Disability Pride Week keynote speaker Ali Stroker isn’t afraid to be seen and heard

Disability Pride Week keynote speaker Ali Stroker isn’t afraid to be seen and heard

The trailblazing performer delivered a night of unapologetic visibility. Recounting her life story, she encouraged the audience to embrace individuality.

Ali Stroker gives keynote presentation at Disability Pride Week
Ali Stroker performs “Be a Lion” in Schine Underground on Tuesday evening

Tony Award-winning actress, singer and activist Ali Stroker delivered an energetic keynote performance for Syracuse University’s Disability Pride Week on Tuesday, April 16.

The dimly-lit Schine Underground saw students, faculty and administration whose excitement only grew as Stroker approached the stage ramp. 

Wearing a white suit, matching loafers and a contagious smile that contrasted her black wheelchair with red spokes, Stroker’s energy was imminent.

“I love the sound in this room, it’s incredible, and so I thought I would start with a song, ’cause that’s how I roll,” Stroker said with a knowing smile. The audience erupted in applause that was silenced by her performance of Charlie Smalls’ “Be a Lion.” 

“I’m really proud of who I am, and my disability,” she continued. “But it’s taken many years to arrive here.”

Stroker began her monologue describing the catalyst of her spinal-cord injury: a head-on car collision on the street of her New Jersey suburb home.

“The doctors told my parents they were very concerned that I was not going to be able to be heard,” the singer said before pausing. “I love that one.”

Chronologically telling the story of her theater career, Stroker referred to a backyard performance of Annie as “the biggest night of my life.” The imaginary lights came up and illuminated her deck, she recounted.

“And in that moment, it felt like the whole world stopped because everyone was staring at me, but they weren’t staring at me because of a wheelchair,” Stroker said. “They were staring at me because I was the star, and I was hooked.”

Ali Stroker gives keynote presentation at Disability Pride Week
Ali Stroker gives keynote presentation and performance at SU Disability Pride Week.

She acknowledged the physical barriers that inevitably come with a wheelchair, noting that participation in certain activities isn’t a guarantee. “But for me, my voice is where I can fly,” she said.

Even though Stroker learned to embrace her unique attributes, she didn’t always appreciate them.

“I have rage, frustration and anger, and I get to express that when I sing,” Stroker said. “And I think every kid and – may I just say – anybody living with a disability, has a lot to express and get off their chest because the world is tricky.”

It was motherhood that allowed Strokes to fully love herself and embody pride. Giving birth to her son Jesse 17 months ago changed her entire perspective about being disabled.

“I am his momma, and he does not know me any other way, and he doesn’t want me any other way, and there is no part of him that thinks there’s something wrong with momma,” she said. “And I think that that’s been the actual first time that I ever felt like pride.” 

She reflected, even in the face of adversity, personal challenges are what have allowed her to grow into who she is. “So, your experience here at Syracuse, I promise you will not be perfect,” Stroker warned. “That’s not what this is about. You get a culture, an environment to grow. And to learn. And to be challenged.” 

Throughout the night, she encouraged the audience to cherish individuality. 

“Being the same, not that great,” Stroker said. “Being out of the box, being an original, that’s awesome. That’s the way you want to be.”

The keynote event didn’t come without its line of introductions.

Chancellor Kent Syverud boasted the university’s exhibited accessibility as, he said, it existed before many other college campuses.

“The 1950s is when the university became home to one of the first buildings on a college campus exclusively focused on special education,” Chancellor Syverud said. “Today, now, our InclusiveU program is the largest inclusive higher education program in the United States.”

Alison Gilmore, sports analytics senior and student assistant and peer mentor in the Disability Cultural Center, introduced Strokes with gratitude.

“As a disabled woman who will be working in a largely able-bodied and male-dominated sport industry, Ali’s barrier-breaking work in the arts deeply resonates with me,” Gilmore said. “ I hope to [do] for the sport industry as you have done for the arts and the entertainment industries.”