Xian Horn is a joyful half-Asian woman with Cerebral Palsy who serves as a teacher, speaker, beauty advocate, blogger and Exemplar for the AT&T NYU Connect Ability Challenge toward the creation of Assistive Technology. In addition to her work as an accessibility advocate, she is a contributing writer at Forbes Online.
How did you get started in accessibility?
I never wanted to advocate because that would be the “obvious” thing to do. I’ve always seen my disability as a most valuable asset and a cherished part of my life. I assumed quite wrongly, and terribly naively that everyone else felt the same way. I was oblivious to barriers. I had insecurities to be sure, but they were disconnected from the disability part of my life. Still, at some point I started to see many of my beautiful friends struggling with and without disabilities (ballerinas, actors, the most brilliant people I knew), and at first all I wanted to do was have positive dialogue about our individual and collective beauty and value: talk to kids and parents of kids with disabilities [and tell them] to start early in finding ways to see, talk, and live with disabilities in a celebratory way. Initially, I had no idea how to find these kids and parents so I ended up appealing to the beauty industry instead! I did a short video asking the Dove campaign to include people with disabilities in their advertising and the video went semi-viral. I got letters from the Philippines; a man with living with HIV for over 30 years; a woman with Rheumatoid arthritis– people grateful I was acknowledging the obvious — their beauty! Until then, I don’t think I was aware just how big and powerful the disability community truly is. And the message is so simple really. We are all beautiful and loved, we all have a purpose and a message if we are able to own it and ignore self-doubt.
Still, I had no idea that this idea would eventually lead me to become what I like to call a ‘Professional Octopus’! I just say yes to things I think would be helpful. I judged an assistive technology competition for AT&T; worked with Parsons School of Design on adaptive fashion; I’m on the ReelAbilities Film Selection Committee. I speak at colleges, festivals, summits and tech Meetups throughout the country and soon the world (Barcelona, here I come)!
I initially passed on writing for Forbes Online years ago because I didn’t think my background and interests would align for a publication primarily dedicated to finance. I’m passionate about Leadership, Empowerment, and Disability, so that’s what I write about instead. I am blessed that I can use that platform for advocacy as well. The work I do is all about true accessibility: physical, emotional, spiritual, technological– our power to communicate needs, to love more fully and learn to receive love. We can make things so complex in our minds, but love in action is simpler than we think. Love and human connection is why access is so important.
As part of your work as a Forbes Online Contributor, you authored the article “Uber Has Left Us Behind: A Call To Care and Action.” What inspired you to write the article and what issues regarding accessibility and transportation were you trying to highlight with this piece?
The Uber piece was inspired by an experience I had with a driver who left as soon as he saw that myself and my best friend had disabilities. I genuinely felt sorry for the man. There was no malice– he panicked and just didn’t know what to do with two of us (my friend walks with a walker, I walk with two ski poles). That’s why when I reported it, I urged Uber to train their drivers. Simply firing them does not raise awareness. The fact that this type of discrimination happens did not surprise me, even though this was my first very overt personal experience with it. It was Uber’s lack of response that was most surprising. That kind of callousness and complacency is unacceptable, and it opened my eyes to the fact that this happens to many of my friends on a daily basis. I started asking questions, and the need to discuss transportation as a civil rights issue became urgently clear.
You have been very vocal about public transportation accessibility challenges in NYC, specifically proposed cuts to funding for the MTA’s paratransit services. Why is this an important issue for New Yorkers?
When the MTA recently announced inhumane cuts to Access a Ride in NYC, I knew I needed to do everything I could including write about it and starting a petition that has 5,000 signatures today. I’ve become an advocate for equitable transportation because we need it as a community to connect in meaningful ways beyond just getting a ride to a doctor’s appointment. I had a nice driver pick me up a couple of weeks ago at 6pm and ask, “Going to a doctor’s appointment?” I laughed and said, still chuckling, “Nope! I’m speaking at Microsoft.” He smiled back. And with that—as quick as a smile– a stereotype died. That’s why I love my work. We can shift assumptions, and change culture, behavior and expectations with a simple action– a hug, a smile or by listening and responding with compassion. There are many things about accessibility that seem impossible, but sometimes it’s the smallest tweak that can make all the difference. And that tweak is often found through communication or by simply shifting priorities. Cities and companies need to prioritize accessibility or they will simply be left behind. Progress cannot be suppressed; it can only be delayed. It’s important to think: what side of this critical moment in history do we want to be on?