Disability Advocacy with Drew Dees

Despite living with Cerebral Palsy, Drew Dees does not let it stop him from pursuing his dreams. His upbringing consisted of a simple principle that has carried him throughout life — anything can be accomplished with effort. Drew is currently dedicating a lot of time and effort to pursuing a career as a Multimedia Journalist, which has been his dream job as long as he can remember. Drew wants to inspire and make a difference in this world through his work, and another way he defines himself is by his work as an advocate for those with special needs. The ability to help others is a gift, and he is glad to be able to serve his community in this way.


SPEAKERS: Drew Dees, Tony Delisle

Tony Delisle  00:00

So a couple quotes come to mind from our guest today, Drew Dees. One of them his dreams don’t work unless you do. And that’s from John Maxwell, guru on leadership, because Drew has a phenomenal work ethic. He’s the first one to wheel in, in the morning, last one to wheel out. And he’s super resilient, has lots of grit and determination. And it’s just amazing. But he also has a clear vision and purpose and that he’s following. And that’s something for all of us to learn about, you know, how do we create our purpose? And then how do we execute on achieving that purpose, a quote comes to mind where it says, you know, a vision without work, will only be a dream. work without having a clear vision is just drudgery. But having a vision and the work to back it up. Well, that’s the change that we need in this world, and within all of us, as well. And he really brings that to life. Ultimately, he really amplifies that and goes beyond and really has a message that we all need to have unity through disability, something that we’re really trying to promote this perspective with people on, and he talks about the importance of this, this collective goodwill that we can give to one another, especially in these times and how important it is that Above all, I think is one of the most important messages that he brings to bear and shares with his on this podcast. I look forward to having you hear him and letting us know what you think about it. Enjoy the podcast. Welcome back to another edition of The Independent Life Podcast. I am so excited today to have on Drew Dees, he has the name of a superhero or like a Hollywood actor or something I don’t know Rockstar perhaps. Drew Dees You don’t even have to work on your handle, you already have an amazing one, you kind of back your name up, your story’s incredible, you’re living your dream, your purpose and have so much to offer. We first met because I got wind of you and your your name is out there to be a speaker for our high school high tech event. And you were able to come along and do some of that. And quickly you and I got partnered up on a few presentations at the University of Florida to a few different venues in which you and I got to co-present and have conversations with people. You and I had a time where the mechanical engineering department was looking to do a more sophisticated grabber for people who had you know, hand mobility issues and you participated in that was it amazing, like high tech, 5g grabber? I don’t know it was amazing. And so you and I got to you know, cars pass. And one thing I gotta say about you drew is that you have this really magnetic energy about you, you have a can do attitude, it seems very growth mindset, very positive. Like all these things, you know, I really want to acknowledge you for just taking the time to come and talk to us and share your perspectives. So in that, introduce yourself to people. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Drew Dees  03:25

Yeah, absolutely. Thanks so much, Tony, to you and listener for having me today, I greatly appreciate it. That’s kind of thought that’s what I thought about love. But my name is Drew Dees. I am currently a senior, wildly crazily enough a senior that’s strange to say, I’ll be graduating this summer with a bachelor’s degree in telecommunications news. So I hope to someday be on your TV, and become your local anchor or put it but I also have a passion for advocating for people with disabilities and and also, you know, and as well as higher education. So who knows, well end up always say, I’ll end up wherever God wants me to be. I, you know, I’m trying to be an anchor point here, but and I’m also open minded, open to whatever wherever He leads me and follow so.

Tony Delisle  04:24

So so where were you born and raised Drew?

Drew Dees  04:27

Sure. So one race in Trenton, Florida. So it’s a small town about 45 minutes east of Gainesville. So it’s a one stoplight town and I always tell people, if you blink, you miss it. It’s not there with all the cows and the heat goes. So that’s the kind of stuff that we saw over time. So yeah, so I went to Trenton High School, graduated in 2014. Then I went to Santa Fe College. Then I transferred in the fall of 2017 here to the University of Florida.

Tony Delisle  05:01

Wow, sort of grew up in a rural area. And I’ve been through Trenton and lovely area, nice Southern, you know, it’s good feel there. To go from there to Gainesville to Santa Fe College and the University of Florida as a senior, you know, what is it that has allowed you to do this and to be independent as you are, I mean, you’re living a very independent type lifestyle. And so what are some of the things that you have needed to have in place in order to be where you are today?

