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Fellows Blog Series

Seizing Opportunities

Lessons from Eleanor Clift on Being the Underdog

Eleanor Clift and RespectAbility Fellows standing and seated in a posed photograph, smiling for the camera

Eleanor Clift with RespectAbility Fellows and Staff

Rockville, Md., June 28 – Eleanor Clift never aspired to be in a position where her words could influence a large audience’s opinion. However, when the opportunity arose for her to become the amazing reporter she is today, she did not pass it up.

Clift was a product of her generation where “if you were a girl, you aspired to be a homemaker, teacher, or nurse.”

Rather than constrict Clift’s development, the lack of expectations for girls her age served to give Clift a feeling of freedom to explore new opportunities. Initially Clift was a secretary for Newsweek. However, despite her sense of contentment in her secretarial position at Newsweek, she embraced new challenges and accepted the opportunity to cover presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, another underestimated underdog in society who proved the majority wrong. Since then, Clift has authored multiple books, reported for many publications and appeared in several talk shows and movies.

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Cohesive, Consistent Messaging

Learning Effective Advocacy Strategies with Lisa Thomas of the American Federation of Teachers

Lisa Thomas and RespectAbility Fellows standing and seated in a posed photograph, smiling for the camera

Lisa Thomas with RespectAbility Fellows and Staff

Rockville, Md., June 28 – “The lack of cohesive, consistent messaging is the Achilles heel of the disability community,” Dr. Lisa Thomas told a group of RespectAbility Fellows earlier this month. “We do have competing priorities.”

Thomas, the Associate Director and Special Education Policy Analyst at the American Federation of Teachers, spoke about strategies and tactics advocating for employment of people with disabilities. Fully one-in-five Americans have a disability and polls show that most of them want to work. However, of the 22-million working-age people with disabilities, only one-in-three are employed. This leads to poverty and costs taxpayers billions of dollars in disability benefits.

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Living Beyond the Superficial

A Conversation with Renowned Journalist Cal Thomas

Cal Thomas and RespectAbility Fellows standing and seated in a posed photograph, smiling for the camera

Cal Thomas with RespectAbility Fellows and Staff

Rockville, Md., June 28 – During his talk with RespectAbility Fellows last week, Cal Thomas, a renowned journalist, celebrated author and Fox News contributor, proclaimed, “A cheerful spirit stands out like a rose in the snowstorm; people want to be around happy people.”

Thomas’ words sparked my excitement and inspiration instantly. I wanted to be that one red rose amongst all of the snow, the optimist amongst all of the pessimists in the workforce today.

His comparison unveils a truth most of us often overlook. We tend to believe that our current job, school/college and skillset make or break our careers. Thomas believes those things are important but explained that true success and opportunity come from our character and the impact we leave with others.

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Finding Luck and Opportunity in the Midst of Disability

Learning from Ron Drach, Combat Veteran Wounded in the Vietnam War

Ron Drach and RespectAbility Fellows standing and seated in a posed photograph, smiling for the camera

Ron Drach with RespectAbility Fellows and Staff

Rockville, Md., June 26 – Earlier this month, the RespectAbility Fellows had the privilege of hearing from Ron Drach, a combat veteran wounded in the Vietnam War. Drach says he’s lucky to have survived his wounds.

“If I could sum up the beginning of my career in two words, they would be luck and opportunity,” Drach said. “I got injured in 1967, and I’m lucky because I have survived.”

Getting injured in 1967 provided him with what he considered “to be a “luck job,” because it led to a job offer with the Disabled American Veterans (DAV).

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Choosing to Laugh

A Conversation with Jewish Disability Inclusion Champion Steve Rakitt

Steve Rakitt and RespectAbility Fellows standing and seated in a posed photograph, smiling for the camera

Steve Rakitt with RespectAbility Fellows and Staff

Rockville, Md., June 26 – Steve Rakitt’s journey to becoming the champion of Jewish disability inclusion began with a single decision to laugh.

Rakitt grew up not viewing his hearing loss as a disability, to which he credits his mother’s incessant support and activism toward the inclusion of Rakitt and his brother. Rakitt viewed his external hearing aid as merely a fashion statement. However, one day the children in his sixth grade classroom decided to communally hum and laugh at Rakitt in an attempt to disrupt his hearing aid and cause him distress. Instead of being offended, Rakitt simply “chose to laugh.” In that singular moment, his life became about who he was as an individual, not letting himself be defined by his disability.

Now, he is preparing to become the new President of the Genesis Prize Foundation. This was preceded by his current position as the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. In this position, he has championed the disability inclusion movement coinciding with his personal admission of hearing loss.

It was not until Rakitt became the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington that he felt comfortable to publically discuss his disability and become the champion for Jewish inclusion in the Greater Washington community.

“Whatever discomfort I originally had about my disability was overpowered by the responsibility I had to reach out and make people aware of a community that hasn’t gotten attention,” Rakitt said while speaking to the Summer 2017 class of RespectAbility Fellows.

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Understanding Intersectionality and Self-Advocacy

Learning from Disability Diva Donna Walton

Donna Walton and RespectAbility Fellows standing and seated in a posed photograph, smiling for the camera

Donna Walton with RespectAbility Fellows and Staff

Rockville, Md., June 12 – When Donna Walton walked into the RespectAbility office, she greeted us with a radiant smile and embraced me a warm hug. A champion for empowering women with disabilities, Walton brought an air of confidence and acceptance that could be felt by everyone in the room.

An engaging story-teller, Walton unfolded the obstacles she had to endure to become who she is today – a leader in the fight for the respect and dignity she believes all people deserve, especially African American women with disabilities. After losing her leg to osteogenic sarcoma in 1976, she described her need “to ensure that individuals like myself would not endure the trajectory of experiences I had lived.”

Walton is the president of LEGGTalk, Inc., which provides resources for individuals in transitional stages and strives to empower individuals to conquer their personal limitations and help them succeed. She also created the Divas With Disabilities Project, which has a goal of helping to shape the perception of what “disability” looks like by promoting women of color through various media platforms.

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What’s Your Goal?

Advice on Connecting with People from AIPAC Strategist Jonathan Kessler

Jonathan Kessler and RespectAbility Fellows standing and seated in a posed photograph, smiling for the camera

Jonathan Kessler with RespectAbility Fellows and Staff

Rockville, Md., June 9 – “It’s not about how the cards are dealt, it’s about how you play them,” Jonathan Kessler told RespectAbility fellows on Wednesday.

Many of us RespectAbility fellows have had considerable medical and physical obstacles to overcome, but it’s people like Kessler who help us find our voice. He made it clear that the defining feature of his life journey was developing personal connections and relationships with other people. As the Director of Strategic Initiatives for AIPAC, there is no need to be modest about Kessler’s influence in Washington and America, but he didn’t come to talk about himself; he came to help make us sharper advocates.

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Thinking Outside The Box

A Conversation with Ami Aronson of The Bernstein Family Foundation

Ami Aronson and RespectAbility Fellows standing and seated in a posed photograph, smiling for the camera

Ami Aronson with RespectAbility Fellows and Staff

Rockville, Md., June 8 – As her husband often says, Ami Aronson never thinks outside of the box; she never even knew the box existed.

En route to her current position as the Executive Director for the Bernstein Family Foundation (BFF), Aronson embarked on a circuitous journey. From her work at a refugee camp in Thailand, to tackling issues of sex trafficking in Nepal, to running the Women’s AIDS Network in San Francisco, Aronson has served as a champion for women and children alike with the self-proclaimed mantra of viewing life as a journey; one with no endgame or stopping point, but rather a continuous exploration of the world with a deep desire to have social impact.

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