Dot Nary, 52, loves whizzing around Lone Star Lake in her kayak. "It allows me to move fast under my own power," she says.
Using personal power is important to Nary, and she's passionate about empowering others.
"I grew up in a poor area in Pawtucket, R.I.," she explains. "We learned to be passive and not to make waves because those in authority knew best."
Nary was born with spina bifida, a birth defect of the spinal column, and her parents allowed doctors to make the decisions about what was best for her health care.
In spite of ongoing health issues, surgeries and increasing mobility challenges, she obtained a Bachelor of Arts in English at Rhode Island College and completed courses in accounting and management. When she turned 30, she realized she needed to leave home and make her own independent decisions. She moved to New York.
"A whole new life opened up for me," she says. "I started using a wheelchair and realized its use enhanced my life since walking had gotten to be so difficult and exhausting. I met others in the disability movement who encouraged and challenged me."
Nary saw the limited lives some people with disabilities had, and she was unwilling to settle for that.
"I didn't want others to settle for it either," she adds.
She spent the next decade working for Centers for Independent Living. She led community training on the Americans with Disabilities Act, developed programs to provide on-site independent living services for public housing residents and conducted outreach for a study of adults with cerebral palsy in Syracuse, N.Y. In 1994 she received the David Veatch Advocacy Achievement Award and attended an ADA anniversary celebration on the White House lawn, where she met Judy Heumann, Justin Dart and other prominent leaders in the disability movement.
"When I saw them all sitting on the platform, I remember thinking, 'We've arrived.' It felt really good," she says.
She felt empowered and inspired to find more ways to help people with disabilities. She and husband Norm White moved to Kansas in 1996 so she could attend Kansas University. She earned a master's degree in human development and family life, and she hopes to complete her doctorate in behavioral psychology next year. She's currently employed as training director at KU's Research and Training Center on Independent Living.
She admits it's a challenge to balance study, research, work, exercise, kayaking and time with Norm and their dogs, Penny and Skippy, but she's determined to make a difference for future generations of people with disabilities.
"My expectations are simple," she says. "Eighteen years after the ADA's passage, I expect to be able to go everywhere everybody else goes, and do what they do, although maybe in a different way."
She's looking forward to the postdoctorate phase of her life.
"Life is all about the journey," she says, "and it's a great trip."