Episode 40 Transcript

Published: Thursday March 28, 2024

Embracing Every Aspect of Life with Catarina Rivera

From Silence to Advocacy: The Blindish Latina’s Journey


Alycia Anderson: Welcome to Pushing Forward with Alycia, a podcast that gives disability a voice. Each week we will explore topics like confidence, ambition, resilience and finding success against all odds. We are creating a collective community that believes that all things are possible for all people.

Open hearts. Clear paths. Let’s go.

Welcome back to Pushing Forward with Alycia. I’m Alycia Anderson. I am so thrilled and excited about this interview and guest that we have on today.

Catarina Rivera is a dynamic public speaker DEI consultant, a content creator. She works with companies to improve disability awareness, inclusion and accessibility. As a disabled Latina woman, she is passionate about sharing her own unique story to help build a more inclusive world. She is educating leaders all over the place and smashing stigmas, and I’m so thrilled.

Thank you so much for coming and spending some time with me today, it’s my honor.

Catarina Rivera: Thank you so much for having me. I am looking forward to this.

Alycia Anderson: As we get going, let’s look in the rearview mirror a little bit. I would love to hear a little bit about your personal journey, your connection with disability, whatever you’re comfortable with and how that kind of all translated to this amazing platform and advocacy that you are exuding today.

Catarina Rivera: In terms of my journey, I’ve been disabled my whole life, but I didn’t really feel part of the disability community until more recently.

I’ve been hard of hearing since birth and I’ve worn hearing aids from a young age. Then I was diagnosed with a progressive vision disability at 17 years old.

Was I always confident in my disability? Nope.

Did I hide my disability in the past? Yes, I did.

My disability journey had several stages. I started with denial. And my journey, when I think about it, was really about my vision disability, because when you’re born with something, it’s just so natural to you. So my hearing disability was a part of my life from the beginning. I never had a surprise when it came into my life. It was always there.

But my vision disability felt like a real surprise, and it came right before I was headed off to college, so I have never really been all on my own to advocate for myself with my disability. My mom was a really strong advocate for me throughout my whole education, so I don’t think that even with my hearing disability, I was challenged as much until I was older.

So back to my journey and the stages. Denial was the first one I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to let other people know that I had a disability. That continued on for a while.

When I moved to New York City after college, I started to move into acceptance because thankfully I was exposed to so many blind people in the city who are independent, who were showing me the way… they had careers, they were really confident about using their canes and would just like fold them up…[and] put it on the table, and they were so funny. So, I met all these people and that was really formative for me.

I also moved to New York City with my disability in mind. I gave up driving before someone was going to tell me I had to stop driving. So that felt very empowering that it was on my terms and that I could retain my independence, and get around everywhere I wanted in that city.

So, after a while with acceptance and finally getting resources and learning more about technology available for blind people, I was able to feel much more confident as an advocate for myself. The next stage for me started when I started to use a white cane. I made that decision in 2015, and it changed my life.

I was no longer hiding my disability and was becoming comfortable with it being very public as I used the cane more and more, and it gave me a voice… it gave me strength. So, I really started speaking up for all my needs and that is what has taken me today to be a Public Advocate.

I started sharing on Instagram in 2020 with Blindish Latina, and I knew at that time there wasn’t enough representation of disabled Latinas who looked like me. I also wanted to challenge non disabled people’s idea of blindness and what it meant. Because so many people think that blindness is horrible, like the worst thing that could happen to them.

And then I guess in terms of my business I have always been looking for a way to travel more. I’ve had a dream to move abroad for a while and I’ve tried to start. I have had different companies, different nonprofit programs, and this is the one that took up. So I am so glad now that I’m able to do something I really love, which is public speaking and consulting, and can also travel as my lifestyle and be able to work remotely… with my clients.

I started my career in education as a public school teacher in the box, so now doing what I’m doing I just feel like I’m teaching in a different way on a bigger platform.

