Lunch Keynote Speaker

LOU ANN BLAKE: Thank you all so much. Once again, here to introduce our keynote speaker is President of the National Federation of the Blind, Mark Riccobono. 

MARK RICCOBONO: Thank you, Lou Ann. And  a really great first panel, stimulated a lot of thoughts. Voting is such an important topic, and we've done so much work on this in the last couple of years, especially, it's just so important. So I'm glad we kicked it off with that, because it's really important stuff. 

This morning, I indicated that movements are driven by ordinary people seeking to overcome extraordinary barriers. And the question of whether or not movements shaped their people into extraordinary leaders, or extraordinary leaders make movements powerful, is one that's been posed to me a number of times, and something I think about -- as an aside, I think it's an "and", not an "or", but it's an interesting question. 

This comes to mind this afternoon, because our next present er is an individual who has overcome extraordinary obstacles in her own work. She now leads in her professional capacity and in her volunteer leadership in the organized blind movement. Her leadership is shaped by her ordinary, everyday, yet unique lived experiences. What makes her extraordinary is that she uses her own lived experiences as a guide for understanding the lived experiences of others, and in her advocacy work, to make sure that the dignity and respect of all people is honored. That takes true commitment, real strength, and deep intellectual energy in a time when polarization feels like mostly the default reaction by many Americans. 

Let me pause to say that I use the word "ordinary" to note that all of us have a core of limited -- of lived life experiences that are very valuable contributions to society. 

However, not all of us use those lived experiences as a tool for teaching as well as a tool for continuous improvement in our own lives. 

I believe that that's a line where people cross over into doing that, that they are able to make extraordinary contributions to the things that they're involved with. And the keynote speaker this afternoon is one of those individuals. I could read you her bio and tell you about her professional work as director of EEO Compliance for CMS, or about her volunteer leadership in the organized blind movement. But I know you all are perfectly capable of reading that for yourselves later on. 

I could also tell you about her many intersecting characteristics and how I think that has shaped the extraordinary person that she is today, but that's really her story to tell, not mine. 

What I do want to share with you is from my own lived experience as a cisgender white male who happens to be blind, and because of that last characteristic, I've had the great fortune to link arms with Ms. Othman in the organized blind movement. When it comes to advocating around disability rights and so many other areas, Ms. Othman brings a unique blend of background, training, and experience to the disability rights movement and the work that we do. 

More importantly, she brings a heart that seeks to get it right even when it hurts from others getting it wrong. She is a fierce advocate, as I have personal experience to know! And have appreciated the learning and perspective that she has provided to me in my leadership capacity. 

But also, she possesses the openness to listen, adapt, learn, and grow in her own work. Ordinary people become extraordinary contributors to movements because they have the ability to use their lived experience to teach and to learn. 

We're fortunate to have this extraordinary woman as our teacher this afternoon for our lunch keynote. We benefit from having her as a contributor in the disability rights space, and we're proud to have her as a leader and advocate in the organized blind movement, and I'm blessed to call her a friend and significant contributor to my own growth as a leader. I hope that you will come to know her in that same way that I have had the opportunity to do here. Here for our lunch keynote is Ms. Ronza Othman! 

RONZA OTHMAN: Wow. Thank you SO very much for that incredible introduction! I was like, "who's he talking about?" (Laughing). So, thank you, President Riccobono. As President Riccobono shared, I'm Ronza Othman, my pronouns are she/her, and I'm a brown woman wearing a burgundy top and black hijab, which is a religious head covering. 

The past two years having difficult times with the pandemic changing how we live, work, and play. We've seen political polarization expand to the things that we once agreed upon as a society are now weaponized by one side against another. 

We have experienced natural disasters at a higher rate of alarming frequency. We have a potential war in Europe with the potential to become the largest in a generation. We have seen refugees flee in droves from Afghanistan, Syria, Mexico, Ukraine, and so many others, and yet because of the work that people with disabilities and their allies have done in these and so many other spaces to advance inclusion, we are living in a time where I have never been more hopeful about the possibilities for people with disabilities than ever before. 

