Disability Awareness Celebration Highlights Accessibility Trend

2021 National Disability Employment Awareness Month Poster featuring map of United States with graphics of people

As part of its longstanding commitment to promoting scholarship, community, and resources for people with disabilities, the CUNY School of Professional Studies (CUNY SPS) is proud to commemorate National Disability Employment Awareness Month with several events held this October.

On the evening of October 28, the CUNY SPS student organization Disability and Access Coalition (DAC) will host the panel discussion Lessons Learned: How the Pandemic Altered Employment Accessibility, which will explore the ways that COVID-19 has dramatically altered the landscape for people with disabilities in the workplace.

Also in October, the CUNY SPS Committee for Institutional Equity and Diversity (CIED) and the Office of Student Disability Services will present In/Visibility, a disability awareness film discussion event. Attendees are invited to watch two short documentary films, both available free on YouTube, prior to joining one of two facilitated group discussions moderated by members of the CUNY SPS disability community. The films are Deaf in the Military, which tells the story of an American deaf soldier, and The Power of 504, which chronicles the historic 1977 protest that led to the signing of the first federal civil rights law protecting people with disabilities. The discussions will be held on October 27 from 1-2 pm, and on October 28 from 8-9 pm.

Both events will draw upon the theme for this year’s federal observance of NDEAM: “America’s Recovery: Powered by Inclusion,” which reflects the importance of ensuring that people with disabilities have full access to employment and community involvement during the national recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

In particular, the DAC panel discussion will zero in on a key issue currently facing the disability community—how accessibility has changed, often for the better, since COVID-19. The panelists will look at several fields where these shifts have been drastic, and how they may be retained and expanded for the future.

One important area the panelists will discuss is public transportation. Panelist Eman Rimawi, an Access-A-Ride campaign coordinator and organizer at the nonprofit New York Lawyers for Public Interest, will explore some of the changes ahead, including the MTA’s recent pledges to make New York City’s subways and buses more accessible. (Read more about the MTA announcement, as well as CUNY SPS alum Leonard Blades’ contribution to it, here.)

Another area of interest is higher education, where latest advances in remote technology has transformed what has been available for students with disabilities. Karen Nielson, director of the Disabled Students’ Program at UC Berkeley and a faculty member in the CUNY SPS disability studies program, will lead this important conversation.

A final topic in the panel will focus on live entertainment, and how remote viewing has brought performing arts at least temporarily to a wider audience (as commented upon by CUNY SPS alum and disability studies faculty member Dani Lucchese in this July 2021 Observer article.)

The NDEAM panel also has the distinction of being the first event organized by the DAC’s 2021-22 co-chairs, Jamie Lerner-Brecher (MA in Disability Studies candidate) and Briasia Moore (MS in Health Information Management candidate). Both students, who originally were drawn to DAC for its welcoming sense of community, are excited to launch the coalition’s programming this year with a timely and relevant discussion that will hopefully spur a larger dialogue. As Lerner-Brecher noted, “Our talk will focus on the ways that we can bring some of the accessibility that was afforded throughout the pandemic forward into a post-pandemic world.”

Lerner-Brecher, who suffers from an autonomic nervous system disorder, has experienced herself firsthand this need for greater accessibility. Before the pandemic, she recalled that while attending college, her option for remote learning was either limited or outright denied. “…I know that when I was an undergrad, I and lots of other people were told that classes could not be recorded and viewed online, and they would not let us Zoom in. And then [attending class on Zoom] became the norm.” She continued, “…Now that things are returning back to in-person, leaving those accessibility options in place for disabled people is of the utmost importance.”

At CUNY SPS, the experiences that students like Lerner-Brecher face can illustrate on an individual level how COVID-era remote offerings may open up more opportunities for people with disabilities, particularly in the workplace.

Headshot of CUNY SPS alum Preston BurgerFor Preston Burger, a 2021 graduate of the advanced certificate in project management program at CUNY SPS, this move toward greater accessibility during COVID has made a major impact on his own life and career. 

Burger, who has an autism spectrum disorder, always applied his own personal experiences toward helping students identify, search, and prepare for their future careers while working as a CUNY LEADS Advisor at Bronx Community College.

While completing the Advanced Certificate in Project Management program at CUNY SPS, in which he enrolled to learn how to effectively juggle multiple projects and collaborate with his team, Burger noticed that many aspects of project management had been done remotely for years—whether it was telecommuting or using virtual platforms and tools to track project management components.

Shortly after this, COVID hit, and Burger discovered that his training from the CUNY SPS project management program had not only equipped him to easily manage the shift to fully remote work, but also helped him realize that this setting was a better fit for his own way of working.

“COVID played a pivotal role in my career change. When the shift to virtual took effect, I found that working from home in quarantine allowed me to be more efficient and deliberate in how I used my time, and this helped me to more effectively meet the needs of the students I advise,” Burger explained. “It also gave me the space to take a harder look at where I wanted to be focusing my energies long-term, and I slowly realized that I wanted to take on more consultative roles with multiple organizations where I could function as a subject matter expert in autism employment.”

This revelation led Burger to accept an exciting new opportunity offered to him—that of Recruiter and Candidate Success Specialist at Integrate Autism Employment Advisors, a nonprofit (and CUNY LEADS partner) that works with corporations nationwide to create autism hiring programs.

Burger’s position there is quite similar to his former job at CUNY LEADS. He still supports college students and graduates with their career development by recruiting them for open positions, providing assistance with resume revisions, coaching them in interviewing and networking strategies, and referring them directly to the corporate partners.

But unlike the LEADS role, where Burger’s focus was almost exclusively on mentoring and developing the students, he now has the added responsibility of coaching the managers at the corporations that partner with Integrate. After a candidate is hired, he and the Integrate staff meet regularly with managers throughout the candidates’ internship or first 6 months of employment to problem solve together how to tailor the manager’s supervision methods to fit the needs of each individual.

“After gathering 5+ years of data on what college students with disabilities go through just to make it to the workplace, I'm excited to have this platform to speak on their behalf—and it gives me hope for what the future holds for the next generation of college graduates with neurodiverse disability profiles,” he reflected. “This kind of advocacy is part of the larger goal I set during COVID to educate companies and colleges nationwide about neuroinclusive employment, and I’m thrilled that my new role at Integrate gives me the opportunity to do just that.”

About the CUNY School of Professional Studies

For over 15 years, the CUNY School of Professional Studies (CUNY SPS) has been leading online education in New York. Notable for offering the most online bachelor’s and master’s degree options at the City University of New York, and for serving transfer students as the University system’s only undergraduate all-transfer college, CUNY SPS meets the needs of adults who wish to finish a bachelor’s degree, progress from an associate’s degree, earn a master’s degree or certificate in a specialized field, and advance in the workplace or change careers.

The School’s growth has been remarkable, with twenty-four degrees launched since 2006. Enrollment has risen by more than 30% in the last four years to over 4,000 students in the credit-bearing programs. Thousands more are enrolled in non-degree and grant-funded workplace learning programs. In addition, the School has an active alumni network and has established the CUNY SPS Foundation, which offers multiple scholarship opportunities to current students.

CUNY SPS has consistently been named by US News & World Report as one of the country’s top online institutions. This year, the School was ranked in the top 2% in the nation on the publisher’s list of the 2021 Best Online Bachelor’s Degree Programs.

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