In The News

Continuing ADA25

This article appeared in Streetwise on July 19, 2016. You may access the original article here.

If you have attended the Millennium Park Tuesday film series this summer, then you have been a beneficiary of English subtitles provided for people with limited hearing.

The subtitles are just one legacy of ADA25 Chicago, a yearlong initiative in 2015 that leveraged the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to expand inclusion in metro Chicago. A federal law passed in 1990, the ADA is civil rights legislation for people with disabilities, so that they can live their lives to the fullest. It’s a shift away from the old viewpoint that people with disabilities should be shunned, institutionalized, pitied, taken care of by others, or cured.

ADA25 Chicago is continuing with four main programs intended to make the Chicago region the most inclusive in the U.S.:

• ADA25 Advancing Leadership, which is designed to increase civic engagement of people with disabilities.
• Chicagoland Business Leadership Network, to help employers learn how to gain a competitive advantage from hiring people with disabilities.
• The Chicago Cultural Accessibility Consortium, to expand access to museum exhibits, events and performances regardless of hearing, sight, or mobility disabilities.
• Inclusiveness self-evaluation for non-profits and other organizations with a guide, “Renewing the Commitment,” published by The Chicago Community Trust and available for download at ADA25

The ADA does not tell how to accomplish equal opportunity for everyone, but allows flexibility in light of finances and practicality.

ADA25 Advancing Leadership addresses two needs: the pipeline of qualified people to serve on non-profit and civic boards; and, the perception of many people with disabilities that they lack access to networks for leadership positions.

Among ADA25 Advancing Leadership inaugural fellows, Kaney O’Neill was appointed to the Open Communities board and Stephanie Anderson is the new assistant principal of Vaughn High School. Sam Knight and Clark Craig have joined housing work groups for the Illinois Department of Human Rights. Kevin Knabe is working on a partnership with DeafTEC to introduce deaf students to STEM careers. Tanya Friese and Jose Mendez hosted a Chicago Community Trust “On the Table” roundtable May 10 on disability and the LBGTQ community.
O’Neill, Knight and Craig have mobility disabilities; Anderson has low vision and Knabe has hearing issues. Friese, a veteran and a nurse who teaches nursing at Rush University, has a non-apparent disability while Mendez has cerebral palsy and thus mobility issues.

Officials purposely sought to create a group of fellows that was diversified racially, ethnically, professionally and geographically, said Emily Harris, who is executive director of ADA25 Chicago Advancing Leadership and also senior director at the Chicago Community Trust. The program, which included a 3½-day retreat, networking and quarterly education, was targeted to “emerging leaders,” generally with seven to 10 years of experience in leadership roles. However, it attracted people who were much farther along in their careers and who had acquired their disabilities later in life, Harris said.

“They said, ‘we really want to be a part of this. While we already have a lot of ability and leadership, we are exploring our new identity as a person with a disability and what that means in a leadership context.’ That was a surprise for us: an ‘A-ha moment’ to be broader in the context of the criteria for who participates.”
Next year, ADA Advancing Leadership will have its second class of fellows. Applicants should have five to 10 years of leadership or management experience, whether in community organizations, in school, or in professional occupations. Applications are available at and the deadline is August 31.

The Chicagoland Business Leadership Network (CBLN) is also continuing past 2015 to expand hiring of people with disabilities, whose recent rate of employment in Illinois was less than 35 percent. Supported by the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, its first annual Disability Inclusion Summit last November 17 attracted more than 275 community and business leaders and professionals, who heard speakers on topics such a “Hiring Do’s and Don’ts,” “ADA Overview” and “Creating a Culture of Inclusion in the Workplace.” A similar summit is planned for this year.

Charter partners of the CBLN include AT&T, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, Comcast NBCUniversal, McDonalds and the University of Phoenix. Sustaining partners include Allstate, Baxalta, Baxter, BMO Harris Bank, Deloitte, Discover Financial Services, Grainger, Grant Thornton, Hyatt, InQUEST, KPMG, Northern Trust, Manpower and Walgreens Boots Alliance.

Aside from the open captioning at the Millennium Park film series, members of the Chicago Cultural Accessibility Consortium have created theater set “touch tours” and “audio description” for people with low vision. For the latter, a narrator describes stage sets and directions (“Phil sits down and scratches his nose”) over headphones without stepping on the dialogue.

“We are surprised at the level of enthusiasm we continue to hear about how having ADA25Chicago made a difference in elevating the conversation about disability in organizations,” Harris said. “We got great responses from people in our follow-up survey that ‘this was important to us in the past but now it is really a priority.’”

The Illinois Humanities (IH) website, for example, has long expressed its commitment to accessibility, but now the organization is trying to be more proactive in three ways, said Mark Hallett, program manager, grants and partnerships. First, IH has had ASL interpreters and people to help with mobility at its own events. It has supported public conversations around accessibility, such as one about special ed in Chicago Public Schools. And, its grants have supported solid work done by people with disabilities, with space for grant applicants to say how they could also make their public humanities program or dialogue more accessible to audiences.

The Chicago History Museum had readily accommodated people with mobility issues and had subtitled films in exhibition since 2000. Since a focus group several summers ago for people with low vision, it had also begun to provide large-print booklets in special exhibitions.

However, “ADA25 Chicago motivated us to begin our verbal imaging initiative,” said CHM Director of Exhibitions Tamara Biggs. “We now offer quarterly verbal imaging tours of ‘Chicago: Crossroads of America’ and are set to begin developing a verbal imaging tour of “Lincoln’s Undying Words,” to be launched in October.”
In honor of the ADA’s 25th anniversary, CHM President Gary Johnson also signed the ADA “pledge,” whereby the museum “celebrates and recognizes the progress that has been made by reaffirming the principles of equality and inclusion and recommitting our efforts to reach full ADA compliance.”