By Heather Finn
Editor's Note: We all have challenges that we have to face in life, but for people with disabilities — visible or invisible — it can be a constant burden to prove to potential employers and coworkers alike that they are just as hard-working and capable as their able-bodied peers. (The current unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 10.4 percent, almost twice as high as the rate for people without disabilities, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.) Every day this week, you'll meet incredible women whose disabilities haven't defined them — in fact, their resilience and strength have propelled them past Triathlon finish lines, onto The Huffington Post, and even into the Chicago Mayor's office. What we hope will come of this? Not only more acceptance and understanding in the workplace — but also for you to know that you can do and be anything you want. And whatever you fear might hold you back? It doesn’t make you weak — you're stronger for having gone through it.
Name: Kyrra Richards
City: Los Angeles
Job: Entrepreneur and professional dancer
When you're diagnosed with diabetes, you receive a portable medical kit of sorts, full of all the tools needed to manage the condition on a daily basis. Typically, it's packaged in a black, nylon case, which is anything but chic. But does it have to be that way?
Professional-dancer-turned-entrepreneur — and type 1 diabetic — Kyrra Richards says no. As the founder of diabetes accessory company Myabetic, the 32-year-old designs fashionable medical carrying cases for men, women, and children with the condition. Awesome, right? We chatted with Richards about creative therapy, the everyday management lifestyle of diabetics, and the importance of good emotional health:
Levo: You started a company to help and inspire diabetics like yourself. Tell us more.
Kyrra Richards: I own and operate the company Myabetic. When you're diagnosed with diabetes, you're given a set of tools or supplies to take care of yourself, like glucose meters and little things to prick your finger to check your blood — it's an everyday management practice. When these things are given to you, they’re given to you in a small, black nylon case, and you have to carry it around everywhere. It makes you feel even more sick, or like you’re being labeled as such. I thought that there had to be something a little bit better that can improve your mentality or your emotional state when dealing with this condition, so that's when I started Myabetic. We design fashionable diabetes supply cases and wallets and handbags, and things to help men, women, and kids make this condition a little bit easier to deal with. When doctors are giving you commands about what you have to do in order to stay healthy, we're trying to supply options and give people something that they can choose and help them feel like they have more control over their health.
We love that. You found out about your own diabetes when you were working as a professional dancer — how did that unfold?
KR: Yes, before I started Myabetic, I was a professional dancer in Los Angeles and New York, and I went to Afghanistan to perform for the troops on tour there. When I came back, I was just feeling really sick. I was feeling really burnt out, really tired, really thirsty, really exhausted, so I went to the doctor. I just thought it was something that I had gotten while I was over there — from exhaustion or maybe dehydration — and that's when I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, which is usually physically diagnosed when someone is a child. It was unusual, and I had to take some time off from my professional dancing while I tried to figure out my insulin levels and regulated all my hormones and everything, and learned about this new condition that I had to live with. It was a really hard adjustment obviously, as an adult, and going through something like that really makes you think and kind of reevaluate the situation that you're in.
What was your first reaction when you were diagnosed?
KR: Because I was a dancer and I've been a dancer my entire life, I'd always felt like I was kind of physically invincible. I'd never had problems with my health, so it almost felt like the universe was playing a joke on me. Like it couldn’t be me — you must be talking about someone else. My only introduction to diabetes at that point — because I didn't know anyone with diabetes — was when I was little and read a Babysitters Club book about one of the characters having diabetes, and I was trying to remember: What does that mean? Do I try to not eat sugar? It definitely felt like it was just so out of my element.
Then your company was born. Where did you find the inspiration for Myabetic?
KR: It came out of this period of depression, really, and frustration. Before I was diagnosed, I had been teaching dance to a lot of little kids. And when you're teaching kids anything, you have to make things more fun and flowery and more imaginative. So I was thinking, I’m having such a hard time grappling with this new condition, this new disease, that I don’t even know where I would start if I was a little kid, or how I would explain it to a little kid who would have to go through the same thing. That's when I started doodling images that were kind of kid-friendly on a piece of paper. I thought, There should be something like this.
What does the everyday management of diabetes look like for you now?
