East Bay Mini Makers Faire

I had so much fun vending at this event! I did a live painting demo so that people could see my process, and there were so many interesting things to do and see! Here’s some general info about the event, followed by some photos and videos of the event itself.

About East Bay Mini Maker Faire and Park Day School

Sunday, October 21, 2018, from 10 am to 5 pm

Featuring both established and emerging local “makers,” the East Bay Mini Maker Faire is a family-friendly celebration featuring rockets and robots, digital fabrication, DIY science and technology, urban farming and sustainability, alternative energy, bicycles, unique hand-made crafts, music and local food, and educational workshops and installations.

The East Bay Mini Maker Faire follows the “big” Maker Faire model of celebrating invention, creativity, and resourcefulness, but is smaller in scale (170+ makers  vs. 1200 makers; 6,000+ people on one day vs. 65,000) and will showcase the wonders of Alameda and Contra Costa counties and beyond!  We were one of the first “Mini” Maker Faires when we launched in 2010. Now we’re part of a huge, truly global network of Maker Faires spanning 40+ countries.

The East Bay Mini Maker Faire is fortunate to have Park Day School as its host and sponsor.  The event uses Park Day School’s four-acre, “secret garden” campus nestled behind Oakland Technical High School in the Temescal District, as well as the adjacent facilities of Studio One Art Center, Oakland’s only city-run building and program dedicated to studio arts instruction in a wide range of media for persons of all ages.

Here’s a short clip of my live demo:

Meeting Mayor Spencer

Meeting Mayor Spencer


During the summer months of June, July, August, the City of Alameda has free concerts at the Crab Cove Beach.  The concerts are once a months, and they usually have local bands perform. I moved to Alameda over five years ago, and since I’ve been here, I’ve gone to just about all these concerts. There’s food, drinks, and everybody is dancing and having a good time.


At these concerts I see a lot of the same people from previous concerts.  One of the women who I always saw at these concerts is the mayor of Alameda, Trish Herrera Spencer.  She always came over to Steve and I to say hi and danced with us for a minute or two. However, we never knew that she was the mayor.  We didn’t even know her name. We just thought that she was a very friendly, energetic person who like to dance. We always saw her dancing with so many people, enjoying herself.


One day, I was online and I found a new art fair called, Alameda, Mini Makers Faire, so I signed up to do it.  At the fair the woman who always danced with me at the concerts came to my booth, said she knows me, and gave me a hug.  Then she looked at my art and asked me which one of my paintings was my favorite. I pointed to the one that says, “Art” in sign language.  She asked how much it was, and the next thing I knew she said, “I want to buy it.” So as Yvonne, one of the women who helps me at the fairs, was taking the painting off of the grid wall, this woman called her husband to bring her money.  A minute later the painting was sold. The woman gave me her business card and said she was putting my painting in her office in City Hall where lots of people will see it. She then asked me to write a short bio to put up next to my painting.  After she left and I looked at her business cards that was when I realized that the Mayor of Alameda, Trish Herrera Spencer, just bought one of my paintings! I was excited that I sold a painting, but discovering that I sold a painting to the mayor was unbelievable.  She definitely made my day.

check out her website at



At the fair Mayor Spencer also told me to friend her on Facebook.  I thought that was pretty funny. I did and she accepted my friend request fairy quickly.  She messaged me on Facebook saying that she already hung my painting up in her office and I needed to schedule an appointment to go see it.   


A week after the Mini Makers Faire, while in the process of scheduling an appointment with the mayor, there was another concert at the Crab Cove Beach.  I went and so did Mayor Spencer. Once again, she came to dance with me, but this time we danced for a whole song. It was a good five minutes or so.


After emailing her assistant back and forth a couple of times, I finally had an appointment with the mayor on July 19, 2018.   I thought it was going to be a pretty short visit mainly to give her my bio. However, Mayor Spencer really took the time to visit with me, my husband, my mom, and my business assistant.  First, she took us to her office where she hung my painting. She even told us about the other art pieces that she has on her wall, so my painting is now a part of her art collection. She was going to have me sit behind her desk, but my wheelchair couldn’t fit.  She took us on a tour of City Hall. She showed us the confidential room where they sign important documents. We also went to the chamber where they have the city council meetings. Mayor Spencer moved chairs out of my way and had me sit in the spot where she normally sits during the meetings.  I guess I was the mayor for a few minutes.


During the tour, Mayor Spencer also told me about the art opportunities they have in City Hall.  There is what’s called an art lottery. If my name gets drawn, I could have my art up on the walls in City Hall.  She introduced me to the woman who is in charge of doing the art lottery, and I definitely signed up for that.


