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Breaking Ground 105 Arts - I AM DETERMINED!

by Jen Vogus, 2007 Partners in Policymaking® Leadership Institute graduate

On a warm spring day in 2019, when driving through the parking lot of a local high school, I found myself admiring all of the professional quality baseball and softball posters hanging on the fence surrounding the ball fields. The larger-than-life images showcased the young athletes in their uniforms beaming with pride, excited to be a part of their school team. Some of them were smiling for the camera, others were giving serious, competitive looks. All modeled a variety of fielding or batting positions. 

I was there that day to work with a group of transition-aged special education students as part of a semester-long AbleVoices project with Williamson County Schools. I developed the nonprofit organization, AbleVoices, to teach photography to people with disabilities as a means for self-expression, empowerment, and advocacy. As I parked my car, I thought about the people I have worked with over the past few years, and their wide range of activities, interests, and passions. I remembered young adults who excelled in horseback riding, Special Olympics sports, post-secondary education programs, musical instruments and singing, visual arts, and more. I thought to myself, “They should have the same types of posters celebrating their accomplishments, too!” And that’s when the “I AM DETERMINED!” project was born. 

I AM DETERMINED! showcases the self-determination of its stars. In the disability community, self-determination refers to a person taking action and responsibility for one’s own life instead of others having to do things to or for them. People who are self-determined choose to set their own goals and then work to reach them. They don’t have to do everything for themselves but find needed support to improve their lives.

To put a spotlight on these self-determined young adults, they get a professional in-studio photo shoot with me that captures their specific interest or talent, such a hobby, sport, or job. They wear and bring their uniforms, gear, and equipment to tell the visual story of their skill.  The photos are then combined with the expert graphic artistry of my brother, Chuck Eiler, who has more than 20 years of experience in the field. Chuck provides a one-of-a-kind artistic background that reflects the unique talents and interests of that person and their passion. 

Two Asian teenagers, a sister and a brother, are posed back to back in this poster. The girl is in a cheerleading uniform with a green T-shirt, white skirt, and green-and-white hair ribbons and pom-poms. She has a big smile. Her brother is seated in his wheelchair in a green basketball jersey and athletic shorts. He is holding a basketball and looks determined and serious. The background of their poster is a vague image of a large basketball and they are standing amongst clouds.
Zoe and Zion Redington
a young Asian woman is seated in her wheelchair on a leafy lawn meant to represent Vanderbilt’s campus, wearing a “Next Steps at Vanderbilt” T-shirt. The Batman building, a key part of the Nashville skyline, is behind her in the distance. She has long black hair, glasses and a big smile and has a book open on her lap. Stacks and stacks of closed and open books lay around her on the grass.
Peach Chinratanalab
a young white man with a basketball jersey and athletic shorts and sneakers on, shown on a dim basketball court with a hoop behind him and sunlight streaming into the gyn. He is holding a basketball and has a big smile. His jersey says “SOTNWC” which stands for “Special Olympics TN Williamson County”, and his jersey number is 22
Bryant Welch
•	Ryan Wallace’s poster – Ryan, a young adult white man with glasses, is shown saluting the camera with a serious expression on his face and standing at attention. He is wearing a JROTC/military uniform and beret. The background of his poster is outdoors with an American flag blowing in the wind right behind him and mountains and a setting sun in the distance.
Ryan Wallace
a young white woman in a white t-shirt, black leggings and her brown hair pulled back in a ponytail poses in a dance move with one arm arched gracefully over her head and the other arm out to the side of her body. She’s shown in a blue misty spotlight
Haileigh Taylor
a Young Asian man seated, playing a cello, with a big smile and his eyes closed. He’s pictured on a stage in a beautiful old concert hall with red velvet seats and golden balconies behind him
BoumJun Bae

Then comes my favorite part of the project – the big reveal to each I AM DETERMINED! star. Each star receives a 24x36 framed poster along with a digital file for social media at no cost. I love seeing each person’s eyes light up as they inspect their portrait, showing them in a world created about them and just for them.

Because of COVID-19, we were unable to have a physical exhibit of the posters and reception for the stars. But we were able to celebrate these young adults virtually in November 2020 with our inaugural I AM DETERMINED! exhibit. The recipients introduced themselves to the attendees and delighted the audience with their wide variety of interests, strengths, and passions. We were honored to have classically trained soprano Tyler Samuel give a keynote speech titled, “We are so much more than the label of our diagnoses.” She ended with a moving rendition of the gospel hymn, “This Little Light of Mine.” I AM DETERMINED! recipients Drew Basham and Andrew Braach also moved us with their respective classical piano and country music performances.  The Zoom chat panel was on fire with comments such as:

  • “So eloquent, Drew! You have flowing fingers!”
  • “Tyler, I want a copy of your speech! Preach!”
  • “You rocked it, Andrew. You’re Nashville-bound!”
  • “What an incredible group of determined young adults!”

You can watch the performances on the AbleVoices YouTube channel.

Once we can gather safely in person, these posters (along with captions about the star) will be on exhibit at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (hopefully in 2021). The exhibit title is, “I AM DETERMINED! Photographs of Strengths, Commitment, and Passion.” Our goal is to educate the public on the variety of activities that people with disabilities do and at which they excel.

In 2021, AbleVoices will accept nominations from local disability organizations for adults to be featured in the next phase of this special project. We’re looking for Tennesseans with disabilities who embody self-determination through a skill, job, or talent that can be celebrated in a custom artistic poster.

I believe this project is so important because it helps everyone see disability in a new light. It depicts the unique strengths, commitments, and talents of members of the disability community. When others see these images, they see potential, possibility, and joy. I AM DETERMINED! also helps achieve a core goal of AbleVoices – creating more inclusive communities that nurture the talents and passions of all members.

In closing, I share this quote from University of Kansas’ Dr. Michael Wehmeyer, as it is the essence of our project: “…Promoting self-determination is about promoting dignity and respect, valuing people, and raising expectations of and for people with disabilities. Becoming more self-determined is an important part of the transition from being an adolescent to becoming an adult…”

Jen Vogus is the founder and executive director of AbleVoices, a non-profit organization whose mission is to amplify the voices of people in the disability community through the powerful medium of photography, ultimately fostering more inclusive communities. She is also the parent of two young adult children, one of whom has physical and intellectual disabilities. Learn more and view the 13 poster images at www.ablevoices.org/photo-advocacy-projects/i-am-determined. You can contact Jen at jen@ablevoices.org and follow AbleVoices on Facebook and Instagram.

To see more images and videos for this project: