Being part of the Network gives you access to:

  • A network of over 200+ leaders with disabilities who are supporting each other’s leadership plans to lead at tables of power and influence
  • Networking events throughout the year
  • Mentors for civic engagement, leadership development, disability rights advocacy, and more
  • Opportunities to expand participation in civic engagement in the nonprofit and public sectors
  • Training sessions/materials on disability rights and civic engagement
  • Speaking opportunities on panels, facilitation, media interviews, etc.
  • Scholarships to relevant conferences or trainings

And more!


Our ideal Membership candidate:

  • Self- identifies as a person with a disability
  • Lives or works in the Chicago region
  • Has at least 10 years of leadership experience (professional or volunteer)
  • Has a passion for civic engagement & some demonstrated experience
  • Is familiar with (or willing to learn about) disability identity

Members are expected to:

  • Attend monthly programming (currently virtual opportunities)
  • Commit to any new leadership position’s specific requirements


There is no cost to apply to the Network and there is no annual membership fee. Some opportunities may have nominal costs for participation. Disability Lead believes that financial hardship should never be a barrier to participation.

Application Guide


We encourage you to start the Application as soon as possible! While you don’t have to complete the Application all at once as you can “Save and Continue Later,” we encourage you to fill out the first page right away. Doing so will ensure that your Nominator will have enough time to complete their form.  Once you submit your Nominator’s information in the Application, they will receive an automatic email that includes:

  • A link to the nominator form

In addition to identifying your Nominator, the Application will require you to:

  • Provide personal information (email address, home address, etc.), a short bio, a resume, and further description of your professional and civic engagement experience
  • Fill out the voluntary self-disclosure section (this includes pronouns, gender, sexual orientation, disability, race, and veteran status. More information is available here)
  • Answer three short essay questions. Preview questions here. We encourage you to save your answers as a separate document for your files should there be any technical issues and we cannot retrieve your work.

Nominator Forms

A Nominator is required for consideration. You may not be your own Nominator, nor can a Nominator be a family member. Your Nominator must be your employer or supervisor. You can learn more about Nominators in our FAQ. Your Nominator will:

  • Receive a nominator form via a link in an email sent by the application system
  • You and your Nominator will receive confirmation emails once the form is successfully submitted.
  • Be required to share why they feel you are a good fit for the Network.

Complete Application

Once you submit the Application and your Nominator submits their form, your Application will be considered complete.  Disability Lead staff will notify you regarding the next steps.

Alternate Formats

Alternate formats are available upon request, including in Spanish. Please contact Risa Jaz Rifkind to request an alternate format.



How do you define disability?

Disability is a natural part of the human experience and can be  visible, invisible, or acquired. Disability Lead uses the broad definition of disability as laid out in the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is a person who identifies as having a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. For example, some, but not all, Fellows accepted into this program self-identify as: blind, Deaf, low vision, Autistic, Deafblind, hard of hearing, having a physical or mobility, mental health or learning disability.


Who should apply?

Applicants who identify as having a disability and are passionate about civic engagement and ready to join a nonprofit board, public board, or are already serving in leadership positions including at work or in the Chicago region. The Chicago region includes the following seven counties: Cook, Lake, DuPage, McHenry, Will, Kane, and Kendall.


What information will help strengthen my application?

Appropriate answers include information that illustrates how joining Disability Lead will further identified goals as well as how you lead with your disability identity.


Is there an age requirement to join the Membership?

While there is not strict age requirement to join the Membership, our programming is targeted at people with prior leadership and civic experience, and applicants are suggested to have at least ten or more years of experience. However, if you feel like our Membership would be a good fit for you, we would still encourage to apply, as exceptions can be made. If you are not eligible now, please consider reapplying after gaining some more leadership experience.


Who is a Nominator?

A Nominator should be a professional reference and someone familiar with your talent, experience and passion for civic engagement and can speak to that. (You cannot serve as your own Nominator.)


What is the difference between this application and the application to participate in the Institute?

The Institute is a year-long program for emerging leaders with disabilities. Fellows participate in intensive retreat sessions, year-long mentoring, and additional networking events to grow leadership skills and disability identity. To learn more, visit the Institute page.

This application to join the Network is for established leaders with disabilities who have a track record of demonstrated leadership. Additionally, Members may have a further understanding of their disability identity. Members will participate in a number of events and program offerings throughout the year, but will not be required to attend an intensive retreat session.


Can I save and return to my application?

You can save and return to your application by accessing your unique link that is emailed directly to you upon saving your application. You are encouraged to save work in a separate document in case you experience technical difficulties. You can either opt to have a link sent to you or create an account with our application system (Jotform), or sign up with your Google or Facebook account.


Why does the application include questions about gender, sexual orientation, disability, race and ethnicity, and veteran status?

Disability Lead seeks to collect a variety of demographic information about our applicants. Your response will not influence a decision regarding acceptance and will only be used to help measure our success in attracting a diverse applicant pool. Please note that you are only required to indicate your self-identified disability, all other information is voluntary.

While we annually review and revise this section based on user feedback with the intention of including diverse response options, we would like to acknowledge that this system is imperfect. We recognize the limitations of the response options provided and value the opportunity for all applicants to self-identify. We encourage the utilization of the “Other” response option as a way to self-identify beyond the categories provided.

This resource further explains the various demographic options. We encourage applicants to educate themselves on the variety of ways that individuals self-identify to promote learning and inclusive interactions.

If you have any feedback, we welcome you to reach out to Risa Jaz Rifkind.


What is an accommodation and what accommodations are provided?

Disability Lead is committed to a high standard of accessibility and creating a fully accessible experience. Accommodations are your right as a person with a disability. In an employment setting, “reasonable accommodations are adjustments or modifications that enable people with disabilities to perform the essential functions of a job efficiently and productively.” For examples of reasonable accommodations, please see Ask EARN.

For Disability Lead, reasonable accommodations pertain to all of our activities and programs including the Institute and application process. To date and as an example, Disability Lead has provided the following accommodations on request: communication access real-time translation (CART) (on-site and remote), American Sign Language (ASL) translation, Cued Speech transliteration, screen reader tagging of PDF/Word documents for JAWS, wheelchair accessible venues with accessible bathrooms and entry points, adjusted/added break time, preferential seating, and scent-free environments. Participants have also brought their personal assistants, service dogs, and support personnel as needed for a participant to participate fully. We also ask for dietary preferences for all meals provided throughout the program. For additional examples of accommodations, please see Ask JAN.

Accommodations, program activities, and requirements are discussed as one on one conversations upon acceptance into the program or prior to interviews as needed.


I’m interested in supporting the Membership. How do I get involved?

Thanks for your intended support! The Membership is supported by generous donors like yourself. For ways to get involved by donating, contact Emily Blum.