Drew Dees  05:32

I think first and foremost, I want to give a shout out to my tremendous a wonderful parents. I really, truly believe that it all starts there, and the good upbringing. And if you have parents that believe in you, and your mission, and believe that you can do whatever you set your mind to, you’re gonna, you’re gonna thrive from there. That’s the principle that I’ve always lived my life upon, based upon Can’t was not a word in our house, right? You gotta get out laundry you’re gonna get in, then you’re gonna get in there and do everything everyone else does, it just might take you a little either way, you just have to work a little harder than most. So credit my, my parents, first and foremost, for where I am today, but there’s different, I’ve had a great support system beyond that as well, with personal care assistants and resources at Santa Fe College and University of Florida disability resource center. Here at the University Florida especially I cannot speak highly enough about them. They’re next to none. I know, here coming to the University of Florida for me, with about 50,000 students. It’s kind of nerve racking, right? I say that at Santa Fe College you have that smaller, more intimate classroom setting. And it’s like, All right, now I’m really a fish in a big old pond here. But I’m actually I was quite the opposite. The University of Florida has done everything in anything to take me under their wing. And they’ve done lots of great things for me, as well as many other students across campus. And, you know, I always partner with them as well, any way I can, any way that I can give back to the community, for people with disabilities. That’s what I do.

Tony Delisle  07:19

And Drew, you bring to bear one of the most important things that we do you need is that social support. And it sounds like you won the cosmic lottery and having the parents that you have right there to be supportive of you. And you said, beyond that, the social network and support and that’s one of the things we want to drive home to people is that we all need each other. We all belong people with disabilities, like yourself bring so much to the table. And I think one of your quotes was is like, if everybody was like, it would be so boring. like normal is whatever that is. Like, what? Yeah. Yeah, who wants to be normal? So ever done, right? But anyways, you know, you see you bring that, you know, mindset. And I think, you know, that can do attitude, like you said, from your parents, you know, so my question to you is what led you to wanting to do like reporting, multimedia, you want to be on everybody’s TV, this seemed to have been part of what is drawn you through your life experience. So walk me through how that came about? How did you land on that? How did you find that as to be your purpose?

Drew Dees  08:25

Sure. So growing up, I’ve always loved to be in the limelight be in the spotlight. Anywhere, there’s a microphone and a stage. My mom always said she could find me there. So for me, that’s the first thing but first and foremost, with the ongoing debate about disability representation in the in the media, right? How often do we see true representation of disability within the media? We don’t and we definitely don’t see a reporter or an anchor with a physical disability, you know, on TV, and it’s 2020. 2020 almost 2021 right? So I feel that it’s time for someone to change that. So I hope that I can be the one to be the Trailblazer to change that. Like I said, we do have some representation in the media right now. But like, far too often that’s not true representation. They always bring in actors to portray people with disabilities. Why do you do that when you can just have you know personal a true person with a disability but lives in a portary that part or play that part better than anyone else?

Tony Delisle  09:39

Yes. Wow, true. And well I tell you, I think you have the it factor, that juice some people say to do that, and so I have already gotten your autograph I think three years ago and I know it’s gonna just like appreciate over time. That is amazing. You know, as you have with this purpose, really pulled yourself, you know, into the where you are today, all this, you know, independence that you’ve had to work, you know, to have in your life to be able to achieve these goals, what would you say is some of the things that you would tell people with disabilities that if they want to go on a similar trajectory as you, and that could be school, and all these other kinds of things? What kind of message would you have to somebody? Because this is pretty aspirational, and requires a purpose, you found your purpose? What would you tell people who are like actively, like looking to take it to the next level? And again, it could be school, it could be, you know, work, it could be relationships, it could be their health, you know, but wanting to take it to the next level? Like you’re, you’re taking yourself to the next level by finding your why. So what can you tell those of us who have disabilities? How can we go on a similar trajectory as Drew Dees?

