Harilyn was born in 1946 in Brooklyn, NY, anxious to embrace the world and its challenges. As she described it “I was in a hurry to be born”, but her birth was delayed by nurses who were forbidden to let her mother deliver without the doctor present, and the doctor had not yet arrived. As a result of this delay, Harilyn was born with cerebral palsy.
Her strong, supportive mother could not protect her from the misconceptions and stereotypes of others, but family support and her strong sense of self and possibility helped her achieve despite societal barriers. She attended her neighborhood public elementary and high schools.
In 1968, after graduating Magna Cum Laude as a Phi Beta Kappa from Brandeis University with a Bachelors Degree in Economics, she worked for a while at the Office of Economic Opportunity in Washington, DC. While she was there, she got involved in the Women’s Movement and partly as a result, she decided that she was more interested in a career involving helping others. She earned a masters degree in education from Boston University and another masters in social work from New York University.
Her disability rights activism began when she was dropped from a psychotherapy training institute solely because of her disability. Some of the teachers at the institute said having a counselor with cerebral palsy would be too hard for clinic patents to accept. She was asked to leave. To deal with this blatant discrimination, she sought out other therapists with disabilities and learned that many had faced similar experiences; together they formed an advocacy group. Through this and other groups, she had the opportunity for the first time to meet other women and men with disabilities, and to realize that she and her parents had internalized many negative myths about women with disabilities. For example, it had never occurred to her that she could have both a career and a romantic life until she met disabled women who had both.
In 1979, she started her consulting services, Disabilities Unlimited, to promote equal opportunity and empowerment of people with disabilities, with a particular emphasis on the issues of women. At the same time she worked as a psychotherapist with adolescents and adults, specializing in work with people with disabilities. Understanding the critical need and life-changing importance of role models for girls with disabilities, she founded the Networking Project for Disabled Women and Girls sponsored by the YWCA of the City of New York in 1984. Her goals were to develop and implement a model mentoring and empowerment program for adolescent girls with disabilities. The program offered women and girls with disabilities the opportunity to learn from one another at conferences, workshops, worksites, one-on-one encounters, and special events. Discussions included a wide range of topics from jobs to relationships to sex. Harilyn raised the money to support the project and was also able to facilitate replication of the project in several other cities.
Her work and her writings, and, most recently her artwork --she has also become a painter-- presents the powerful message that girls and young women with disabilities do not have to be or become any one thing because they are disabled and female. It is a message that allows for a future of hope and possibility.