Alycia Anderson: Your reach and your platform is so powerful and encouraging, and I love the story of when you started to embrace your white cane, and it reminds me kind of myself too, when I decided to embrace my wheelchair like I could never hide it, but I faked for a long time.

It was actually really around the college time too, where I finally started to raise my hand and say, you know what I do need some access. I have access needs. I need accessibility. I have this wheelchair is not going away.

And the Blindish Latina social media platform is so educational and it’s so informative and you’re just… you’re killing it, you’re doing really great works.

How is your experience with Usher syndrome which includes like you mentioned, vision and hearing loss shaped your perspective on diversity, equity and inclusion?

Catarina Rivera: Just being disabled in general has helped me understand the need for disability to be part of a DEI conversation.

I’ve really noticed when it’s not, because I’m acutely aware of just how much I’ve been left out. In so many situations, even if it’s just socially, with my friends, people planning a birthday party… I remember one time my friend had a party at an escape room. And that is kind of a nightmare situation for me with my vision, because it takes me a while to adapt to an environment I have a very narrow window of vision, so each room I’m kind of piecing together… Where am I? Everyone else is shouting, touching things. I can’t understand what they’re saying. I don’t know what’s going on, and I’m just following them from room to room, trying not to injure myself.

So, when I talk about like DEI, I am now saying DEIA don’t want people to forget accessibility. It is so important.

We also really just need to acknowledge the intersectionality of disability. It’s anyone can be disabled and of any race in each class, gender, sexuality, veteran status, religion, etcetera.

And because disability is a… can be a part of anyone’s identity. When we have efforts that are supposed to help people of a certain identity. If you’re not including accessibility and disability in there, you’re not actually helping everyone in that group. So it’s so important to always bring disability to be a part of it.

I think I’ve also just with my personal experience. I’ve seen how inaccessible our world is and how isolating it feels to be excluded. So that gives me a lot of empathy in general with this work. I’m also mindful of privilege and power dynamics, and I can really think about how I can be in the same exact environment as a non-disabled person and they don’t know see acknowledge it is not even conceivable to them the barriers that I’m dealing with in the same situation.

So that’s kind of what I think Usher syndrome… my experience has done for me and has influenced… how it has influenced my perspective on DEI.

Alycia Anderson: I think that’s the magic and the power of including disability in this conversation. Giving it its rightful place, is looking through these new lenses of, you know, the human path.

What made you decide to become a full time traveler and work as a virtual public speaker and a consultant? Like how did you decide to make that leap?

Catarina Rivera: When I have been going, I guess in my career journey. I have always been driven to do meaningful work, purpose driven work, and I’ve always kind of followed a thread to the next thing.

So, from college I was interested in education and how can we help the Latina community excel and have access to the same opportunities. So, I became a teacher. Then I saw the limits to what being in the classroom… what you can do… the impact you can have. You have a deep impact on one group of students.

So, then I got interested in health and fitness and nutrition, so I followed that thread and learned about holistic health, and I started to do some community programs and I was still doing education. So, I quit my job as a teacher and I was doing that, and that was very cool and it taught me how to start something from an idea into a reality and to work with people in the community.

Just wonderful, but that was still with the educational mindset, and then I realized, wow, there are a lot of systems working here. There’s a lot of reasons why people can’t access food that is nutritious, and I got to be working on that.

So, then I started working on public health, and I got my second master’s in public health. My first one was in education, and I started working in nonprofits. And so, I worked in that food justice, food security space for a while, and along the way, I was going on my disability thing.

So, when I reached the point of self-advocacy where I was using a like cane, I’m super-confident I started doing a lot of stuff in my workplace around disability. I helped start the disability inclusion in affinity group which that was not the original name they were using differently abled.

Alycia Anderson: Oh.

Catarina Rivera: Yeah. That’s what the HR team first came out with, and I was like, OK, we’re going to change that, but I’m going to take the educational approach.

So, I got really involved in that and I started sharing also with Blindish Latina and everything just happened to flow, I think naturally throughout my career.

I saw that there was so much more I could say and do with my platform, if I invested in it and really spent the time to create a business. And, I could work with many workplaces at once instead of just the one that I was working in full time. So, that was kind of really why I started my business.

