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Don’t Be “Normal,” Be Extraordinary: MSW Grad Turns Internship into Full-Time Position Advocating for Disability Justice


Gabby Cocco, GSS ‘24, doesn’t believe in the myth of “normal.” 

 “What is normal, you know?” she asked during our interview. “There’s really no sense of normal. What’s normal for you may not be normal for others.” 

However, all too often, she sees individuals with disabilities described as “not normal” and missing out on their potential because of it. 

“Just because someone has a disability, or they look different, or they process certain things differently, does not mean that they’re not human,” Cocco said.

This year, Cocco finished her Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) degree as a part-time student at Fordham’s Westchester campus. She completed her second-year internship at Abilis, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that provides services and supports for over 800 individuals with special needs and their families from birth through the life span. However, she had known about this issue long before her internship. 

Born with cerebral palsy—a group of conditions caused by damage that occurs to the developing brain that affects movement and posture—Cocco experiences this discrimination herself. 

“I know what it feels like to feel like you look different, or you may seem different with the way that you walk or the way that you talk,” Cocco said. “I completely and totally get it. But that just makes you even more unique. That’s what makes you more important.”

So, Cocco asks, what is “normal”? And why do we strive for it?

Maybe “not normal” means earning your Master of Social Work degree from a top institution. Or interning at a local nonprofit, advocating for those treated unfairly. And what about when that organization offers you a full-time job before you graduate? That seems extraordinary, not normal. 

Cocco leaves Fordham GSS this spring with three things: her M.S.W. degree, a full-time position at Abilis, and the comfort that she is not normal—and she’s proud of it. She thinks others should be, too.

A Mission-Driven Education

After serving as a paralegal in immigration law and volunteering as an art instructor for individuals with disabilities after graduating from her undergraduate degree program, Cocco knew advocacy was her calling. She wanted to speak loudly and clearly for those without a voice, giving deserving people a chance. 

The legal and art positions were only temporary, however. Cocco wanted to invest in a career—in a future where she lived her passion every day. So, she researched. What path offered the most opportunity for her goals? What career called to her? She landed on social work. 

“I love the diversity of this field,” she said. “You can do so much. You can work in a hospital, a mental health agency, or a place like Abilis. You’re not pigeonholed into one thing.” 

She said Fordham’s reputation for its commitment to social justice and academic excellence enticed her to apply. It didn’t hurt that she had a few Rams in her corner. 

“A family friend who graduated from Fordham [GSS] said, ‘You can do so much in this field,’ and she highly recommended Fordham,” Cocco said. “Fordham was my top choice.”

Fueled by a personal desire to advocate for those with disabilities, Cocco enrolled at Fordham GSS. And now, she will walk across the graduation stage with a job at Abilis, doing exactly what she came to school for. 

“I definitely was on a mission,” she said. 

The Student Becomes a Teacher

In her new role at Abilis, Cocco will act as an instructor in the organization’s Project SEARCH Training Program. In this program, young adults with developmental disabilities complete a nine-month internship program preparing them for competitive employment. According to the Project SEARCH webpage, internships are held “in partnership with Greenwich Hospital and Stamford Hospital with hospital-related jobs, and with the Darien YMCA in many different departments in the facility, including the childcare center.”

“The program offers total immersion in the workplace and facilitates the teaching and learning process as well as the acquisition of employability and marketable work skills,” the site reads. “Interns participate in three, unpaid internships throughout the program and explore a variety of career paths.”

After completing a morning at their internship site and breaking for lunch, Project SEARCH participants come into the classroom setting with Cocco. 

“We cover disability advocation within the workplace, disability disclosure, things like that,” she said. “I actually had to cover for somebody [recently]. So I did do a lesson plan already.”

Cocco said she was nervous when starting her internship at Abilis earlier this year. However, as she grew in her role and received leadership from colleagues like Amy Montimurro, CEO at Abilis and 2008 Fordham M.S.W. grad, she knew it was the place for her. 

“It was always my goal to work at Abilis,” she said, “from start to finish.”

Social Workers as Disability Justice Advocates

Cocco is one of the many social workers advocating for disability justice, amplifying the voices of those who go unheard all too often.

Fordham GSS Associate Professor Laura Wernick, Ph.D., has published on the importance of social workers in the call for disability justice in this field. An increasing number of professionals see the lack of attention to this topic and want to do something about it—Cocco included.

“If anybody ever asks me why I chose Abilis, I’m always very upfront and transparent about my story, and what I’ve gone through in my life,” she said. “I tell them that I’ve been through it. I’ve been where they are. That is why I get it. And that’s why I want to be a voice for them.”


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