ReadHealthy's Spotlight on Health: Empowered Together
July 26, 2023 - by Jennifer Ringler, MS
ReadHealthy’s Spotlight on Health is a monthly feature in which ReadHealthy Communications talks with CEOs, founders, and leaders of companies working to make the world a healthier place – from pharma to biotech to med tech and beyond. Health can mean different things to different people, and we’re here to share the stories of those working to change the world of healthcare.
In honor of Disability Pride Month in July, this month we sat down with Sarah Spear, CEO & Founder of Empowered Together, an online marketplace (accessible via a website) that connects disability self-advocates and caregivers with accessible, welcoming businesses in their local area.
A Personal Connection
Sarah has a 10-year-old daughter who loves swimming and creative play, and who has Wiedemann-Steiner syndrome, a rare, genetic disease that is typically characterized by distinctive facial features, growth delay, and intellectual disability.
It was through the experience of finding her daughter’s diagnosis and educating herself about what came next – accommodations, services, and what worked best for her daughter – that Sarah first became inspired to help others in the disability community to find the resources they needed.
“I was seeing a lack of support for families, particularly parents who were navigating the systems that were supporting their children. That was my experience, so that was the lens I was looking through.” Quickly, Sarah says, her focus began to shift beyond the “micro-advocacy” of helping her own family to the “meta-advocacy” of helping the larger disability community.
The Power of an Empowered Community
Around 2021, Sarah took part in an education program through Partners in Policymaking, a federal program that originated in Minnesota and is run through the U.S. Health and Human Services’ Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Partners in Policymaking operates across many U.S. states, and offers free resources designed to “teach people with disabilities and family members the power of advocacy to positively change the way people with disabilities are supported, viewed, taught, live and work.”
After completing that program, Sarah formed a support group for parents of children with disabilities. “I realized my calling wasn’t only to work with people and families with a specific diagnosis, but to the extent that I can, to help bring the disability community together … rather than view each disparate piece of that community as defined by diagnosis, to recognize the collective power that the disability
As Sarah realized that she and other parents weren’t solely looking for emotional support, but practical resources and businesses that would help or accommodate their families’ needs, the idea of Empowered Together’s marketplace was born.
Bringing Businesses and Communities Together
The premise of Empowered Together is simple – adults living with disabilities (whom Sarah calls “self-advocates”) and parents, family members, or caregivers of people with disabilities can join the free online marketplace to share the experiences they’ve had with local businesses. Which restaurants are welcoming to people with guide dogs? Which hair salons are great at cutting hair for children with autism? Which children’s museums or play spaces offer quiet areas for people with neurodivergence? And because the community is diagnosis-agnostic, any person with a disability or their family or caregivers can use it to write a review, share their experience, and search for accessible businesses in their area.
The more people who join the community, the more businesses they will mention and review, and the more businesses will become aware of not only the need for accessibility, but of the “buying power” that people with disabilities hold, Sarah says. “One in four people in the U.S. is living with a disability, and a total of 75 percent of us has close ties with someone with a disability. This is an issue that more than three-quarters of us care about, and businesses need to realize the impact of that,” she says.
For Sarah, the goal is twofold: First, empower people and families living with disabilities to find and recommend businesses that can accommodate their needs. But second – and no less important – Sarah says she’s aiming to “change the power dynamic, so that it’s no longer the self-advocate who has to stand up and educate businesses, because the businesses are already aware. What if we can help businesses to see that responding to accommodation requests and taking accessibility seriously can improve their bottom line?”
She continues, “If we can all come together, we can demonstrate to the market that people with disabilities drive our economy, and they are worth paying attention to. If there’s a coming together of far-flung members of the disability community to demonstrate to businesses that this community really matters and can wield buying power, I believe that could not only change the face of our society, but also
be very empowering.”
Looking to the Future
Sarah is currently taking steps to bring the concept of Empowered Together to life in a bigger way. That means working to reach disability self-advocates and their loved ones and encouraging them to join the online marketplace. It means networking with investors to raise the funds needed to keep the momentum going. It means starting to reach out to advocacy groups who can help spread the word. It means seeking to educate businesses and get them excited about wanting to prioritize accessibility and be listed as a business that understands and values people with disabilities. It also means working with state and local government organizations in her home state of Connecticut to launch a pilot of Empowered Together in a major city where there are “strong advocacy organizations in place that can help support this effort” (more info to come on that front, hopefully later this year).
“It’s important for any organizations that are working in the disability space not just to incorporate the experience of individuals with disabilities, but to do so in a meaningful way,” Sarah says. “Why does the onus have to lie on self-advocates for change to happen? Why can’t we help business owners to see that if they’re more accessible, a quarter more of the population will want to become customers? That’s just good business sense.”
As Sarah thinks about the future of Empowered Together, she becomes introspective. “I think having voices speak up – calling attention to this issue for the parts of society that maybe haven’t been paying attention – is so important. When I sit back and think about why I’m doing this, at the most basic level, it’s because I’m a Christian, and I believe that each person is created in the image of God, is worthy of dignity, and should be viewed as an invaluable part of our community and of creation.”
She continues, “Then, as I think about the roots I have in this community as a parent, I’m creating the world I want my children to live in. I want that to be a more inclusive world, where someone living with a disability doesn’t have to feel like a burden for speaking up about
what their needs are, where there’s no need for additional accommodation – because those needs have been anticipated, and they’re
If you want to learn more about Empowered Together or be part of its success, you can reach Sarah at email@example.com.