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Motivational Speaker Wows Disability Event Audience

By Eddy Ball
November 2009

DAC Chair Alicia Moore
Williams, center, spoke directly to individuals in the audience, reading expressions as she alternately shocked, delighted and moved her listeners almost to tears. Seated, left, was her husband, Toby, who nodded in agreement, as Williams spoke and host Alicia Moore, right, looked on.
(Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Robert Roy, right, Eli Ney, center, and Chris Long
Sitting with visitor Robert Roy, right, were Eli Ney, center, and Chris Long. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Seated above, left to right, are Lutz Birnbaumer, Mitzie Walker and Donald Cozart
The audience came from throughout the Institute, and attendees clearly showed their engagement. Seated above, left to right, are Lutz Birnbaumer, Mitzie Walker and Donald Cozart. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Bill Willis, foreground right
As the pensive expression of Bill Willis, foreground right, suggests, Williams' "in-your-face" narrative at times inspired introspection among her listeners. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Shown, left to right, are Bettie Harris, Tina Jones and Tiwande Masinde
That Williams could cajole and endear - as well as confront and inspire - was reflected in the smiles of these women. Shown, left to right, are Bettie Harris, Tina Jones and Tiwande Masinde. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

As one of its featured presentations in observance of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (see text box), on October 14 the NIEHS Disability Advocacy Committee (DAC) featured the multi-talented motivational speaker and mentor Tawana Williams. Hosted by DAC Chair Alicia Moore, Williams' delivered an engaging hour-long monologue, "Unarmed but Dangerous," that drew several rounds of applause from her enthusiastic audience.

Born without arms, but blessed with a dynamic personality, an irrepressible spirit and a powerful voice, Williams described herself as a "messenger of hope and inspiration" who is "blessed to be born without arms." Williams wove the story of her determination to overcome her physical limitations, drug addiction and sexual exploitation into a six-part recipe for successful living.

Williams is a diminutive woman with an infectious sense of humor and a rhythmic pace of delivery, clearly rooted in the call-and-response tradition of revival-meeting evangelism. As she talked about the lessons of her journey from what she called (self) "pity parties" to her success as a wife, mother, business owner, author, artist, mentor and talk-show guest, Williams described for her listeners how "I've given myself permission to move into my greatness."

As she encouraged the audience to take on challenges, she used rhyme to underscore her message - "You can't grow where you don't go" - and extended metaphor to make her point - "Life has a way of showing up at your door even though you never gave life your address." At one point, she referred to the inherent pun in the title of her talk and her book by promising attendees, "You, too, can become unarmed and dangerous."

With a charming unselfconsciousness, Williams challenged her listeners, "If I can stand before you without arms, what's your excuse?" She also used her very visible disability to draw the audience to the front of the room to watch as she changed a doll's diaper, put on socks and even tied an attendee's shoelace with her feet.

Taking advantage of street slang, Williams ended her presentation by assuring listeners, "Once you step into your greatness, it's on and poppin'." Visibly moved by the presentation, several members of the audience came to the front of the room afterwards to hug and thank Williams for her courage and her inspiration.

Williams demonstrated how she learned to change her daughter's diaper with her toes
Toward the end of her presentation, Williams drew the audience to the front of the room as she demonstrated how she learned to change her daughter's diaper with her toes. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

NIEHS Observes a Special Month with a Range of Disability Awareness Events

The events sponsored by the NIEHS Disability Advocacy Committee in observance of National Disability Employment Awareness Month ranged from the heady to the visceral. They included the data-rich lecture by physician-scientist Virginia Chang on the associations between obesity and disability at one end of the spectrum, to the rousing motivational experience provided by a talented Tawana Williams at the other. Also featured were two other events in celebration of a special month:

  • October 20 - A presentation on "Shattering Attitudinal Barriers and Exemplifying Disability Etiquette" by Richard Espinosa, branch chief of the Disability Employment Program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture/Forest Service Civil Rights Division.
  • October 21 - An LRP Publications( Exit NIEHS Audio Conference by federal employment law experts Gary Gilbert and Ernest Hadley on "Federal Employee Medical Documentation: Meeting Your New Requirements Under the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA)( Exit NIEHS and the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) ( Exit NIEHS"

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