I also, when you look at my life in the past, why was I drawn to travel… I’m Cuban and Puerto Rican. I have so many… so many stories of immigrations and people moving countries and my family, and I’ve been able to go to Cuba, go to Puerto Rico and go to Spain, where I have relatives, and I was aware from a young age that the world was bigger than the United States.

So, being exposed to travel at that time just made me excited to see more of the world, so that’s what I was doing as I was working. I was always planning trips and having adventures and then I learned about sustainable travel and that was a previous connection point because I started a sustainable travel company with my partner. And so, we did a trip to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, and we brought eight people there to explore food sovereignty on the island. It’s not… it’s not just one island. Let’s make sure not perpetuating inaccuracies. But yeah, still go to Puerto Rico.

So, I was just loving travel and how to do that in a meaningful way. It was a dream to move abroad. It wasn’t something that I actually had a concrete plan to do, but everything came together. I saw the opportunity when everything went remote and we took the leap. And we sold everything. We gave up our apartment in New York and we started traveling.

So that was an adventure that I’m so glad we, you know, we just took and you know, we just decided… we just decided, and so now it’s been really cool to see my business grow and to also figure out how do I live the life that I want and also bring travel into the business.

I’ve started to, as you’ve seen, I share content about inclusive and accessible travel. I’m sharing myself as a disabled traveler. You know, let’s remind the travel industry, and we’re a huge market. And that we also are traveling in groups like our friends want us to come with them. Our families want disabled, you know, their disabled family members to be able to travel with them.

So, I’m hoping to also make a difference in the travel industry.

Alycia Anderson: I can’t wait to see where this goes because you already are making this massive impact in the travel industry and it’s fascinating. It’s such a beautiful path of growing into your advocacy work. Congratulations.

Let’s take a quick break. You’re listening to Pushing Forward with Alycia.


Alycia Anderson: Welcome back to Pushing Forward with Alycia. I’m Alycia Anderson. I am so thrilled and excited about this interview and guest Catarina Rivera is a dynamic public speaker, a DEI consultant, a content creator.

She works with companies to improve disability awareness. Inclusion and accessibility.

So, tell me what has been your favorite part of being a full-time traveler?

Catarina Rivera: I enjoy getting to know cultures around the world and eating good food.

If I talk about a travel destination, most of the time I’m mentioning how great the food was. I love exploring new areas and getting a taste of local life and culture.

I also like the freedom of being a full-time traveler and not being tied to one particular place.

Alycia Anderson: On the other side of that question, what has been one of the harder things that you’ve had to kind of overcome?

Catarina Rivera: When you’re traveling full-time, it can be hard to maintain your social connections. I’m really good about keeping in touch with my friends. However, I don’t often have somewhere locally that I can go out and do something with and do an activity with, so that is difficult.

It’s also has been challenging to maintain my self-care and my fitness because you can’t really set up a routine. You’re always changing environments and living somewhere new. But I’m also challenged with how do I balance travel and wanting to see the place that I’m in while also the energy that my business goals need.

Alycia Anderson: What have you observed in the terms of accessibility travel options?

Catarina Rivera: I’ve observed that there are a lot of accessible travel companies out there and there is… there are some that are expanding a lot, so I’ve been watching, Wheel the World in particular. They’re expanding into many different directions.

I think now in more of a booking platforms. Hotel chains are creating more accessible hotel rooms. How… they’re not always missing… they’re not always actually accessible for everyone, but I am encouraged that I can often see like some options. So, I hope that they continue to improve.

I think there is recognition within the industry and I think on a larger context about how big of a market we are, I do think the conversation is happening more often.

And yeah, last year I was part of Delta Airlines faces of travel initiative.

So disabled travel creators are being tapped, I think more to be participating in campaigns. So I…

Alycia Anderson: Not only tapped! You went viral with that, didn’t you?

Catarina Rivera: Yeah. Yes, it was over 37 million views as my biggest video.

