OCEAN PARK — At a Boston elementary school, a boy’s third grade teacher told his parents that their son would never graduate from high school. His multiple learning disabilities and inability to read would prevent him from achieving at the level of his classmates, leaving little hope that he would ever go to college, become a lawyer or advocate for other people like himself.
Luckily his parents didn’t listen.
Today, Santa Monica resident TJ Hill not only holds a law degree from the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, but serves as the chair of the Santa Monica Disabilities Commission. With the commission’s help, the City Council recently recognized October as Disability Awareness Month for Santa Monica, joining other cities across the country.
So how does someone labeled as “educationally retarded” get to where he is today?
“I had a supportive family structure,” Hill, 34, said. “We were always just told to do whatever we wanted and whatever limitations we had were something that we could accommodate and find ways to succeed.”
By “we,” Hill means he and his sister, who grew up with similar learning disabilities as well as cerebral palsy. Hill feels that his parents both integrated and normalized their children’s disabilities within the family environment, giving them every opportunity to progress.
In Hill’s case, this involved enrollment in a different elementary school that provided a special education program. While unhappy at first, Hill remembers his first experiences in special education as some of the most transformative in his life.
“I was very ashamed and saddened to be put in a special education program because I was separated from all of my friends,” Hill said. “It was like walking around with a scarlet letter.
“The first day we came to class, we must have all been feeling the same way. The teacher looked at us and said, ‘You’re all very special. You see the world in a way that the rest of us can’t,” Hill recalled. “‘I’m going to help you see these things … the way that you’re supposed to see them.’”
Ever since then, Hill has viewed his disability as more of an asset than a detriment and counts himself lucky that he was provided with those educational services.
“My father is a very accomplished doctor that has the same type of learning disabilities as I have,” Hill said. “He never had those opportunities or any sort of special schooling, so he really did everything he could to hide his disability.”
Hill has always been open about his experiences in a variety of settings. Through college, law school and in the professional world, Hill has encountered people who were as encouraging as his parents or as discriminatory as his third grade teacher.
“People don’t expect lawyers to have learning disabilities,” Hill said, saying that many times people write off the situation by saying he “overcame” his condition.
“You don’t overcome disability. It’s with you for life, and it’s part of who you are. You find ways to accommodate and integrate in a way that you live independently,” Hill said.
From his time as an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, Hill has worked to empower others like himself.
“I was a psychology major with a minor in special ed and rehabilitation, and after college I started doing habilitation support services for people with developmental disabilities and traumatic brain injuries,” Hill said. “I did that for about four years before getting involved with doing policy work in Arizona.”
Hill recalls being frustrated with being a direct service provider who had no voice. It was at this point that a friend suggested that he go to law school so he could work to change policy himself.
During his studies in St. Louis, Hill focused on public interest law and civil rights, spending time at the ACLU and a disability firm in San Francisco, where he was born. One of his most notable experiences, however, was working as a Congressional Legal Intern for Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa.
“It was really transformative because he was essentially the drafter of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Hill said.
These experiences eventually prepared Hill for two policy-related jobs in L.A. Hill first became a director with the Disability Rights Legal Center before becoming the mental health policy director at the Association of Community Human Services Agencies. Aside from the disabilities commission, Hill has worked with the ACHSA for about seven months, communicating between mental health agencies and state institutions.
“Recently the biggest issue has been the state budget cuts and how they have significantly impacted the mental health system,” Hill said. “It’s an ongoing process with providers, coming up with innovative ways to make service dollars go further.”
Hill made the move out to California almost seven years ago, following his partner whom he met in law school. Now together for 10 years, the two live in the Ocean Park neighborhood of Santa Monica.
“We both love the beach,” Hill said of the community, though he added that Santa Monica is also “one of the most accepting and welcoming places for people with disabilities.”
Hill became chair of the Santa Monica Disabilities Commission in July, and has since worked closely with the City Council to continue to increase Santa Monica’s accessibility.
“There are always ongoing challenges that arise,” Hill said, “[but] it tends to be a very inclusive city and the council and the city staff are very proactive to include people with disabilities.”
At the moment, City Hall is exploring how to update the council chambers to accommodate Santa Monica’s disabled residents. They’re also looking into improved transportation, beach access and playground facilities for adults and children whose disabilities aren’t as readily apparent.
“I think that’s one of our biggest challenges,” Hill said. “It really incorporates things that the community looks at in terms of access to mental health, people with different sensory impairments — really the whole gamut of developing disabilities.”
In honor of Disability Awareness Month, the commission and City Council held an event at the Santa Monica Public Library on Saturday. It featured the work of blind and partially sighted photographers, as well as a film screening and a tribute to former Commissioner Sam Genensky, a huge advocate for the visually impaired who died earlier this year. Hill feels that his work and events such as these help to generate understanding and acceptance, which progresses with each generation.
“I really feel like I have an obligation to contribute and give back to the community. Santa Monica is one of those cities where being a citizen means to be involved,” Hill said.
Both Hill and his partner are active members of their neighborhood association and enjoy being involved with the city they love so much. On any given weekend, they resolve to park their cars until Monday morning, preferring to travel around town by bike to places like the Farmers’ Market and Third Street Promenade.
“It’s one of those instances where it’s still a big city, but it feels like a small town,” Hill said. “There’s not many places in the country where you can experience a small community that’s so warm and welcoming.”
And thanks to Hill’s work, Santa Monica will hopefully continue to be a place that welcomes and encourages everyone, no matter what disabilities they face.
“It’s been a lifelong journey for me,” Hill reflected. “I wouldn’t be the person that I am today had I not had my disability and seen the world through those eyes.”