Kerry Thompson: The Leader Fighting for Human Rights

July 12, 2021
Natalie Himmel
6 min read
Kerry Thompson never envisioned herself being a leader of people with disabilities. She wanted to be viewed as a leader, period.

Kerry Thompson never envisioned herself being a leader of people with disabilities. She wanted to be viewed as a leader, period.

Being deaf and blind has never stopped Kerry from pursuing her goals. From being told no medical school would ever accept her after she expressed her interest in becoming a pediatrician to being rejected from job opportunity after job opportunity after she earned her degree in psychology, she knew what it was like to be told her dreams were impossible early in life.

Life in Louisiana felt small and stifling after she graduated from university, and Kerry was not the type of person to accept those feelings. “I have had a lot of doors slammed in my face, so it's just been a series of trying a lot of different doors,” Kerry said. She decided to flip a coin—heads she would move to New York City, tails Boston. In a split second, it was decided: Boston. Kerry wanted to go where opportunities were and where she could live independently, and nothing—not the fear of moving across the country to a city where she knew no one or the jitters of dealing with a new climate (she had never experienced snow before)—could stop her.

Kerry packed up and moved to Boston, where she found a job working at a hospital in research finance so that she could contribute to healthcare even if not as a doctor. There she noticed how patients with disabilities were treated differently and she did not feel comfortable sitting idly by. She decided to apply to Harvard. When she was accepted, she admitted it felt funny to her—it was “definitely not on the radar for someone who grew up near the bayous,” she says.

A Woman of Many Talents

Kerry does not just step outside her comfort zone, she dances. While busy taking courses on human rights and globalization at Harvard, a friend invited her to go to a dance class with her one day, and Kerry was immediately enthralled. “I fell in love,” Kerry said, remembering how she felt that very first lesson. “That hobby became a passion that became a cause.” Kerry’s dancing led her to become a dance teacher, and her teaching led her to wanting to do more dance classes for people with disabilities. That is when she founded Silent Rhythms, a nonprofit that promotes inclusion in the arts for people with disabilities while using the arts to promote their inclusion in society.

Thompson me with Sewell Chan during the GMF conference at Saint VincentBut dancing was not the only passion ignited during this time in her life. Her experience at Harvard had instilled a deep desire to be a leader in human rights conversations. In the same year that she founded Silent Rhythms, Kerry became the second hire of a new nonprofit called Disability Rights Fund. She is the senior officer for communications, inclusion, and analytics for the organization, an international grantmaker that supports the advancement of human rights for people with disabilities in the Global South.

“Those two careers sound like opposite ends of the pole,” Kerry says of her dance and human rights careers, “but I find they connect as access to the arts is a human right and the arts has a way of bringing people from different backgrounds together to have difficult conversations.”

Trying New Doors

In 2014, a colleague told Kerry about a German Marshall Fund leadership experience—the Marshall Memorial Fellowship (MMF)—and nominated her. Kerry was immediately drawn to the chance to build her leadership skills on an international level. “There is a real need for people with disabilities, like myself, to have an opportunity to become leaders,” she says, reflecting on why she pursued the fellowship. “I care about the issues that impact our world and I wanted to be part of those changes.”

Thompson in front of the EU flagBefore she knew it, Kerry was a 2014 MMF. She travelled to Washington, DC, and from there to Brussels, Belgium, Lübeck, Germany, Bilbao, Spain, Belgrade, Serbia, and Paris, France. When she met all the other American and European MMFs in Washington, Kerry says, she could feel that they were apprehensive. “I remember being in DC knowing [they] were looking at me with slight puzzlement that I was there, or even how would they interact with me during our travels,” she said. “I sat at the table with all of them and I said, ‘I am not here to teach you about disability or having a disability, but what I want to do is teach you is how disability is connected to your work no matter what your field is.’” Some people felt immediately comfortable approaching her, eager to learn how they could be more inclusive. Others, Kerry says, were more hesitant.

By the time the group reached their fourth country, Serbia, Kerry was starting to feel tired. Belgrade was very inaccessible and it was not easy for Kerry to manage. As she sat in the back of the travel van, feeling exhausted and reflecting on her experience, her sign language interpreter caught her attention. There were six other fellows in the front of the van, and they were talking among themselves, her interpreter said, about how inaccessible this city is for people with disabilities. “That moment rejuvenated me,” Kerry said, “that the fellows were starting to look closer at the world around them through the lens of others.”

Kerry looks back at her time as an MMF with fondness. “As a person with a disability, government officials were not going to meet with me if they heard that there was a person with a disability who wanted to meet them,” she said. “But when they heard that a MMF wanted to meet them, they went out of their way to make that happen. The prestige and reputation of the MMF program and GMF got me in the room when I would not have otherwise been allowed in.”

In 2015, Kerry became a city coordinator for European MMFs who come to Boston. While the fellows are in Boston, she plans a diverse program for them to experience the city. “I try to subtly teach the fellows about how people with disabilities are capable of leading and to take a closer look around.” Kerry says she has loved interacting with the European fellows and has stayed in touch with many of them. She explains how this year an long-time MMF who is now deputy mayor of Bucharest reached out to her. “[He] wanted to let me know how much his time with me in Boston had an impact on him, and he is dedicated to including people with disabilities in his work.”

Pressing On

Thomson and fellow MMF FellowsMany others Kerry has known have made similar commitments to look deeper at their own communities, Kerry says. She is proud, but she knows the work is far from over. During the coronavirus quarantine, while transitioning Silent Rhythms online, she realized there was a need for technical assistance and training on how to provide accessible and inclusive information for people with disabilities in a virtual world, and she decided to teach Inclusive 101 webinars. “Just because we have to quarantine and stay at home does not mean that I cannot have an impact, or that the disability rights movement stops.” When difficulties arise, “We press on,” Kerry says. “We have to.”

When Kerry thinks about those with disabilities or otherwise who are afraid to push outside their comfort zone, a tried but true quote comes to her—“the only thing to fear is fear itself,” she muses. Whether it is running five miles to clear her head or trying one door after another to reach her goals, Kerry is not afraid to push herself. But she does not want to just inspire people, she says. Not when it is easy to turn a blind eye to injustice and when the stakes for leaving people behind are so high. “I don’t wish to inspire people,” she says. “I wish to inspire people to take action.”