Drew Dees  10:51

I would say, believe it or not, everyone has their down days, even me. But I would say first and foremost, do not give up. I’m always like, say, Do not stop at the first no. If I were to stop at the first No, I would, I would not be sitting here in my dorm room here, the University of Florida, about to graduate, Tony, talking to you today. So it’s really it really takes that grit and determination. Yeah, we may get rejected, um, to start off and just to go on a little bit, I myself, you know, I’m thriving, I’m doing the best I can. But I myself along the way, I’ve always faced rejections, specifically, within the broadcast industry in the media field, it’s been hard to get those internships and things and to get those employers to look beyond the barriers, look beyond and still continue to see me as an asset to the organization. I’ve been denied for a particular internship three times, three times I was denied. So that, and that they told me the media field, the media industry, its just not for me. But I kept persistent and, you know, God, God said, God puts people in places people in your life are the right places, other times, and I didn’t give up, I still went to those career fairs every year, here at the College of Journalism and Communications. And finally, I had a company take a chance on me. And not only wasn’t a company, a media company, but it was a company outside of Gainesville, okay, it was a company all the way in Orlando, West 2 news. Perfect. Enough about the positive experiences I had done there in Orlando. But had I not faced that rejection, had I gotten a local internship, I would have just remained here, inside my bubble here in Gainesville, Florida. And I wouldn’t have the network expansion that I have now. The resources that I have in other areas.

Tony Delisle  13:09

So Drew, you said a lot there. And kind of going a little deep on on some of those things. Because how do we deal with these setbacks like the you experience so we’re in this place of rejection, I want to put up air quotes when I say failure, because through this podcast, we’re gonna really talk about what quote unquote, failure is, basically, an opportunity to learn, but in the, in the times of going through these, you know, setbacks, or, you know, things didn’t go the way we wanted them to, and we worked really hard and did all the things in our power to, we got to be in that space. How do you take yourself out of that space? How do you base those times, so that you can actually grow from them? versus this, like, keeping you down? Or just saying, you know what, like you said, You were right up to that edge. You said, like, this might not be for me. So what taught you back off that edge? How do you get off that edge?

Drew Dees  13:59

I think for me, I, like you said I was almost on that cliff almost ready to jump. And I think for me, I really had to take a step back. Re-evaluate, keep pushing, because I’m a can do person, right? You’re not gonna tell me no. And I said, you know, if this is meant to be, it will all work out. Not in my timing now, in God’s time. And for me, personally, I really rely on my faith. And not only my faith, but the people around me, the people who I choose to surround myself, the people who have may have gone through a similar experience as me. So that can help me and coach me and get me to where I need to be along the way.

Tony Delisle  14:48

So you talked about a couple of values there that you’ve kind of have taken away from those challenges and to get to where you’re at today. grit and perseverance, grit and perseverance. Could you talk a little bit about what that means to you and how it’s been used by you to face and overcome the challenges and how you put that into practice?

Drew Dees  15:10

I think those two things. Without those, no one, no one succeeds, right. But I think people with disabilities as a whole, I think each and every one of us have a little bit more grit, and a little bit more perseverance than everyone else. Because we face challenges we face obstacles every day, right? But what we learn through those challenges, and what we learned through that perseverance, is we learn how to adapt to changes. Take COVID for instance, you know, everyone’s world has been turned upside down. But for people with disabilities, that’s nothing new. Because every day, we’ll we’ll be on the straight and narrow. And life will take a sharp pain, but you know, what you do, you get back up, dust yourself off, and you begin again, and something gone down the road of COVID, something that’s been very striking to me, you know, in the times of COVID, we have people with disabilities, we would like to have certain accommodations and things put in place, right. And when we asked for those things, well, we were told, That’s not possible. But all of a sudden, we have pandemic like COVID-19. And it changes for everyone. So in the snap of a finger, there’s the accomodations that we’ve been fighting for, for many years. So that’s my most interesting thing. COVID is how the world just suddenly Oh! Let’s make it better. Well, you know, and that’s thing. Yeah, we need accommodations. But at the end of the day, it’s not just about us, does it help us? Sure. But to make this world more universally designed, is better for all, not just people with disabilities.

