Sarah Todd Hammer, 19

“My disability has definitely brought me challenges like no other, but it has also enabled me to discover a part of myself I never would have discovered, and helped me to connect with so many incredible people who are now lifelong friends. I love my life! I am so grateful for everything I have.”

As a child, Sarah Todd Hammer fell in love with dance. When she was 8-years old, she was left a quadripalegic due to a disorder known as Acute Flaccid Myelitis (AFM). Now at age 19, she has recovered the ability to walk, though still has partial paralysis in her shoulders, arms, and right hand, and complete paralysis in her left hand. But Sarah Todd still loves to dance.

“I want to share my journey of how I became paralyzed as a child and how that affected my life. Along the way I’ve learned not only to accept my disability but actually to become thankful for it. I love it about myself, because it’s given me opportunities and a new perspective.”

The journey wasn’t always easy for Sarah Todd. “It was really scary when it first happened because it was all of the sudden. I was in ballet class when I got this really bad headache, and on my way out of the studio my arms and hands stopped working. My mom took me to urgent care, and by the time I got there I couldn’t walk. Next thing I know I’m on a helicopter to the children’s hospital. I was terrified but thought that I would get to the hospital and everything would be ok. I didn’t understand that my life was drastically changing forever.”

Sarah Todd struggled for the first few years of living with a disability, feeling self-conscious about having a full-time aide with her at school, watching her friends having fun playing at recess, and often feeling singled-out. Her outlook changed, however, in 2014 when the Make-A-Wish Foundation allowed her to meet the band One Direction. “I realized my worth through the hardships and that my disability didn’t have to hold me back. That’s when I started to be more happy, having an experience like that.”

Her family noticed a change in her perspective as she adapted to having a disability. “My mom was taking me to all these doctors and doing everything she could to help me. We even went to the Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis. At that point, I didn’t want to see any more doctors, I just wanted to move on. I get why she did all that – society tells us that finding a cure is the answer to the disability. But my body had not changed in a while, I probably was not going to have any improvement, and I just wanted to accept that. It’s not the best message to tell someone they need therapy to fix their body. Instead, people should try to help find ways to be independent and do the things their body isn’t letting them do.”

Sarah Todd has definitely moved beyond acceptance to fully embracing her disability. Over the past ten years, she has co-authored and published three books, and modeled clothing for people with disabilities, including at New York Fashion Week. She began to choreograph her own accessible dances: “I know people who do wheelchair dancing. I know someone with no arms or legs who dances. Dance can be anything!” Sarah Todd has even set up her own YouTube channel, aimed at raising awareness for younger audiences about disability topics. Now a freshman at Davidson College, Sarah Todd is looking to major in Disability Studies and minor in Hispanic Studies, with the hopes to continue pursuing disability activism.

One of her goals is to raise awareness about challenges that people with disabilities face. Despite the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, issues with accessibility abound. “Even though I don’t have issues with walking, I notice when places aren’t always accessible for people with wheelchairs. Or when restaurants say at the bottom of their menu that they have menus in Braille, but the message itself isn’t in Braille!” She recalls a few years ago when environmental concerns led some food establishments to ban the use of plastic straws. “People had good intentions, but they don’t always realize that people like me can’t always pick up a glass.” 

Ultimately, Sarah Todd wants society’s attitude toward people with disabilities to change. “Ableist views are quite prevalent in our society today. They come in many different forms, and I wish I could eradicate them all. But the main ableist view I would like to change is the perception that people with disabilities can’t be happy or live meaningful lives. Of course, it can be difficult living with a disability, but there is not one life without challenges. So there is no need to single out those of us with disabilities or pity us or act as if our lives aren’t worth living. Because, yes, we have challenges, but so does everyone else!”

Visit Sarah Todd’s website: Connect on Instagram @sarahtoddhammer.

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