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Recognizing National Disability Employment Awareness Month

This article was written by I. King Jordan Jr., Disability Programs Consultant at Johnson Scholarship Foundation.

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). This year I had the opportunity to take part in an excellent Disability Mentoring Day event sponsored by Bender Consulting. Attendees included previous mentees, current mentors and numerous supporters.  There were activities that brought together students and employers for informal sessions about career opportunities and mentoring with volunteers at public and private places of employment. One statement at the beginning of the program resonated with me. Joyce Bender, founder and CEO of Bender Consulting said, “We don’t need a disability employment awareness month—we have plenty of awareness. What we need is a disability employment month!”

In one way, Joyce Bender was absolutely right. We certainly need more jobs for people with disabilities. In another way, we still do need more awareness. There are many barriers that must be overcome in order for people with disabilities to achieve jobs.

One of the most important barriers is the lack of knowledge of what disabled people can do. Too often the focus is on the disability—what a person cannot do, instead of what that person can do. Negative attitudes about people with disabilities and ignorance about their abilities too often prevent a genuine interview, much less a job offer.

In 1990 the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed promising greater access and employment for people with disabilities. It was an exciting time and many of us looked forward with anticipation to the positive changes that would result from this very important law. We have been seriously disappointed.  The employment rate of people with disabilities has barely ticked upward in more than 30 years since the passage of this landmark legislation.

The board and leadership of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation are very much aware of the statistics that show how adults with disabilities are much more likely to be unemployed than those without disabilities. The Foundation is committed to supporting programs that will help people with disabilities achieve educational success and ultimately employment. Some of the grantees supported by the Foundation serve children in school programs, from preschool through college. Some of the grantees serve young adults and help them acquire first jobs or serve young adults who are employed.

While we can see progress among our grantees, it is clear that there is much more work to do in order to lower the unemployment rate of people with disabilities and help support the ultimate goal of parity between the employment of people with and people without disabilities. It will be good to focus on national disability employment. Focus on jobs, not just awareness.

 

For more information about the Johnson Scholarship Foundation’s work in funding programs for people with disabilities, click here.

Exploring Hearing Loss in Her Homeland

This story was originally written by Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech, a grantee partner of JSF. It is shared here with permission.

Sofia, a Clarke Alum with Hearing Loss, Advances a Global Research Project

Sofia, an alumna of Clarke Schools, smiles for the camera. She has dark brown curly hair and is wearing a dark blue sweatshirt while holding a bouquet of orange-red flowers.Meet Sofia, who is currently pursuing a Liberal Arts Degree at Smith College. Sofia was born with hearing loss in Guatemala and adopted by her current family in the United States. Years ago, she attended Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech’s Preschool Program in Philadelphia to learn to listen and talk. Since its founding in 1867, Clarke’s teachers of the deaf, speech-language pathologists and audiologists have taught thousands of children who are deaf or hard of hearing the listening, learning and spoken language skills to succeed in mainstream schools and the wider world.

Children served by Clarke use advanced technologies, including cochlear implants and hearing aids, to maximize their access to sound. Following her graduation from Clarke in 2010, Sofia excelled in elementary and high school.

Entering her senior year of high school, Sofia was tasked with researching a global issue and interviewing experts in the field relative to the issue. Sofia decided to research the global effects of hearing loss, focusing on her birth country, Guatemala, and interviewed Judy Sexton, MS, CED LSLS Cert AVEd, Clarke’s head of programs and schools and interim president.

To further enrich the conversation, Judy connected Sofia with Paige Stringer, founder and executive director of the Global Foundation for Children with Hearing Loss.

“I asked questions about Paige’s work, how our country’s healthcare differs from other countries, along with how mainstreaming children with hearing loss can be hard on both the children and parents,” explains Sofia.

Through her international research, Sofia discovered there is only one professionally trained audiologist in Guatemala, Dr. Paty Castellanos.

Judy and Paige also connected Sofia with Paty to deepen her research and overall learning experience.

