Author to keynote West Michigan Disability Awareness Day celebration

Jocelyn Dettloff grew up in Kalamazoo and graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in English Literature. 

Not sure about her career path, she decided to travel after graduation.

“I traveled through Europe, spent a year backpacking in Australia and New Zealand, then decided that Sub-Saharan Africa would be my next destination,” she says. “Two months into my three-month camping trip in Africa, I acquired my spinal cord injury while sledding down a sand dune in Namibia in April 1997.” 

Following her accident, she came to Grand Rapids and to Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation for spinal cord rehabilitation. Since then, Grand Rapids has been home. She began a career in fundraising and is currently a major gifts director for the Mary Free Bed Foundation. 

She has also become an author, a speaker, an advocate, a mentor to others with spinal cord injuries, an educator, a community volunteer serving on a variety of boards, a wheelchair tennis player, and more.

Dettloff will be the keynote speaker at the Grand Rapids celebration of Disability Awareness Day 2024, on March 22 from 1-3:30 p.m. at the Salvation Army Kroc Center. The theme is "Mental Health Matters.”

Keeping focus on disability issues

“Disability Awareness Day is more important than ever,” says Dettloff. “With the prominence of DEI in our culture, oftentimes it seems like disability is overlooked and not part of the DEI conversation and consideration.”

As part of this year's event on disability and mental health, she will share her story of experiencing an accident that upended her life, losing the ability to walk, and finding a new way forward to navigate the world on four wheels instead of two legs. 

“Major life changes – both expected and unexpected – can test our coping skills, mental fortitude and inner strength,” says Dettloff, whose memoir, “It Rained in the Desert: One Woman's Story of Spirit and Resilience,” tells how she adjusted to her new way of life.

As part of the event, Disability Advocates of Kent County is bringing together professional, peer-support, and self-help approaches across several areas of mental health.

Breakout sessions will include:
  • Healing from trauma, depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.
  • How nutrition and physical activity affect mental health.
  • Overmedicating, self-medication, and problematic substance abuse.
  • Making and fostering personal connections.
Importance of community

One of the sessions will be led by physical therapists Rachael Billingsley and Megan Roe, with Life Beyond Barriers Rehabilitation Group in Rockford, who have experience in working with people off all ages with disabilities. 

“Our goal is to bring attention to the importance of creating meaningful social connections to aid in overall mental and physical health,” Billingsley says. “We will touch on a little research but will be having an interactive breakout session.” 
The celebration of Disability Awareness Day is a way to bring the community together.

“Community is how we feel supported, loved and listened to. This is how changes get made,”  Billingsley says.

The day will culminate in an advocacy panel featuring individuals who will share their stories and perspectives on making a difference, what it means to advocate for issues close to your heart, and how to get involved in what matters most to you.

Cost is $10 per person, and assistance is available to cover the event fee, transportation, or other accommodations. Registration can be found here. Questions about scholarships, reimbursement and other information can be directed to
This article is a part of the multi-year series Disability Inclusion, exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.
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