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  • Sara Wolff is a motivational speaker and advocate for individuals with Down syndrome and other developmental disabilities. Sara herself has Down syndrome, and I interviewed her about her experiences growing up, becoming a public speaker, working as a law clerk and as a professional advocate, about the friendships and other important relationships in her life, and about her hopes for her own future. In this excerpt from our January 2013 interview, Sara describes how she got into public speaking, some of her early experiences as a public speaker, why she includes some messages in her speeches, and what she leaves out.

    Sara Wolff: I do a lot of public speaking. I started in 2002, for the National Down Syndrome Society. They recognized me for the Buddy Walk I did in 2001, at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City with Barbara Walters. That was my very first public speaking engagement, and I was funny, I was adlibbing a lot, I blew it out of the park. At the end of everything, everybody stood up of course, and Barbara Walters said, "Never put me first, before Sara Wolff." [Laughs] She had to fix her makeup because she was crying. It was pretty cool. Thirty people came in honor of me that day. My dad was crying that day. That was really special. I did say something while speaking, I got a quote from Dwayne Johnson, The Rock, he said something about how you have to capture live audiences, and I said, you take all that live audience, and put them in the palm of your hand - and the room went nuts, laughing. It was pretty cool.

    Nicki: So that was your first ever public speaking engagement, which is pretty amazing. When did you start doing more public speaking?

    Sara: Ever since that time. After the Waldorf, I got a call from Omaha, Nebraska. Teachers and administrators from different schools across the United States were going to a national education conference in Omaha, Nebraska, and Special Olympics Project Unify, and I was totally drawn to the whole thing, it was really cool. I liked it a lot. Especially Project Unify. I love what they do. Amazing things they do for people with and without disabilities. I wish we had something like that up here. So, it was really neat thing to see people get together and just do activities and information sharing about leadership and advocacy. I visited some college in Lincoln, Nebraska, we visited some sports they did there. That was awesome. I loved the basketball, that was my favorite, we saw the volleyball game, which was really cool, and then we went to a frat house. I never did that before, that was really awesome though. I loved it. I had such a great time. They did many activities at the frat house, and everybody just got together and hung out and stuff. It felt like I was in college, you know? It was the coolest feeling.

    Ever since Omaha, people have been calling me to come to their state, and speaking to their schools, which is really cool. I did Portland, Oregon, I did teacher in-services. I did third graders, I read them a book called Taking Down Syndrome to School, and I do a PowerPoint after that. I spoke for Special Olympics in Austin, Texas, that was really cool. They want me back, which is good. I love Austin, Texas. That was one of my favorite places to go, actually. I love the people. Their accent is so cute. [Laughs]. Even my cousin who lives in Houston, he has a deep accent, and he's from Pennsylvania.

    Nicki and Sara: [Laughter]

    Nicki: Well let's go back to Omaha for a second. Can you tell me about the speech that you made there, and the reaction that people had?

    Sara: I talked about myself. My school experiences, I did four years of variety show, I was involved in many activities growing up. I talked about inclusion. I am fully included through pre-school to high school graduation, regular diploma, like everybody else. I talked about just being included in the community and stuff with my family and friends. A little bit about the personal side, about how I didn't like my face and stuff, but I don't feel that way anymore. My mom looked in my journal from middle school, where I wrote that about my face, and she read it and she cried. She didn't confront me, I wish she would've but she didn't, so that is in my speeches now. I don't like when parents look in your journal. Looking through your journal. So, that's a quote from me. Watch out. [Laughs]

    Nicki: How did you find out that she read it in your journal?

    Sara: Because I was writing in my journal and she looked over my shoulder and I looked at her.

    Nicki: Oh [laughs]. So, why do you include that in your speeches?

    Sara: It's important.

    Nicki: Tell me why it's important.

    Sara: So that people can be more accepting of themselves. That's why.

    Nicki: Well, I think it's really brave that you put that out there.

    Sara: Thank you.

    Nicki: Yeah. How do people respond to it?

    Sara: I don't know. They just – I love when people give opinions and I work on it to make it better. Sometimes they don't, sometimes they do. But. It's a cool feeling, it really is.

    Nicki: So Omaha was like your first big national speaking engagement, right?

    Sara: Right.

    Nicki: Did it make you want to do more of that?

    Sara: Somewhat. I just like sometimes to be more educated first, and then keep going with it after that, maybe. I like to learn more about what I'm doing.

    Nicki: How did you learn more about that kind of work?

    Sara: I just teach myself. I love teaching myself things.

    Nicki: How did you teach yourself about public speaking?

    Sara: I did a course for speech communication at a local college, and I feel like I was the teacher of it, because I did so many speeches, but it was really cool though.

    Nicki: How did your classmates respond to your speeches?

    Sara: Quiet at first. It was college, it was different than high school because they didn't know you, so it was quiet, but they were very accepting.

    Nicki: So you have these public speaking opportunities to sort of use your own life as an example or an inspiration, and we were talking earlier about how you are really positive in those speeches—

    Sara: Yes.

    Nicki: How do you prepare for a speech like that? Is it very easy, does it come very naturally to you?

    Sara: Yes. It does.

    Nicki: You're lucky. When I do public speaking, my voice starts shaking like crazy, I get so nervous.

    Sara: I never get nervous. Very rarely I get nervous.

    Nicki: Have you ever been in a situation where you're like saying something in a speech and it's like not really how you feel?

    Sara: Somewhat. More like a script, really. But I enjoy speaking. I really do. Just, you know, sometimes people should see what I am at home. Like I have a life too, but not so peachy. [Laughs] Beyond public speaking.

    Nicki: So in some ways it sounds like to me, you said in your public speaking it's like a script, and it comes very naturally to you. Is it almost a little like acting?

    Sara: Somewhat. Yeah. I always want to try acting.

    Nicki: Well you've got some television experience.

    Sara: That's interviews!

    Nicki and Sara: [Laughter]

    Sara: Interviews are not acting.

    Read Sara’s stories here:

    This is a transcribed, edited excerpt from a life history interview I conducted for my thesis in the Oral History Master of Arts program at Columbia University, in which Sara Wolff shared with me her life experiences and reflected on her role as an advocate for herself and others with disabilities. The full interview was conducted on January 5, 2013, in Moscow, Pennsylvania, and will be submitted to the Regional Oral History Office at the University of California, Berkeley, for inclusion in the Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement archive. I will also submit a methodological paper providing context for and analysis of my process conducting and sharing life history interviews with self-advocates with Down syndrome to the Academic Commons at Columbia University. If you would like to know more about my process, please contact me here. With gratitude to the National Down Syndrome Society for their early support of this project.
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