For 40 years, Cleveland’s Mary Verdi-Fletcher has been an icon in the world of physically integrated dance as one of the first professional wheelchair dancers, and a leader in advocating for disability rights. Now, she is featured in a new book as one of the “Boss Ladies of CLE.”
The book by Maggie Sullivan tells the stories of twenty women who have built their careers in the Cleveland area. Mary joins the ranks of other notable figures such as Ohio Supreme Court Justice Melody J. Stewart and journalist Margaret Bernstein.
“I asked Mary to be featured in the book because she is the epitome of a Boss Lady–I have so much admiration, appreciation, and respect for her. Her career path was never clear cut or easy, yet she created a vision and built a successful business unlike anything that had ever existed before. She is a trailblazer in so many ways–from fighting for disability rights, to pioneering integrated dance techniques, to founding her multiple ventures. Her work has had a major impact not only on Cleveland, but also the country and the world. She has the rare trait of a mind that is both creative and business-savvy and is one of the most tenacious, resilient people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. I believe the practical advice she gave during our interview is one of the highlights of the Boss Ladies of CLE book and I hold it close to me every day–she said, ‘You can’t be afraid of work. You can’t be afraid of speaking up. People will slam doors in your face–you can’t be afraid of being declined or of people turning you down.’ ” — Maggie Sullivan
Mary knew from an early age she wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a professional dancer and allowed her passion to lead her to a televised dance competition that would set her career in motion. Her performance drew national attention, opening the door to a flurry of performance requests and introducing the world to an artform they had never seen before.
“I’d watch dance on television and I’d go to the theater and really dreamed of how I would move if I were standing. I just had this strong vision. I sat back and watched other people dance for a long time and then I thought of myself in a different way, and about my abilities, and I said, ‘I’m going to try it, too,’” she said.
As the founder and artistic director of the Dancing Wheels Company in 1980, Mary soon attracted students of all abilities from around the world to train at the Dancing Wheels School, created in 1990. She now leads a company comprised of dancers of all levels who travel internationally to perform and educate their audience.
Of her dancers, she says, “I always impress upon them that our company isn’t just about the quality of dance, although it is, we do train every day. It’s about what you’re bringing to people. If you’re uplifting them or if you’re letting them see ability and artistry together, so, we have a job to do that’s more over and above the artwork that we do, over and above us as dancers, because we’re also ambassadors for change.”
However, Mary’s impact on the world stretches well–beyond her work with the Dancing Wheels Company & School.
She assisted in the creation of the first Independent Living Center in the State of Ohio and during her time as Attendant Care Coordinator, developed training programs and curriculum that would go on to be used statewide. While serving as President of the Advocates for Disabled Ohioans organization, she led an effort to bus 100 individuals with disabilities to the Ohio Capital in order to give testimony on a piece of legislation that would ultimately lead to a statewide personal care assistance program.
Further, Mary took a stand that resulted in making every public bus accessible, an effort she calls one of the proudest moments of her career. When a bus pulled onto a busy Cleveland street, she and her fellow advocates “captured” it by encircling the vehicle, allowing passengers to disembark but essentially trapping the bus on the street. As another bus arrived it, too, was captured.
“It’s always emblazoned in my mind what it took for us to be able to do that because we had worked legislatively, we had worked with our Regional Transit System, and everything and anything that we did or said seemed to fall on deaf ears,” Mary said.
Police responded to the scene within a few hours but were unable to efficiently make any arrests, nor could they house protesters in jail given that the jails and police vehicles were not accessible at the time, only amplifying the gap in equal access.
“There was no transportation for people with disabilities to ride mainline transit. I said, ‘Oh, you can take us to jail but you can’t take us to work or to school?’ They drove the bus away. The transit authority came out and, on that day, they made a promise that all future buses that were to be made would be made accessible with lifts and such. And that we could work with the transit system on an ongoing basis to ensure that ridership was being taken care of,” she said.
Mary says she was “surprised and delighted” to learn she would be featured in “Boss Ladies of CLE,” and offered a message to those who may be hesitant to chase their dreams:
“I tell children and young people that the biggest disability is when you say ‘I can’t,’ because if you say ‘I can’t’ then it stops it all. If you say, ‘I’ll try’ or ‘I think I can,’ then it gives you an open opportunity to start and see where it goes.”
You can read more about Mary’s story, find information about upcoming Dancing Wheels performances, and sign up for in-studio or virtual classes by visiting their website. If you’d like to learn more about “Boss Ladies of CLE,” click here.
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