Tony Delisle  17:08

Yeah, so I like how you tied that thread between grit, perseverance, and adaptability, you know, on a day in and day out basis, going through that, it’s like doing reps, you get stronger from it. And when something like you said, the COVID pandemic comes along those same mechanics, it just might be new to everybody, but the same mechanics of having to deal with the challenge, and sometimes the fear or uncertainty at the beginning and processing it, and then, you know, kind of the reflex of the mechanics go in is like, okay, we faced this before, I’ve done this over here. So I can do this here. And I can, you know, figure ways around above and beyond and over and under whatever way that that it is, and, you know, I’ll do everything in our power, let go of the things I can’t control. And like you said, we’ll be put in the right place at the right time when the students ready, the teacher appears. And so, you know, as you lead us through that, you know, kind of thread here. You know, to me, one of the things that I find very interesting in what you said, that you tie into now is universal design. And that’s good for everybody. Could you explain to us what universal design means and why that is so very important, and that everyone needs to understand what it’s all about.

Drew Dees  18:26

Universal Design is simply put, access for all eliminating barriers, all kinds for all people. In a recent interview that I had, I said, you know, universal at some point in your life, you’re going to experience having a disability, whether you’ve torn your leg, or you you’ve torn your ACL on crutches now, or whether you like me and yourself was long term disability, long term disability, you’re going to experience having a disability so at some point, universal design is going to be beneficial to everyone. So I think that it’s really important. Um, for instance, I live at Cypress Hall, which is only one of two completely ADA accessible dorms in the nation. Let me say that again, one of two. We are about to head into 2021 and please tell me, please tell me why they are lonely till universal design completely accessible at dorms in the country? That’s quite shocking. And that’s quite limiting to people with disabilities such as myself, who want to go to school and get their education because you know what, a lot of them without facilities such as Cypress Hall that has you know, the the main bar is we have an IDA that controls the by the doors A walk in shower a foyer lift, that will take you from the bed to the shower, right. Only one of two facilities in the nation have that so these students aren’t able to get into these institutions or how these things, they might not get the chance to go to college, they may want to, but because of barriers and obstacles, they can’t. So I truly believe that it’s time that we change that not only not only in the education system, but I feel like universal design needs to extend beyond the walls of the University of Florida, and beyond the walls of Illinois, because you know, what, as scary as it is, I have X amount of months. And this place, Cypress has been great, and has enhanced my life in ways that I wouldn’t have never thought possible. But in six or seven months, I’m gonna walk out these doors, and that’s no longer gonna be your reality. So I, that’s my big push, you know, cuz I’ve seen what universal design can do, what kind of benefits people can have from it. So it’s really my big push to get that out into the communities, beyond the walls of Cypress Hall and beyond the walls of the University of Florida, because we deserve to live long and prosperous lifves, just as anyone else.

Tony Delisle  21:53

Couldn’t be well, better said there Drew, you lay out so many important issues that are here, and many of which are at an academic, you know, institution level. And I want to tie that to the founder of the independent living movement, and Ed Roberts, and, you know, is largely due to his efforts to get into Berkeley. And this was long before disability resource centers or other kinds of policies that are on the book to make sure that these this access is there. And so I think these institutions are so very important in terms of pushing the accommodations that are needed, the voice of for people to have these kind of discussions, certainly a place and area for the research to understand what the data can tell us. And so I really appreciate that, you know, these institutions exist, and could be really good beds of opportunity for people with disabilities truly, you know, be one of the, you know, fronts that helps to advance the cause. And so, you know, I really am thankful for that. You know, and then you talk about some really important issues within that, and you talk about COVID. And now you’re talking about, like life after college. And so what are some of the issue areas that you’re going to face after you graduate from the University? And, and now you’re out. What are some of the access issues or other kinds of things out there that, you know, ever concern to you in terms of living independently at the next level.

