Member Story

The Big Leap

Emily Blum
November 13, 2019

A few weeks ago, I stepped into the job of a lifetime: Executive Director of ADA 25 Advancing Leadership (now called Disability Lead).

My job—[Disability Lead]’s first full-time executive director—and this organization were created and made possible by dedicated staff, a dutiful board and long-time funders and supporters who have been with us since our inception. For that commitment, I‘m incredibly grateful and I know my path is not possible without them.

So, in this introductory blog post, I wanted to spend some time to let you know who I am and why this job is so important to me.

Emily speaking with a group of people around a table.

First off, I have a disability. It’s called dystonia, and it’s a genetic movement disorder that impacts my gait…sometimes. About 15 years ago, I underwent Deep Brain Stimulation to help manage my symptoms. Some people don’t notice, others — like the Fire Marshall who was conducting a fire drill in our building and yelled in my direction ‘Don’t you dare go down those stairs!’ — obviously did.

Coming into my disability identity — like most people — happened over time. Before my surgery, when my gait was much more severely impacted, I felt like there was a secret code of nods, smiles and winks that I would give and receive to other people with similar, visible disabilities. Like, hey, I got you. You got me? After my surgery, I wondered if I was still part of the team, and decided I wasn’t about to give up my varsity jacket.

Yet it wasn’t until I became an [Disability Lead] Fellow in 2018 that I had real understanding about what it meant to lead to with my disability identity.

Seventeen of us were convened for this opportunity and we were all different. Different disabilities. Different careers and jobs. From different backgrounds and neighborhoods. Different hobbies and interests. Just plain different. You can see for yourself, we’re all listed here.

Yet, we were also the same.

A group of 17 people of various identities pose for a group shot.

It’s true we had similar experiences of discrimination, isolation, and medical challenges. Yet we also had similar experiences of excelling, advancing, and leading. Since 2018, we’ve advanced in our careers, been appointed to commissions and boards, and, like me, even landed a job of a lifetime.

We are all leaders who crave to make an impact not only in our disability community, but our community at-large. We seek opportunities where we are needed and where our passions are fulfilled. I joined, for example, the board of Inspiration Corporation, a social service agency that moves people out of poverty through housing and job training.

The Fellows Class of 2018 isn’t alone. We are currently joined by three other classes (soon to be four) and our proud members — nearly 115 in total — who all lead with their disability identity.

For many years, I embraced the attitude that I’ve been able to build a successful career and a happy life despite my disability. I know now that I’ve attained those things because of it.

My disability makes me more empathetic, a better listener, a natural collaborator. My disability puts everyday challenges into perspective, gives me balance and gives me courage. All of these qualities have served me well.

Emily addressing a room using a microphone. She is wearing glasses and a fuchsia dress and black blazer.

Yet most important, my disability has led me to a community of other leaders who, like me, see their disability as an asset and needed if our city and region are going to thrive.

Emily speaking while seated at a table with others.

This year, [Disability Lead] became an independent, nonprofit, and no longer are we a program of The Chicago Community Trust. It’s a big leap, and I’m not only proud to be leading the organization at this pivotal moment, but am grateful for the support of our Board, donors, partners and of course, our Members.

Disability Lead staff pose around an Advancing Leadership banner.

2020 is a pivotal year of growth. We have big ideas to expand our membership and grow our community, and most importantly, deepen our impact in the Chicagoland region. We will be actively seeking new partnerships to support this effort, and your help is both appreciated and needed.

We are greater together. Thank you for being part of this journey.

Member Story