I am so honored and grateful that Mayor Spencer took the time to visit with me and my family.  Plus, the fact that she bought one of my original paintings is still exciting and unbelievable to me.  Mayor Spencer is a lovely woman who really takes time out of her busy schedule to get to know the people who she is trying to help, and I will forever be honored that she took interest in me and my art.


Scroll through to see the images from our visit!

My piece in Mayor Spencer's office

My piece in Mayor Spencer's office

Mayor Spencer and I in her office

Mayor Spencer and I in her office

Mayor Spencer also owns one of my books

Mayor Spencer also owns one of my books

Alameda Makers Fair

The Alameda Maker's Fair was so fun! There was so much to see and learn about, and the Mayor of Alameda bought one of my paintings! Scroll through and see what a fun day we had :)

My booth had not only a ton of my original work, it also had a lot of info about creative expression and people with disabilities, I may do another blog post in the future to highlight the information i had on display.

I also did my first live demo! I wanted people to see how i create my pieces, and i had a very curious audience.

Tools of the trade

Tools of the trade

I did two demos and ended the day with a completed piece 

I did two demos and ended the day with a completed piece 

Here I am at the beginning of my first demo 

Here I am at the beginning of my first demo 

Getting down to business :)

My finished piece!

My finished piece!

Here are a few things we saw walking around the fair

Lots of booths were interactive, you could get hands on and make things- like this little project that teaches you about the way the human hand works. So interesting!

This artist was at work painting the side of a huge shipping container. His name is NIgel Sussman and you can find more of his work here: http://nigelsussman.com/

Here is his final piece, I wasn't the only artist hard at work that day!

Here is his final piece, I wasn't the only artist hard at work that day!

It’s so cool to see different ways that art and science intersect

I made some new friends, here are some satisfied customers with their new purchases:

Did you know that my husband just published a book of poetry? It's called "A Wandering Inwards" and you can buy it on Amazon here:   https://www.amazon.com/Wandering-Inwards-book-Poetry-Self-Reflection/dp/171944904X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1530129967&sr=8-1&keywords=steven+j+howell

Did you know that my husband just published a book of poetry? It's called "A Wandering Inwards" and you can buy it on Amazon here:


The mayor bought my favorite piece! here she is with her new purchase. It's actually a very interesting story, stay tuned for that in my next post!


Don't forget to check out my next blog post about meeting the Mayor!

Ability Now: My Work Experiences

Hi all! 

The following is a transcript of my most recent and final speech of my Ability Now series. It's a bigger look at my work and life- hope you enjoy reading more about my journey!

My Work Experiences 

Graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, with a Bachelor’s of Arts Degree in English and a minor in Education was one of the proudest moments of my life.  During my second and third year at UC Berkeley, I had the opportunity to co-teach the Disabled Student’s Resident Program Class. The objective was to teach the new disabled students at UC Berkeley how to live independently.  I taught them how to look for attendants, how to hire and/or fire them, how to convey their wants and needs. Also, how to set up their schedules, manage their money, etc… That was when I realized that I enjoyed teaching and helping others.


After I graduated from UC Berkeley, I got a job at the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley where I was an Independent Living Skills instructor.  I basically did the same things when I co-taught the Disabled Students’ Residence Program class. Instead of students, I was working with clients, and I actually got paid.  Unfortunately, the budget was cut, so that was the end of that job.


Shortly after that, I moved to San Francisco and began looking for another job, which was not easy.  One day, I was grocery shopping in Safeway and a random woman said hi to me, so I said hi back. Then we started having a whole conversation about my talker and her son in the middle of the condiments aisle.  As it turned out her son had Cerebral Palsy and used a talker. She was so impressed at how well I used my talker that she told her son’s Special Education teacher about me. Within a few I weeks I met with the teacher, who worked for the San Francisco Unified School District and he offered me a job working with the woman’s son helping him use his talker effectively.  Eventually, I was officially hired on a part-time basis by the San Francisco Unified School District. I started out working with one boy, then the teacher asked me to work with some of the other students in this middle school class, who were also using talkers - - which was great! However shortly after that, there was another budget cut, and I was out of a job again.

From these experiences, I knew I wanted to work with kids and/or people with disabilities.  Unfortunately, finding a job was more difficult than I imagined. I would apply for jobs online, set up interviews, but once they saw my wheelchair and talker, it was over.   By the looks on their faces, I knew they were not going to hire me because of my disability. It was extremely frustrating and discouraging. And at times like these, I felt having a bachelor’s degree from one of the top universities in the country didn’t mean a thing.


So I was stuck at home bored and not doing much.  At that time my ex-boyfriend had recently started his own home care business, and he hired me to help one of his clients with some independent living skills.  This client was a teenaged boy with autism. This was the first time that I worked with someone who was autistic. At first I was a little skeptical, wondering how we would get along together. Would he pay attention to me?  Would he listen to me? Would he understand me? Even though he didn’t like most people, we ended up getting along just fine. We went shopping, to get ingredients for him to make simple snacks, and I helped him budget his money.  We also did some gardening and took buses around Berkeley. Every so often my attendant would need to remind him to listen and pay attention to me; otherwise, he would continuously talk about how dangerous people are or play his video games.  But even though he thought people were evil and dangerous, he seemed to like me. A couple of times he actually told people that I was his best friend. That made me feel good. After over a year, his parents could no longer afford to continue paying for my services, so I had to stop working with him.


Once again I was unemployed, so my ex-boyfriend asked if I wanted to continue working for him doing data entry.  I accepted the job and I worked from home. However, I was so bored being home all day by myself and typing stuff on the computer that I quit after a few months.

All of these jobs were only a few hours a week.  I’ve never had a full time job, so that allowed me plenty of time to follow my true passion, which is Art.  When I was not working I spent most of my time drawing and painting. So one day, my ex-boyfriend suggested that I start my own Art business.  And that I did! Since he already had his own business, and I was a client of the Regional Center, he and my social worker helped me create my business plan and budget.…  After about a year, my business, Ness Ness Va’s Art was created in June 2006. At that time I was living in San Francisco, so I needed a seller’s permit. I started out being a street vendor.  A few days a week, I went out and sold my art on Market Street. I sold greeting cards and prints of my art. I received lots of positive feedback about my art, which made me want to continue making and selling more art.  I was a street vendor in San Francisco for over a year, and while I was out there, my most popular piece was a drawing of a big green gecko.


Years before I began my business and started selling my art in San Francisco, I did the drawing of a big green gecko standing in a bowl of pasta holding a blouse.  For some reason people in San Francisco just loved that piece and I sold several copies of it. That was how I got my inspiration for my first children’s book titled, “Gloria, The Gecko Attendant.”  It’s about a girl with Cerebral Palsy, and she has Gloria, the gecko, who helps her with her daily needs. I wrote, illustrated, and self-published this first book in 2010. Since my book was so loved and accepted, I figured this was a good way for me to educate kids and others about disabilities.  I decided then that I wanted to write more books.


Since Gloria, the gecko was so beloved, I decided to use her in my second book, “Rollerblading On Autism,” which I also wrote, illustrated, and self-published in 2014.  In this story, Gloria teaches a boy who is autistic how to rollerblade. This book was accepted to the Autism Speaks Resource Library.


This past September 2017, I launched my third children’s book, “Finding The Spirit.”  This chapter book is about a boy who was diagnosed with a spinal cord injury. Depressed and frustrated in life, his journey finds him learning and playing power soccer.  When I launched this third book, I had my first book release signing event at the Books Inc. Bookstore in Alameda.


With my books, I hope to raise awareness and help educate children and others about different disabilities.  Currently, I am working on my forth book, which is about an amputee. Eventually, I want to write books on all disabilities.  That is one of my long term goals. A lot of my art/paintings have disability themes. For example, I painted Wonder Woman and other superheroes in wheelchairs or on crutches to show that even though someone who has a disability, he or she still can have super powers.


In 2010, around the time my first book came out, I began working with Casa Allegra, which is an organization that helps entrepreneurs with disabilities manage their small businesses.  Casa Allegra helped me expand my business, by getting me a business license, a home occupancy license so I can work from home, and helped me develop my website etc… Since I have been with Casa Allegra, I’ve been doing art festivals and other events all over the Bay Area selling my art.  Now I make and sell greeting cards, posters, calendars, original paintings, and children’s books.


Currently, I have three paintings in the Expressions Gallery’s “Summer Jazz” show in Berkeley.  For the future of Ness Ness Va’s Art, I would like to expand my art and flourish on a much broader scale.  My goals are to create more books to educate about disabilities, get my art into more art galleries in and out of the Bay Area, create more opportunities to speak and read my books at schools and other events, and get paid from all of these venues.


I don’t know what kinds of jobs that you guys have had.  But whatever you are good at, whatever your passion is, you should follow your dreams.  If you have difficulties figuring out what you want to do and what your passions are, try setting goals for yourself.  Even if the goals are small ones like putting together your resume.  It will give you a sense of an accomplishment, and that will help you in the long run.


Thank you letting Steve and I come, and listening to our stories.  We enjoyed talking to you, and we hope that our presentations helped inspired you to do great things in your lives.



Original Gecko Pic.jpg

Process: From idea to finished piece

Hi all! In this short video, I describe my process from start to finish, how I created this piece. Transcript is posted below. Hope you like it!


When I start drawing, ideas just come to me. When I started this piece, it was originally a music note. Then I decided to add teeth, with a tongue sticking out. Then, since I am addicted to chocolate, it needed to have a cup of hot chocolate on the table with a donut, and then I added the eyes. So that is how I developed this one. 

Inspiration: A look at the influences in my latest pieces.

Hi all! Here is another short video about my process and how I incorporate things that influence and inspire me. Stay tuned for more shorts about me and my process! The transcript of this video is posted below. Enjoy!

This is a short video about how signs became a part of some of my recent work, Transcript of this video is below. Enjoy!

Since my husband Steve is hard of hearing, he knows sign language.One day, he bought me a book on sign language so that I could learn some signs. Then I thought, I could add some signs to my artwork as another way to help educate about disabilities. I’ve decided to do this sign because we all need help, sometimes. 


Ability Now, Communication

Hi all,

here is the newest speech transcript in our Ability Now speaking series. I hope you enjoy it!


Communication Speech


Hello Everyone.  It’s nice to see all of you again.  Today, Steve and I are talking about the importance of having good communication skills and being your own self advocate.

Since I have had a speech impediment my entire life, I had to learn how to use my communication device very early on, in order to be where I am today.  Before I got my computerized talker at the age of nine, all I had to work with was a picture board where I pointed to pictures to tell people what I wanted or needed help with.  For example, when I wanted a drink of water I pointed to a picture of a cup. But that wasn’t enough for me - I wanted more. With the help of my then speech therapist, Marilyn, I was able to get a computerized communication device.  However, I had no idea how to use it or what to do with it. I remember Marilyn forcing me to ask her whatever questions that I could think of, and making me tell her what I did during the weekend so that I could learn to type and how to use my new device.  She and I would sit in the room quietly and she wouldn’t say anything until I started the conversations. With perseverance and motivation I exceeded in her expectations. Not only did Marilyn teach me how to use my first talker, she taught me how to ask questions, how to tell people what I want and need.  And how to start conversations and keep them going. Working with Marilyn definitely changed my life, and she gave me the confidence to use my talker to show my personality, and that was the beginning of a whole new world for me.


For some reason I wasn’t allowed to take talkers home every day.  I was only allowed to take it home on weekends and during summers.  I never really understood the purpose of that, so I had to find other ways to communicate with my family.  I would hand write notes with pens and paper to my parents when I wanted and needed to tell them things. Fortunately, my dad and my younger sister, Allyson, were able to understand my verbal speech pretty well without having me write everything down.  Out of my whole family, Allyson could understand me the best. Sometimes I said something to my mom and if she didn’t understand me, she would ask Allyson to translate. And Allyson would repeat what I said word for word. My mom was always so impressed with Allyson’s ability to understand me so well and so was I.

Talking on the phone with a speech impediment was always fun and games…  I had a few great friends from school who for the most part could understand my speech over the phone.  When they didn’t understand what I was saying, they had me spell the words out. Sometimes they asked, “What letter does the word start with?” I’d say, “P,” and they would say, “b?” I’d say, “No, p.” They would say, T? D? C? and so on.  They would even ask, “Are you sure it’s not T? That’s what it sounds like you are saying.” It was always so funny. When my friend, Elyse finally guessed the correct letter, she was so happy and say, “YAYY!!! I got it!!!!!!!!” If they couldn’t figure out what letter I was saying, they started saying the alphabet.  My friend, Micki, said talking to me over the phone was like playing Wheel of Fortune. She used to call me Vanna when we were on the phone. Unlike Elyse, Micki had to write down what I was saying otherwise she forgot the previous word or letter. Every so often Micki asked, “Can I buy a vowel?” As you can see communicating on the phone took a lot of time and patience.  There were times when I said, “It’s okay. Never mind. Forget it.” But Elyse and Micki always insisted that I keep trying. Even though these phone calls were trying and frustrating at times, and took a lot of patience, and a whole lots of laughs, they would always eventually figure out what I was saying.


At my junior college, my friend, Ann, was so determined to understand my verbal speech that she would not let me type on my talker.  Just like talking on the phone I said the sentence first and then we would go through it word by word or letter by letter. Sometimes I said a sentence, and Ann would say something that was totally off the wall.  She knew that wasn’t what I said, but to her that was what it sounded like. For example, I said, “I have an algebra test on Wednesday.” Trying to repeat my sentence, Ann’s interpretation was like, “I saw an alligator on skates on Sunday.”  Her interpretations were always so hilarious that I always had to crack up, which took even more time. No matter how much time it took, Ann was extremely patient and determined to understand my speech. We went through this a couple of times a day on a daily basis, so Ann told everyone that she was taking VSL, which is Vanessa as a Second Language.  Her finals was a phone conversation with me. I gave her a “B.” At the end of the semester I even made Ann a report card. For the class, I gave Ann an “A.”

Looking back on these experiences, I wish my speech therapists worked on my verbal speech.  Not just my communication devices. I’m sure that my speech would be a little much clearer if they have done that.


Being able to use my communication device effectively is extremely important to me.   If I didn’t have my talker, communicating with anybody would be really difficult. Most people definitely are not as patient as my sister and my friends, so my talker has always been very beneficial for me.   It’s empowering and gives me a lot of confidence. Having the ability to tell people exactly what I want and need is great. It is crucial. It gives me the power to be my own self advocate, and that is what all of us need to do.  Whether you talk with your own voice or with a communication device, you must be able to communicate clearly and effectively. It’s always nice to have someone in your corner for those everyday life situations; but it’s up to you the make that final decision for yourself - - whatever that may be.


In this day and age, the best way to communicate with me is by email or text; though I prefer emailing over texting.  It’s easier for me to use a regular keyboard than on my phone. I can’t use a touch screen phone like the Iphone, so I have a manual flip phone, and where I live, the reception sucks.  Steve will text me in the morning, but I won’t get it until that afternoon or evening. It’s crazy. So I tell everyone to email me or send me a message on Facebook. For my business and important things, email is the best for me.  If you have trouble talking on the phone, you must have an alternate way of communicating that is best for you.

Ability Now, My CP and Berkeley Experiences

The following is a video and transcript of my 2nd Ability now speech. See my previous blog for more info about Ability now. Thanks for watching! 



Hello All.  Nice to see all of you again.   For this presentation Steve and I will talk about some of our experiences with having cerebral palsy.  I could easily write a book on this. But I will also share some of my experiences as a student at UC Berkeley, where I graduated and received my Bachelor’s Degree.


Just like most of you, when I go out in public, people automatically stare at me, mainly because I am in a wheelchair.  I remember my mom always telling me, “sit up straight so people don’t stare at you.” I eventually realized that people weren’t staring at me because I wasn’t sitting up straight.  I could be leaning to the side or all dressed up or dye my hair purple, green, or blue, but no matter what I do or how I look, people are going to stare at me simply because I use a wheelchair, and the fact that I have a communication device is just another reason for people to look at me.

The reactions I get are a wide range on the spectrum. I’ve seen looks like they can’t believe that I’m out in public.  Sometimes people who I don’t know will come up to me, and say they will pray for me that God will heal me. I just look at them and say, okay.  At this point in my life I feel like if God hasn’t “healed” my cerebral palsy by now, he isn’t going to. Personally, I feel God made me this way for a reason.

Having to use a communication device trips people out.  If they don’t know me, they will talk to me like I’m 4 years old and tell me, I’m so cute. So annoying.  Others will ask me a question, but before I’m done typing my answer, they are already gone. Why bother asking me something if you can’t wait for the response.   A lot of people are just so impatient. These incidents happen to me often. I had a few people who see me type on my talker, and they will just start typing on my talker without asking me.   For example, I’ll ask someone, “What’s your name?” And the person will literally start typing on my talker, “My name is.” I will just move their hand away, and whoever is with me will tell the person not to touch my talker.   The person will ask, “How do I talk to her?” My friend will tell them, “talk to her like you talk to anybody else.” The person will ask, “She can hear me?” My friend will say, “Yes, she can hear just fine.” It’s amazing how so many people can’t comprehend that even though I use a talker, I am still able to hear and understand what’s going on.  Then there are those who think since I can’t really talk, that I must be deaf or hard of hearing, so they will be right next to or in front of me yelling at me. I’m thinking, I’m not deaf, but if you keep yelling at me, I could become deaf thanks to you.

I just think that people are so uneducated and clueless about disabilities. Unless they are around others who have disabilities, they really don’t know. They don’t know what to do, what to say, or how to behave, when they are confronted with a person with a disability.  They think that just because we are disabled we can’t do anything or that we don’t have a brain. I have come across people like this numerous times. For example, I will be in a restaurant having a conversation with Steve and some friends, and suddenly a random stranger will walk up to us and ask whomever I’m with, “Can she type?” or “How does she know how to type or spell?”  The person with me will say, “Yes, of course she knows how to type. She has a bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley in English and a minor in Education. She also has her own art business and she wrote, illustrated, and published 3 children’s books.” By the looks on their faces, we could tell that they don’t believe us. They probably think, how could I have possibly graduated from UC Berkeley and do all of that?  So we will give them my business card and tell them to go to my website and check out my art. Whether or not they actually do that, who knows.

My student life experience at UC Berkeley was amazing.

UC Berkeley has an incredible program called The Disabled Students’ Resident Program (DSRP), for new students with disabilities.  I was accepted to UC Berkeley, and automatically into the DSRP program because of my disability. When I moved to the Berkeley campus, I lived in the dorms my first two years.  The DSRP program is only for one year, but during that year, I was taught how to live independently. Through DSRP, each student was assigned to work with a coach on a one on one basis.  We learned about independent skills, how to sign up for In Home Support Services (IHSS), how to find attendants. One way that I was taught to find attendants was to make flyers and put them up around the dorms and in certain areas around the campus.  If they were interested, they had to email me and we would schedule an interview. My DSRP coach taught me how to interview people. What questions to ask them. As well as helping me figure out what I would need the attendants to do in terms of my personal needs as well as what accommodations I needed for my classes.  My DSRP coach also taught me how to hire and fire them, how to schedule them, how to tell them what I needed them to do etc. All of these things were completely new to me. I never realized I would be in this situation since I lived with my parents all my life. This was the first time I had to find and hire attendants, as well as scheduling them around my class schedules.  


To get accommodations for my classes, I had to go talk to the people in the Disabled Students’ Center office and tell them what I needed.  I got note takers for all of my classes, books on tape, and extra time for my tests. I also had attendants come read to me if they didn’t have my text books on tape.  Since I am such a slow reader, having my books on tape and the attendants reading to me was a tremendous help to me. Those attendants also helped me by looking over my papers and editing them.  When I had trouble in algebra, the Disable Students’ Center got a tutor for me. Fortunately, I was able to tell the office what I needed to succeed in my classes.


The DSRP staff was so impressed with how quickly I got the hang of this attendant process and being able to tell others what I needed and wanted quicker than any of my peers who were in DSRP with me.  I remember some of the DSRP staff congratulating me on hiring an attendant so quickly. At the time, I didn’t fully understand what the big deal was about getting attendants since DSRP had staff 24/7 to help us with anything we needed help with.  As time went on the staff and my coach explained that after one year I wouldn’t have the DSRP staff on hand at any time anymore. It was only a one year program, so we all had to figure out pretty fast the process of living independently, finding, hiring and getting attendants to help us with our daily activities on and off campus.  We were going to be on our own soon enough. It turned out that I was so successful conquering the DSRP program and the attendant process, that the program director asked me to co-teach the DSRP class the following year. And that – I did! That was my very first experience teaching, and I enjoyed it a lot!


When I attended UC Berkeley they had a Disabled Students Union, which was a club for the students with disabilities.  I joined this club my second year mainly to make friends. Everyone in this club had all kinds of disabilities, and everyone always supported each other, and had fun.  At the beginning of my second year in this club, they nominated me to be the new social director, and I won. For a year I had to plan a social outing/activity for all of us to do once a month.  Usually on a Friday or Saturday night. This position was fun but tricky because there were about 25 people in wheelchairs. Finding activities that can accommodate 25 wheelchairs wasn’t easy. Luckily, not all of them were able to go to these social events every month.  No matter where we went, we usually ended up playing musical chairs, and having people look and stare, but we didn’t care. I planned events like going out to dinners, ice cream socials, a movie night at the rec room in the dorm, meeting at a bar, etc… It was always fun, and I was thankful that they gave me the opportunity to take the group out once a month just to enjoy ourselves.


Going to social gatherings like these is a good way to meet people and make new friends.  Since I am so easy going, I’m always willing to try new things. I heard about the Disabled Students Union thorough a friend, and decided to go, and I ended up being the social director for a year.  I never expected that to happen. Another way to meet new people and make new friends is getting involved in something you like doing. For example, I enjoy writing so my friend, Patty, runs a disabled writing group.  She asked me to join, so I did. The group wrote a whole play and we decided to perform it in front of an audience. We all invited our friends and everyone else. Patty invited her friend, Steve to our performance. I was Wonder Woman in the play, so I had a Wonder Woman costume on so that was what I was wearing when I met Steve.  And now Steve and I are married. So my advice to you is to get involve in whatever you are interested in because you never know what will happen.


As you may or may not know Berkeley is the home of the disability rights movement.   So driving around town in wheelchairs is different from just about anywhere else. The people in Berkeley are much more accepting, educated, and patient about disabilities.  It was great. One story that I remember is when my friend, Tom, asked me to go to Walgreens with him. Tom was in the DSRP with me, and he had cerebral palsy, used a wheelchair and a communication board.  His communication board was just a board with words and the alphabet. It was not computerized, and didn’t speak like mine does. So Tom had to point to words or if the words weren’t on the board he had to point to each letter.  Plus, he was very spastic so when he pointed to a letter or a word, he couldn’t hold his hand still. He would point to the area where the letter or word was and the person had to ask him if it was x, y, z. Tom would nod yes or no.  So communicating with Tom took a lot of patience. Somehow I was always able to figure out what he was saying, unlike most of the other students in the dorms. The day he asked me to go to Walgreens with him, I didn’t think to ask him what he wanted before we left.  When we got there I asked Tom what he wanted, and he pointed to G, and that was it. I was waiting for him to continue pointing to letter to spell something out, but he just sat there and he couldn’t think of how to spell what he wanted. So I started typing out words that I could think of that started with the letter G, like glue, gum, glasses, but Tom kept nodding, no.  Then one of the Walgreens employees came and asked if we needed help. With my talker I told him that my friend wants something that starts with G, but I wasn’t sure what. So the employee also naming out things that started with G, but Tom kept nodding his head no. Then the guy suggested we walk around the store so that Tom could show us what he wanted. So that was what we did, and the employee even went around the store with us.  After all of this, Tom just wanted gloves. I couldn’t believe he couldn’t spell gloves. It was frustrating, and I wanted to strangle him. Although, it was surprising how patient and helpful the Walgreens employee was to us. Most people are not so accepting and tolerant. When we got back to the dorms and told the DSRP staff about our shopping trip, after they had a good laugh, they were proud of us for doing it independently, which was the main goal for the DSRP program.


I can easily go on and on about my life experiences at UC Berkeley, but I know you guys go home at three o’clock.

My message to you all today, is we need to help people realize that individuals with disabilities can be brilliant, accomplished, educated, entrepreneurs and independent.  They can be anybody they want or aspire to be; and they can accomplish anything in life with love, support, determination and perseverance. We need to treat everybody equally and with respect no matter who they are.  It is just common sense.


Thank you again for having us, and I hope my message motivates and inspires all of you.  Thank you.

Ability Now

Ability Now is a day program for people with disabilities.  It used to be called the CP Center. Steve and I were hired to do a serious of five presentations to motivate and inspire the participants.  The people who attend Ability Now choose to be called participants instead of being called clients or patients.


Some of the topics that we are speaking about our experiences with having CP, independent living skills, how to deal with attendants, my experiences at UC Berkeley, etc…  Since Steve has a black belt in Martial Arts, he will be doing a presentation on Martial Arts and self-defense. I will be also talk about communication skills and having an art business.  


The first few presentations were successful.  Steve and I are speaking to 50-80 participants each time.  So far they have had a million questions. We had a few questions about independent living skills, how we overcame our disability, how to deal with ignorant individuals and the negativity, etc... After our first presentation was over people kept circling around us asking us even more questions. Our presentation time was over an hour, but Steve and I ended up talking to them for 2 hours. They literally blocked us in. Lol. 


We hope after our presentations, the participants will be more motivated and inspire to achieve their goals and dreams.

Here are some photos  short video clips of our first presentation







Hi, I am Vanessa Castro, and I am super excited to be here and talk to you today, and let you get to know me.  Just like most of you, I have cerebral palsy due to birth complications. I use a power wheelchair and a communication device as you can see.  When I am at home, I don’t stay in my wheelchair. I get down on the floor and walk around on my knees, or sit on the floor to work on my computer and do my art.  Being out of my wheelchair is just more comfortable for me, and I get more things done having room to move around.


When I was growing up, I was encouraged and taught to not let my disability prevent me from what I want to do.  Before I had a talker, I had a picture board where I pointed to pictures. For example, if I wanted a drink of water, I pointed to the picture of a cup.  But I wanted more. With the help of my then speech therapist, Marilyn, I was able to get a computerized communication device. I had no idea how to use it or what to do with it, but I was persistent and motivated to learn more.  Not only did Marilyn teach me how to use my first talker, she taught me how to ask questions, how to tell people what I want and need. And how to start conversations and keep them going. Working with Marilyn definitely changed my life, and she gave me the confidence to use my talker to show my personality, and that was the beginning of a whole new world for me.