Drew Dees  23:18

So I love to tell the story, this gets me good opportunity. Prior to coming to Cypress Hall, Mike came to Cypress Hall in 2018, I believe. And I lived in an apartment setting here in Gainesville for three years prior to coming to living on campus. So I did it backwards. And one of the biggest things for me is prior to coming, living on campus and a fully, completely ADA accessible, completely ADA compliant, excuse me, accessible dorm, like Cypress, I recall in and out of the bathroom. Now let’s picture that. That’s completely safe, right? No, it’s not safe at all. So that’s one of the big barriers for me, and I’m already starting to hit the ground running and look for different places to live. And I really started ground running really hard next month, because the sooner the better. But I’ve come to find we that have accessible housing that’s that’s perfect foru us and was not affordable, or we have affordable housing that’s not quiet accessible. So that’s one of the big barriers and I think two things on that can change that. One. It’s been 30 years. Since the ADA has been passed. I believe it’s time to touch that baby, tweak it up and tighten up the guidelines a little bit because there’s a lot of apartment complexes in a lot of places in Gainesville and beyond I’m sure that I’m able to get away with Oh, as long as they’re able to get in side of the building or as long as they’re able to have the light switches of the sites, were compliant. There’s a difference between being compliant and accessible. And the second thing that can help change that is to let people with disabilities have a seat at the table, during these design processes. It amazes me there’s so much we’re in a college town, right? There’s so many apartments like, it’s booming, there’s so many new apartment complexes being built that time and time again, I’m seeing Oh, there’s a tub. Oh, there’s a tub. Why not take you know, just like the law with ADA handicap parking spot, you know, there’s supposed to be one for every 25 or something like that. So why not do something of that nature in apartment complexes, like for however so many have that be accessible for people with disabilities.

Tony Delisle  26:10

So I hear you say housing is going to be a major issue after your graduate. Accessible, affordable, I would also add safe housing, can we get that trifecta for people, you know, I mean, that’s an important thing. And there’s so much there in that issue. And in this podcast, we look to explore this issue area of accessible, affordable and safe housing for people with disabilities and you know, so I can really, you know, say drew that you know, your, you know, we’d love to have you back and talk about you know, your journey through this, you know, as well as well. And definitely one of the biggest issues outside of COVID. Before COVID I would say around our area is affordable, and certainly accessible housing. So that’s something I think everyone in Florida and even the nation is facing, so you nailed a big one right there. So Drew I want to get your take on you know, some what to do is here are some scenarios that I think a lot of people while in the academic system kind of face if they have a disability. Especially a student at a university that has a disability, perhaps it’s a learning disability, which happens to be the one of the most common or it could be whatever disability it may be, they totally qualify for resources at the Disability Resource Center that you find so fantastic to get the accommodations they need, but for whatever reason, they’re really not accessing or utilizing it, so maybe they have gone to the DRC but they’re, you know, not giving the accommodation letters to the professor. And so either one you know, not accessing, you know, the services that are out there, or if you do really kind of not utilizing them, and they’re apprehensive and doing it largely perhaps because of stigma. I’ve run across a lot of students in my experience here at the University of Florida that just weren’t getting the resources they needed because of stigma surrounding that you know, some students I was working with learning disabilities we’re very afraid of what their friends would think their friends you know, thinking that they were just copying a disability to get extra time you do have in many schools of this nature are very competitive and so whatever competitive advantage and so they were like facing all these different really internal struggles for whatever reasons. I remember veterans, working with some veterans there at the university. Veteran students are a little older and you know, even if they haven’t, they had interesting perspectives on accessing and utilizing services too. And so what would you tell that you know, student who you know, maybe holding back on, you know, accessing or utilizing those services due to stigma or whatever reason it may be?

Drew Dees  28:43

First and foremost, I believe we, we’ve got to put our pride aside, because we’ve all we’ve all been myself, we all think we’re like, No, no, we don’t need them. But first and foremost, you got to put your pride aside and get the help that you need. Because you know what, more often than not once you get that little bit of extra help that you need a little extra push, you will see you may be getting by at the University of Florida. Well, the university like the University of Florida, but you may see a lot of positive growth because of that one small minute change because that one small, minute accommodation. And in my eyes, we all need accommodations in some form or fashion. And then in the day. So I will say just Yep, you you may face some backlash on the way because don’t we all? We all have friends that are like hey, you can extra time. I wish I had that. But I have to tell people, Oh, you want the accommodation?  Would you like the barriers that come with it as well? You know if you want if you want the slice the cake might not take the whole cake with it. Um, but uh, yeah, I would say just, you know, break that stigma, there’s gonna be people out there that are gonna, they’re gonna envy you. But ultimately, deep down, you know what you need. And you know that, whether you’re cheating the system or whether or not. I’ll be honest, I have accommodations here at the University of Florida. Sometimes I use it and sometimes I don’t, and I always go into the semester as, Drew, you have these accommodations and they’re there if you need them, but always go in there, headstrong, and I’m always up front with my professors to like, Hey, I have these accommodations, but don’t treat me any differently than any other student. But however, along the way, if I need to utilize them, I will reach out to you and let you know and, and that’s worked well, for me. Proceeding that way.