KR: There are two types of diabetes: type 1 and type 2. The bodies of people with type 1 don’t create any insulin, while the bodies of people with type 2 don't regulate the insulin levels correctly. Type 1 is the kind that I have, and it's also called juvenile diabetes. As someone with type 1, I have to prick my finger eight to 10 times a day and test the blood in a little meter or machine, which tells me my blood sugar level. After I find out the number, I have to give myself insulin, so either I have to wear an insulin pump, which means I have to wear this device that has a tube connected to me all day long and let it give me insulin throughout the day, or I have to give myself shots, probably about five to 10 a day. It presents its own challenges, because when you think you’re not hungry, you might have to eat, which is also hard when you're trying go to the gym and work out and be fit. Like when you’re thinking, "Oh, I feel good. I ate so well!" and then your blood sugar gets low and messes with everything.
You have such an amazing attitude, though.
KR: There are ups and downs, you know? It’s good to have days when you feel empowered, but there are still always those bad days. I say that, with this condition, you can’t always feel like a diabetes cheerleader. Some days, you just say, "You know what? I'm sick of this." You just want to have a day off from your condition. Even on vacations — you go and you're laying on a beautiful beach somewhere, but then you have tubing sticking out of you or you have like bruises from the needle-pricking. I’d say I’ve gotten to a healthy place where I acknowledge and accept the condition. I realize this is part of my life, and I can’t really change it at the moment. There are definitely bad days, but I let myself have them because I just have to vent sometimes. It's OK to say, "I hate this thing. I wish I didn't have it." But I'm going to do my best every day.
Have you ever had to deal with people who are a little insensitive to your situation?
KR: Sometimes I get comments from people that say, "It's good that I don’t have diabetes because I'm scared of needles and I don't like needles." And I say to them, "Well, you know, I don't love needles, either, but it's something that I have to do." You encounter those people all the time, but the thing is, those people definitely aren’t trying to be insensitive. They just don't understand. Diabetes is almost a scary word, and a stigma comes with it. It’s almost something associated with fault, like, "You got diabetes because you have done this." Everybody has their own opinions and their own ideas of how I got diabetes. In reality, this was just something where my pancreas quit. I had no control over that. People say things all the time and try to give you advice on your choices and the way you manage your condition, and sometimes that can seem insensitive. But again, it’s only from a positive place — they're just doing it because they don't understand it. It's just more of a lack of education out there.
What accomplishment in your career are you most proud of so far?
KR: Well, with my diabetes career, I would say it's the most rewarding for me to get letters from parents around the world saying that their kids are now testing their blood sugar levels and managing their diabetes more and better because they've been using our products and they love them so much. It's a wonderful feeling to feel like you've helped someone understand and accept their condition and take a step into healthy living with something that you’ve created. There's no secret that living with diabetes is really hard and tough and frustrating, and it’s nice to know that there's some little bit of positivity — or something that makes someone smile when they have to manage it — that my creative vision helped produce. I know that I’m still dealing with it. Every day is a day that’s still hard, so knowing that there are other people out there that I'm helping to make their condition a little bit easier feels good.
Here at Levo, we're all about giving the best possible career advice. What would be the biggest piece of advice you would give a young diabetic starting out in his or her career?
KR: Take some time to accept the condition for yourself first. Know that it's OK that you have weak moments and know that you're going to be stronger because of it. And once you've accepted your condition, don’t be afraid to tell other people and educate other people about it. Just say, "Yes, I have diabetes." Make it a statement, not something that you have to hide. People are accepting and want to support you. It's more of your own acceptance and confidence in your condition. And it's a process — you can feel happy and you can feel sad and that's OK, but just know that people want to help you and the only way that they can is if you explain and don’t hide it. That's really what Myabetic was created for: that mental place you need to get to. We're trying to help you get to that place of mental acceptance versus just physically taking care of yourself. It's that emotional health that needs to be addressed.
Finally, what do you see for yourself in the future?
KR: I see me pursuing a career in the arts, continuing my career in health and advocacy for diabetes and other chronic illnesses, having a family — endless options, really. I’m not sure. And that's the thing. I think there are so many things available to me and diabetes can’t stop me. I really can do whatever I want to!
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• The Pivot: Amanda Slavin, Founder and CEO of CatalystCreativ
• 11 Easy Ways to Boost Your Willpower and Concentration
• Your Senior Year Checklist: 8 Things to Do Before You Graduate
• #StrongerForIt: Karen Tamley, City of Chicago Commissioner of Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities
Photos Courtesy of Kyrra Richards