Two community leaders enlighten what we do right – and wrong – in the quest to build truly inclusive physical and digital spaces for all
By Kacie Brown
Starting at 10 a.m. on Biscayne Bay, children’s smiling eyes reveal the beginnings of meaningful connections. Kids sail in pairs, a child with a disability cruises through the water with a high school mentor.
Harry Horgan, an ocean-lover paralyzed by a car accident at age 22, co-founded Shake-A-Leg Miami to give people with disabilities an equal opportunity to enjoy the water and prepare for in life. But their impact extends beyond leisure; Shake-A-Leg has been hosting adaptive watersports and vocational development programs for people with physical, developmental and economic challenges, together with their families and friends, for nearly 32 years.
“When you're out there sailing in the middle of Biscayne Bay and looking back at Miami from a different perspective – feeling the breeze and filling your lungs and your spirit with it all – that water has magical qualities,” Harry says.
On the water, Shake-A-Leg participants gain essential “soft” skills and socialization through programs like Seaworthy Transition, which helps prepare young adults to join the workforce. Socialization opportunities in an inclusive, positive setting are invaluable, especially for young people who have experienced highly-segregated educational environments. Students also gain watersports training and learn about practical skills, like boat and facility maintenance, dock operations, and customer service. Once they complete the course, they’re able to apply for a summer internship, further experience in support of their goals.
No element of sailing lies untouched at Shake-A-Leg. Adults in the Vocational Program learn about woodworking, operating in a workshop, and even creating adaptive equipment aids. This program operates in partnership with Miami-Dade County Public Schools and The WOW Center, a training center serving adults with developmental disabilities.
These are just two of the many programs Shake-A-Leg offers. They serve business groups and other adult groups with the Adult Shake Days, where groups can build team rapport and communication through watersports or environmental clean-up projects. They also help prepare students for the transition out of high school with activities like paddlesports, multimedia, and even island exploration with the Sunday Social program. The Shake Days for Kids teach kids with and without disabilities to sail and kayak while they learn about marine life and improve hand-eye coordination and social skills.
Harry says activities like these are chipping away at obstacles to equality. They’re showing parents of children with disabilities that their kids are safe. They’re providing welcoming connection to people who are often isolated. They’re revealing purpose and possibility to people who have heard they’ll never amount to anything.
“We want those that are feeling down and not seeing potential. There's nothing but opportunity to get out in the water and go home feeling better,” he says.
Harry says he sees hope for the future, especially in Shake-A-Leg’s work with young people who haven’t internalized unfair stereotypes that can diminish confidence in their potential. Shake-A-Leg helps inspire them to dream and to see those dreams through to fruition.
“Socialization is probably an element that we all need to work on to get more people with disabilities into activities that resonate with them. They can make relationships that will make them feel whole. So, getting them to have better self-esteem is something that has to be done,” Harry says.
Shake-A-Leg helps foster this self-compassion and social engagement in disabled veterans, too, through courses ranging from boat-building to fishing.
“When you give a person an opportunity, a support system, and ways for them to succeed and make friendships, their outlook on what's possible changes completely,” Harry says. “When you figure that out, you can live life to the fullest.”
By Greg Clark, Good Miami Project
Context: 20% of the Population is Disabled
One in four American adults lives with a disability, according to the CDC. Furthermore, almost everyone will experience a disability at some point in their lifetime. Yet inaccessibility and prejudice still present barriers to equality for people who use a chair to move or their hands to speak.
The CDC also states that one in three adults with disabilities (ages 18 through 44) lack a health care provider. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that only 19.1% of people with disabilities were employed in 2020. Most of them experience higher rates of poverty, criminalization, and racial discrimination.
Many recognize the need to work against ableism – a term used to describe discrimination and prejudice against people with disabilities – to achieve equal opportunities for and treatment of people with disabilities. Disability advocates like Beth Wagmeister consult businesses on how they can comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
We Are Inclusive Tech
Beth first found aptitude and joy in sign language at summer camp in the Wisconsin Dells. She became a sign language interpreter, but her superiors’ repeated dismissals of her concerns about the treatment of people she interpreted for led her into a rich career of advocacy.
Like Harry, Beth says she sees a lot of positive change as she works to increase accessibility and awareness, particularly in Miami’s tech hub. She mentions Michelle Bakels of G2i who won’t show up to a talk without an interpreter, coding schools like Boca Code that educate students on web accessibility, or Stark, a company focused on making software more accessible.
“The South Florida tech community has just been the easiest to convince of all industries. It's been wonderful, and I think it’s because they're so innovative. They realize that things change so rapidly, and they want to stay relevant,” Beth says.
The shift to more remote work also brought opportunities for people with disabilities. “For people who maybe have anxiety about being in an office, or work better in a quieter place without the socialization and distractions, or need to take medication at a certain time, they now have the comfortability of being at home,” Beth says.
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When reflecting on her hopes for the future, she talks about organic inclusion of the needs of people with disabilities. Generally, we don’t have to request accessible parking spots anymore. We don’t have to ask whether there will be accessible bathroom stalls – they’re a given. And people like Beth are working so that hopefully soon, we won’t have to check ahead of time to find out whether there will be an interpreter at a community event, or a large-print version of a brochure. These won’t be “special needs.” They will be everyday components of an inclusive world.
“My goal in my life, the legacy that I would love to be able to leave behind, is to remove the ask,” Beth says.