The Disability Network (TDN has been undergoing some changes the past few years.
The organization, which connects those with disabilities to the community and making more inclusive spaces in Flint, is moving beyond the work they do in the office and stretching out into the community.
Along with rebranding TDN with brighter colors, gaining a stronger social media presence and planning a move into a new location, the team at TDN choose new titles for themselves. Luke Zelley was named president and chief amazement officer in 2017 and has been volunteering and working with TDN since 2000. Previously, the traditional “chief executive officer,” staff decided Zelley should be called “chief amazement officer” instead.
“I have a clear mission every single day to make TDN an amazing place for staff and the community,” says Zelley. “In the past, we operated more like a crisis center, meeting the needs of those who had acquired a disability and were in a tough spot. I don’t think the community really knew about us. We didn’t do any outreach and that leads into the stigma around people with disability we are working to change.”
Marred by the statistic that 70 percent of people with disabilities aren’t working, Zelley believes it is the stigma surrounding disabilities that leads to individuals not disclosing they have a disability.
“Disability includes people in wheelchairs, those who are blind or deaf and those things people traditionally think of. But, disabilities include a lot more than that,” Zelley says.
Things like learning disabilities, ADHD, anxiety and other mental health impairments are the types of disabilities people don’t often include. Through TDN’s work in the community, they have seen many do not feel comfortable disclosing they are dealing with a disability every day.
“When people say 70 percent of people with disabilities aren’t working, it is probably more accurate to say 70 percent of people with disabilities ARE working,” says Zelley. “They just don’t disclose it.”
TDN is working to encourage embracing and accepting disabilities with students by reaching out to all schools in Genesee County, offering support and programming and is experiencing tremendous growth. Three years ago, about 30 high school students were involved with TDN programming. This year around 500 students involved.
The organization also host workshops with employers to reduce the stigma surrounding hiring those with disabilities. Partnering with Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce and other businesses, TDN helps identify unconscious biases as well as encourage self-disclosure.
“When we do trainings. We walk through what disability is and how it can be an advantage and a strength,” Zelley says. “We move beyond the stigma to real experiences they have with those with disabilities. There is also a fear disclosing will mean you may not get the job, and that is what we are working on changing.”
The Disability Network office, currently located at 3600 S. Dort Hwy., remains a great resource, hosting workshops and connecting those in need with resources. It also houses a state-of-the-art computer lab where anyone, no matter the disability, can access technology. There will be a more updated computer lab when the organization moves.
TDN has added programming to bring those with disabilities out into the community as well as hosting activities at their location. It recently added participation at Flint Artwalk, inclusive art classes at Flint Institute of Arts along with Inclusive Kayaking on the Flint River through the end of August.
“Everything that we do is based on collaboration, even the accessible kayaking,” Zelley says. “We wrote our grant specifically to train parks and rec staff to be accessibility certified instructors. We got grants to donate accessible kayaks to the City of Flint so that anytime they do a kayak event, someone with disabilities can go and participate in that.
“It is about collaboration and making the community more accessible,” he says.
TDN was also the first organization in Flint to put on the Over the Edge event downtown to change the perception of people with disabilities as well as how people view Flint. The event took place July 21, and 61 community members repelled over the edge of The Durant building on Saginaw Street downtown to raise money and disability awareness.
There were those who didn’t think the event would ever happen.
“There were probably eight business leaders I spoke to who said, ‘It will never happen. It has been tried before and it will never get done,’” Zelley says. “Especially for people with disabilities, this is the message they have been hearing their whole lives. But, it was just more motivation for the team.
“Our reply was, ‘Look out, we are going to put on the best event.”
The event was pulled together in only three months, led by Andrea Perani, strategic partnership curator at TDN, along with the Over the Edge group. It was well-attended, with more than 50 people at the VIP celebration beforehand and 60-70 people watching the day of.
“The thought of having someone in a wheelchair repel 9 stories or an 11-year-old girl who is blind repel down, the story of disability gets bigger,” Zelley says.
Over the Edge will be an annual event.
“We have to get people with disabilities out into the community, doing Over the Edge events, kayaking,” says Zelley. “It is important to create an inclusive space for them and show people those with disabilities are part of the community and we can share these experiences. If you see someone who has barriers, you really have more in common with them than you think.”