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RespectAbility Congratulates Spring 2020 National Leadership Fellowship Graduates

Talented Young Leaders Looking for Job Opportunities During Pandemic 

Rockville, Maryland, May 17 – Ten talented young adults, many of whom have disabilities and all of whom arepassionate about people with disabilities, have just completed RespectAbility’s National Leadership Program. The group came together at RespectAbility, a national nonprofit fighting stigma and advancing opportunities so people with disabilities can fully participate all aspects of community, where they learned about disability advocacy and gained relevant career experience.

Fellows gained the real-world skills required to become highly employable and impactful once they enter the workforce. Each specialized within areas of the organization that aligned with their career goals, including: public policy, nonprofit management, communications and community outreach. Throughout the semester, they gained hands-on career experience, such as policy briefing, grant writing, social media content curation and media outreach, as well as soft skills including networking, public speaking and issue advocacy.

With the ongoing COVID crisis, Fellows had to adjust quickly to working productively from home, which meant taking a crash course in becoming accountable for their own productivity in an less structured environment. Fellows joined daily meetings via Zoom that included all staff and Fellows. They were involved in organizing and participating in numerous grassroots town halls where they were able to find out how the pandemic was impacting people with disabilities, what solutions worked, and to fight for of solutions that work.

“RespectAbility has shown me what it is like to truly be part of an inclusive and diverse organization,” said Baksha Ali, a Community Outreach Fellow from New York City. Born in Bangladesh, her family moved to the U.S. when she was diagnosed with Retina Pigmentosa. Ali helped lead multiple online sessions for people like her who are blind or have low vision. In those sessions, RespectAbility discovered a major problem – as people who are blind are disproportionally low income and many rely on SNAP (food stamps) for food but only six states at the beginning of the pandemic allowed people to use them for online food purchase and delivery. That meant they were forced to shop for food in person – something that is extremely dangerous for people who rely heavily on touch and cannot always tell if someone is within six feet of them. Hence, Ali and the full RespectAbility team got to work on enabling people in every state to use food stamps to get food online safely. Already more than 20 states have changed their policies – helping many of the 11 million people in America who have disabilities and use food stamps.

The leadership skills Ali and the other Fellows gained will help them in their career development. Currently Ali is looking for a job and she eventually plans to pursue her master’s degree in Vocational Counseling. “I really appreciated how all of the staff have taken the time to get to know all of the Fellows, not just the ones from their department,” she added. “Moreover, I was extremely impressed with how RespectAbility quickly and efficiently switched to working virtually because of COVID-19 rather than ending the Fellowship.”

“I’ve come away from this Fellowship with a greater appreciation for the disability rights movement and the amount of effort it’s taken to get things to where they are today,” said Demetrious Lara, a Communications Fellow who graduated from American University this week with a Bachelor of Arts in Communications Studies. He helped with media efforts that led to news stories on SNAP around the country. “The underrepresentation in the media of the disability community is very jarring to me, so I’m happy to have played some small part in demystifying this movement and getting the public at large to recognize the value people with disabilities can bring to the table.”

“The National Leadership Program with RespectAbility was an incredible opportunity that taught me even more about the disability community and the issues it faces today – especially in light of COVID-19 – and helped me to build my advocacy skills through the hands-on learning experience of what it really takes to make a difference,” said Lily Coltoff, a Communications Fellow from Philadelphia who graduated from American University with a bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies and Public Health in December 2019. “The small size of the RespectAbility staff and the tremendous amount of independence given to the Fellows made me feel like I was part of the team and allowed for me to see the impact that I could personally make, first-hand.”

Coltoff researched many issues and published several articles, especially on the importance pf authentic representation in the news and entertainment media, during her Fellowship. Today, she joins many of her peers in looking for jobs during a pandemic where millions of others are also looking for jobs.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-in-four adults in America have a physical, sensory, cognitive, mental health or other disability. But even prior to COVID-19 only a third of them who are of working age had jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to even more people with disabilities being out of work. Lack of employment not only puts people at risk of financial insecurity, but it’s also the leading social determinant of poor health.

“At RespectAbility, we fight the stigmas that keep people with disabilities from finding meaningful work and build the next generation of leaders in the disability community,” said Ben Spangenberg, the director of RespectAbility’s National Leadership program.“This program is win-win for both its participants and the people who hire them later. This group of people offer great skills, passion, contacts and success to any team who brings them on board. If you are looking to hire great talent – look at these talented young leaders!”

Geoff Hoppe, a Communications Fellow who published multiple pieces and contributed on social media efforts remarked, “The Respectability Communications Fellowship was a great opportunity to learn about the inherent diversity of the disabled community, and to produce content that empowers and informs that community.” Hoppe has a B.A. from the University of Notre Dame, and M.A.’s in English literature from the University of Virginia, and Southern Methodist University. He has expertise in both teaching and content marketing.

Natalie Dunaway, a recent graduate from Virginia Tech, served as a Public Policy Fellow who published extensive research during her Fellowship. She said, “I have learned a lot about the amazing work of the disability community.” Dunaway is looking to become a better ally to people with disabilities by expanding her knowledge of disability public policy, which she did during this Fellowship.

Liam Itgen, a Nonprofit Management Fellow, is a junior at Temple University, where he is majoring in political science. He participated in the RespectAbility Fellowship through The Washington Center program. After he completes his undergraduate degree, he plans to pursue a law degree. “My time at RespectAbility has been eye opening,” he said. “I have learned a great deal about disability advocacy in an intimate way. I will make sure to take these lessons and apply them to everything I end up doing.”

This class is part of more than 175 graduates of RespectAbility’s National Leadership Program. Congratulations to the newest class:

In the COVID-19 climate, the Fellowship is restructuring to not only accept those in the early stages of their careers but also is for people with disabilities who have lost their jobs during the pandemic and currently are seeking new opportunities.

The new National Apprenticeship Program includes three cohorts of Apprentices – fall, spring and summer. Due to COVID-19, there will be a very limited virtual Summer 2020 cohort. We now are accepting rolling applications for the Summer and Fall 2020 Cohorts, both of which will be virtual. To learn more about the program or to apply, visit

Zoom meeting with RespectAbility Staff and Fellows smiling. All staff members have backgrounds that say THANK YOU FELLOWS on them.

Meet the Author

Lauren Appelbaum

Lauren Appelbaum is the Vice President, Communications, of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for and with people with disabilities, and managing editor of The RespectAbility Report, a publication at the intersection of disability and politics. Previously she was a digital researcher with the NBC News political unit. As an individual with an acquired invisible disability - Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy - she writes about the intersection of disability, employment, Hollywood and politics. From entertainment professionals to presidential campaigns, journalists to philanthropists, she conducts trainings on the why and how to be more inclusive and accessible. Behind the scenes in the entertainment industry, Appelbaum engages decision makers and creatives to improve the quality and number of authentic, diverse and inclusive presentations of people with disabilities on TV and film so audiences can see people with disabilities as vital contributors in America and around the world. She and her team have consulted on projects with Amazon, Disney/ABC Television, NBCUniversal, Netflix, and The Walt Disney Studios, among others. Appelbaum also enriches the pool of disabled talent in Hollywood by nurturing and connecting them to those who can assist with their careers, both on the creative and business sides of the industry. She is the author of The Hollywood Disability Inclusion Toolkit, which was created to help entertainment professionals to be as inclusive of people with disabilities as possible, and the creator of an innovative Lab Program for entertainment professionals with disabilities working behind the camera. To reach her, email

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