Nathan Dean contributed to this article
Walking into the cozy Malden Public Library on the night of January 25th, Malden Reads celebrated the kickoff of their 14th season and the reveal of their book of the year, Being Huemann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist by Judith Huemann and Kristen Joiner.
The night opened down the hall in the meeting room where complimentary food and drinks were served to those in attendance, which included many recognizable faces such as Superintendent Ligia Noriega-Murphy, former City Councillor Neal Anderson, and Mayor Gary Christenson.
During the first hour of the event from 6 pm to 7 pm, attendees were able to tour around tables in the main room of the library that featured different organizations and authors from Malden, many of which pertain to disability activism or call upon different issues in Malden and the Greater Boston area. In the background amongst all the conversations sat local musical artist Chris Ver Voort who provided some entertainment for the night. More can be read about Ver Voort by clicking the link here.
As the night progressed, attendees were guided back into the meeting room to hear from a collection of panelists that was composed of Malden High’s Transition Coordinator, Kelli Collomb, 2004 Malden High graduate and disabled athlete James Norris, and dancer Laura Sanchez.
“Why haven’t I heard about this before? Why isn’t this being recorded in history for how important they are to all of us?” voiced Collomb as she talked about the questions that many students and peers have asked her after reading Huemann’s memoir. Collomb makes a fantastic point in bringing these questions to light as we are constantly taught about the work and effort that many activists contributed to this country, but when it comes to disability activism and activists, the makers of these textbooks and curricula conveniently leave them out.
Collomb then talked about the unethical and horrifying history surrounding Eugenics in the U.S. and how it related to her own personal experiences while growing up in pursuing her education. “[The school] wanted to send me out because I had a disability. They didn’t want me because I was ‘broken,’” said Collomb. While Collomb still was able to attend school, it didn’t come with extreme setbacks and discrimination from her peers.
This, however, led her to discover Judith Huemann’s story and how she and many others fought for their rights. “That’s the type of activism we need in this world. That’s the type of activism that will create change,” spoke Collomb about her appreciation for Huemann.
At the end of her segment, Collomb left the audience with a note that can apply to not only disability activism but all other injustices around people and in the world. “We can all notice what is going on around us, but it’s how we act and respond that shows to everyone how we can make a change.”
As Collomb was applauded for her inspiring words, the microphone was passed along to James Norris. A Malden resident for all of his life, Norris grew up in a transitioning world that was opening up to disabled people more, but many issues still persist such as accessibility in places such as Malden Center which forced him to take a longer trip over to Oak Grove in order to board the Orange Line. Over the pandemic, Norris was inspired by his fitness trainer to start the Instagram account @handi_capable_fitness, which Norris would use to track his fitness recovery. Since then, the page has become a platform for other disabled athletes to be featured on and share their workouts with others.
Norris has also utilized his platform to raise awareness at Boston Children’s Hospital, the same hospital he was originally treated at while growing up, as he helps support a 5k walk for children with disabilities. “They paved the way for me, so now it’s my turn to take the torch and educate the future for a better tomorrow. The fight for equality and representation is not over,” said Norris when talking about his appreciation for activists like Heumann who fought for disabled people like himself. If you wish to learn more about HandiCapable Fitness, the link to the organization’s website can be found here.
While she may not be disabled herself, the next speaker, Laura Sanchez, has still fought and endured the hardships of ableism. Sanchez has supported her daughter after there was an accident at her birth, but in an effort to utilize her experiences to better the world, she has started to offer support to others in Malden. “I started to use my own trauma and pain to help others process their own feelings and experiences so they don’t have to endure all the pain I had to alone.”
“I am now ready to fight for the rights of my daughter and for all others who are battling disabilities so I can create a better future for her and for others,” concluded Sanchez.
After all the other speakers had gone, the floor was opened up to award-winning musician Santon. Coming over from St. Petersburg, Russia in 1991, Santon graduated from Berklee School of Music and has released two albums despite being completely blind from birth.
Many Key Club members were present at the event as Club President Nicholas Duggan wanted to share this experience with the community. “This event is so important because it brings the community together towards reading such impactful stories like Heumann’s and being able to volunteer helps spread the word and enriches the lives of so many people in Malden,” said Duggan.
Duggan’s favorite part about the entire event was the opportunity to help different parts of the community mingle and share stories with each other. “I think everyone has a different perspective that they're giving, like the Friends of The Malden River who educates people about the environment,” noted Duggan. He continued, “I feel like each group in each little facet of the community has their own thing to bring, so I feel like having so many of them in the community just makes it even stronger.”
Senior Jelani Tah echoed similar sentiments to Duggan but added in his appreciation for volunteering at the library as he frequently visited throughout his childhood. “The library is a great place and it really offers not only a place where you can escape but also a place where you can find a community, and the library has helped out the city in so many ways that when I heard about the opportunity, I knew I would help out,” said Tah.
Tah’s biggest takeaway from the event was being able to learn about an issue that doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. “Learning about how different people are impacted by disabilities is really important and I've been seeing over the years how the dialogue has improved. I think that's really important as someone who's proud of various speaking activities and clubs, I see the points of dialogue and creating meaningful change,” concluded Tah.
“Being able to witness Santon’s beautiful performance was something I won’t forget for a while. For him to perform the way he does with his condition is amazing.” said junior Marc Naceus.
Naceus left with a message of how people should realize that even though some people may suffer from disabilities or other conditions, that doesn’t make them any less special or unique from the rest of the world. “I feel like you shouldn't let any disabilities or anything that you like get in the way of exposing yourself. You should live life to the fullest no matter what you should. If you can't live as diverse because of societal pressures or something like that, you need to reach a point where it's you fight until you're able to.”