Tony Delisle  30:57

So I love how you say put your pride aside. Because maybe that is in play, they’re worried about what other people think of them. And that always struck me, with my experience in working at the VA with sometimes veteran students and who are very brave. And obviously putting their lives on the line or they’re sacrificing so much for us and bravery, I can’t even come close to understanding touching in my life. And to see, you know, how stigma sometimes prevents them from reaching out or getting those kinds of things like the utilization rate of service connected disabilities for veterans, is very low compared to the percentage of veterans that have disabilities. So figuring out how we can really overcome these stigmas are very important to not just this population, but many populations that really are holding back in from getting those things and almost would rather eat the barrier, like you’re saying, and go through the hardships and a lot of reasons for that. And yeah, I think you said like, pride is one of them, and to eat our own ego and pride sometimes, but as part of it, it’s a hard pill to swallow. But man, humility is a really good thing I found in my life, you also got to be vulnerable. And that takes courage. And certainly, people like veterans certainly know what that’s all about. So, you know, so I’m going to give you another scenario, and this is one I came across, and come up very often, you know, where parents who have, you know, students or children, you know, with disabilities, you know, perhaps like early on in elementary, especially, are coming to terms with the fact that their child has a disability, they haven’t necessarily applied for, you know, these kind of services to get accommodations and go through the process of the documentation and everything else out there like that. And, again, are hesitant to do to, yeah, the stigma, there was an experience that I had at a disability awareness training that we were giving to, like, 300, you know, county employees, and this very courageous woman who was black, stood up and talked about how her nine year old boy, you know, has autism. And they’re finding this out now, and it’s a new diagnosis. And she was struggling with, you know, getting services for him through the school, because she just didn’t want to put another label on a young black male, you know, kid, I mean, like this, man, you know, so there’s something to that I like, putting a label on people and this and the other. And yet, it’s like, the hope is to get the services you need. It’s this conundrum. I don’t have any answers for it. But I don’t know, what would you tell your parents that are, you know, kind of struggling and grappling with some of those kind of harder, you know, choices that aren’t just so clear?

Drew Dees  33:39

I would say, it’s gonna be hard, it’s gonna be tough, you know, you’re gonna be like, wow, there’s something wrong with my kid. Wow. What have I done? Or Wow, what could I have done differently? Maybe. So, I’m gonna I’m gonna say to anyone listening, that there’s nothing wrong with your child. And, you know, I would hope that the, you would explain that to them as well. There’s nothing wrong with you, you just, you just need a little extra help. And we all need a little extra help. At some point in our lives. Yeah. It may not be disability, but we’ve all we’ve all needed assistance in one area. We’re human, right? We’re not going to be strong student and everything. So I think just just seeing that there’s nothing wrong with putting a quote unquote, “label” on it. Be proud of it. Teach them to be proud of it and be proud of that identity. Be proud of who your kid is, you know, that that is just a small part, a small fraction of who they are as a person. That is not the whole individual, and it certainly does not define them.

Tony Delisle  35:21

love what you say about be proud of it. So, you know, we’re a marginalized group and it seems like there’s a, you know, many groups are really an embracing of who they are. And like, we want to stand under this tent and and, you know who wants to stand out of the 10 of disability who wants to come in that let’s come, let’s make this 10 as wide as we can and make it somewhere where they like you want to be the, you know, face a disability want to be out there, and don’t see it as a, you know, deficit thing, but rather as a strength, like you’ve articulated many values that disabilities you taught, you hear? And so how can we widen that tent? How can we how can we get more people, because because I was embarrassed about my disability for a very long time, I wouldn’t admit it to a lot of people. But it was very evident after I was bumping into walls and, you know, holding paper up to my, you know, this close to me, you know, trying to read and all this other kind of stuff. And so I listened on, you know, and to this day, you know, I get it, you know, sometimes shy about it. And so how do we get people to, to, like, come together and be proud of having a disability or have disability? How do we do that?

