Tabi Estrellado: Writing Code, Writing Songs, Winning Awards

Tabitha Estrellado is living her dream. She’s a 27-year-old career woman with a nice apartment in Manhattan. She loves her job, has a sweet commute, and writes music and performs locally in her spare time.

To say Estrellado, who has spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), is an overachiever would be putting it mildly. She has won numerous awards throughout her college and working careers, and recently received another high honor. The Muscular Dystrophy Association has named her the recipient of its 2011 Robert Ross MDA Personal Achievement Award for the New York City metro area.

She was selected for MDA’s highest achievement award in New York City due to her outstanding academic and professional achievements and her commitment to serving as a leader and role model for others with disabilities.

An on-the-go activist

Tabi with NJ volunteers at a Muscle Walk
Tabi with fellow volunteers at the 2011 Muscle Walk at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.

Spinal muscular atrophy is a disease that causes loss of nerve cells (motor neurons) in the spinal cord. Estrellado — she goes by Tabi — received a diagnosis when she was 9 months old and has never walked. She uses a power chair for mobility, has limited use of her arms and hands, and uses a ventilator at night while sleeping.

Although she’s now an enthusiastic New Yorker, Estrellado was born and raised in Houston; her family moved to upstate New York when she was a junior in high school. With the help of numerous scholarships and grants, she attended Pace University in New York City, graduating summa cum laude in 2006 with a degree in computer science.

Although academics and studying obviously were important to her, Estrellado, who employs home health aides full time, was constantly on-the-go with extracurricular activities. “I would always make sure I had something going on — I was never at a standstill. My aides had to keep up with me,” she says laughing. “Once, one of them said, ‘Can’t we just relax today?’”

Estrellado was actively involved with the Student Government Association, the Asian Cultural Society and the university radio station, among other activities. She also found herself in an accessibility activist’s role on campus.

Pace University’s Schimmel Theatre, a facility built well before the Americans with Disabilities Act was implemented in the 1980s, had a stage that was inaccessible to people in wheelchairs. She learned this firsthand; as a member of the choir she discovered she would not be able to perform with the group in their first concert.

“I went through the appropriate channels to get the stage to be accessible,” she relates, but her efforts went unheeded. “That was disheartening,” she says. “So that’s when I decided to join the student government to try to help make the change.”

She was eventually successful in making her case directly to the university president and an elevator was installed within a year, allowing people in wheelchairs the opportunity to perform on stage. As it turned out, able-bodied people were also thrilled with Estrellado’s efforts: “The stage managers were happy because the elevator made their jobs easier,” she says.

Estrellado learned a valuable lesson through this experience. “You have to be proactive about what you want,” she says. “No one knows what you want unless you call it out. That’s why people with disabilities should be very vocal about what they need because people can’t read their minds.”

Accessibility at work and home

After obtaining her degree in computer science in 2006, Estrellado found work in her field as an applications specialist for New York Life Insurance Company. “My main job function,” she explains, “is doing application programming so that our customer service people can perform their jobs more efficiently.”

Tabi at work
Tabi does application programming for New York Life Insurance Company.

She has been with New York Life for five years and has been recognized with several awards for her job performance. She has also received an award for her work in establishing an employee network group at the company for people with disabilities and their advocates. “Our group, called Enable, is about opening people’s eyes — promoting awareness and understanding of the needs of workers with disabilities and making people who are directly affected by disability feel welcome.”

After working in the office for several years and receiving the proper training, she was allowed to participate in the company’s telecommuting program. Estrellado’s current work schedule permits her to work from home four days a week, while her presence in the office is required one day. Her home health aide drives her on that day.

Needless to say, Estrellado is very happy with her employment at New York Life.

She also loves her apartment in Manhattan, where she moved last year. It’s nothing fancy, she says, but it suits her needs. “It’s not fully, fully accessible; there haven’t been any special accommodations made in the bathroom, for instance, but it’s definitely a step up from where I’ve lived before on my own. I don’t require too many accessibility features because I have a home health aide to help me with all my physical activities.”

Music and volunteering on the side

In her spare time, Estrellado moves seamlessly from code writer to music maker.

“Acoustic alternative pop,” she says, when asked about her music’s genre. She writes both the music and the lyrics and has begun collaborating with a local guitarist: She forms the melody in her mind, sings it to him and he plays it back to her, then writes it down. Eventually they record the piece and finally perform it publicly.

Tabi performing in a NYC club
Performing her own songs at clubs and cafes in Manhattan is Tabi's favorite pastime.

“New York is filled with clubs and cafes that have weekly open-mic nights,” she says, relating how she takes advantage of the local venues to get her music out there. “The goal is to see if the audience likes your music. And you always hope that someone in the club will notice you and want you to perform again. I do it for fun, but I wouldn’t mind if I had a regular gig on the side.”

“I have a drummer now, too. I think I’m forming a band and don’t even know it,” she laughs. “So we’re all working together and we’ll see what happens.”

No name yet for the group? “Not yet; I just need to be patient.”

“Music used to be my number one, but computers have always been more practical,” she says laughing, alluding to the fact that her day job is paying the rent. “I like to have music on the side because work can be overwhelming sometimes — it’s never tedious, it’s never boring — but it helps to do something that’s fun. So I’m glad I have a hobby that I really enjoy.”

Estrellado also enjoys volunteering for various organizations, including MDA. She says the key to her volunteering is to find work she can do where she feels like she’s actually helped someone. “A lot of volunteer projects are physical — picking up trash or painting — things I can’t really do. But recently I’ve been recording books for the blind and dyslexic for an organization here called New York Cares. It was harder than I thought, but it was a fun learning experience and now I feel comfortable doing it.”

“And whenever MDA asks, I do work for them,” she says. “It’s generally phone work that I can do from home — looking for sponsors for events, asking for donations from local restaurants or shops, and I do the follow-up correspondence.”

“MDA is like family to me,” Estrellado concludes. “They are support that I can’t live without, which is what family is all about. Without MDA, I wouldn’t have many of the services or medical equipment I have now that allow me to do all the activities I like to do. Because they’re always there, I always want to give back hopefully even half of what they give me.”

View all of MDA's state Personal Achievement Award recipients using our interactive map. MDA's 2012 national PAA recipient, announced on the MDA Telethon, is Scott Crane.

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