’t have in the safety of your comfort zone. Find ways to live intentionally as I believe the greatest rebellion is saying “no” to the things that no longer serve you and the mission you strive to live. Embrace the struggles that come with the journey and honor it because almost all of these struggles are temporary.

Please tell us more about your work, what you are currently focused on and most proud of.
My mission is to empower individuals with disabilities to lead meaningful and inclusive lives and to advocate and educate for equitable access to our community as a whole. My vocational title rehabilitation counselor. In addition, I am a lecturer at San Diego State University co-teaching the topic of Disability and Society alongside Diana Pastora Carson. Together, we educate on how disability has historically been perceived and present the different models of disability and pose the question on what disables individuals, is it their disability or society’s perception of disability?

I am most proud of the fact that a lot of the work that I do is individualized and person-centered. I am proud of the clients and students I work with who slowly found their voice to become their loudest advocate. I am proud that I have the opportunity to educate on the campus where I earned my education. San Diego State University was a major factor in starting my advocacy career by allowing me to create disability awareness programming that views the disability experience as a culture and community that thrives.

I’d like to think what sets me apart from others is that this is not a job, but truly my mission. I live and breath disability awareness, advocacy, and education. I firmly believe in what I do and it adds tremendous value to my own life and the lives of others. My experience of working in education and nonprofits serving a wide range of abilities from diverse populations has been a contributing factor to creating a community of resources that supports one another.

Do you have any advice for finding a mentor or networking in general? What has worked well for you?
What has never failed me is the personal connections I’ve made throughout the years with people of all ages, backgrounds, and experiences. Most of my leisure time is spent with friends and learning about their lives and their experiences. I say friends because though they might be in the field doing the same work, without their friendship there is no network. I believe in the power of community and you can’t have community if you’re only sharing social media accounts. My relationships are intentional and serve the purpose to learn and grow, which leads to a personal connection and a reciprocal respectful relationship that translates into the workforce.

We live in the digital age where we’ve been taught that networking and connecting is done behind the screen, but what people forget is the face-to-face connection and if you are new to networking and finding mentors, you’ll find that the mentors could easily be someone who leads a very different life than you, who may not share your level of education, who may be significantly older than you and be in a field of work that has nothing to do with yours and it could be someone you meet at a grocery store. Be open-minded, open-hearted and listen and do not hesitate to ask questions.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Brianna Zantman Photography & personal photos

Getting in touch: SDVoyager is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

3 Comments

  1. Mendy McClure

    May 20, 2019 at 4:44 pm

    Beautiful story that will help others better understand experiences of people who have been marginalized. Thanks for opening up Rachel Schlesinger!

  2. Diana Pastora Carson

    May 21, 2019 at 4:32 am

    You’re a power house, Rachel! Thank you for sharing your passion and empowerment with the world.

  3. Felicia J Levy Weston

    May 23, 2019 at 4:04 am

    Beautifully written and spoken from the heart. And you have always been a beautiful girl.

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