Drew Dees  36:28

I think it all starts with education. And I always say that it’s never too soon to educate people, about people with disabilities. Or it may not even have to be disability, it could be gender, it could be race. It can be sexuality, just different things in general. As a motivational speaker, myself, I’ve traveled to many different venues and gave many different talks. And recently, I was so excited, because I had my first in-person. I’ve met at a local middle school here in Gainesville for the first time in months, since COVID. And it was actually at the Rock School, and I was very proud of what this specific teacher was doing, because there was a group of middle school students. But this teacher at the Rock School had all his students research about disability. Research about someone, a famous person with a disability or someone within your community, who is striving and achieving, and overcoming barriers and obstacles with a disability. And I was so honored and privileged that I had a little girl write a whole five-page paper me, right, a whole research report. And when I came and met, so check also meet me in person, and she was so eager to show me her paper to show me her work that she had done on the back wall, and I just read it and it’s great. We’re in middle… this is a middle school kid with a five page paper. Here I am at the University of Florida, a five page paper. And this is complete with citations. University of Florida college kid and I’m  complaining about something a middle school student has done. I just kind of took a moment, right, and I let it all sink in. And I had a couple tears that flew down my face cuz I’m like, wow, like…

Tony Delisle  38:30

I got goosebumps, as you’re saying that.

Drew Dees  38:32

… the impact you are making on someone’s life. And that’s when you know, I’ve always said this, I believe that others get I was given my struggles to give me an even greater purpose in life, right? I was given my struggles, so that I can make a difference on the life of others. Because I can tell you, if I didn’t have my disability, I would be some old Joe Schmo on the street. But I’ve had so many so many incredible opportunities, because I’ve embraced my disability, because my family has embraced my disability. And because I’m proud of it, and I see it as an advantage rather than a disadvantage.

Tony Delisle  39:14

Amen. So Drew, tell me what you would want people to know who do not have disabilities, about people with disabilities.

Drew Dees  39:27

Sure, point blank and simple. We are no different from you. We we want to live those strong and prosperous lives just as you all have. We want to have a family we want to get our education, we want to get married, we want to have kids, we want to have a house. We’re no different from you. We just might have to.. it might take us a little longer to accomplish things or you might have to work a little harder. But I can tell you what I’m so thankful again. I’m so thankful for disability, because we’re able to see life from a different perspective, through a different lens, we’re able to be more humble, because we’ve had the work for what we have today. So I would just, you know, first and foremost, at the end of the day, get the time, take the time, to know someone, get to know someone with a disability, get to know even disability, get to know someone, that’s different from you, educate yourself. And you know, it’d be amazing and shocking what you may want from an individual.

Tony Delisle  40:36

I think everybody can teach one another. I love how you talk about how we all just… go ahead.

Drew Dees  40:42

Teach one another. And the end of the day, I just on my heart to say this, you cannot teach one another. And we can all learn to love one another. We are in a world right now that is so divided. Even crazy. But imagine what one one random act of kindness today would do. Imagine what you smile, or wave or Hello, can do to someone. Now obviously, it’s a little harder now. Because we’re in COVID. That’s been the toughest part. Because… Because I’m a lover, and you can’t hug and you can’t shake was like, hey, I need this to be over to be back to doing what I do. But yeah, I just love one another, just because in a world where we are so divided, and there’s so much hate, let’s be united, and stand together and embrace our differences.

Tony Delisle  41:37

Drew, you just laid out what I think is the antidote for all this divisiveness going on tribalism and all these different things that are really in play right now. The perfect antidote is like you’re saying, kindness, kindness. And being kind to one another, you know, where does that come from, you know, having compassion for one another. And it goes, I think to what you were saying earlier about, you know, we’re more alike than different. You know, to see one another in each other leads to that compassion leads to then treating one another, like you would treat yourself, you know, and and then, you know, leads to, like, you were saying higher levels of forms love, you know, and then what will that do today, and unity is something that we’re really trying to push on this discussion and space that we’re creating here, unity through disability. Again, this is something that impacts everyone, if not now it will, you know, if not, now for you, you know, someone that does that you care about, they have a disability, and it does impact everybody, and what a great place to come to be united, right? I don’t think politics is gonna be the space where we come to be united. So what I’m, you know, kind of honing in on is just like, you know, wow, you know, like, we go out and build a wheelchair ramp with, you know, some people, you know, we all have different political views, but at the time that we’re working together, we’re just like, you know, shooting the breeze joking around, you know, having natural conversations like you and I are having it just doesn’t matter what our political or religious or other religious beliefs are. It’s just that we’re here together and serve as helping one another. Again, that really the foundations of which are compassion, kindness, love, you know, just having these things is where we can come together and be united and how disabilities is ripe with those values and that fruit So, so Drew, you know, I’m kind of getting into my closing questions here. And so one of them would be, you know, for you drew, what do you see as being a meaningful life for you? You know, like, you’re looking ahead, you got so much going on. It’s just really just wonderful for you, what is the meaning and fulfilling life look like to you? Well, you wanted to look back on the 80 year old Drew, looking back at it, you know, his what what he you know, your mid 20s? Now, you know, so to be fulfilled at that point, you know, what will what Drew have either done or been or sad or just, you know, what, what does that look like to you, for Drew Dees, what’s a meaningful, fulfilling life?