Some say the pandemic exacerbated political polarization. Some say the pandemic made it harder to safeguard against and respond to natural disasters. Some say political polarization exacerbated the pandemic. Some say political polarization made it harder to safeguard against and respond to natural disasters. Some say natural disasters exacerbated the pandemic. Some say natural disasters caused an increase in political polarization. 

I'll leave it to historians and sociologists to decide which came first, the chicken or the egg. All I know is that one group of people who are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, political polarization, and natural disasters are those with disabilities. 

A commonly accepted statistic is that there are more than 1 billion people in the world with disabilities. Let's put that into context if we can. That means that roughly 1 out of every 7 people has a disability. My parents had 7 children, and I'm the one out of 7 with a disability. I have a visible disability in that I am blind, but in my family, I have other siblings with disabilities, too. Their disabilities are invisible, though, and so the world doesn't necessarily recognize them as people with disabilities. The widely accepted statistic is that 1 billion people in the world has a disability, but I bet it is a much higher number. 

People don't necessarily disclose their disabilities for a host of reasons, not the least of which is the stigma around disability. Despite my willingness to bet it is a much higher number, data says that 1 in 7 people likely have a disability in the world. That means in a class of 30 first-graders, more than 4 kids have a disability. In a graduating high school class of 500, 72 kids have a disability. In a federal agency like mine with 80,000 employees, 11,432 of them likely have a disability. In the United States, more than 48 million people have a disability. So why, then, with people with disabilities at such a significant percentage of the population, is our community disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, political polarization, and natural disasters? The short answer is it is likely that stigma, that misunderstanding that permeates society with respect to people with disabilities, that stigma, that fundamental misunderstanding of what our capabilities are, our devaluation in society, that led a prominent health care official to say that it was a "win" for America that "most of the people who were dying of COVID-19 were people with disabilities". 

It is that attitude that led the federal government to forget to consider people with disabilities in emergency preparedness and response such that Hurricane Katrina was one of our community's most devastating disasters in history. 

Many supports that we rely on to live in the world, like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and special education services are viewed as social welfare programs that liberals champion. How often have... how often do we now hear about the efforts to weaken the Americans with Disabilities Act, despite the fact that it is more than 30 years old? How many of us have heard that the people who need these programs and protections are a burden on the rest of society? How many times have we been told that these programs and protections that are meant to level the playing field for us, given our unemployment rate of over 50%, given the various physical and altitudinal barriers do we face every day, despite the fact that most people if given the choice would not want these protections and programs? 

I'm a Palestinian refugee, and my family came to the United States and lost our home because of war. I identify as female. I'm an English language learner whose first language is Arabic. I wear a hijab, I'm a Muslim woman. I have anxiety and am a cancer survivor.  These are my intersectional identities. I identify as a first generation Palestinian American woman who is an English language learner and has multiple invisible disabilities. I have used English language learning services and vocational rehabilitation programs. I don't need those programs any longer. They helped me access the American education system, pay for housing, cover medical expenses, and live in the world. Because of those programs, I'm now an attorney overseeing a staff of attorneys running a multimillion dollar program, managing a disability advocacy nonprofit, and spending my free time reading romance novels in English! 

These intersectionalities matter. They shape how I live, how I work, and how I play in the world. For example, because I am Muslim, I'm going to experience, quote, random, unquote, extra screening at the airport pretty much every single time I travel. I can't just quietly suffer the indignity of religious profiling like other Muslims, though, because the fact that I am blind means I have to communicate differently with TSA, and TSA has to communicate differently with me. They can't signal me visually for a patdown or the invasive body scanner. Because it is common to speak loudly to blind people, because society thinks somehow that when our eyes don't work, that impacts our ears, I often have the TSA agents shout my business. Because I need the TSA agents to understand that I can't follow their nonvisual cues, I have to verbally disclose my disability every. single time I travel. Even though my long white cane should have been a visual indication to them already. It's humiliating as a Muslim. But it's doubly humiliating and demoralizing as a person with a disability. 

