Dr. Anjali Forber-Pratt

Dr. Anjali Forber-Pratt, director of the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research had a successful visit to UAB’s campus last week, meeting with various NIDILRR grantee stakeholders as well as giving a seminar on disability identity.

Forber-Pratt began the seminar by pointing out NIDILRR exists because of direct language put into the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

“That is just pretty cool that it has existed that long,” she said. “Now, yes, we always need more money – I will also say that. But I still think that it’s pretty remarkable for a younger field in comparison to many of the disciplines and subdisciplines that you all are a part of that disability rehabilitation work has mattered and is prioritized by our federal government, and that it’s written into law in that particular way.”

Forber-Pratt said the main mission of NIDILRR is to generate new knowledge on disability and promote its effective use through research and development projects, capacity building and knowledge translation. Whereas counterparts in the government are focused on prevention, NIDILRR intends on full integration in a long-term context.

Prior to joining NIDILRR, Forber-Pratt served as assistant professor at Vanderbilt University. In addition to teaching and mentoring students at all levels, she served as principal investigator for research projects covering a range of disability issues. Her primary area of expertise is disability identity development, and her seminar was aptly titled “Disability Identity and Representation in Research.”

The director spoke about how her research background urged her to think about how her various identities affect her role in the agency.

“I tend to wear a lot of different hats, depending on the day,” Forber-Pratt said. “Being a Paralympic medalist, an Indian adoptee, a disabled woman of color, a researcher and an activist.”

It’s also important, she said, to remember that the disability mantra “nothing about us, without us” includes research. Forber-Pratt made it a personal goal to enhance the representation of investigators with disabilities in every element of the grantmaking process.

“When I say the research enterprise, I mean of course the investigators, the people doing the research; the peer reviewers, the people who decide who gets the funding; to the project officers, the people supporting those of you who receive grants,” she said. “Our lived experiences really matters, regardless of fancy titles after someone’s name or credentials. All of those lived experiences and identities are so valuable in shaping all aspects of research.”

According to Forber-Pratt, NIDILRR has been chipping away at this area of opportunity, but there is still a long way to go.

“This is really my jam and my passion and what invigorates me to lead NIDILRR with intentionality around this work.”

Forber-Pratt went on to talk about how real of an impact representation can have from a personal perspective. She recalled crying in the bushes in preschool as she watched her classmates run around because the permanence of her disability set in.

A few months after that personal low point, Forber-Pratt was watching at mile eight of the Boston Marathon in her hometown. It was the first time the future two-time Paralympian saw people in racing wheelchairs, flying by 25-plus miles an hour in a “cool, fancy looking machine.”

“I thought it was so, so, so cool that not only did I want one of those, I wanted to be involved in it,” she said. “For me, as a young girl, that was the first time I saw people like me who were being featured on the local news, and it taught me I could live a life, disability and all.”

Immediately following her seminar, Forber-Pratt had a productive meeting with the CEDHARS leadership team, discussing overlapping goals and missions of CEDHARS and NIDILRR.