After Sofia’s insightful conversation with Paty, discussing the need for more Guatemala-native hearing loss professionals, Sofia discovered her passion for interviewing and researching within the international relations field and beyond. She says, “I hope to dedicate my time researching global challenges, how the world is changing environmentally and how to find ways to save our environment.”

Sofia is a recipient of Clarke’s Caroline A. Yale Memorial Fund Scholarship, designed to support the continuing education of Clarke students. Sofia intends to use the funds to fuel her academic ventures.

Field Tested: A groundbreaking field camp opens Earth sciences to students with disabilities

The following article was written by Alisson Clark and first appeared in the University of Florida’s Explore Magazine on November 17, 2022. It is shared here with permission.

The drone wouldn’t fly. The wheelchair-accessible van spun its tires, digging into the dusty gravel. And the men with shotguns refused to leave.

Standing under the baking Arizona sun, Anita Marshall took a breath. Over the past week, she had overcome international travel disasters, technology struggles, wildfires, even interference from a pair of nesting eagles, to provide hands-on experience for aspiring scientists whose disabilities excluded them from traditional field courses. Now her students had assembled on the edge of a 400-foot crater outside Flagstaff, eager for what some had been told they’d never have.

Conferring with her team of instructors, Marshall, a University of Florida geologist, reboots the drone. A delegation convinces the men using the site for target practice to move to a different area. The marooned van will have to wait, because the 18 students — some here in the desert, some joining remotely — are keen to do some science.

“They need this. If they don’t have experiences like this, we’ll lose some amazing minds out of our field,” Marshall says. “I don’t want that to happen.”

Anita Marshall is a UF geology professor who teaches disability-inclusive field courses. She is standing in the Northern Arizona desert and wearing a blue windbreaker and khaki pants.

“These are the students that are being pushed out of our discipline,” says UF geologist Anita Marshall, pictured at a site in Arizona where she offers inclusive, accessible fieldwork opportunities for disabled students.

If you care about clean water, climate change, energy, sustainable agriculture or other areas that rely on earth scientists, neither should you, Marshall argues. But earth science degrees often require a physically taxing, six-week camping trip far from medical care and even electricity. It’s a deal breaker, not only for those with mobility limitations, but also chronic fatigue, digestive issues, even severe food allergies — not to mention family or work responsibilities that prevent them from disappearing into the wilderness for half the summer.

With a $440,149 grant from the National Science Foundation, she launched GeoSPACE, an accessible field camp that’s opening geosciences — the least diverse STEM field — to people who might not fit the mold of the mountain-scaling explorer conquering the wilderness.

That’s the very image that drew Marshall to the field, until a near-fatal accident changed her trajectory.

Now she wants to reimagine field camp from the ground up.

“I don’t want field camp to be a barrier,” she says. “I want it to be a springboard.”

People Before Rocks

The drone is finally cooperating.

“Fly my pretty, fly!” Marshall says, handing the controls to Francesca Butler, a geology student from the United Kingdom. Because Butler uses a wheelchair, she’s been excluded from fieldwork at her university. Butler says GeoSPACE’s summer 2022 pilot program has allowed her to feel “like a real geologist.”

“I was almost in tears when I was able to get out in the field for the first time,” she says. “I think this is going to be the blueprint for the future.”

After exploring the trails leading around and through the crater, Butler is getting a bird’s-eye view of an outcrop rippled with striations of red, brown and black that reveal the desert’s volcanic past. Drones are one way Marshall brings the rocks to students. She also leverages satellite imagery, live high-definition video and the messaging platform Discord to put students in the middle of the action, whether they’re exploring the outcrop, working from a high-tech base camp beneath a pop-up awning, or joining remotely from home. After a half day at the site, they’ll return to a La Quinta in Flagstaff to review their data, learn about high-precision GPS mapping, and eat a home-cooked meal that accommodates all participants’ dietary needs.

It’s the opposite of a typical field camp, where forgoing comfort — and technology — is as much a part of the experience as the science.

But as Marshall is fond of saying, the rocks don’t care if you slept in a hotel.

“Chug your water, guys, that was a lot of dry air,” Marshall says from the driver’s seat on the way back from the field site.

