The 2025 Institute application is now open!
Apply by September 20th to guarantee an interview.
The final deadline is October 4th.


Are you an energetic, aspiring leader with a disability who is passionate about making change in your community? Our Fellows range from community activists and artists to entrepreneurs and corporate employees in the Chicago region who are eager to explore their disability identity and how to lead with power and influence. They are positive disruptors who are exploring their disability identity and leadership skills to shape a more inclusive, just, and equitable society.

Following successful completion of the Institute, Fellows become lifetime Members of the Network. All Members engage in networking opportunities, professional development, exclusive events, and leadership opportunities. We influence disability inclusion in all spaces.

The deadline to apply is October 4, 2024. Applicants who complete their application by September 20th are guaranteed an interview.


Our ideal Institute candidate:

  • Self-identifies as a person with a disability
  • Lives or works in the Chicago region
  • Has at least 5 years of leadership experience in any context
  • Is committed to:
  • ~Seeking voluntary participation on a board, commission, or other leadership position in public, private, or non-profit sectors
  • ~Strengthening cross-disability identity and knowledge
  • ~Expanding leadership skills and self-awareness
  • ~Advancing in their career

Has personal leadership characteristics that allows them to:

  • Be a visible and vulnerable learner/leader in an intensive group learning setting
  • Have a vision for long term leadership in the Chicago region
  • Be comfortable engaging with people across cultures and across disabilities
  • Apply strategic thinking
  • Get results
  • Bring different groups together and have a commitment to collaboration
  • Want to listen to and learn from others


There is no cost to apply to be a Fellow. Should you be chosen as a Fellow, we highly encourage employer sponsorship as this is a professional development opportunity.

Non-profit, government, small business, self-employed:

  • $1500


  • $3000

Disability Lead believes that financial hardship should not be a barrier to an applicant accepted into the program. Financial assistance is available to accepted applicants.

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 Nominators will have enough time to complete their forms.  Once you submit your Nominators’ information in the Application, they will receive an automatic email that includes:

  • A link to the nominator form
  • Your chosen deadline.

In addition to identifying your Nominators, 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. 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

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

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

Complete Applications

Only complete Applications submitted by the final deadline will be considered. Once you submit the Application and both of your Nominators submit their forms, your Application will be considered complete.  Disability Lead staff will notify you regarding the next steps.

Alternate Formats

We are committed to making our application an accessible experience. 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 is an emerging leader?

Some of our Fellows are just starting out while others are recognized leaders seeking to understand our disability identities and diverse perspectives. Experience may include both professional and/or community-based volunteer leadership experiences such as founding or leading an organization, serving on a board or committee, or other ways of demonstrating leadership and initiative.


Who should apply?

Fellows are passionate about growing as leaders and becoming part of Chicago’s civic landscape. Energetic, aspiring leaders with disabilities who are passionate about making change in their communities. Our Fellows range from community activists and artists to entrepreneurs and corporate employees in the Chicago region. The Chicago region includes the following seven counties: Cook, Lake, DuPage, McHenry, Will, Kendall, and Kane.


Why should I be interested in civic engagement?

More than 10% of Chicagoans have a disability, yet only 1% of nonprofit board seats in the region are filled by individuals with disabilities. A critical voice is missing—your voice. Public and private boards and commissions in the Chicago region need more leaders with disabilities—leaders like you.


How do I know if this is the right fit?

The Institute is an immersive year-long learning experience that prepares Fellows to collaborate, influence, and lead. While there are many definitions and attributes of leadership, our program is guided by the following framework:

Vision, Passion And Collective Action

We seek leaders who articulate and excite people to act around a shared vision of a more just and equitable future; and have the resilience to engage in the lengthy and complex process of realizing their vision.

Self And Social Awareness

Effective leaders recognize that making a difference rests on awareness of who you are, how you engage with others, and how social systems impact personal and collective experience. They facilitate trust and partnership by listening attentively, communicating clearly, and following through.

Disability Leadership

Our program encourages leaders to embrace disability identity as part of a larger community, inclusive of intersectional connections, to effect change with power and influence.


Do I have to be currently employed to participate in the Institute?

No. At Disability Lead, we strongly believe leadership takes place in all facets of our lives - not just in the workplace - and recognize the value of leadership investment in advancing a career. While we encourage employer sponsorship, this is not a requirement. Current and past Fellows have joined the Institute in all stages of their professional development. We do not want to present any barrier to participation, especially during these unprecedented times. Financial assistance will be determined following acceptance into the program and is not considered as part of the acceptance criteria.


Is there an age requirement to join the Institute?

While there is not strict age requirement to join the Institute, our programming is targeted at people with prior leadership and civic experience, and applicants are suggested to have at least five or more years of experience. However, if you feel like the Institute 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.


What will I get out of this experience?

Together, Fellows learn about both disability rights and leadership to become more prepared for civic and professional leadership roles. Our Fellows advance with a sense of empowerment that comes from gaining leadership skills and a network of influential leaders.


What information will help strengthen my application?

Tell us your story. We know that everyone is in a different place in their leadership journey. Appropriate answers include specific examples that help illustrate how participating in this program at this time will help your identified goals.


Who/what is a “Nominator”?

Nominators help us get to know you better. A “Nominator” should be someone familiar with your talent, experience, and passion for civic engagement, and who can speak to your strengths. Nominators may be supervisors, managers, or a leader of a volunteer position to which you devote a significant degree of your time and talent. We know family may be our biggest fans, however strong applications include Nominators who are not family relatives. Additionally, you may not serve as your own Nominator.


How many nominators do I need? And how will they be notified?

Disability Lead requires two Nominators to apply. We require at least one Nominator be from a professional context. Once you submit your Nominator information in the application, your nominators will be notified via email with a link to the Nominator form along with the date of your chosen deadline. It is your responsibility as the applicant to ensure that your Nominators receive their forms and are aware of your deadline. Disability Lead will not follow up with Nominators unless specifically asked to address a technical issue.


How and when will I be notified?

You will receive an email confirmation once you submit your application, as well as when your Nominators submit their nomination forms. After all three pieces of your application are in (your application, plus the two nominator forms), Disability Lead staff will reach out regarding next steps. 


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’ve been selected for an interview. How should I prepare?

Congrats! The interview portion of the application process is for our selection team to get to know you better as an applicant. We want to hear from you about how the Institute will help prepare you to achieve your leadership goals. Once your interview is scheduled, you will receive an email from our staff with interviewer names and titles and sample questions. If you are looking to do hands-on prep beforehand, we can put you in touch with an interview ambassador from a past Fellow cohort to share their interview experience. Please arrive a few minutes early to account for finding and entering the building. The attire is business casual. Additional requests for accommodations, arrival, parking, etc. should be sent to staff prior to interview.


Is there a way to connect with past Fellows to learn more?

Yes absolutely! If you’d like to learn more from Fellows directly, please contact us at Stories from our Fellows are also shared on our blog. Feel free to browse our Network page to see the diverse backgrounds, interest areas, and expertise our Fellows bring to the table.


What is the time commitment?

As an example, the 2024 Institute schedule included 5 full day sessions over Zoom paired with 60-90 minute virtual events summer through fall. Fellows also participated in at at least three meetings with their mentor.


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

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


What is the difference between the Institute and the Membership?

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.

The Membership is for established leaders with disabilities who have a track record of demonstrated leadership. Additionally, new Members may have a further understanding of their disability identity. New 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.


Who do I contact for assistance with my application?

For more information about the Institute and all technical assistance, please contact

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