Tommi Lee: A Champion for Those with Developmental Disabilities

By Toni Jackson
Guest Column

“Why fit in when you were born to stand out,” Dr. Seuss. Inaccurate labels, stereotypes and stigmas are often attached to individuals with disabilities. As a parent of a young adult on the autism spectrum, I’m proud to advocate and raise awareness by sharing our story of challenging, unique and extraordinary experiences.

My daughter Tommi Lee Gillard was born to stand out because she is an ambassador, champion and change agent for people with developmental disabilities.

From the moment she entered the world I knew there was something special about her. The diagnosis of autism she received at age four confirmed my intuition. Early Intervention became the beginning of the journey. Both Tommi Lee and I learned positive reinforcement skills that would impact her social skills and development. Through determination and prayers, I became her biggest advocate for the necessary resources and support needed for her to exceed the low expectations given by society.

Exposing Tommi Lee to the arts unfolded her gifts and strengths.  At the early age of four, she developed an affinity for makeup, fashion style and visual arts.  She admired the models in the magazines.  Tommi Lee would ask her sister Cierra to make her look pretty like the girls in the book. Cierra would give her makeovers and photoshoots. Tommi Lee’s photoshoots have evolved to growing followers on social media that enjoy her photos.  We are currently pursuing a modeling contract.

By age 22, Tommi Lee discovered a new way to express herself and communicate. She started attending Adult Day Programs that included a theatre company and art studio for adults with developmental disabilities. Tommi Lee is not a woman of many words; however, the theatre experience has allowed her to emerge from non-speaking roles to key characters that required dialogue.  In addition, theatre has allowed her to expand life-enhancing skill sets as well. She found her voice!

Tommi Lee’s attendance at the art studio has been the most transformative. She began to tap into her imagination and creativity which resulted into her signature creation of great works of art.  In 2019, the arts community and others began to take notice.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Performing and Cultural Arts Complex (KAC) offered her space for a solo exhibition, “Art Through Her Eyes: The Transformation of Tommi Lee” as a tribute for Autism Awareness month in April.  Tommi Lee was the first artist with a developmental disability to be featured at KAC.

Tommi Lee’s journey to this exhibition was developed into a short documentary film “Art Through Her Eyes The Transformation of Tommi Lee” which can been seen on YouTube..  In 2021, Tommi Lee’s second solo art exhibition “Art Through Her Eyes: The Adventures of TommiLee’s World” was held at Chromedge Art Studio.

In addition, “Indigirl: The Adventures of Tommi Lee”, a book about Tommi Lee’s journey was released on Amazon. Her most recent accomplishment is receiving the Unsung Hero Award for Outstanding Artist with a Disability from CbusWGFest.

I celebrate Tommi Lee as she continues to blossom and inspire all women!

Ed. Note: Toni Jackson, Tommi Lee’s mother, is a Toledo native and was a long-time resident, a graduate of DeVilbiss High School, who now resides and works in Columbus