The 15-passenger van rattles down a washboard road, every rut reverberating in bone-jarring judders. Pebbles ping the undercarriage like popcorn in a pan. Getting out of the classroom and into wild places like this is a cornerstone of field camp, and where research shows many students start to feel like real scientists. But for students with disabilities, who represent about 20% of the undergraduate population nationwide, it can also be an enormous source of stress. If they can’t get the accommodations they need to participate, they may have to change majors. That can lead students with less-visible disabilities to hide them, putting themselves in danger — a pattern Marshall knows well from her own experience. With this trip, she’s setting out to prove that the rigor and the joy of field camp can come in an accessible package.

It took a year of planning and scouting to organize locations and logistics. Each site needs passable roads, wheelchair-friendly surfaces, strong cell service for streaming video, and proximity to accessible hotel rooms and bathrooms. If a site doesn’t offer a meaningful field experience for everyone on the trip, it doesn’t make the cut.

UF student Francesca Butler operates a drone in the Arizona desert. She is wearing a light blue tank top and is using a wheelchair. Pictured next to her is Anita Marshall, a UF geologist who is wearing a blue windbreaker.

In her years of advocating for inclusion, “a lot of times you feel like you’re hitting your head against a brick wall,” says Marshall, pictured with student Francesca Butler. “This is the first time I felt like we actually put a crack in that wall.”

They also try not to spend more than half a day out in the elements, as their enthusiasm can tempt them to push beyond their limits — another pattern Marshall knows well. Throughout undergraduate and most of grad school, she relished the physicality of her fieldwork-heavy earth science program.

Then, on the night of her department’s awards banquet at the University of Arkansas, a drunk driver hit her as she was unloading her pickup truck. She nearly died at the scene and again at the hospital. When she regained consciousness, her left leg was crushed. So, she thought, were her dreams of becoming a field geologist.

“One of my very first thoughts when I woke up in the hospital was that my geology career was over,” she says. “I had never heard of a geologist with a disability. I didn’t see any path forward.”

A year of reconstructive surgeries followed. Her father quit his job and moved closer to campus to help. He and her sister became her field assistants, gathering data from places Marshall couldn’t access. When insurance hurdles delayed getting a wheelchair, her grandfather offered his.

“He would get himself all comfy in his recliner and I would leave for school in his wheelchair, do my classes, and then come back and give him his wheelchair back. We knew the clock was ticking to finish my master’s work. It was a big family push to get me through my degree.”

A member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Marshall sees that community approach as central to her work in inclusion.

“Individualism is really foreign to a lot of Indigenous viewpoints, and Choctaws are no different in that. You’re always looking out for the needs of your family and your group. That very much influences my philosophy on field courses,” she says. “Rocks are cool. People are better. Take care of your people, and the rest will come.”

After graduating, Marshall learned to walk again. She got a job teaching geology at a community college. She loved it, but the repetition was very different from the far-flung places and extreme environments she had imagined. For seven years, the same introductory geology class, the same National Geographic video about volcanoes. Then one semester, something about that video jumped out at her. One of the scientists, severely injured in an eruption, had resumed his research after a long recovery.

“He’s doing it,” she recalls thinking. “Maybe I can do it!”

She started applying to Ph.D. programs, got accepted, and a year later was headed back out in the field.

Things did not go smoothly.

A group of geoscience students take measurements in the Arizona desert.

At GeoSPACE, Marshall (second from left) ensures each student can meaningfully participate without having to mask their disabilities.

The Trouble with Field Camp 

On the rim of a volcano in Nicaragua, the doctoral students gathered for a lecture about the geological features around them — all but Marshall, left straining to hear from the other side of the crater. She had gone as far as her reconstructed leg and chronic fatigue allowed, farther, really, pushing beyond the point of safety, not wanting to be left behind. As the students walked past her on their way back, one rolled his eyes.

“I don’t know why she even bothers,” she heard him say.

She felt alone. But when she examined her situation like a scientist, she realized she couldn’t be. In student surveys, 22% of high schoolers with disabilities say they’re interested in STEM careers. By the time they’re in undergrad, just 10% are still pursuing STEM jobs. Among master’s students, it dwindles to 6%. Marshall clearly wasn’t the only one getting the message she didn’t belong.

