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Craig H. Neilsen Foundation Grant Funds Organization to Enable People with Spinal Cord Injuries to Advance Their Careers While Advocating for Others

Roque Renteria with his dog on his lap. Roque is a wheelchair user.Washington, D.C., October 9 – A grant from the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation supporting RespectAbility’s virtual National Leadership Fellowship will provide four exceptionally talented adults with spinal cord injuries (SCI) with intensive training to foster advance opportunities for the SCI community in public policy, civic engagement and the film and television industry.

Even before the pandemic, only 27 percent of people with spinal cord injuries were employed 10 years after injury. With more than 358,000 people living with spinal cord injuries in the United States, RespectAbility works to create opportunities so people with spinal cord injury can succeed in their chosen career.

This project was awarded through the Neilsen Foundation’s Creating Opportunity & Independence (CO&I) portfolio’s one-year Community Support Grants. This portfolio supports organizations that provide programs and services that enhance the quality of life for individuals with SCI.

RespectAbility, a nonpartisan nonprofit that fights stigmas and advances opportunities so people with disabilities can fully participate in all aspects of community, will administer this initiative as a part of its proven National Leadership Program. These four Apprentices will take part in an advanced training program that will provide the skills necessary for careers advancing diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. They also will be involved in several projects in the entertainment industry to reduce stigmas and long-standing barriers that prevent people with disabilities from obtaining employment.

“This program will give opportunities to so many deserving young adults with SCI,” said Ben Spangenberg, RespectAbility’s national leadership program director. “Thanks to the Neilsen Foundation, our organization will pay individuals who otherwise would not be able to accept an unpaid internship.”

Last year RespectAbility released a major report that showed that most nonprofit organizations do not include many people with disabilities on their staff or lay leadership. The study also showed that they are not responsive enough to the accessibility and program needs of the 1-in-4 adults in America who live with some form of physical, sensory, cognitive, mental health or other disability.

“Thanks to the Neilsen Foundation, talented leaders with disabilities will be able to have a seat at decision making tables where they will be able to advance opportunities for people with and without disabilities alike,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility.

“Thirty years after the establishment of the Americans with Disabilities Act, employment continues to be among the greatest barriers for people with SCI,” said Jane Otto, a CO&I Program Officer. “Meaningful work and gainful employment are vital to one’s quality of life; the Neilsen Foundation is proud to partner with RespectAbility as a means to foster leadership in the SCI community at large.”

Programs such as RespectAbility’s Fellowship are an important piece to solving America’s disability employment problem. Today, only 20.6 percent of working-age people with disabilities are in the workforce and just seven percent of people born with a disability graduate from college. Comparatively, 67 percent of people without disabilities are currently in the workforce. RespectAbility’s Fellowship offers much needed job readiness skills to people with disabilities, so they can compete in our tough job market.

To find out more and apply, go to If you have any questions, contact Ben Spangenberg at or (202) 517-6272.

About the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation

The Craig H. Neilsen Foundation is the largest private funder of spinal cord injury research, rehabilitation, clinical training, and programmatic support in the United States and Canada. The Foundation partners with scientific, charitable and educational organizations conducting spinal cord injury research, training in spinal cord medicine, and supports grassroots organizations providing services to assist individuals affected by spinal cord injury. Drawing ongoing inspiration from its founder, the Foundation is dedicated to a future where individuals with spinal cord injuries live full and productive lives as active participants in their communities.

Meet the Author

Lauren Appelbaum
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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