MIT Sloan Executive Education Blog

The Ruderman Family Foundation and MIT present LEAD20@MIT—a digital advocacy and leadership program focused on disability inclusion

Contributed by Peter Hirst, Associate Dean of MIT Sloan Executive Education and Katerina Martchouk, Contributing Writer


In the spring of 2019, the Ruderman Family Foundation, an international philanthropic organization advocating for the full inclusion of people with disabilities in society, will bring twenty-five digital advocacy leaders to MIT Sloan Executive Education for a week-long program intended to strengthen their leadership skills and to help form a network that will amplify the impact of their work. Unlike the majority of our participants, these leaders won’t be predominantly managers and executives of large multi-national corporations. Instead, they will be young people, with and without disabilities, who have committed themselves to raising awareness of disability diversity and inclusion. This program is part of the Foundation’s Link20 initiative, a leadership movement led by a network of young disability advocates.

Developing leaders who improve the world

We get lots of interest from organizations to partner with MIT Sloan Executive Education, and we always try to look for those whose mission aligns with ours. In the Ruderman Family Foundation program, the participants might be an unusual group for Executive Education, but we are thrilled to design and deliver a program that will advance both organizations’ missions to make the world a better place for everyone.

The purpose of this program for us is to give the participants leadership strategy, best practices, and all the tools to become Link20’s next generation of social media influencers, says Rinat Kisin, Program Officer at the Ruderman Foundation’s Link20. “We want to inspire them to create a global impact, and we believe that the program will give them the academic framework and the application to become better leaders and social influencers.”

“The spirit of this program is very much in line with MIT’s Mens et Manus motto,” points out Ben Shields, Program Faculty Director and Senior Lecturer in Managerial Communication at MIT Sloan. “At the end of the week-long program, we are committed to each of the leaders leaving with strategies and an action plan to start enacting change immediately.”

Meaning well vs. doing good

At MIT Sloan Executive Education, disability inclusion has been part of our work for quite some time. For a number of years, we have been actively involved with Work Without Limits, a Massachusetts statewide network of engaged employers and innovative, collaborative partners that aims to increase employment among individuals with disabilities. One of the key insights from that experience for us was recognizing that disability is a continuum: many people on that continuum live with challenges that may or may not be reported as a disability, especially the invisible ones, like post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In fact, according to the United States Census, nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population lives with some type of disability—physical or mental, temporary or permanent, partial or severe, apparent or non-apparent.

Of course, like any large employer in the United States, and especially in Massachusetts, MIT has comprehensive disability policies for our students, faculty, and staff. MIT’s Sloan School of Management commitment to diversity is both aspirational and pragmatic, taking into account our successes and our goals. At MIT Sloan Executive Education, we’ve been exploring different ways of making our programs more accessible to people with mobility challenges, using telepresence robotics technology, an avatar-based 4Dx format for synchronous online learning. A growing roster of asynchronous online programs, which people can attend from anywhere in the world at their own pace, helps but also requires attention to accessibility in their design and delivery.

While all of these initiatives feel gratifying, writing this post made me think harder about what we are doing, as an organization, to be fully inclusive of people with disabilities in our community. How are our policies manifesting in the everyday life on campus? Are we doing all that we can, and if not, what can we do better? To find out, I asked my writing partner, Katerina Martchouk, to help me explore these issues with colleagues at MIT.

Moving from compliance to commitment

Human Resources would have been a logical first step in any other organization, and various HR offices at MIT certainly do a lot in addressing disability issues in the MIT community, but the person we wanted to talk to first was Edmund Bertschinger, a physics professor. The reason for that was Dr. Bertschinger’s non-physics work as MIT’s first-ever Institute Community and Equity Officer—a position he held for five years before returning to academic responsibilities this spring—which gave him a broader understanding than most of the diversity and inclusion efforts on campus. “The people in the two offices at MIT dedicated to the issue—the Student Disability Services and HR Disability Office—are engaged and knowledgeable. They go beyond mere compliance and address real issues for real people,” he says. “But we need to raise awareness if we want to see true disability inclusion on campus. Because diversity and inclusion are not problems to be solved—they are realities to be lived. And not by a handful of people, but by everyone. The engagement needs to work both ways, bottom up and top down.”

Sharing personal experiences of what it’s like to live with a disability can be a powerful way to raise awareness. Catherine Gamon, Director of Student Life Office at MIT Sloan, told us about a wonderful series of events called “Ask Me Anything” that provides intimate perspectives on elements of personal identity, particularly the kinds about which people may be hesitant to ask. She described to us a moving panel discussion, where a Sloan student and an employee with significant hearing loss opened up about their experiences. While “Ask Me Anything” may be only a small-group event, conversations like this certainly have the power to advance understanding of disability in the wider MIT community.