“The more I dug, the more I realized how little was being done and how this was a massive unspoken problem.”

Marshall knew she’d never regain the physical aptitude of able students. But with her new perspective, she started to wonder if the grueling physicality wasn’t central to the work, but merely the culture. Field camps have been slow to evolve, says Ellen Martin, UF’s geology department chair. As geosciences went high tech, field camp at many universities retained an emphasis on hand-drawn maps and physical prowess.

“There are instructors who try to make it as physically demanding as possible,” Martin says. “If that’s not the part of geology you’re going into, that’s not relevant at all.”

As a field geologist, Martin sees value in traditional field camps, but also recognizes that “we don’t all have to be men in flannel shirts with beards and rock hammers running around in the woods. Finding a way to have a more diverse field camp gives options for people who are interested in other aspects of the science.”

Although not all geoscience careers require fieldwork, many geoscience degrees do — as do employers, who may look for field experience because of the pivotal role it plays in building students’ skills, confidence and networks.

The answer, Marshall realized, wasn’t to do away with field camp, but to recenter it on skills students actually need. Without that, talented young scientists would continue to leave the field.

“It makes me die a little inside when I meet these amazing students and realize that they are being shut out of our discipline,” she says. “They’re innovative. They’re creative. They’re resourceful. We’re actively pushing them out, and that just kills me.”

The National Science Foundation agreed, funding two years of GeoSPACE as part of its mission to reach those excluded when science careers aren’t accessible or inclusive. NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan calls them “the missing millions.”

“We are leaving tons of our talent behind,” Panchanathan said at a visit to UF in May. “We need all of it to unleash innovation and prosperity for all.”

Programs like Marshall’s are important for student retention and a sense of belonging and acceptance in the field, says Brandon Jones, NSF Program Director for Geosciences Education and Broadening Participation programs.

“The GeoSPACE program is using creative approaches to ensure that people with disabilities can participate fully and meaningfully in field experiences,” Jones says. “GeoSPACE involves students in developing the field experience and creates a network of mentors to support and encourage them.”

Mission: Inclusion

At the crater, teams of students fan out across the landscape, tackling the research questions they designed with the remote students. A remote option was critical to be truly inclusive, Marshall says, as some students’ disabilities won’t allow them to participate even with accommodations.

Shivani Dattani is a UF student studying geoscience. She's wearing a black top, has brown hair and is surrounded by a desert landscape.

Shivani Dattani at V235, an extinct volcano and GeoSPACE site.

The virtual participants serve as mission control for the group, introducing each new site based on satellite data, thermal imagery and Google Earth. In-person students act as the astronauts exploring the surface of another planet, gathering data that requires closer observation. It’s an apt analogy for this otherworldly landscape, and relevant to the course’s focus on planetary geology. But at its core, it’s a strategy to ensure everyone, regardless of their level of physical participation, has an integral part in the mission.

“I know that feeling of being left at the van while everyone else goes to do cool stuff,” Marshall says. “I don’t want another student to feel like I felt.”

Rutgers student Shivani Dattani returns from a sun-scorched ridge flanking the crater, taking a moment in the shade of the van to reflect on getting her first field experience through GeoSPACE. After a personal trauma, Dattani struggled to regain her footing in academia.

“This has really helped me bridge that disconnect from the year I missed,” she says. “It’s easing me back into what I really want to be doing: academic research. I feel like there might be a space for me in the scientific community.”

After receiving more than 70 applications from around the United States and six countries, Marshall realized how many types of students also felt like outsiders.

“Not everyone in our group identifies as disabled. They come from many walks of life, many different identities, and they all feel traditional field camp is not a great place for them.”

Marshall’s goal of broadening access resonated with UF geology graduate and GeoSPACE project manager Yesenia Arroyo, who joined the team which includes UF professors Steve Elardo and Amy Williams, plus geologists from Arizona State University, Central Connecticut State University, the University of Cambridge, the U.K.’s Open University and Rutgers University.

