Julia Lee Harter (she/her), a 2022 Dinah F.B. Cohen DREAM Fellow, interviewed Disability:IN to discuss their disability inclusion resources for corporations. The below article is written by her.
Throughout high school I was labeled as the overachiever. I served as vice president of the National Honor Society, secretary of the Varsity choir, lead in the high school musical and Varsity cheerleader. I relied heavily on these achievements for my self perception. However, things fell apart my senior year of high school. After developing a chronic illness, I struggled to see myself as the same “golden girl.” What had once defined me, my achievements, were gone. I was so afraid of my own illness, that I wouldn’t even call myself disabled or ask for accommodations.
Becoming a NextGen Leader with Disability:IN changed the course of my entire career and helped me feel confident in my identity as a disabled person. I got my first internship after their annual conference working in communications. I discovered that there was a market for writers in the business world, especially when leading disability-centered conversations. I now work my dream job writing for Google. I credit a huge portion of my success to the NextGen program, so I was naturally excited to catch up with Disability:IN’s NextGen Coordinator, Alyse Brewer, and learn how students and recent graduates can get involved.
To start off, can you tell our audience a little bit about Disability:IN?
Disability:IN is a nonprofit organization that works with businesses to invest in advancing disability inclusion. Specifically, we work with corporations—Fortune 100, Fortune 500, and many others— to improve and build out their inclusion initiatives across a variety of programs and one of them is the Next Gen Leaders program which I help facilitate.
That leads perfectly into my next question; can you tell us a little bit about the NextGen program and how it helps college students and early career professionals?
The NextGen Leaders program is mainly at its core a mentorship program. It is six months long and to qualify you have to be a college student or recent graduate with a disability. We also include law students or any other kind of graduate students. So those people are eligible to apply and then if selected to be in the class, you get matched to a mentor who hopefully works in your industry of interest.
What does this mentorship look like?
We try to match mentors based on what field the NextGen Leader is interested in, so that they can use this program as a leg up into what they want to do for their careers. Also, we have monthly webinars focused around career development. This includes resume workshopping, reviewing LinkedIn profiles, disability disclosure and accommodations.
What is the time commitment for selected participants?
It’s a six-month leadership program. We ask mentors to meet twice a month for six months and we have webinars. Additionally, you have an opportunity to apply to attend the Disability:IN Annual Conference, which is called the talent accelerator. That’s about a week of programming and the first few days we prep you and you get to hear from a bunch of different corporate partners around a variety of different career related topics. The actual conference itself is a great opportunity to network and really get to know other corporations and hopefully, you know, we don’t guarantee a job offer out of this program, but we hope that the connections and the information that you learn from the program can be used to kickstart your career.
I actually got my first job offer from the Disability:IN Conference and I know many others who did as well. You were a former NextGen Leader and now have come back to help run the program. What has that experience been like?
I was a NextGen Leader in 2017. I grew up in the Philly area around the suburbs, and we really didn’t have a lot of disabled people near me. I didn’t have much of a community, so going to the conference was my first time really getting to be with both the disability community itself and also businesses, alliances and other partners who have a vested interest in prioritizing disability inclusion.
I went to a small liberal arts school. You know, they would always talk about race, gender, sexuality, and class, and I think those are all really important things, but disability was always left out of the conversation. And disability was the thing that affected my life the most. I was frustrated. So when I got to Disability:IN and when I got to the conference, it was really emotionally changing to be able to see, oh, I don’t have to see my disability as something to be ashamed of or something to hide, but I can use this as an asset in my career.
What kind of success has the program seen so far?
Last year in 2022, we had 325 NextGen Leaders. One of my favorite things is that the demographics are really strong. Not only do every one of our NextGen Leaders identify as disabled, but we also really try to focus on other aspects of diversity. 67% of those 325 were people of color, 22% identified within the LGBT+ community, 45% identified as women, and we have all different industries represented as well.
We’ve had lots of other successes aside from you and me. Last February, I helped a NextGen Leader get an internship at Pfizer. He had been looking for two years. He has a Masters in biomedical sciences and he emailed me saying, “I saw Pfizer’s internships are closed, but if you can put me in contact with someone there, I would absolutely love to talk to them.” And there just happened to be a contact from Pfizer in my inbox that day and I connected them. Two weeks later, he had an internship. It’s things like that that are game-changing and life-changing.
Do you have any advice for disabled folks that are making that transition into the workforce or are looking to make that transition?
It sounds cheesy, but I’d say don’t give up. One of the things that I get a lot of questions about is if applicants should disclose their disability. My advice is dependent on where you are in your own disability journey and how you feel about that identity, but for me, I came upon this personal reckoning when I realized I was going to always check that box that yes I have a disability because if they decided they didn’t want me because I was disabled, I wouldn’t want to work with them anyway. So it kind of has to be a mutual yes. Not only do you need to seek out work, but you want to feel comfortable working with your company. I think it’s important to have the power to seek jobs you like and that fit your needs.
Want to learn more or participate in the NextGen Leaders Program?
If you think this program might help you like it helped Alyse and I, check out the NextGen Leaders web page. If you want to sign up, Disability:IN generally seeks applications in late Fall each year.