For employers committed to creating a diverse and inclusive workplace, an important thing to understand is that true disability inclusion goes far beyond building out an accessible space. Often, it’s the people with non-apparent disabilities who have to overcome greater barriers—people who choose not to apply for certain jobs due to a disability because they don’t want to start the relationship with a new employer by asking for accommodations, or they come in for an interview and make their decision based on what they see around them. Hint: Reading the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance statement on your website might not be as compelling for these candidates as is encountering people with disabilities among your employees.

Striving for tangible, even if imperfect, solutions

It might be surprising to hear someone from MIT say this, but there is no such thing as a perfect solution, and, as any engineer would tell you, there is usually some compromise in every solution. We have a big campus with many different types of buildings: some old, some new, some located at far distances from one another. It may not be a fully accessible environment in every way, but we are trying to improve it, one project at a time.

Every new building is designed in strict compliance with the ADA. Moreover, Massachusetts has had far stricter building regulations than the rest of the country decades before the law came into effect, as Thayer Dunham, a Senior Project Manager at MIT Department of Facilities, pointed out. “We try to do better than just complying,” she says. “But because the laws are so general, sometimes it helps to know the individual to accommodate their specific need. We rely on our colleagues in the Student Disability Center, HR Disability Office, and other people to alert us of what needs to be done.”

Shifting the narrative

A great example of the kind of engagement that Bertschinger describes is the Disability Employee Resource Group (ERG), a small but active group within Human Resources, where MIT employees, with and without disabilities, work on raising awareness of disability and building affinity and community around disability inclusion. Elizabeth Thompson, Assistant Director for Student Activities and Leadership at the Division of Student Life, is a co-lead for the ERG. She sees parallels between the experience of disability and MIT’s characteristics. “Innovation, creative thinking, problem solving—people with disabilities do this every day!” she emphasizes, echoing Bertschinger’s opinion that we need to “shift the narrative” about disability from sympathy to empathy. “Disability can be a benefit to the organization, not just something to comply with,” she says. “We try to emphasize the humanity, the creativity of people with disabilities. Framing disability as a value added, not counter to the values of the Institute.”

Integrating technology and empathy

This kind of ingenuity led to the creation of MIT’s Assistive Technology Information Center (ATIC), which provides students and employees with disabilities with a variety of ready-to-use, off-the-shelf technologies to get their work done. ATIC is a great resource, to be sure, but it is also a very MIT story.

“ATIC was started in 1992 by an IS&T Help Desk consultant who was using assistive technology herself and saw an unmet need for MIT students and staff with disabilities,” shared Kathy Cahill, Associate Dean, Accessibility and Usability at the MIT Office of the Vice Chancellor. “Together with two visually impaired graduate students who also needed devices to be more accessible, she wrote a proposal to get some funding for computers, software, and a space, and that’s how the whole thing got started. The fact that it continued and got regular funding is a real testament to MIT, because many other schools didn’t really have an assistive tech center until later on. Today, ATIC serves about 100 students every academic year, performs hundreds of assistive technology demonstrations and consultations, and conducts accessibility and usability reviews of various MIT departments’ websites.

Another very MIT initiative is AT Hack, a student-led multidisciplinary hackathon that connects students working on developing assistive technologies with Boston-Cambridge residents who live with disability. The AT Hack was founded with the help of the late Seth Teller, an MIT professor of computer science and engineering. Teller also launched an undergraduate class that includes computer science, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering called Principles and Practices of Assistive Technology, or PPAT for short. During the course, students work on practical solutions to real-life challenges that people with disabilities face, and for which there isn’t a product readily available on the market today. The course is co-taught by a group of instructors who match students with “clients” in the Boston-Cambridge area.

Similar to the AT Hack, PPAT offers students an opportunity not only to work on cool and immediately useful technology, but also a chance to build a real, meaningful relationship with a person with a disability, and to get to know that person as a human, not as a label.

Seeing the change by being the change

On March 14th of this year, the global scientific community lost the theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author Dr. Stephen Hawking. With his passing, the world lost a brilliant person whose professional achievements will forever remain a reminder to us all of the value that people with disabilities bring to society, when given a chance to shine.

For our small part in this effort, my sincerest hope is that our digital advocacy and leadership program with the Ruderman Family Foundation will make a meaningful contribution to the great work of its participants in raising awareness and creating positive change for people with disabilities around the world.

If you are interested in attending this program or know someone who would make a great candidate, please apply and share.


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