Jamie was four years old when he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. He could barely speak until he became part of a therapeutic program. Jayne, the mother of ten-year-old Neil, who lives with autism, struggled to balance her son’s needs with her own before finding a group of people that shared her experiences. And then there is Abby, who had furious meltdowns and was misdiagnosed multiple times until her family received help in getting the correct diagnosis: Asperger’s syndrome.
All of these people have one thing in common: they have been part of programs offered by Easterseals, a nationwide organization of local affiliates that serves more than 1.5 million people with disabilities each year. “Easterseals provides every service – whether it’s mental health, occupational, or speech therapy, or treatment options for autism, and for people with intellectual and physical disabilities,” Angela Williams, Easterseals’ President and CEO, says.
Even though Williams is only in her third year with Easterseals, she comes from a 30-year career in leadership – most recently, she was the Executive VP of the YMCA. And the busy woman with the short black hair and red lipstick isn’t new to big jobs either. In 2005, Williams held a leadership role in rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. She was responsible for 27 million dollars in grant money from the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund towards houses of worship that were destroyed by the hurricane.
“Katrina was such a horrific hurricane, and the amount of devastation across multiple states with millions of people being displaced was very hard to process. My work with the foundation was rewarding in the sense that I could be a part of helping people as they were trying to put their lives back together. It gave me the opportunity to meet people who were traumatized by the hurricane first-hand,” Williams explains.
Now, she is responsible for a charity with the goal “100% Included and 100% Empowered.” And this concept seems to work. At least it did for Jamie, who was part of the Easterseals Therapeutic Day School, and today competes as an athlete at the Special Olympics, as well as for Neil’s mom, who found support in an Easterseals group helping families affected by autism spectrum disorders. And the organization also empowered Abby’s family when they were sent to Easter Seals Michigan, to see a new therapist that understood Abby’s needs.
The organization’s website is filled with success stories like these. However, one wouldn’t expect that behind all the positivity the organization emits lies a history of tragedy. In 1907, Edgar Allen, a father of two, lost his 18-year-old son in a streetcar accident because the small city of Elyria, Ohio, couldn’t provide emergency medical care. As a consequence of his loss, he raised funds to open a hospital on his own and created the “National Society for Crippled Children,” in 1919, which is known as Easterseals today.
Over the last 100 years, the organization has kept developing further to support people of every type and range of disability: from health to recreation to employment. “Edgar Allen turned his own personal tragedy into good, in supporting children with disabilities. One of the things that he discovered was that children with disabilities were hidden from view and not integrated as a part of society. Fast-forward 100 years, and look at how society has evolved in how we talk about disabilities, how we include people with disabilities, how we support people with disabilities. It’s really exciting to be part of this type of legacy historical organization,” Williams, who can hand out business cards in Braille, states.
To celebrate decades of hard work, Easterseals, for the first, time built a 20-foot tall float to take part in the 2019 Rose Parade in Pasadena. “It was Mark Whitley’s idea. He is the CEO of our Southern California affiliate. They funded it, but they also brought in other affiliates. So we put the word out that anybody who wanted to support the float, financially or otherwise, or to be a part of the parade, they were able to do that. We had participants who rode the float, who were from other affiliates across the country. It really was a national representation,” Williams says proudly. The colorful piece of art featured a massive three-tiered cake with symbolic figures all around it, showing people of all abilities and colors holding hands. On top of the cake, a gigantic ‘100’ catches your eye. “I’d never been to the Rose Parade and didn’t know how they built the floats. And then for Easterseals to win a prize for the float was a cherry on the top,” Williams adds. The float was themed: ‘Celebrating Easterseals. 100 Years of Disability Services.’
All of Easterseals programs center around improving quality of life, providing learning opportunities about disability-related topics, giving people with disabilities a chance to be part of activities no matter the ability, and helping people with disabilities getting employed.
The latter one seems to be especially valuable, considering that in 2018, 8 percent of people with disabilities in the US were unemployed compared to only 3.7 percent of people without a disability. According to Williams, workforce development is one of the major pillars of the different programs. “We recognize the importance of work, the opportunity to earn income, to be self-sufficient, to socialize, and to have additional meaning in life beyond what you do for fun. People with disabilities should have the opportunity to be employed,” Angela Williams emphasizes.
Based on the CEO, several initiatives regarding workforce development at Easterseals’ affiliate level have been formed. “On the national level, we are starting to work with corporations that have expressed interest in hiring people with disabilities,” Williams explains, “Most recently, we formed a partnership with Advance Auto Parts. We were able to provide them one of their first disabled hires under this joint program in December of last year.” Additionally, they offer job coaching or “customized employment service,” which is a one-on-one session to find out about the person’s passions, skills, and wishes, so that they can be matched successfully.
All of their programs are possible due to the generosity of many partners, such as Comcast NBC Universal, which, according to Williams, has supported the organization with grant money to develop different technologies for their participants. “Depending on the participant’s ability, our assistive technology department can create devices for them. It could be something like building a particular chair for a child, so they can sit up and be fed, or designing a 3D printed device to hold an iPad, for example,” Williams elaborates. Because of those partnerships, more people like Jamie, Neil, and Abbie can get the support they deserve.
Easterseals was created by one man, who, as early as the 1900s, realized that people with disabilities can’t be ignored and have to be included. More than 100 years later, CEO Angela Williams and her team at Easterseals continue to making sure Edgar Allen’s mission is fulfilled. And maybe—just maybe—before the next anniversary we all can celebrate 100 percent inclusion and 100 percent empowerment for all people with disabilities.
by Karina Ulrike Sturm