Taking the First Step to Becoming a Disability Leader
One of my personal commitments as CEO of Bender Consulting Services is to the empowerment of young people with disabilities. Over the years I have been involved with various programs and organizations for youth and young adults with disabilities, including Bender Student Leaders, Disability Mentoring Day, Variety the Children’s Charity, and more. I am involved with universities and colleges, including Carlow University and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. Most recently, I founded Bender Leadership Academy, a non-profit focused on programs for youth and young adults with disabilities. With the work that I do, I talk to many young people who ask me what they can do to become advocates and leaders in the disability community. Here is some of the advice that I share with them:
Before taking action, it is critical to know what the issues are and how they impact the disability community at large. First, know the history of the disability rights community and its leaders. The book No Pity, by Joseph P. Shapiro is mandatory reading for anyone interested in becoming a leader in the disability community. Second, read the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA). You can’t become a leader without reading and understanding the ADA regulations. Review information provided by disability rights groups like the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) and ADAPT. Once understanding the history of the disability rights movement, go to the library and read our history and current issues. Visit the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) and American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) to keep up to date on current issues. Finally, make sure you go to listen to my show, Disability Matters with Joyce Bender. You can find archives of past Disability Matters broadcasts on our website or the iTunes store. Access these shows to listen to current leaders, businesses, and celebrities talk about what is happening in the disability community today. Especially listen to the shows from the month July where we celebrated ADA Day. Continue to access new shows as they are added to the archives or listen live on Voice America, Tuesdays at 2 PM EST.
A close personal friend and mentor of mine, Tony Coelho, one of the authors of the ADA and a recent guest on Disability Matters, shares the message that when having access to the podium, talk about what matters. For young people with disabilities it is more important than ever to talk about the issues that matter and make sure opinions are heard. There is a move within the United States to remove some of the hard-earned rights of the disability community. If successful, this will be the first time that our country has removed civil rights from a group of people. Tony always told me, “When you get a chance to take the podium, Speak Up!”
Being established as a disability rights leader will not happen overnight. I began working with the disability community after having an accident in 1985. It was almost ten years later that I established Bender Consulting Services, and some years after that before my small, Pittsburgh based company became a national entity. During this time, I met many leaders in the disability community who wished to support my focus on freedom through competitive employment. Aligning myself with people who shared my viewpoints and goals for furthering the employment of people with disabilities helped me to build a network of personal mentors and friends. One of the most valuable lessons I can share with young people with disabilities looking to become disability rights leaders is to always be open to criticism from mentors. Hearing criticism from established leaders and mentors is even more vital than hearing their praise. It is only by learning to look at things in different ways and from opposing viewpoints that one can grow into a leader that is successful in gaining support from others.
Being a leader means always considering the impact actions will have on the group being advocated for. Public behavior, social media posts, and actions of leaders are often held up for debate and scrutiny whether within a team or within the larger community. To be a successful and respected leader is to commit to providing consistent and professional messaging both with regards to actions and words. I can’t tell you how many young people who have taken steps to become a voice of the disability community only to lose respect of those who have supported them by making unprofessional comments on social media. A leader who says one thing at a rally and later makes a social media post that goes against that message will not be successful in reaching people and convincing them to support their messaging.
Safeguarding your image as a disability rights leader also means remembering those who helped with establishing your credibility as a voice in the disability community. Some people make the mistake of once gaining a modicum of success in leadership cutting off those mentors who have helped shape the opinions of those supporting them. This mistake will have lasting effects that will cause the disability community to see the person as inconsistent and discourteous and will prevent them from wanting to become involved in any impactful way with the individual.
Once the opportunity has presented itself to make a real impact, it is important to continue to grow as a disability rights leader. I am constantly reading about new concerns in the disability community, disability history, and books on leadership and effective communication. I frequently reconnect with individuals I have met at various organizations and events throughout the year through social media and over the phone. I am involved with multiple community organizations and am always looking for new ways to continue to make an impact in the area of disability employment. Once becoming a leader, the work has just begun. Leadership is a life-long commitment to continued learning and growth. In the words of the great disability rights leader, Justin Dart, “Lead On!”