“Disability Speaks to Me”: A Conversation with Emily Morrison

by Jessica Charles Abrams

Emily Morrison high-fiving a man in a wheelchair

Emily Morrison is not only a gifted writer, compassionate social worker, and avid disability rights activist, but she is also the daughter of the scientist who created Gatorade nearly 60 years ago – this has enabled her to support Kupenda for the past 14 years as a generous philanthropist and foundation board member.

We recently had the honor of sitting down with Emily to learn more about her passion for disability justice and commitment to supporting Kupenda’s work to improve the lives of children with disabilities.

During this intimate conversation, Emily also shared how her own journey as a person living with a disability has contributed to her desire to support our families in Kenya.

“I’ve always been interested in disability–partly because of my own experience [of having an] undiagnosed disability as a child. Mine is dyslexia as well as a sleep disorder, which… was disabling because, as a child, if you’re chronically sleep deprived, how do you begin to learn? And so [I was] always feeling judged, and being told I wasn’t bright and capable, and being treated like I wasn’t by the system, held back in school by my family and other people around me. It was always on my heart… and then turning out that I had autoimmune arthritis [that] had been misdiagnosed for 25 years and becoming more disabled… that keeps me focused on disability… those struggles with my own life.”

Emily also shared about her passion for Kupenda’s stigma-reduction work. Many disability organizations focus on direct service, such as providing children with wheelchairs, meals, or tuition support. Kupenda’s work goes beyond that to address why these children aren’t given food, education, and equipment in the first place.

“[Kupenda is] changing the hearts and minds of people, [like some] traditional healers who… tell mothers [of children with disabilities] that they sinned and [should] get rid of the child. … [This causes] blame where women feel at fault when a child is born with a disability. It is the changing of the hearts and minds of people. … We have to reach them, or else things won’t change. The [negative] perceptions [about disability] won’t change.”

In 2019, Emily saw the impact of Kupenda’s stigma reduction work firsthand when she visited our field office in Kenya.

“It begins in this place where [the families] are happy to bring their children out and show their children. [I met] a traditional healer [who] had been encouraging mothers [of children with disabilities]. [One] mother [I met] said that changed her heart. [That traditional healer] was at every meeting that I was at. She had started her own support group to help families with disabilities, and that was so encouraging.”

During her time in Kenya, Emily also got to know our Kenyan Director, Leonard Mbonani, and spend more time with our U.S. CEO, Cynthia Bauer. Leonard and Cynthia began working together in 1999 and, since then, have founded two disability organizations that together improve the lives of thousands of children with disabilities every year. Emily reflected on how she feels Leonard and Cynthia’s leadership styles and commitment to this work have contributed to its success.

“Something that attracted me when I first met Cynthia, was her humility. … many people who do nonprofits… have to be the center of everything, but Cynthia has that humility. And Leonard… and everyone who works with Kupenda, they all have a sense of humility about their work. And when you’re working with people with disabilities, humility is so, so important. And when you’re working with families who may be doing harm to their disabled child because of the pressure they feel in society–but [Kupenda] approaches them with humility instead of judgment. And that’s how you change hearts. … [In] many nonprofits, in my experience as a funder, you see… where it is about the founder or the organization, and they have no humility about who they are.”

Emily is also drawn to Kupenda for its willingness to deal with the more challenging aspects of this work, which can sometimes be uncomfortable to talk about.

“Another aspect… that I saw in Cynthia right away is the whole issue of grief. [Many other organizations] just discourage… discussions of grief and sadness and depression, and it’s all about joy and happiness. Cynthia wasn’t that way… that’s part of the humility–understanding grief and sadness and depression are part of it, and it’s OK to be part of it. It’s hard. Disability is hard. And that’s why the families need more support. … They need people to walk with them throughout life because disability doesn’t always go away.”

Kupenda’s growth model is another area Emily admires. When she first met Kupenda in 2009, Cynthia and Leonard were only working in Kenya and reaching a few hundred kids each year. Today the organization’s work is used by partners in more than 35 countries and improves the lives of more than 70,000 children with disabilities each year.

“I see that [Kupenda’s model] is the model of getting it right in a smaller context. And instead of trying to go huge and big right away, it’s getting things right and building the model to where it’s right. And that’s what I saw Kupenda [do] over the years… they were building this model. … [Now] other organizations want to adopt this fabulous model. It’s not [only] about Kupenda [now]–it’s about Kupenda sharing what they know with other people, coaching them through it, and [empowering] people on the ground. … so it becomes a wider, broader model.”

In addition to supporting Kupenda’s work, Emily also shares her passion for disability justice through creative writing. This excerpt from a piece about her mother demonstrates Emily’s empathy and compassion for others like herself who live with disabilities. Over the years, this passion has inspired Emily to help Kupenda improve the lives of thousands of families in need around the world.

“Disability speaks to me, as my body struggles with disease, chronic pain, and reduced mobility… 

I remember when I told you that I had auto immune arthritis…

you immediately understood, and empathized with my suffering. 

You defended me against insensitive, and naïve comments. 

Did that come from a deeper understanding of disability,

a new connection we shared?”

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