Leadership Institute Blog / “Image and Access to Opportunity: Empowerment of People with Disabilities” by Maria Dickinson


On this memorable date (12/12/12) I had another memorable gathering with my classmates and our tutor and mentor Todd Fry, to talk about a very pressing issue: “People with Disabilities.” As I was preparing for the class and looking over some great reading materials provided by Todd, I kept thinking about why I rarely think about this issue?  The quickest answer that crossed my mind was “people with disabilities are often overlooked and not part of our daily lives” (unless you have a family member who’s disabled).  Later on, I came to the realization that the majority of these individuals become hidden in group homes, day-care-centers, mental institutions, and shelters.

My classmates and I spent most of that morning on an “observation” exercise where we got the opportunity to meet several organizations whose mission is to provide support to people with a wide range of physical and mental disabilities. By visiting these places we were able to meet “face- to–face”, not only with the management staff but also with the clients they serve. I would like to highlight a particular organization located in Lawrence:  “Citizen’s League for Adult Special Services” (CLASS Inc.).  A special thank you to Robert Harris (President  & CEO) and Nancy Kieran (Director of Development) for having us! CLASS Inc. has been in existence for over 30 years and started out as a “grassroots” movement by proactive parents and families of children with disabilities located in the Merrimack Valley. Their mission was to provide their loved ones in need with a “homelike” place where they could learn, socialize, and become integrated into the workforce.  Thirty years later, CLASS Inc. continues to expand their educational, cultural, recreational, and workforce development opportunities to approximately 400 clients on a yearly-basis. During my visit, I had the pleasure to meet one of their clients, a wonderful young man who became very talkative during our group chat and told me that he was very determined to learn how to rock climb at the local YMCA. Recently, he had taken horseback riding classes and he was very good at it! He puts me to shame, I thought!  I am afraid of heights, so no rock climbing for me…and even though I love horses, according to my doctor, I have severe allergies to them, horseback riding is out of the picture too – so who’s impaired here?

In the afternoon, the full class met in Lawrence at the Merrimack Valley Federal Credit Union– many thanks to classmate Tony Marino for hosting! Great lunch and meeting room! Todd asked us to regroup and reflect on what we have seen and heard from each of the organizations visited within the past 2 months and identify the “innovation” and the “thinking outside the box” key features.

Throughout our group’s discussion, it was much easier at first to identify “barriers” to innovation within these organizations, i.e.: lack of funding, lack of staffing, inadequate physical space; clients and providers “working the system” by taking advantage of government subsidies and programs…By switching to the large group discussion, I’ve realized that some of these obstacles can become the helms for innovation: how to do more with less? There’s this moment of need that spurs creativity and collaboration resulting in more effective management of resources and the empowerment of clients served.

CLASS Inc. is on the right track for being innovative and empowering both their clients and their families. Here is their motto: “Redefining what’s possible for people with disabilities” isn’t just showing their clients their true potential (by engaging them in the workforce, allowing them to participate in arts, or sports activities) but more importantly, by teaching their families and the community how to embrace them. An example is the implementation of the “President’s Club” within this organization, whereby, members of each class elect a president and every month all presidents meet with senior staff to address problems and discuss possible solutions. CLASS Inc.  thrives to listen to their clients and adjust their curriculum to meet their needs- a key factor that we found on our group discussion to be important in leadership: being a good listener! Another great example in leadership is the collaboration andpartnership with other community based organizations (i.e. YMCA) to involve their clients in the community. They also effectively manage their limited resources by tapping into other available resources outside of the organization.

Living in this Revolutionary Age of progressive technology and remarkable advances in medicine, there’s no excuse for not providing people with physical disabilities with a very “normal life”…Mental disability on the other hand, is a broader definition, becoming a very complex subject that I won’t be discussing here…No matter what type of disability, the most common and biggest obstacle of all is the “stereotyping” of people with disabilities resulting in segregation. My hope is that organizations such as:  Class Inc, Lowell Veterans Center, Lowell Association for the Blind, Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley, Fidelity House as well as others in our community continue with their challenging work not only to empower our brothers and sisters in need and help them integrate in our modern society, but also to educate our society about these individuals’ social-economic potential!