It is Disability Awareness Month, and what better way to celebrate than to feature talented and inspiring advocates like Erin Brown. Brown is an accomplished para-triathlon athlete, disability inclusion consultant, motivational speaker, and mother to three children.
Brown is a sixteen-year cancer survivor who had her entire left leg amputated due to stage 4 osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer that happens most often in children, adolescents, and young adults. She says that with that loss, the “access [that she] enjoyed as a non-disabled person was removed with the surgery.” After becoming, as she later realized, a part of the largest intersectional minority in the world, she was suddenly very aware of just how different she was living. She found herself overlooked, she was turned down for jobs she was qualified for, and she felt like she was being seen as a liability instead of an asset. The lack of accessibility struck her, and she was called to action.
In her community of Grand Bahama and in the greater Caribbean region, over a million people are living with some form of disability. While efforts are in place to accommodate those living with disabilities, humanity has a long way to go before accomplishing truly accessible standards for all. Brown advocates for change in her inadequately accessible environment and encourages and motivates people to join her movement in her community.
The beginnings of her advocacy and work for those with disabilities were modest. Brown began her advocacy with what she calls, “The Bahamian Dream.” Her desire to continue doing what she loved while also inspiring others to create change for accessibility in her environment drove her. She is a great example of the “act locally, think globally” dictum, as some of her first initiatives were as small as giving extra supplies and equipment she had to others in need.
After she realized what an impact these small acts of kindness had on her community, she set out to create a foundation that would reach more people in need. She says, “The look on their faces — so shocked. It connected disability for them differently. They now have another perspective of what people with disabilities can do — what they look like.”
And so, the Erin Brown Foundation and Erin Brown Connects were founded in 2006. The organizations’ mission is to help people with disabilities find employment, train employees in disability accommodations within workplaces, and advocate for healthcare services to be more accessible. Anthony Duttine, disability and rehabilitation advisor for the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), said about Brown: “She’s empowering people with disabilities to engage, to be aware of their rights, whether that’s in employment, in making health services more disability-friendly, or in getting people with disabilities at the forefront of planning,”
This established organization has proved to be adaptable to the world’s changing climate as well. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brown turned her office into a hotline to assist people who were dealing with taking care of a sick loved one for the first time in their lives. Erin Brown Connects was nominated for the Bahamian Icon Award for Humanitarianism.
An accomplished athlete herself, Brown mobilizes her organizations to create a community that encourages sports development in an accessible environment for people with disabilities. She uses her accomplishments from her own life to inspire and bring together others. She was the first Bahamian female amputee to participate in Sunshine Insurance Marathon and the first Bahamian female amputee to cycle in Ride for Hope, Eleuthera Bahamas.
Brown’s list of accomplishments does not stop there. She co-produced The Vagina Monologues for the Bahamas Artist movement with director Rowena Poitier. This event joined VDay, an international awareness event in which proceeds were raised to end violence against women and children.
She has been recognized for her many achievements when she was selected for the Bahamian Collection exhibited at the National Art Gallery for the Bahamian 40th Independence Day Celebrations.
Brown’s primary occupation currently is as an advocate for accessibility in the workplace for the Ministry of Health. “For me, the word ‘suffer’ holds no weight when speaking about my cancer, amputation, or any other illness or incident,” she says. “I did not ‘suffer’. I overcame and now live in a community that has always existed. Our cancer journeys are unique, each is designed for growth.”
Erin Brown Connects is only the start of Brown’s ambitions. In 2020, she competed in the Tokyo Paraplegic Triathlon and is currently training for the 2021 Paralympic Games in Tokyo. She also hopes to go to law school and graduate as a disability rights attorney specializing in policy. “I realized that after you find what you like, pursue that aggressively,” she says. “Don’t let anyone tell you, ‘You can’t do it.’”