Drew Dees  44:12

I will say, no matter what capacity you may be in, just to make a difference, and make a positive impact in the life of others, whether that be a reporter, or an anchor, or whether that be, you know, I’m on I want to write my book, my own book, after I graduate here at the University of Florida, and just travel and speak to people and spread the message that we are no different from anyone else. You know, just whatever capacity you just continue to serve, continuing to love others, and continue to let people know that I’m here to listen, and I care for them and the end of the day. And my struggles will be their struggles and I always say, at the end of the day, if I can let one person know that they’re worth it and make a difference in their life, then I’ve done my job. And I go through all these struggles. So that hopefully along the way, 20 years from now, a student at the University of Florida will not see your… come across the same barriers that I’ve had to do my time here, during my time on Santa Fe, or even in high school, elementary school. And everything I do, I always say do with a purpose, and I do it for the future generation for other people like me.

Tony Delisle  45:34

You’re one of a kind Drew, I say that in the most fondest way. So last question here Drew something we asked everybody that comes on. So what does the independent life mean to you?

Drew Dees  45:48

Sure. So the independent life to me, it means that I’m living as normal life as possible. I may need a little assistance along the way, but I’m on doing and achieving and living and living the American dream. So that’s what that means to me. And I hope that at the end of the day, everyone that’s listening today, everyone that will listen in the future, will achieve their American dream too, whatever that may be.

Tony Delisle  46:21

L-I-V-I-N, livin’. Part of the L and the IL. Well said the American Dream pursuit to happiness, we’re gonna have to get into happiness, you’re just, it’s one of the things that I want to acknowledge you for Drew, is that your mindset and your attitude is very positive and upbeat and energetic and very authentic as well. It’s like not like this superficial rainbows and kitten, you know, cute kitten video, you know, kind of happy, you know, go lucky kind of thing. It’s a real authenticity of who you are. And you seem to, you just have a knack of being yourself and being authentic. And there’s something so refreshing about that. And there’s a magnetism that draws people to you, it’s a real honor to know you get to know you. And you’re just definitely one of those people that in my life, I feel like I’m a better person, because they have knowing them or getting to know them. So I want to acknowledge you and thank you for that and want to help amplify your message in any way that we can there Drew, because I do consider you a dear friend, and you can tell that the girl that wrote that report about you. I got a 2017 autograph of yours that can’t be bought. Okay, let’s just put it like that. All right. But Drew, you know, wonderful having you on. I look forward to having you on more and and always checking in with you and picking your brain. I could go on and talk to you forever. Okay, Drew?

Drew Dees  47:46

Yeah, thanks so much for having me today. If anyone’s listening, and they want to reach out or connect with me, whether it be disability-related stuff, or news stuff, which by the way, I’m an open book, and I’m here to help. God bless and take care

Tony Delisle  48:03

Drew, we’re gonna have all your contact information in our show notes, and we’re gonna put that out there. We’re going to give you this episode to put on your platforms. And so you know, please, we want people to reach you and connect with you and be able to get a hold of you. So all right, Drew. Well, that’s another episode of The Independent Life. Until next time, onward and upward.

Amy Feutz  48:27

Thanks for listening to The Independent Life podcast brought to you by the Center for Independent Living of North Central Florida. If you like what you hear, please rate review and subscribe. And if you know anyone who might benefit from listening, share this podcast and invite them to subscribe to for questions, suggestions, or if you have a story you’d like to share, please email us at cilncf.org@gmail.com for call us at 3523787474. Thanks for joining us. Until next time, support, advocate and empower each other to live the independent life.