Our Leaders are Leading

Emily Blum
March 23, 2020

March 16th seems like a lifetime ago; but it was only last Monday and the first day many of us started working from home—or WFH as it's now known—in earnest.

As our city and country started feeling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and as Executive Director of Disability Lead, a diverse network of leaders with disabilities, I had two simultaneous and urgent thoughts:

  1. Are my members ok? Are they staying safe and healthy during this pandemic?
  2. Knowing that leadership is part of their DNA, how are they leading during this time?

So I sent our 140+ Members an email inviting them to connect with me. I also put out an ask to understand how they are leading during these unprecedented times. The following are a few of those stories - and I know there are many more.

Stephanie Anderson

Vice Principal, Vaughn Occupational High School:

When I emailed my members, Stephanie was the first to respond. She had been under quarantine for more than a week because a case of Coronavirus had been diagnosed at her school. Vaughn Occupational High School provides specialized education for high school students and transition-age students with cognitive, developmental, and multiple disabilities. While in isolation, Stephanie reflected how she and others who are part of Vaughn’s leadership were working hard to connect with parents and determine how to continue to serve their families via social supports and access to meals and food.

You can learn how Vaughn is connecting to families on their website.

Becky Staley

Program Manager, Health Care Service Corporation:

Becky reached out on LinkedIn and told me that she’s been using the opportunity to share meeting best practices to ensure virtual meetings are accessible and available to all Blue Cross Blue Shield employees. This includes asking explicitly if any meeting attendees require an accommodation to participate in meeting invites, providing a direct contact for the request, and saying names before speaking during any meeting.

She’s also working with their corporate communications team to ensure the process for requesting CART or other services is part of their regular communication to employees working remotely. The budget for those services recently was centralized, so there is no cost to employees.

Emily Harris

Principal, Harris Strategies:

One of Emily’s clients is the Ford Foundation’s Disability & Philanthropy Forum, and during this crisis, she’s educating philanthropy on how they can take a disability lens to their response. As a result, she’s compiling best practices in making online meetings and conferencing tools accessible as this is our new normal — at least for the foreseeable future. This blog post will be updated with that information once it's available and we encourage all our readers to share it widely.

[UPDATE: Here’s what Emily Harris compiled. One crucial way to advance disability inclusion is by making our virtual interactions accessible during this time of social distancing. If you are hosting online meetings or events, employ best practices for accessibility so that everyone can participate. This includes taking simple steps such as using accessible communication platforms (check out this helpful review of Zoom from the American Foundation for the Blind) and using captioning (here’s a helpful round-up of captioning options for videoconferencing).

Laura Isaacs

Executive Assistant, Grant Thornton:

Protecting one's mental health is paramount during this time of uncertainty. That’s why Laura is working with her contacts at NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Chicago, an organization that’s focused on improving the quality of lives impacted by mental health conditions, to put together useful tools and tips that promote wellness. Laura plans to share these resources with her teammates once it’s final.

Kevin Irvine, Senior Talent Acquisitions Consultant, Individuals with Disabilities, Rush University Medical Center:

Rush University Medical Center is on the front lines of COVID-19 having treated the very first cases reported in Illinois. Their first-responders are working round the clock to treat and manage the pandemic. Rush employs thousands of employees, many of who have disabilities, and Kevin successfully advocated for the hospital to have CART for their internal COVID-19 Virtual Town Hall WebEx meeting, to make the event more accessible for employees with hearing loss.

Access Living:

Our friends and colleagues at Access Living, which both advocates and provides direct supports for people with disabilities to live independently, are working tirelessly to ensure that the disability community is protected at this moment and in the long-term.

Member and Director of Advocacy, Amber Smock, is leading the team that is monitoring the local, state and federal government to both understand and improve how their response impacts people with disabilities. Their advocacy newsletter is a great way to stay up to date with their work and how you can support efforts to ensure our rights are protected.

In addition to advocacy, Access Living has a fantastic and accessible resource page that is worth checking out and sharing widely.

We are all in this together

Again, these are just a few stories. We have members directing the Illinois Department of Human Services’ Division of Rehabilitation Services (Rahnee Patrick) and the Illinois Human Rights Commission (Jim Ferg-Cadima) and we know they are leading during this difficult time.

We also heard from individuals and organizations outside our network who are fighting on behalf of people with disabilities. Everyone is doing amazing work in these unprecedented times.

As I learn of our Members and others with disabilities leading with influence and power during this time, I will happily update this blog post or write another. The most important thing during this time is that we stay committed and connected to each other and to the work of creating community together.