My Winthrop Experience

Vilissa K. Thompson '08, '12
Residence: Winnsboro, South Carolina
Degree: Master of Social Work
Occupation: Blogger, advocacy outreach

Being an advocate for women with disabilities, specifically women of color with disabilities, is nothing new for Vilissa Thompson '08, '12. She started her blog, Ramp Your Voice, back in 2013 as a way to educate professionals and lay people about that different world.

Most recently, Thompson wrote a piece for "Teen Vogue" on how black girls with disabilities are targeted at school. (Read that piece here.) BET also recognized her as one of its 40 Under 40.

Thompson said her advocacy truly began as an undergraduate student at Winthrop.

"That was the start of my awareness of issues that matter to the community, whether it's black women, women in general, women with disabilities, etc.," said the Winnsboro, South Carolina, native.

Thompson was diagnosed at birth with a brittle bone condition known as Osteogenesis Imperfecta. The rare condition causes the bones to not make enough collagen, which makes the bones especially fragile and susceptible to fractures. While she can walk, she often uses a wheelchair to get around. Growing up about 45 minutes outside of Rock Hill, she had already taken a tour of Winthrop and knew she wanted to pursue a psychology degree.

Thompson threw herself into the college life, pledging the Theta Theta chapter of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., where she began to see the impact she could make on the world. Some of her first volunteer efforts included participating in Adopt-A-Highway and helping create Z-HOPE, an event that pushed out information on health issues and other relevant topics to the community.

But she soon realized her true passion lay in the social work field. Winthrop faculty and staff made her feel comfortable attending college with a disability.

"Being a person with a disability, I felt that the [social work] graduate program director Dr. Deana Morrow answered my questions better than other schools," she explained. "Along with Gina Smith, former disabilities coordinator, finding accommodations for me, that really swayed me [to Winthrop]."

Thompson became more involved than ever in campus life, joining Winthrop's chapter of the NAACP and the National Association of Black Social Workers, and completing a research assistant job at the Center for Social Welfare and Assessment.

Since graduation, she has served as a board member for the non-profit group The Arc of South Carolina, an organization that advocates for people with intellectual and development disabilities. Her work opened the door for her to serve on the diversity committee for the National Arc. Additionally, Thompson writes for a national wheelchair van company's site and guest blogs for disability advocacy organizations when requested and manages the website. She also serves as the secretary of the Fairfield County Democratic Party.

Thanks to her tireless work on Ramp Your Voice and non-profits, The White House's Office of Public Engagement invited Thompson to a special event in February honoring the contributions of African Americans with disabilities to black history. Thompson met many new friends and made new connections and is considering a move to the nation's capital.

Thompson credits Winthrop with building her self confidence.

"That's one thing I really loved about Winthrop, because it was so accommodating," she said. "It was nice to have a disabilities coordinator who knew what it was like to be a disabled college student and did her best to ensure I had what I needed. Winthrop, from what I've heard, is one of the most accessible schools in South Carolina. My social and learning experience wasn't hindered because of my disabilities. I've been very fortunate to have gone to Winthrop."