Now, I worked for the department of Homeland Security, and I was responsible for helping with disability and religious inclusion efforts in a post-Katrina world. I know that people are our greatest triumph and also our greatest struggle. People bring their whole selves to work, including misconceptions and stereotypes. Regardless of what training we mandate, policies we implement, behavior we model, people will still default to their factory settings in times of distress. Maybe that's a hurricane. Maybe that's a busy time at the airport. Our mission, therefore, is to write the factory settings so that inclusion is embedded into how all people operate in all situations, including under stress. 

Yet, as we as a government and a society responded to hurricanes, fires, floods, and the unaccompanied children crisis, disability was no longer an afterthought. I'll be the first to say there is still a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done in the area of disability access when it comes to natural disasters. But in the current world, at least in the United States, disability is embedded in the planning and response efforts related to disasters. As I worked with my colleagues on the unaccompanied children crisis, I was relieved to note that disability accommodations, language interpretation services, and other supports were baked into our response strategy. 

I have no doubt that we'll use the lessons learned from these experiences to be more proactive about disability inclusion in the future, and to make sure we never have a disaster that has the horrific consequences for people with disabilities that Katrina did. 

We've also started to recode the factory settings for humankind when it comes to disability during the pandemic. 

Think about how we as a society moved so much of our work to our virtual environment seemingly overnight. Think about how productivity stayed steady, in many instances, and increased in others. Telework was prior to the pandemic a concept that many employers resisted as reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. And in the blink of an eye, telework became the norm. In my job, I supervise dozens of people. On a Friday afternoon in March, 2020, we sent people home and told them to work remotely for probably two weeks while the pandemic calmed down. Two years later, I have shifted the majority of the team to full remote work and that will be the reality post pandemic. Many employers have shifted to telework or a hybrid model. My staff works harder than we did onsite, and we work hard for opportunities for virtual socialization and development in the team work space. Do we miss the daily stand-up meeting to talk about who was voted off on the Dancing with the Stars last night, or the most annoying person on Love is Blind, or what we did over the weekend? Yes, we did, until we replicated it in the virtual environment. Did we miss the random chats about nothing work related that build relationships as we walked across campus to another building? Yes, but we created that environment in other ways, like monthly trivia contests or daily sunshine e-mails that contained tidbits about what makes us who we are as people? Did we struggle with Zoom fatigue? Yes, so we created policies like Monday meeting moratorium and Time limit Fridays. We decided line of sight supervision is an outdated management process that is not inclusive of people with disabilities and those who have to wear religious head coverings and others. 
And in all of these cases, we talked about what would work with all of us to ensure our interactions were meaningful and adapt our corporate culture accordingly. We negotiated these changes among the group and were willing to experiment. 

In some cases, we failed epically, like the team-building sing-along on Zoom. In other cases, we were able to leverage creativity to ban meetings on Mondays! In my spare time, I serve as the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland. Our organization was impacted by the pandemic at first. We closed our physical offices and sent our staff home for their safety. This was particularly challenging since much of the work our staff performed was hands-on work and live reading for leaders who are not technologically comfortable. We also had many members who, due to lack of access, lack of training, or a whole host of other reasons couldn't shift to virtual meetings and events. 

We worked to ensure that while simultaneously using Zoom as our platform for meetings due to built-in accessibility features, we also used low-technology solutions, for example, we procured a direct-dial conference line number that we then three-way conferenced into our Zoom meetings. So many members can't access Zoom directly due to the technology gap or because there are so many numbers, the conference number, the 9 or 10 digit meeting ID and 6 digit passcode. For the first time, however, blind people were hosting the meeting, running the platform, even teaching nondisabled people the technology. For some, Zoom was the great equalizer, and for others it was one more thing that shut them out of the conversation. Our challenge, therefore, became to incorporate the high-tech and no-tech solutions in an inclusive and equitable way. The workforce has begun to do this in many ways. Even the film industry has figured out they can maximize the audience by showing movies in theaters as well as streaming for those who are not able to be out in the world. 

