BY KRISTI FISH | MIRROR REPORTER — The Ability Center, an organization that advocates and supports people with disabilities in the Northwest Ohio area, has named a new executive director.
Stuart James took over the position at the end of 2021. James has traveled the world, creating an impressive, decades-long career across multiple fields.
Originally from New York, James went to school and started his career there. He found himself working in sports after getting involved with the athletic department as an undergrad. This eventually led to an internship at Madison Square Garden, doing work with the New York Rangers. Later, he found himself working in Los Angeles, also in sports.
After his company’s move to a larger Hollywood company, and with guidance from a mentor, James chose to make a career change.
“I had an opportunity to go to China for the first time, and through another guy named Steve Gormley, we started a branded entertainment media company in China,” James said.
Their clients included Pepsi, Budweiser, Audi and Kraft. They then sold the company, and he found his way back to the states.
A short time later, he was back in China working for a company that had him producing events and concerts for people like Whitney Houston, the Rolling Stones and the Backstreet Boys.
“That was fun,” James said. “Starting a company is not as fun as you think, though. It’s really quite stressful.”
Two more opportunities presented him with the chance to work in sports before he eventually pivoted on his career path.
“This is where the story takes a strange turn – up until this point, I never did anything to do with disabilities,” James said. “I didn’t want my disability to define me, so I just kept it in a box, I didn’t talk about it.”
The chance came up, though, for him to speak with families of children with physical disabilities in China. While appearing in a room of 200 families, he didn’t see a single wheelchair other than his own. He couldn’t understand why families who could afford them were not providing their children with wheelchairs. “What’s the point?” they asked him.
“I couldn’t get my head around that question, it boggled me,” James said.
Through that same event, he was able to meet a girl living far out in the countryside. Due to her disability and her family’s economic status, she didn’t go to school and she didn’t have friends. She spent her time painting in a shed her father had built.
“My friend is an art expert and was startled by how good she was and wanted to get her into Beijing’s best art school,” James said.
She was refused because of her disability, so the two of them, along with a professor, helped create a gallery show where they sold her work to ambassadors, CEOs and other well-known individuals. She later signed on with a gallery and has since been able to provide for herself and her family.
After spending time with the girl’s family, James realized he had made a difference when his wife, Fan Zhang, explained to him that the girl’s grandmother had cried happy tears after meeting him because she had never seen someone with a disability have a job, a spouse, an education or a family – she didn’t know it was possible.
“I thought, ‘Wow, I just made this huge difference and all I did was show up.’ It felt really good,” James said.
From there, he and two others – Ian Stewart and Toni Piëch – started WheelsplusWings.
“It was basically to show families who had children with physical disabilities what was possible,” James said.
Much of James’ philosophy revolves around the fact that nobody knows what their children can and cannot do.
“Don’t box your child in, regardless of how severe the disability is. Don’t box them in by what you think they can do and what you think they can’t do, because the truth is, you don’t know the answer,” James said. “Whether you have a disability or not, parents don’t know the answer. All you should really concern yourself with is what does your child want to do and from there, figure it out.”
Many parents, if their child doesn’t have a disability, are willing to spend thousands of dollars on sporting equipment, training camps and more – even though their child won’t become a professional, they are allowed to dream. James wants the same opportunity for children with disabilities – every dream shouldn’t have to be practical.
James carried this mindset from China to Berkley, California where he worked as executive director at the Center for Independent Living after being encouraged by Judy Heumann – a leader in the independent living movement.
“I took the job after I realized that all the things I was doing in China were problems here still. We had lots of movements that had changed the law, but the ways things were perceived is still a problem,” James said. “People are good at changing the law, but they’re not so good at changing hearts and minds.”
One of the ways James has worked to change the perception around disability is what it means to be independent. Much of what James does centers around economic independence, something he felt people at The Ability Center in Toledo would welcome.
James believes that as an adult, a job is a way to attain independence and financial security and also make friends. He believed people in the Northwest Ohio community were better able to help with this push.
While there is still significant work to be done to change the hearts and minds of people, the work being done by The Ability Center is a good place to start and it is open to all the help the community is willing to offer.
“You shouldn’t think you need to be connected to disability to participate. The Ability Center is about inclusion. It’s vital that we have people with no disabilities participate, even in our programming,” James said.
There are several ways people can participate – such as fostering a litter of assistance dogs for the first 12 weeks before they’re weaned and in the two years it takes to train them.
However, one of the quickest ways to provide much-needed support is simply to donate. Donations allow the center to keep providing things like assistance dogs, home modifications, medical equipment and much more. Donations – of time and money – are ways the people of the Toledo area can support The Ability Center, and James knows that they will.
“I had been asking people I knew from the Midwest, ‘Why should I move to Toledo?’ and the hook is really obvious – it’s people,” James said. “The people here are wonderful.”
Those interested in showing support for The Ability Center may visit abilitycenter.org or call (419) 885-5733.