Denise Thomas: Disabilities Advocate

Right out of high school, Denise Thomas began volunteering to help people with disabilities find employment. Now, nearly two decades later, she’s more involved with helping than ever, and she’s become a familiar face to Washington-area residents and a force for good in the nation's capital.

Thomas, 37, who has spinal-bulbar muscular atrophy (SBMA), was just appointed by Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley to serve on the Maryland State Independent Living Council. The group works to increase transportation, recreation and leisure opportunities for people with disabilities; to empower people with disabilities to act as self-advocates; to increase access to assistive technology; and to expand and enhance resources for personal assistance services.

Thomas’ energy, abilities and accomplishments were a major factor in her being named Ms. Wheelchair Maryland in 2008, and the title was much more than window dressing. Throughout the year, she traveled around the D.C. metro area making appearances not only to promote awareness of people with disabilities, but also, as she said, “to show there’s more to the individual than disability.”

Washington TV station WJLA on April 10 singled out Thomas for inclusion in its Working Women series (see video below). Of its profilees the show says, “The one thing these women have in common is the capacity to care, and they are making a difference in the lives of other people.”

Thomas certainly is doing that. For nine years she also has helped people with disabilities find and utilize affordable, accessible public transportation in the metro area.

She hopes to put her experience to use by some day forming her own nonprofit organization to help others. Her bachelor’s degree in business management should help.

But travel is also on her agenda. Once she’s found a portable lift that will help her make transfers when away from home (she uses a power wheelchair for mobility), she figures she’ll be ready to see some sights. “I just want to live life like everyone else,” she says.

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