Nutrition student’s ‘dif-ability’ subject of upcoming TEDxURI talk

Rachel Ferreira doesn’t let her cerebral palsy silence her

Media Contact: Patrick Luce, 401-874-4046 |
Rachel Ferreira
Rachel Ferreira

KINGSTON, R.I.­ — February 21, 2019 —When Rachel Ferreira first walked into the Kingston Speech and Hearing Center as a high school junior, her cerebral palsy severely limited her ability to communicate. People often couldn’t understand her, nor could her speech-recognition software, leaving her thoughts frustratingly locked inside her head.

Now, just a few years later, the University of Rhode Island health studies major is not only writing flawless class assignments and term papers, she is preparing to speak before her largest audience yet. She is scheduled to conduct a TEDxURI talk before hundreds of people Feb. 23 in the Richard E. Beaupre Center for Chemical and Forensic Science, 140 Flagg Road, Kingston.

“When we were working on my speaking over the summer, I was getting better and we joked I should do a TED talk. I wasn’t joking. When I got the email from the university about them, I knew I wanted to audition,” Ferreira said. “I did my material and they understood what I was saying, so I got a call back, then a couple days later I learned I got a 15-minute talk. Just getting a callback was an honor. For me to actually be up there on the stage shows how good my team is and how they believe in me.”

Speech pathology graduate student Erin Blanchette works with Rachel Ferreira
Speech pathology graduate student Erin Blanchette works with Rachel Ferreira on her pronunciation in the Kingston Speech and Hearing Center.

Ferreira’s team consists of her parents, Ed and Helen Ferreira, and the staff in the speech and hearing center, especially clinic Supervisor Gloria Figueroa and her clinician, speech pathology graduate student Erin Blanchette.

“When we saw a video of her speaking, we knew she has a natural ability for public speaking,” Blanchette said. “She really tailors her message to her audience. And she has such an important message, she really captures people.”

Ferreira’s message is one very personal to her — living with and coping with disabilities, which she said doesn’t have to limit one’s life. She aims to change the conversation around disabilities, and even to change the word. To emphasize her point that people living with certain conditions don’t have to be limited, Ferreira switched out a letter to coin a new term: “dif-ability.”

“It refers to someone who is differently abled. People with disabilities can do anything they set their minds to; they just have to do it differently,” Ferriera said. “My disability does not limit me, but rather inspires who I am and what I have to offer the world.”

Ferreira plans to share that message with the URI community in her TEDxURI Talk, and with the world when she achieves her dream of becoming a motivational speaker and advocate for people with “dif-abilities.” She is already spreading her message around campus, taking part in leadership development and conducting disability training to campus groups. She aims to eliminate misconceptions some still have toward people with disabilities, a frustrating ignorance she encounters when people treat her as if she can’t understand them. She notes that cerebral palsy is a physical disorder, not a mental one.

“People who don’t know me assume it’s a mental disability. I was told I can’t go to URI. I was told I couldn’t make it. But mentally, I’m perfectly fine; it’s a physical thing,” Ferreira said, noting she relays her personal experiences in her disability training. “I try to emphasize that a disability is a self-identity; it’s part of diversity. You don’t accommodate the disability; you accommodate the person with the disability.”

Ferreira credits her parents for inspiring her to follow her dreams despite any outside discouragement she encounters, and she credits her team at the Kingston Speech and Hearing Center with giving her the tools to spread her message around campus and, eventually, beyond.

“I’m good at this; I’m passionate about this. When it comes to my communications team, I have incredible people by my side,” Ferreira said. “I would love to tour the country delivering my talk. I’m serious about this; I need an agent. I want to take this to the next level.”

Ferriera takes the next step on that journey Feb. 23 when URI hosts the TEDx event. Tickets are sold out, but you may watch TEDxURI on the live stream at on Feb. 23, starting at 1 p.m.

In the spirit of ideas worth spreading, TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. At a TEDx event, TED Talks video and live speakers combine to spark deep discussion and connection. These local, self-organized events are branded TEDx, where x = independently organized TED event. The TED Conference provides general guidance for the TEDx program, but individual TEDx events are self-organized. (Subject to certain rules and regulations.)