Seeing People First

Arielle Zellis ’17S Calls For Greater Inclusion of People With Disabilities

Through one speaking engagement after another, the message Arielle Zellis ’17S wants to get out there is simple: think “person” first.

“Instead of seeing someone as a disabled or ill person, it’s about thinking of them first and foremost as a human being, made b’tzelem Elokim [in the image of God],” said Zellis, a senior studying psychology at Stern College for Women. “Everything else really comes after that. So when I see you, I’m seeing you as a unique human beings with likes and interests and strengths and weaknesses, and in addition maybe you have Down’s syndrome, or depression, versus me seeing you as a ‘Down’s girl’ or ‘depressed’ and that’s it.”

Arielle Zellis, a Stern majoring in psychology and education, will deliver the closing keynote speech at the National Inclusion Project Leadership Conference this year.
Arielle Zellis, a Stern College senior studying psychology, seeks to reframe the way people with disabilities are viewed and included in society.

Zellis initially chose “person-first” perspective as the focus of her talk at TedX Yeshiva University, an event that used the Ted Talks format of short, powerful lectures to showcase wisdom from YU speakers on a wide range of topics. The cause is deeply personal for her: Zellis’s 12-year-old brother has Down’s syndrome, and she believes that her family’s refusal to engage with him differently than they would any other child has made an enormous impact on the way he lives his life and interacts with others.

“I worked at Camp HASC for two summers and there was a particularly problematic camper who made an impression on me—she would kick and spit and curse, and she had Down’s syndrome, just like my brother,” Zellis said. “But my brother would never behave that way because we held him to a standard that was typical and put him in an inclusive setting that promoted typical behavior.”

For Zellis, the difference between the camper’s behavior—and the way others reacted to her—and her brother’s was striking. “She has the same thing as my brother has, but society treats them very differently because of the way they behave,” she said. “I strongly believe that people with disabilities need to be included in society, and the first step is for them to be able to behave well and gain the proper social skills in an environment that promotes proper social behaviors.”

That’s why Zellis hopes to become a behavioral analyst after she graduates this semester: “I want to help these kids become further integrated into society by teaching them the correct social behaviors, because if you don’t know how to behave people don’t take you seriously and then they start to pity you.”

Zellis’s TedX talk resonated so powerfully with her audience that she has become a sought-after speaker on the topic. Since the talk, she has spoken at high schools across North America and the Yachad Leadership Conference. After viewing her TedX talk online, the National Inclusion Project asked her to deliver the closing keynote address at their annual leadership conference, which is designed to provide educators and professionals with strategies to better include people with disabilities in their schools and organizations. “My family really represents what they’re teaching, so I’m going to present a practical and emotional story of how this can really work, and how it works with my family,” Zellis said.

As for the growing spotlight her message is receiving, Zellis hopes she can continue to find even more opportunities to reframe the way people think about those who are different than them. “If I have a talent for public speaking and the experience to back up what I’m saying and help people learn about this, I would love to keep sharing the idea of a person-first perspective and representing the siblings of people with disabilities,” she said.