Before transferring to Brown, Jonathan Mooney ’00 says he was branded the “lazy, crazy” kid and labeled as “deficient” because of his dyslexia and neurodivergence.
Through his work as an activist and writer, Mooney aims to shift cultural perceptions of neurodivergence and disability away from the traditional pathology model and towards a social justice-centric model that embraces different experiences across the human continuum. He co-founded his first social venture, Eye-to-Eye, in his Brown dorm room. Recently, he served as the co-chair of the steering committee formed to create Brown’s newest alumni affinity group: the Disability and Neurodivergence Alumni Collective (DNAC).
What challenges have you encountered as a disability advocate, and how did your time at Brown University influence the way you addressed those challenges?
The first challenge was one of internalized disability and neurodivergent shame. I transferred to Brown; I was not on an elite university track in any way through high school. I survived high school by being an athlete and finding success as a soccer player. On my first day at Brown, I met a transfer student who was out and proud about his neurodivergence. That was a revelation for me. He and I went off to write a book together, called “Learning Outside the Lines.” A number of faculty members who were immersed in social justice literature and critical theory around what is normal and what is not provided a sort of intellectual framework to unlearn that deeply held internalized shame. That was my first challenge, and Brown was instrumental in moving from shame to pride around my neurodivergence.
Challenging the medical model is really what my advocacy, my writing, my speaking, and my social ventures have centered around. My work has been about celebrating and empowering and accommodating, as opposed to fixing atypical brains and bodies. What I learned at Brown was the importance of persistence—to hear “no,” to hear “you’re wrong,” and keep going. Brown provided the intellectual framework and language to challenge the medical model, to look at the social construction of disability, to look at the history of ableism, and be able to articulate that to others.