Mai Thor works at the intersection of inclusivity and accessibility

A person poses for a portrait
Mai Thor poses for a portrait at her house in St. Paul on June 20.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

In celebration of Disability Pride Month, throughout July MPR News is featuring stories about Minnesotans with disabilities who are making an impact. See more at

Mai Thor is a Hmong woman and refugee from Laos who contracted polio at a young age and dedicates much of her time to being a disability justice advocate.

Thor became a Bush fellow in 2021 and studied ableism, disability culture, history and law. Thor’s work focuses on disability justice and its intersections with social justice and racial justice movements.

Growing up as a disabled woman in an immigrant community, Thor explains the ways in which she has faced ableism and stigma. She says her first-hand experiences emphasized the need for inclusivity and interdependence in social justice spaces and highlighted the importance of understanding and addressing the intersections of oppression and marginalization.  

She hopes to continue designing more accessible and inclusive systems for people with disabilities. 

Thor talked with MPR News senior reporter Sarah Thamer from her home in St. Paul.

Editor’s note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Can you share your personal journey and what motivated you to become a disability advocate? 

Thor: I didn’t really know about disability justice, honestly, until just a few years ago. I think that is something that most folks are unfamiliar with. And when I stumbled across it, and I read a little bit about the history and the 10 principles, I thought to myself, this is exactly what I’ve been doing for most of my adult life. My main focus in disability work has really been in human rights and compliance and things like that. I feel I have multiple identities that intersect with one another, and many of those are marginalized identities as well.

How have your own experiences shaped your approach to advocacy?  

I got polio at a very young age; it impacts my leg. So, I am a wheelchair user. But it can impact any part of your body. Once you acquire that virus, it’s sort of like getting a cold or flu where you’re sick, and you have a fever, maybe have a bit of a cough or something. But then what happens is it just sort of stops your muscles from growing. There are certain disabilities that progress over time, but polio doesn’t do that.

What would you say are the biggest challenges Hmong people who are living with disabilities face today and how are you addressing that in your work?

One of the main issues is just the fact that disability is so taboo in the Hmong community. There are a number of very taboo things in the Hmong community that people just don’t want to touch. They’re not very willing to openly discuss it. And what I’ve been trying to do for a long time now is to really break down that narrative and end that narrative, essentially, and to just let folks in my community know, in my culture, that it’s okay to have a disability. It’s okay if your child is born with a disability.

What are your goals for the future of your disability advocacy work? 

My hope is that other people can come to that point in their life, too, and just be comfortable in their own skin. To say this is what I want, I can’t change that, and the world will accept me or they won’t. I can’t be somebody else that I’m not. It took me a really long time to really come to the point where I can fully embrace that and feel peace and joy.