Alycia Anderson: Ohh wow, congratulations!

Catarina Rivera: Thank you. That video was bananas because so many people were on there just to leave negative comments and to question the validity of my blindness because that video was not educating about how my blindness works.

It was really like, I’m deaf blind. Here’s my trip to Miami.

And so, I mentioned that I watch people play dominoes and I.., you know something else that indicated or like…, people would… I was dancing in the video. People were like, how can she dance!?!

And so, it was just ridiculous. The level of questioning and micro questions there.

Alycia Anderson: And I think that with your disability being as diverse as it is and having so many pieces to it, that… and the intersection of your identity, just all of it.

I think it opens up this beautiful door of exploration of multi layered, beautiful, amazing woman.

So, what is the advice that we can give to… that you can give to the travel industry to enhance accessibility and inclusion?

Catarina Rivera: Always design with accessibility in mind from the beginning. Make it a part of the work. It has to be a requirement, like a must do, not a nice to have. So that’s the mindset.

We also really need the commitment to accessibility to reach the smaller operators, the boutique hotels, the Airbnb owners, the tour operators and of course, the bigger ones too: the airlines, destinations, the local government.

But I feel that when we prioritize accessibility then we’re going to see change in infrastructure and how digital communications are happening, operations, the customer experience.

But we’re not there yet on a global scale. The industry is just still understanding that disabled customers are really here. This isn’t just a side project or fun project.

So, I really hope that also, the travel industry, if they have people that interface with the public that are talking to the public, all of those people need to be educated about disability… all of them. And, how to treat disabled customers and that really doesn’t cost money. It’s a time investment more than anything.

Alycia Anderson: Ongoing education…! Like never…

Catarina Rivera: Oh. Yeah.

Alycia Anderson: Stop, please.

Catarina Rivera: Yes.

Alycia Anderson: What is stigma, smashers? Can you speak to this a little bit?

Catarina Rivera: I call my community the stigma smashers because everyone can smash disability stigmas. Whether you’re non-disabled or disabled, you can take action in your everyday life.

I love the term because it’s active. It suggests action and it’s fun. It’s aligned with my brand, which is all about being approachable, encouraging and giving tangible best practices.

So, my goal is to create stronger allyship from non-disabled people and also to support disabled people feeling validated.

So, I have some T-shirts I have merch with stigma smashers on it and I have a lot of fun with it.

Alycia Anderson: What does the future hold like? What is your North star? What’s coming up this year?

Catarina Rivera: I’m working on a book proposal that will be a guide.

Alycia Anderson: Oooohh!

Catarina Rivera: Yes, I’m excited. So, the book proposal is for a book that will be a guide to disability inclusion in the workplace. I’m continuing to offer virtual trainings, fireside chats and keynotes to organizations on disability awareness, inclusion and accessibility.

Currently, I’ve taken on numerous consulting projects which have been very exciting and I’m also designing my first product which will be a stylish accessory for blind people.

So this stuff… just to clarify the stuff in my merch shop that.. stigma smasher. I didn’t design those. It’s a service where you can add a design to things that are already made, but this product with the accessory for blind people is being designed from the idea to production by me and my team.

Alycia Anderson: Oh my God, that’s amazing. I cannot wait.

This has been such an amazing conversation. I’m so grateful.

I’d love to leave our listeners with a little bit of inspiration is there any little pushing forward moment that you can gift away to our listeners?

Catarina Rivera: Wherever you are in a disability journey is OK. You’re not behind. You’re right on time. You’re not alone. And just keep going.

Alycia Anderson: Thank you for all of the work that you’re doing and just everything that you’re giving to the universe, it’s so important and it’s so beautiful.

Catarina Rivera: Thank you so much.

I’m so glad that we’re connected and part of each other’s lives cheering each other on.

I love your energy and all the work that you are doing to make an impact.

It’s amazing.

Alycia Anderson: Thank you.

And, thank you so much to our pushing forward community for joining in on this conversation today.

This is Pushing Forward with Alycia and that is how we roll on this podcast.