Aspiring commercial director, college student, advocate and volunteer Shayla Gaither, 19, has a lot on her plate. The youngest attendee at the 2018 Roll of Capitol Hill and a T8- 12 paraplegic since birth, Gaither is determined to change the way people view disability — and she has the tools and enthusiasm to do just that.
A native of Cheltenham, Pennsylvania, Gaither is a sophomore at Albright College. She’s a communications major with a focus in advertising and public relations and a co-major in business administration. “I want to be a commercial advertiser because I feel like commercials these days aren’t as fun and interesting as they could be. A lot of people get bored with them fast, and I think there are ways to make them humorous or positive to society,” she says.
Gaither found her passion early. When she was 15, she studied storytelling and directing during a summer arts program at a local university. She was especially excited about the directing. “Ever since I was 4 years old, I would take my mom and dad’s cell phone — back in the day when we had flip phones — and record videos when I was passing people,” she says. “I would do interviews and all sorts of stuff like that.”
Improving the way advertisers connect with people and tell authentic stories is near the top of Gaither’s list. “I like being behind the camera,” she says. “I’ll always be the kind of person who helps someone get out of their shell. I like seeing someone going from being nervous in front of the camera to being comfortable and confident.”
Tired of seeing carefully crafted cameos of a token disabled person in advertising, Gaither strives to increase, and better represent, people with disabilities. Real, rather than perfect, is how commercial media should be representing disability, she says: “You need to treat disabled people like real people — it makes a cultural impact.”
Gaither’s own experience with disability has been far from perfect. She says elementary and middle school were tough at times, as her classmates weren’t used to being around people with disabilities. Many saw her as different and ostracized her, but she was determined to not let that affect how she went about her life. She credits her positive attitude to her mother — who she says taught her how to analyze and work through different behaviors — and her brothers. She wants to be a good role model for them, and doesn’t want them to see her as different, “but more like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s my sister.’ I want to be a good big sister for them and still interact with them, play with them, go outside. It can be hard —not only am I a woman, but I am also disabled.”
Gaither believes the difficulties of growing up with a disability have given her an advantage over her peers as she’s transitioned away from home and into the real world. “Having to socialize and understand mature concepts … you mature at a young age,” she says. “You are constantly problem solving. You have to be positive about situations and you have to learn how to talk to people, in order to get what you need. You have to learn how to be kind because you know you need help. You have to learn how to handle mature situations and not get down.”
Additionally, Gaither craved the freedom that comes with leaving home for the first time. “I was ready for college because my entire life I didn’t have independence. I had to rely on people for eight hours or more. I needed help to just get outside my house because there were stairs,” she says. “So I definitely had an advantage over my friends or other people in college. They were so used to relying on people that they wanted to be nurtured, whereas I was the opposite: I was nurtured too much, and I wanted to be on my own.
Helping the Movement Grow
An email from United Spinal’s Greater Philadelphia chapter looking for volunteers to help with social media got Gaither’s wheel in the door and started her down a path of advocacy and involvement.
I thought, this could be a little side thing that I do to help. It’s close to advertising. It’s good experience. I sent Alysse, the wonderful co-president of our chapter, my resume. That helped me get connected with the board and the functions of United Spinal.
After going to Roll on Capitol Hill, I saw the real potential in all the chapters and specifically the Philadelphia chapter. It really woke me up to advocacy and increased my voice.
I like social media and making good graphics because I enjoy looking at analytics and seeing the change and impact through numbers. Seeing a person or another nonprofit add us on Instagram or repost us gets me excited. We’re spreading a message and helping people. Knowing that our work is helping people and going towards something positive is rewarding.”
On Being a Word Nerd:
Starting in seventh grade, I learned Latin. I fell in love with it. It’s quirky and it relates so much to English.
When I was 14, I got to go to Rome on a Latin trip. We went to the Vatican, saw the Sistine Chapel, saw the Colosseum. We went to Pompeii. It was so cool.
Why I Joined United Spinal:
I went to the Wash ’n’ Tune organized by my local chapter. I brought all the chairs I’ve had since I was a baby. I was that one person that literally brought six different chairs. I was like, ‘Hey, I can get them all cleaned to maybe donate them to somebody?’ And they said, ‘OK, let’s do this.’ I signed up to become a member.