Going Virtual!

Disability Lead
July 3, 2020

Each year, Disability Lead selects 16–20 Fellows to participate in the Institute, a year-long leadership program for emerging leaders with disabilities, the only one of its kind in the country. Included in the program is an immersive, intensive five-day retreat delivered over two sessions that include leadership development, open space, and panels. Our first session in 2020 went as planned, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, our second session had to be moved entirely online.

A wide shot of the 2020 Fellows from Session One listening to a panelist speak.

Days after completing Session One, we much like the rest of the world were affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The outlook grew more dire, social distancing requirements became stricter, until, finally, stay-at-home orders swept the country. Our team watched and prepared as this full-blown pandemic unfolded.

Settling on Zoom as our new “event space”, we knew our plan for Session Two had to be reimagined. But how would we provide Fellows with a similar immersive, intensive, accessible, in-person experience of the Institute sessions of the past? We accepted that we would not be able to be together physically, and nor should we, and moved forward with devising a new plan rooted in communication access and our hope that our Fellows would continue their leadership plans and find community during coronavirus.

Robin speaks into a microphone to a roomful of Fellows. She has medium length brown hair and a bright fuchsia blouse.

Robin Burnett, Director of Education and Operations, worked with our staff and Fellows on this unchartered transition. Here’s a breakdown of the strategy for shifting the Institute retreat into the virtual sphere.

1. Connect with key participants

Robin contacted Fellows and requested information about:

  • Tech and online access (computer equipment, internet availability, etc).
  • Changes to original accommodations requests due to the virtual format.
  • Setting up one-on-one Zoom coffee dates to check-in and so they could run through the technology together and assess any Zoom-specific accessibility needs, as well as talk about their well-being during this difficult time.

2. Strategize the accessibility of virtual platforms

Robin consulted with the Disability Lead team on the accessibility (and lack thereof) of the various Zoom features and how to best implement accessibility accommodations (CART, ASL).

3. Live environment test with all Fellows

With information from Fellows handy, our team collectively discussed the accessibility options available through Zoom. And from there, we made a plan.

4. Final plan development

Taking all the above into consideration, the Disability Lead team worked out the best Zoom tools for engaging our Fellows including a significantly reduced schedule — Zoom fatigue is real and breaking the day into chunks of no more than 90 minutes was crucial for maximum engagement.

5. New staffing model for “virtual” success

Recognizing that there’s so much behind the scenes work, we placed experienced staff in charge of participant and room management, as well as in private chatrooms for additional one-on-one support.

6. Flexibility is required

Finally, we maintained flexibility and made changes as needed throughout Session Two, each of us holding intense respect for the increased amount of energy it takes to do this work across the virtual divide.

Screenshots of 12 Fellows during the virtual retreat video conference.


Thanks to weeks of hard work and preparation, Session Two was more or less a “typical” retreat. Our Fellows held focused conversations and worked together in breakout rooms, guest speakers stopped by and shared their stories, and we presented panels — including a panel on networking.

While we missed the intimacy and hands-on participation a physical conference room allows, we are proud of providing our 2020 Fellows with what we hope was an invaluable virtual retreat experience. Though it was challenging, going virtual forced us to rethink our goals, as well as our methods for meeting those goals. Most importantly, we’ve realized that for some individuals, attending an event from home allows for increased access.