As restrictions ease on masking, capacity, and social distancing, once again our community is disproportionately impacted. I as a cancer survivor am immunocompromised. While I felt somewhat safe being in public spaces while people were masking, capacity was capped, and social distancing was observed, I'm terrified as to what will happen as soon as people stop taking those precautions. The virus is still potentially lethal to me, to my father as a kidney failure patient, and my mom, a diabetic. That means my parents and I will have to bear the responsibility of taking extra precautions, and that means we'll be forced out of the world and back into our home just to stay safe. We too have a right to live in the world. People with disabilities have a right to live in the world. Living doesn't mean staying home while the rest of the world goes out. 

It doesn't mean people with disabilities are the last to be considered with regard to emergency preparedness and response from natural disasters and other emergencies. It doesn't mean the resources we depend on to level the playing field are weaponized or used as a political football. 
It means we've learned from the pandemic that people with disabilities can lead, can teach, can be self-reliant. That means that we've learned that we can apply those skills to a post-pandemic world. We've learned in the pandemic that alterations to the way work is customarily done, like telework, can be adopted for most workers, and productivity won't suffer. Now remote work is a best practice and a way of work in many fields. Telehealth, which was inconceivable just a few years ago, is now a new norm. This notion of "I have to physically see you, be in the same physical space with you", is no longer an accepted truth. 
It means we, in the disability community, keep insisting that we be heard. We keep pushing into spaces, to lean on innovative problem solving. It means we share our lived experiences to give a human face to our struggle, and when we're tired of carrying the weight that is inherent in advocacy, because let's just admit that it's exhausting doing this work while simultaneously struggling to live, work, and play in this world that isn't built to include us -- we implement Take a Break Tuesdays to reset and recharge. It is the disability community, our allies, and those who work in the disability space that drive so much change in this world.

Think about it. People with disabilities have been reimagining life, work, and play for generations. Each of us problem-solves 100 different things before even getting to work in the morning. Each of us is innovative, flexible, and tenacious. We led, even during the pandemic, when many of us were at too great a risk to move about our communities. We led the fight to protect the ADA and social supports to help us overcome physical and attitudinal barriers to participation in society. We led the effort on disability inclusion in the emergency preparedness and response space. We insist on using our collective and individual voices to effectuate inclusion for ourselves and each other. We bring our lived experiences as people with disabilities and other intersectalities to shape our world. Disability allies, including those who work in the disability space, are also critical to our inclusion in the world. Sometimes this might take the form of litigating a case. Other times it might include challenging stereotypes and implicit bias. Sometimes it might involve something as simple as telling someone that a person with a disability can speak for themselves rather than answering the question that was directed at the person standing next to them. 
Sometimes it might involve making this space accessible, reminding an event organizer about audio description or sign language interpreters, using plain language in correspondence. 

During this incredibly difficult time of pandemic, political polarization, and natural disasters, the work of people with disabilities and disability allies to ensure that we can independently, safely, and equitably live in the world has been remarkable. 

I can't wait to see what we and our allies do moving forward. 
Thank you. 

LOU ANN BLAKE: Thank you so much, Ronza, that was wonderful. And now the whole disability world knows about Ronza Othman, and I'm afraid we will be forever losing you to the entire disability world! (Laughing). And not just the blindness community! 
Thank you so much. 

RONZA OTHMAN: Thank you for having me. 

LOU ANN BLAKE: Absolutely. We are so proud of you. We do have some time left remaining in this session. What we can do is we can leave the Zoom room open, and if people would like to network, feel free to do that. If not, we'll close the room and we will see folks back at the first session of workshops at the conclusion of this current session, which was scheduled to end at... 2:10, I believe. 

That's what I was looking for! 

So, feel free to stay, network, and we will see you in the first session of workshops. Consult the agenda in the digital program. There you'll find the Zoom links for each workshop. 

So, thank you! Thank you again, Ronza. 

LOU ANN BLAKE: Those of you still in the room, this is Lou Ann. I'm about to end the meeting, and we'll see you all at the first workshop session starting at 2:20 this afternoon. Thank you.