Guest post contributed by Robert Dietel, Director, Executive Programs
In mid-May, MIT Sloan School of Management welcomed a diverse international group of disability-inclusion advocates who gathered in the Executive Education suite for a weeklong program on digital advocacy and leadership. These twenty-seven participants comprised the inaugural cohort of LEAD20@MIT Leadership in the Digital Age, an educational and networking collaboration between MIT Sloan and the Ruderman Family Foundation, an international philanthropic organization that advocates for the full inclusion of people with disabilities.
The result of nearly a year of planning, the program proved a great success in achieving its two primary goals: to give digital advocates for inclusion the capabilities to amplify the positive effect of their work, and to create a global network of peers. LEAD20 is part of LINK20, a Ruderman Family Foundation initiative and a global social movement led by a network of young activists with and without disabilities. The program was made possible by the generous support and steadfast commitment of the Ruderman Family Foundation’s leadership and staff.
“We are proud to collaborate with MIT Sloan School of Management’s faculty and staff to educate the next generation of inclusion leaders to help them become better advocates,” said Jay Ruderman, President of the Ruderman Family Foundation. “The participants in our LEAD20 program left MIT with a once-in-a-lifetime experience, both on the personal and professional level, and with tools that will help them in their pursuit of justice and inclusion for all.”
Designing and delivering a truly inclusive classroom
“This may have been the first program on MIT campus where people with disabilities made up the majority of the students,” says Ben Shields, Senior Lecturer in Managerial Communication at the MIT Sloan School of Management and LEAD20 Co-Faculty Director. “We value inclusivity in our community at MIT, and I am proud of the inclusive learning environment we, the Ruderman Family Foundation, and our impressive participants created together.”
“Teaching in the MIT LEAD20 program was an unforgettable experience,” recalls Kara Blackburn, Senior Lecturer in Managerial Communication at the MIT Sloan School of Management and LEAD20 Co-Faculty Director. “There were similarities to our typical teaching, as well as differences. Both the LEAD20 participants and our MIT Sloan students are driven, savvy, and intellectually curious. They are both kind and empathetic and demonstrate leadership in myriad ways. In the LEAD20 program, we were able to teach participants with a broad range of interests and experiences and goals, which was just fantastic.”
At MIT Sloan Executive Education, we have been experimenting over the years with assistive technology to make our programs more accessible to more people. Our efforts thus far have mainly addressed mobility challenges, and have included using telepresence robots in our classrooms, and creating virtual classrooms that people could attend as avatars. With LEAD20, it was really important for us to adapt our teaching and technology to meet the needs of all learners, even if it did take a few tries to find workable solutions. In addition to translation services and accessible spaces, it was encouraging to see the dynamic of mutual support that developed in the cohort over the week.
Building a global support, motivation, and inspiration network
The main takeaway from LEAD20 was community! Even though people with disabilities are a highly fragmented and varied stratum of society, it’s important to keep in mind that, according to the United States Census, nearly twenty percent of the U.S. population lives with a disability of some type. So it was especially gratifying to see how, through action learning projects, LEAD20 participants were able to come up with ideas that would bring everyone together. Since the focus of this program was digital advocacy, in addition to learning theory and frameworks, participants worked in small groups to create hashtag campaigns for disability inclusion.
The cohort remains connected after the program, but now it’s mostly through social media. Amanda Frantz, a participant, posted, “Above everything that happened and everything I learned, my greatest takeaway is how blessed I am to have found life’s secret sauce at a young age: authentic relationships!” Frantz is the Executive Director of the nonprofit KEEN New York, empowering youth with disabilities by providing free and fun fitness programs led by volunteer coaches.
Here’s Frantz with Dr. Mikhail Varshavski, a fellow LEAD20 participant. Commonly known as Doctor Mike, Varshavski is a social media entrepreneur, TV medical expert, philanthropist, physician, and the most-followed doctor on social media. He recently sat down with Jay Ruderman for a more in-depth conversation about his experience in LEAD20.
Another participant, Emily Ladau, posted lots of fun pictures and a heartfelt description: “I spent the past week with a group of movers, shakers, and absolute world-changers. Each one of them pushed me to think harder, work harder, and play harder. I cannot wait to see what comes from their passionate minds and hearts. I am lucky to say I know them.” Ladau is a disability rights activist, writer, speaker, and digital communications consultant. She serves as the Editor in Chief of Rooted in Rights, a blog focused on amplifying authentic writing on disability rights issues, and is also a co-host of The Accessible Stall podcast.
“Every single person involved in this program has a genuine passion for making a more inclusive world. WE OUT HERE Y’ALL! Things are happening!” wrote Angel Giuffria, an actress, model, and a public speaker on the representation of people with disabilities in film and television. A congenital arm amputee, she believes that “if you have a platform, you have a responsibility to use it for good.”
“There is no MBA or PhD that teaches what I learned from my colleagues this week,” wrote participant Guilherme Braga. He is the founder and CEO of Egalitê, a Brazilian company that promotes the employment of people with disabilities through an innovative technology that demonstrates the value of diversity.
Pamela Rae Schuller echoes Braga’s thought: “I have a certificate now from MIT Sloan School of Management in Executive Leadership in the Digital Age, but more than that, I have a group of people who now that I know, I can’t imagine my life without.” Schuller is an internationally-known disability and mental health advocate, a professional stand-up comedian, and the director of Here.Now, a Jewish teen mental health initiative through the Jewish Board.
“This week I fell in love 27 times. Sounds crazy, but if you were alongside us for this crazy journey for a week, I think you’d understand,” shared participant Sarah Grace Cronk, the founder of The Sparkle Effect, a national nonprofit for cheerleading and dance programs that bring together students with and without disabilities. “Together, we learned the art and science of influence from some of the top minds at MIT Sloan Executive Education,” says Cronk. “We worked long days and pushed each other to maximize this once-in-a-lifetime experience. But mostly, we found solace and strength in each other. I am forever grateful.”
Adapting our learning for future teaching
We are humbled and happy to hear all the wonderful reactions and kind words from the LEAD20 cohort. MIT, as a whole, has many initiatives and projects aimed at making our campus a truly inclusive place to learn, work, and visit. Our Senior Associate Dean for Executive Education, Dr. Peter Hirst highlighted many of those efforts in a blog post prior to the launch of LEAD20. In addition to experimenting with technology to make our classrooms more accessible, MIT Sloan Executive Education has been actively engaged with Work Without Limits, a Massachusetts network of engaged employers and innovative, collaborative partners that aims to increase employment among individuals with disabilities.
We are excited to continue our partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation—plans for the second cohort will be announced soon—and we want to encourage you to take a closer look at your organization through the lens of inclusion. How are you advocating for people with disabilities in your company or industry? What are you doing to create an inclusive culture?
Image credits: Emily Ladau, Mikhail Varshavski, Angel Giuffria