Anjali Forber-Pratt competes at the Paralympic Games London 2012. (Photo: Joe Kusumoto)
With a Ph.D. in hand and a wheelchair racing chair in storage, Anjali Forber-Pratt wants to make sure people with disabilities are represented in every facet of research.
“One of our long-time mantras in the disability community is, Nothing about us without us, and that includes research,” said Forber-Pratt, a two-time U.S. Paralympian and 2008 bronze medalist in track and field. “I just really believe strongly that our research can be better with more input and involvement by people with disabilities.”
The former wheelchair racer is settling into her position as the director of the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR). NIDLIRR is a department within the Administration for Community Living (ACL), and it is the federal government’s primary source for disability research.
“We are really focused on helping to make sure that individuals with disabilities are able to live productive lives in their communities, and we fund work across three main domain areas: employment, health and function and community living,” Forber-Pratt said.
Forber-Pratt accepted this role after serving as an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University, where she facilitated many research studies on disability related issues. She has also authored more than 30 peer-reviewed journal articles.
The notion of leading a department within the federal government was first brought to Forber-Pratt’s attention when she received a call in January 2021. She was not planning on leaving academia, but a call from the Biden-Harris transition team led her to consider otherwise.
Forber-Pratt had been “identified and selected” by President-elect Biden to serve as NIDLIRR’s director. While she still had to undergo the formal hiring process with interviews, a background check and security clearances, she officially joined the government in May of last year.
She and her service dog Kolton then packed their bags and biscuits and moved to Washington D.C., last July.
“It really felt like a really unique opportunity to help to shape the field of disability research in a really meaningful way,” Forber-Pratt said. “It is different from doing the research, which is what I was doing as a professor, to now helping to fund the research.”
Forber-Pratt said one of her goals is to increase the representation of people with disabilities of all identities in more facets of research. That includes having them serve as the main investigators and peer reviewers, as well as on grant teams and staff.
“I think it’s an exciting time to build the future of disability research,” Forber-Pratt said.
She said she has been pleased with the Biden administration’s attention to disability thus far. In particular, the president has signed a series of executive orders, namely Executive Order 14035 and Executive Order 13985, that promise equal and fair opportunities for people with disabilities in areas such as the workforce.
There have been discussions within the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center (RERC), Forber-Pratt said, on “technologies” that could advance exercise and health for people with disabilities. RERC conducts research on rehabilitation and environmental barriers. It is a program within the ACL.
“In the United States, I don’t think that we do enough research and development in the sport sector related to disabilities or in exercise … (compared) with some of our counterparts in other countries that really invest heavily and deeply in those spaces,” Forber-Pratt said.
During her elite training days, Forber-Pratt won two bronze medals in the 400-meter and the 4x100 relay at the Paralympic Games Beijing 2008, the first of her two Paralympics. She also won a world title in 2011 and was part of American-record teams in the 4x100-meter and 4x400-meter relays.
Although her competitive racing days are over, she said her role with NIDLIRR has brought back the sense of community that she had in sport.
“With the awesomeness of my own staff, I think I’m filling some of that void of needing that sense of community and excitement that I certainly got with having teammates and (being around) folks who understand disability life and community,” she said. “(One thing) I really cherish and miss about being at the University of Illinois was, I was on a team with 20-some other individuals, many of whom were world-record holders.
“Just by being around excellence and all of that, it really pushes you to be more excellent yourself … I’m thrilled that I’m filling that void with my staff in different ways.”