RISE Up! and Fan the Flames of Change

One day about a week before starting my first year of college, I shared a paratransit ride with a middle-aged woman who had become disabled from a brain tumor. She told me that she had been employed as a social worker, but after losing some vision and motor function on one side from the brain tumor, she had lost her job and was unemployed for the past six years.

That night in my diary, I wrote with shock and concern about her unemployment. I was confident that she could find work if she just believed in it enough. I said I wanted to be a professional who could support blind and other disabled people to reach their potential. I wrote that “no blind person will be on Social Security if my dream comes true.” But then, I wrote that I didn’t want to work within a bureaucratic system because “bureaucracy will only slow me down.” The diary entry concluded with a clear vision, but no clear plan of execution.

At that moment I had little awareness of the systemic barriers that keep disabled people unemployed, nor did I understand the complex intersections between disability, socioeconomic status, race, gender, and other social categories. I had just graduated from one of the most privileged public high schools in my city, with plans to study biology and become a doctor or a biomedical researcher. I believed that a disabled person could do anything they wanted to do, if they thought it was possible. Employment barriers seemed entirely artificial to me. Yet even then, I recognized that a change agent was necessary to bring down those barriers.

The drive to be a change agent was what guided me through four years of college and six years of grad school. I got involved in the National Federation of the Blind, where I learned how to make change by mentoring and being mentored, through legislative action and public persuasion. In that organization I met many blind people from all walks of life who struggled against low expectations and negative public perceptions. At the same time, I learned that there was an academic discipline devoted to studying, among many other things, how negative public perceptions of groups originate and how to change them. As a scientific thinker, I was intrigued by big questions. Eventually I chose the Ph.D. path, and four years ago Wednesday I defended my dissertation in social psychology.

I was always torn between wanting to make change at the level of the individual, one person at a time, and wanting to make change at the level of the entire social system through research and policy. I struggled with the threat of bureaucracy slowing me down on both levels. On one hand, I feared that if I just worked with individuals (as a vocational rehabilitation counselor for example), my impact would be constrained by the problems embedded in our service systems. On the other hand, if I confined my activities to researching and writing from the ivory tower, I feared that those discoveries would only reach other academics and never make their way down to the individuals who needed them most.

Ultimately, I figured that a doctoral degree would give me the most clout to make change. So, I weathered the storms of the doctoral journey. I fell in love, then turned down a near-perfect professor job offer in a small town where my then-fiancee feared he wouldn’t be able to find work. After graduation, I took a postdoc fellowship that broadened my knowledge and skill set, and competed unsuccessfully for a handful of academic jobs, none of them ideal. Eventually my husband found a federal job, and I created Disability Wisdom Consulting in the spring of 2016. Over the past two years, in partnership with some dynamic clients, I have had the pleasure of generating social-scientific knowledge about disability issues and bringing it to the people and groups with the most capacity to implement it-through my research, training, and knowledge translation services

Then, just two months ago, my professional life took an exciting turn. I became the deputy coordinator for a new pre-employment transition program for blind youth ages 14-21 in northern Virginia. I serve in this role approximately half-time, while still maintaining my Disability Wisdom Consulting operations.

We call the program Project RISE (Resilience, Independence, Self-advocacy, and Employment). Modeled after similar programs in a handful of states, we hold monthly meetings where students learn about a range of career-related topics from blind professionals. They also learn independence skills like cooking, budgeting and using public transportation. Notably, our program is unique from other pre-employment transition programs in that all our core staff are blind and the students receive group and individual mentoring from actually-blind people who demonstrate what is possible for them and can truly relate to their experiences.

One of my roles as deputy coordinator is to compile student progress reports. Due to my natural affinity for data, I love doing this. In fact my boss teased me because I seemed more excited about the reports than about the actual meetings! In the current round of reports, we are compiling the results of students’ career exploration activities. Our students want to become doctors and lawyers, teachers and engineers, programmers and musicians, writers and chefs. Most have multiple interests. And no career aspiration is written off because of disability.

As deputy coordinator I get a chance to help develop the program at a high level. But I also enjoy opportunities to mentor individual students. I gave one student feedback on his resume and shared internship referrals with another. I discussed careers in the psychology field with a third student, chatted about the challenges of dating as a blind person with a fourth, and connected several with blind professionals working in their fields of interest. It is a treat to share my own life experience with young people who are eager to apply it in their own lives.

Then one day last week, I was invited to call into a student’s transition meeting. I remembered how disempowering it could feel to sit at a table of professionals talking about me, but rarely including me in the conversation. I called the student before the meeting and we discussed ways he could participate. During the meeting, I invited him to share what he had been learning in our program. He was reticent at first, but gathered confidence, and eventually spoke proudly about his experience using a cane for the first time. He discovered that his voice mattered. At the very end of the meeting, he spontaneously told everyone that when he gets a little older, he wants to go around and give public speeches. As the others in the room were packing up to leave, I heard him say he wants to change the world.

After I hung up the phone, I couldn’t stop smiling. I was struck by the flame of passion that burst forth when a young man discovered his voice and the confidence to use it. Just like me at his age, he expressed a clear vision without a clear plan of execution. But, plans of execution will only slow us down.

As a society, we need our young people to drive change. As the recent teen walkouts suggest, youth are not just our future, but our present too. We need to nurture the small flames of passion and inspiration that ignite in young people’s minds-whether it happens in a paratransit van, in bed at 3 a.m., or at the very end of a transition meeting. These flames come from people who have not yet become jaded or “burned out” by the negative realities of our society. We must never extinguish these flames in the name of realism. Instead, we must offer the benefit of our life experience to feed those individual flames and bring them together into a massive fire. Only then can we build the cultural shift that will break down misconceptions keeping us from our dreams.

After 15 years, I now have a better understanding of the complex factors keeping people with disabilities from full participation in the workforce. Removing those barriers will require change on multiple levels. But there is still power in the idealistic belief that it will happen. While I have no idea where I will be standing in another 15 years, nor where our students will stand, I am glad to be standing in the fire with them.

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