by Jenna Kutcher
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The last time I saw Ali Stroker, she made me cry. True story — I was sitting in the audience at the Aerie Summit in Brooklyn before the world shut down, and she was on stage singing a moving, motivational rendition of “A Natural Woman”. Seeing someone doing what they were so clearly meant to do with their lives makes me emotional, and Ali Stroker was so clearly meant to be on stage, entertaining, inspiring, and moving everyone who watches her.
Ali Stroker believes our limitations can be turned into opportunities, and she continues to build a career on stage and on screen in face of those perceived limitations.
This will be a conversation about being the “first” at something, finding your identity, harnessing limitations and turning them into opportunities, and pivotal learning moments throughout her career as a woman with a disability in the entertainment industry.
Meet Ali Stroker
Ali is a singer, dancer, actor, performer extraordinaire, as well as an advocate for the disabled community. When she was 2-years old, Ali was in a car accident with her mother and brother and she became paralyzed from the chest down. Ali uses a wheelchair for mobility.
At 7-years old, Ali was introduced to musical theatre. “The reality of being a little girl who uses a wheelchair was really heavy,” Ali began. “But when I found performing and when I learned what it felt like to be on stage, I felt like my whole entire life could be positive and it could get better.”
Ali explained that she got used to people staring at her as a little girl who used a wheelchair, “But when I got on stage, people were staring at me for a different reason and I felt really powerful,” she shared.
She knew she wanted to be a performer on Broadway, so Ali started taking voice lessons and getting involved with local theater in her hometown. From there, she attended NYU and studied theater, then went on to be on the Glee Project and the Glee TV show.
Ali made her broadway debut in 2015 and became the first person in a wheelchair to appear on Broadway. Now, she’s a Tony Award Winner and the first person who uses a wheelchair for mobility to win a Tony Award.
“There are so many in between parts of real frustration, challenge, and pain,” Ali shared. “I would never be where I am without those moments as well.”
Loving Your Limitations
When I think of Ali Stroker, limitations are the last thing that comes to mind. She has done and achieved so much, but Ali says that it’s her limitations that lead her to recognize what she was truly capable of.
As a kid, she so desperately wanted to be like everyone else and included in all the same things, and yet she was different because of her disability. She credits her parents for continually reminding her that different is better — that being different would catapult her into the things she’s always wanted to accomplish.
Ali started to really see what was possible as an adult, when she was auditioning for roles and pursuing her career in entertainment. Coming to the table as a woman who uses a wheelchair was guaranteed to bring different perspectives and experience that other people didn’t have.
And while Ali knew there were things she couldn’t do, those perceived limitations of her disability, she said, “To know those things, were to love those things.” Knowing her limitations made her search for ways she could overcome them, or better, open a new door for herself.
Ali looked back on her life and career and pinpointed a few pivotal moments that really led her to where she is today. The first was when she went off to college at NYU in New York City.
At college, it was more obvious to Ali that people were curious about who she was and why she was in a chair. She was in the musical theater program — no one had ever been in a wheelchair in this program at NYU before. Some of the faculty members were concerned about her participation in some of the dance classes.
“As you know, I love to dance,” Ali laughed, “I knew that I had abilities that I could use in these classes and they did not know that about me because they did not know me yet, but they were afraid.”
Ali continued, “I learned in that moment that there are going to be people in this journey that are going to be fearful, who are going to shy away from giving me opportunities. It’s not my job to change their mind, but I have made it my job to communicate and stay patient and find ways to open up those doors.”
Press play to hear how she approached those dance classes, and the full story of what happened when she decided to take the classes anyway.
By her second year at NYU, teachers told Ali she could take whatever classes she wanted.
Representation and Change
One of Ali’s primary passions is continuing to work towards more representation in her industry. As a little girl, she didn’t see a woman in a wheelchair on stage. She wasn’t watching RomComs with romantic leads who had visible disabilities. This lack of representation impacts how people see themselves and question their own place of belonging in the world.
Whenever Ali is faced with the common fear of having her biggest achievements behind her, she’s reminded of her drive for representation, and it makes her work harder and keep showing up for new opportunities.
Ali’s hope is that the next five years (or less) will bring more representation and inclusion in mainstream media, which will in turn power change in perception and understanding.
She also talked about what it’s like to be labeled as an “inspiration” for simply living her life in the way she lives it. “I don’t want to be labeled an inspiration for grocery shopping in my chair. That’s confusing!”
She challenges Goal Diggers to make note of their first reaction when they see or meet a person with a disability. Don’t judge it, but understand why you might have that reaction.
Talking to Kids About Disability
I asked Ali what I could do as a parent to help my daughter understand disability and not see it as “a shame” or “an inspiration”, or the other labels Ali mentioned. I appreciate her advice on this so much.
“One of the things I see is that young kids are very curious about disability. They point and they ask loudly [about my wheelchair],” Ali began. “So often the parent will shush their child or pull their kid away. They shut it down.”
But Ali doesn’t see that as the right way to handle those curious kiddos. “We shut it down because we don’t want to be rude… However, I think it goes deeper than that. I think it brings up discomfort with the parents because they don’t know how to talk about disability in front of someone with a disability.”
“My suggestion is this — When your child is curious about disability, you normalize the conversation… Not create fear.”
This discussion goes deeper, and Ali shares the different language choices you can choose with your kids (or even just as an adult). Even if you’re not a parent, her advice on talking about and normalizing disability was totally invaluable.
Preparing for an Audition
With Ali’s vast experience in performing and all of her time spent on stage, she’s no stranger to the audition process. I asked for Ali’s best advice on preparing for an audition — whether that looks like a job interview, a pitch, or some other type of performance where you’re proving your value and worth.
Step one: Preparation. “This is something we can control,” Ali explained. This might look like spending more than a day with the material you need to perform.
Or in the case of a job interview, Ali says it’s about knowing your own story. “I use this phrase — hosting your own party,” she began. “When you come into a room and you don’t know your story or you don’t know who you are, you are vulnerable to let other people tell you who you are and that doesn’t feel good.”
Ali explained that she has felt that before, that someone else decided her story when she entered a room. Now, she knows to set the tone and she talks about her disability when she enters those rooms. “I give people permission to take a deep breath,” Ali explained.
Want to hear more of Ali’s tips for preparing for an audition or interview? Press play on the episode above for her seasoned Broadway advice.
More from Ali Stroker
What did 2020 look like for a Broadway performer? How was this year an unexpected (but much needed) gift of rest? What does Ali want you to know about asking and receiving help, no matter what that help looks like? Press play on this episode above to hear more from the incredible Ali Stroker.