GeoSPACE program manager Yesenia Arroyo takes notes while out in the Arizona desert. She's wearing a beige sun hat and a light blue shirt.

GeoSPACE program manager Yesenia Arroyo, a UF graduate, was drawn to Marshall’s mission to diversify Earth sciences.

GeoSPACE program manager Yesenia Arroyo, a UF graduate, was drawn to Marshall’s mission to diversify Earth sciences.

“What she was saying about accessibility really struck a chord with me as a geologist with various intersectionalities myself,” says Arroyo, who is Black and Hispanic. “She definitely has the mission to get geologists of all shapes and sizes out here. It shouldn’t be stopping you from participating in something you love.”

Unfortunately, not everyone agrees.

‘Almost a cruel joke’

In 2018, her Ph.D. complete, Marshall started looking for a faculty job. Wrapping up her presentation on inclusive fieldwork at one interview, she asked if there were any questions.

After a long silence, one professor raised his hand and asked, “Why? Why bother?”

While most people don’t say it out loud, plenty share his assumption that disabilities impact a tiny portion of geoscience students. Because many disabilities aren’t outwardly visible, faculty members might assume no one needs accommodations. Sometimes they’re right, because those who do have concluded that they’re not welcome and changed majors. When students request accommodations for fieldwork, they often face resistance, Marshall says. As executive director of the International Association for Geoscience Diversity, she hears these stories constantly from universities in the United States and beyond. For example, one student whose manual dexterity limitations made it hard to take notes asked to use a tablet in the field. The request was denied.

Beyond disability, students with young children, financial constraints, or mental health considerations can see a traditional field course as an insurmountable obstacle. Try asking your boss for six weeks off, then paying for the course while you’re not working, she says.

“It really was designed for students from a bygone era — mostly male, independent students who had the financial and social ability to disappear for six weeks. For modern students, it’s increasingly hard to do that. The financial barrier is huge. The time barrier is huge. And six weeks is a long time to go without your support network. To make that a required component to finish a degree seems like a pretty large request.”

Back at the hotel, the group gathers for a taco buffet in the lobby, still buzzing about their day in the field.

“Don’t get used to this,” Marshall laughs, referring to the allergen-safe food, the laundry facilities, the comfy beds. She knows many of these students will go back to programs that require more than she can provide. GeoSPACE puts the all-important field experience on their resume, but as a two-credit course, it can’t replace the typical six-credit requirement on its own. At UF, students can replace the traditional course with another option approved by the undergraduate coordinator. An injured student was able to fulfill the entire 6-credit requirement virtually, an option geology chair Martin says is available to others who need it. But few universities offer such alternatives, which worries Marshall.

“I don’t want to take them out to have this amazing experience, get this little glimpse of how things could be, and then kick them back to the real world where they still can’t get through their degree programs,” she says. “That would almost be a cruel joke.”

Instead, Marshall wants other universities to use GeoSPACE as a model, leveraging everything she’s learned to develop inclusive, accessible two-credit modules on different topics. UF is considering adding a two-credit option during spring break, Martin says.

“I’m amazed by the impact Anita’s already had,” she says. “It’s making a lot of people think. I suspect a lot of places will realize it’s to their benefit to offer programs like that for their students.”

If they do, we all stand to benefit.

“We can’t keep courting such a narrow sliver of humanity and then expect to tackle these big, complex problems that affect everybody,” Marshall says. “We have to move forward with all the voices. And not just for the science, but because it’s the right thing to do.”


Photos and video by Brianne Lehan/University of Florida

 

Representation on the Big Screen: Deaf Actors Portray Deaf Characters

This is a story about representation. It’s a story about normalizing and equity and inclusion and how all those elements can come together on the big screen in a feel-good story featuring kids who happen to be deaf.

The movie is “Rally Caps,” a coming-of-age story set on a backdrop of a Little League Baseball diamond. It features children who are deaf playing the parts of the characters who are deaf. Both characters use hearing technology to access sound, just like students attending Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech (Clarke), a grantee partner of JSF.

Caroline Oberweger, Director of  Foundation Relations at Clarke, and a cochlear implant user, got an up-close view of the film. Caroline, her husband Alex, and their children, Natalie and Sam, were all extras in the movie. She shares her experience below. The article below was shared with permission from Clarke.