I graduated from UC Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in education.  I worked at Center for Independent Living in Berkeley for over a year as an Independent Living Skills Instructor.  I worked with clients on how to get and hire attendants. How to fire them. How to manage money when they go shopping.  I also worked for the San Francisco Unified School District working with teenagers with disabilities and teaching them how to use their talkers.  I enjoy teaching, but after these jobs ended I couldn’t find another one. I would apply for jobs and go on interviews, but once they saw my wheelchair and talker, I knew they were not going to hire me.  There were times when it felt like having a bachelor’s degree from one of the top universities in the country didn’t mean anything. I spent most of my time drawing and painting. Then one day a friend suggested I start my own art business.   And that - - I did !!! I started with greeting cards, calendars, prints and posters and sold them. Then I moved on to drawings and paintings on canvas which I sell in various fairs and art shows all over the Bay Area. I also have paintings currently on exhibit at some galleries. After ten years of having my own business, I’ve written, illustrated, and self published 3 children’s books. My goal is to educate kids about different disabilities through my art and books.  A lot of my art has disability themes. For instance, I did a couple paintings of Wonder Woman in a wheelchair and I painted people with crutches. With my paintings of Wonder Woman and other superheroes in wheelchairs, I want to show the world that even though someone has a disability, he or she has their own unique super powers.


Steve and I will be coming here to hopefully motivate and inspire all of you.  From my own experience, even with disability, there’s nothing that you cannot do if you put your mind to it.   It’s hard work and sometimes very frustrating, but it’s a good feeling when you accomplish something. You just need to have confidence in yourself.  Feel free to ask any questions.

Susan Lewis's constant mix ups

Each summer while I was growing up I went to summer school for four weeks.  It wasn’t a regular summer schools where I went to take classes for credits or anything like that.  These summer school classes were just something for me to do during summers.  All of my classmates from my Special Ed Classes were in these summer school classes, and we mainly just did arts and crafts, cooked, went on field trips, and had fun.


For several summers Susan Lewis, was my teacher.  She was sweet and absolutely hilarious.  Susan knew I enjoyed drawing and doing art, so one day she asked me to create some Christmas cards for her.  I don’t remember how much she paid me, but I knew she paid me something. This was my first job in my art career.


Another thing that I will always remember about Susan is that she always mixed up my and Theresa’s names.  For years, everybody at school always said that Theresa and I looked alike and that we could be sisters.  We were sisters in terms of being good friends, and we hung out a lot.  Susan kept calling me Theresa, and Theresa Vanessa so often that everyone in class kept telling her, “That’s Vanessa.” Or “That’s Theresa.”  It was hilarious!  One day Susan came up with the idea that every time she called Theresa or me the wrong name that she would pay us a quarter thinking that would help her keep our names straight.  Unfortunately, for Susan that plan didn’t help her much.  All it did was make Theresa and me richer.  By the end of the day, Susan would pay us around $2 - $4. That was how often she mixed up our names.  A few times I was busy doing something and suddenly I would hear some of my friends laughing and say, “You did it again. You called her Theresa.  You owe her another quarter.”  Susan would tell them to shush.  It was so funny.  I probably made more money from Susan mixing up our names than I did with the Christmas cards that I made for her. Too bad I didn’t have Susan as my teacher during the regular school year.  I would be rich.


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Elliot, My Sales Assistant

When I first started my business in 2006, I began selling my art in San Francisco as a street vendor.  I was out there once or twice a week.  When the weather was nice, I would bring my sweet little dog, Elliot, with me. After a while some of the other vendors got to know me and Elliot.  The days when I didn’t bring Elliot, people would asked, “Where’s Elliot?” or “Where’s your dog?” or “Where’s your puppy?” Even the people who used to walk by on a regular basis would ask me where Elliot was.


After a few weeks, I realized that Elliot really liked strollers. I guess he was around me and my wheelchair all of the time, he probably figured that strollers were smaller versions of wheelchairs.  Who knows?  Whenever a stroller came by my booth, Elliot went right up to it to say hi.  While the kids were petting him, the parents would start talking to me and/or my attendant and look at my art.  Then they asked the kids which one they like and bought that piece.


Obviously, Elliot was brilliant and knew what he was doing. Plus, he was so sweet and adorable he was a magnet for customers to stop by and buy my book.  Elliot was officially one of my first sales assistants.

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