Bringing Disability Lead to More Communities

Emily Blum
April 24, 2023

Seven years ago, our region’s disability leaders and allies gathered to ponder, What could change if more people with disabilities were in positions of power and influence?

From that small table conversation emerged a big idea: Disability Lead, the nation’s only disabled-led organization that both develops leaders with disabilities and connects them to civic and professional opportunities.  

Today we are a network of more than 200 disability leaders—including 112 Fellows who have completed our Institute program—and we've helped make over 350 advancements, including senior leadership promotions at work, election to nonprofit board service, and appointments to public service leadership roles.  

As Executive Director, I’m proud and humbled by this work, and I marvel at the leadership of our Members—100 percent of whom currently serve in a civic role, and 80 percent have joined a new board, task force, or advanced in their career since becoming a Member. Every day, our Members influence policy and decision-making that impact the lives of thousands across the Windy City.

Our work and our Members’ advancements are only made possible because of our city’s strong philanthropic and civic commitment to disability leadership and inclusion, and we are so grateful to our funders and partners who have invested in our work or appointed, selected, or hired a Disability Lead Member.  

Chicago has a long history of big ideas, from the dishwasher to the zipper! I’m excited to share that we have an audacious goal to join this cohort of innovators. As the only program of its kind in the nation, we’ve long known that pipelines of disabled leadership are needed in all spaces, cities, regions, and states. The opportunities are too great not to have dreams of expansion.  

Like our founders, we are back at the table pondering another big idea: What could change if Disability Lead is brought to other regions, and more people with disabilities hold positions of power and influence across the country?

We are approaching this bold question with careful consideration, identifying partners and cities who want to invest in their communities’ disabled talent. We are currently in conversation with partners in Pittsburgh and have been listening and learning so much.  

Here are just three takeaways that are guiding our work there and will inform any other expansion work moving forward.

  1. Disability leadership must be community driven. Our work in Chicago can inform programs in other regions, but local stakeholders and partners will make a commitment to, and ultimately, take ownership of building a pipeline of disabled leaders. Our job is to advise, capacitate and support them in this effort.
  1. Listening is more important than telling. We are eager to talk about our work and our successes, but we are also eager to listen. If disability leadership is community driven, we are best served listening, asking questions, and understanding the needs of the community.  
  1. Growth for growth-sake is not the goal. What has made us successful in Chicago truly is a commitment from all sectors: civic, philanthropic, public, and business alongside the disability community. We believe that if Disability Lead is implemented in spaces outside Chicago, that unique commitment and partnerships must be in place.  

We're still in the early stages of a gradual process. My commitment is to keep our Members, investors, and partners informed of this work and our progress. Whether Disability Lead launches in Pittsburgh or elsewhere, we remain committed to Chicago and supporting our growing Membership to lead with influence and power.