How did you become extras on the set of Rally Caps?
Rally Caps was filmed at my children’s sleepaway camp. When I read that the film was about a young boy who is deaf and uses a cochlear implant, I immediately jumped at the chance to be a part of this story, even if just in a small way.

What is your hearing loss diagnosis and what technology do you use to access sound?
I was diagnosed with a moderate-severe sensorineural hearing loss at the age of 10. I wore hearing aids for three decades until my hearing loss progressed to profound in my late thirties. I got my first cochlear implant 10 years ago at age 38, and the second two years later.

As a person with hearing loss using listening and spoken language (LSL), do you feel represented in the media?
I have been seeing an increasing number of stories about hearing aids and cochlear implants (CIs) in the news the past few years, and that’s terrific. But as a CI user, I’ve yet to see myself represented in film and television. I’m really thrilled that Rally Caps will be showcasing a character who hears and speaks with the help of a cochlear implant. I think there is still an assumption among the public at large that people who are deaf communicate solely through American Sign Language. Rally Caps counters that perception.

What are you most looking forward to about seeing this film?
I’m proud that the film centers around a boy who is deaf and uses a cochlear implant, as I’ve never seen an actor, or character, with a CI on film. I’ve read the book that the movie is based on and found it very touching; the theme of overcoming obstacles and embracing being different is one that resonates with me very personally. Of course, seeing my children on film — at their very own summer camp, no less! — will be thrilling as well.

Read more about Rally Caps in Clarke Speaks Up.


Caroline Oberweger is Director of Foundation Relations at Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech.

 

 

Making Disability a part of the DEI Discussion

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is at the forefront of every talent management strategy. During 2020, companies found themselves facing significant challenges with respect to DEI and determined they needed to re-examine efforts on race, equity, justice and opportunity.

Yet one element of diversity is frequently left out of most DEI conversations – disability. Disability employee engagement is a gap companies are only just beginning to explore. A review of 10 years’ worth of data from companies around the globe showed stark differences between employee engagement of people with disabilities as compared to those without. But most significantly, it revealed how little data existed. While 90 percent of the companies said they have diversity initiatives, only 4 percent included disability in their diversity programs.

Global Disability Inclusion, in partnership with Mercer, the world’s largest human resources consulting firm, is launching a groundbreaking climate and culture survey focused on employees with disabilities and their workplace experiences.

The goal of the survey, known as Amplify, is to provide companies with valuable insights into the work experience of both people with disabilities and those without, allowing them to improve policies, programs and procedures to create greater equity in the workplace and ultimately improve climate and culture.

“Companies are unaware of the employment experiences of people with disabilities because disability is too often left out of the broader diversity conversation,” said Meg O’Connell, CEO and Founder, Global Disability Inclusion. “What we created is a new survey that asks disability-specific questions. It will incorporate questions for both the person with disabilities as well as people without disabilities so that the entire culture at a company can be measured.”

The survey will launch on Feb. 14, and there’s still time to register.

The survey includes everything from experiences on leadership, for example, “Senior leaders promote diversity and inclusion,” to achievement, such as “I have the opportunity for advancement in my company,” to identity and disability inclusion, which looks at whether people are comfortable disclosing their disability status and whether accommodations are provided.

“The majority of disabilities are invisible, whether it’s mental health, neurological, or a learning disability, and most people don’t disclose their disabilities if they have them,” O’Connell said. It may be surprising that likely 15-20 percent of the employee population could identify as having a disability, she added. “We want to help create a better culture of inclusion where people aren’t afraid to talk about their disability status or ask for an accommodation. The opportunity to impact what is likely 15-20 percent of the employee population is monumental.”

For more information about the survey or to have your company participate, contact O’Connell at info@globaldisabilityinclusion.com or visit Amplify | Global Disability In (globaldisabilityinclusion.com).


Meg O’Connell is Founder & CEO of Global Disability Inclusion, working with companies, foundations and non-profits to provide strategic direction, design and implementation of disability employment and inclusion programs.