S4. Ep. 4
Commissioner Rachel Arfa


April 26, 2022


24 minutes


Amplify Inclusion Podcast


Welcome to Amplify Inclusion, a podcast where we share authentic stories of inclusion in action.

Commissioner Rachel Arfa of the Chicago Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities discusses her career journey and her commitment to access. Listen now or view the full transcript below. 

Commissioner Arfa’s suggested resources: Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities – City of Chicago

This episode was co-produced and engineered by Subframe Sound with music courtesy of Nealle DiPaolo. This season is made possible thanks to generous support from the Fred J. Brunner Foundation and members of the Aspire community.

Full Transcript

Clare 00:03 

Welcome to Amplify Inclusion. I’m Clare from the nonprofit Aspire. Thanks for joining us for  stories and conversation about disability inclusion. Today my guest is Commissioner Rachel  Arfa of the Chicago Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. Commissioner Arfa is the first  deaf commissioner of MOPD, making her the highest ranking deaf person to serve in a city  government leadership role. She has years of experience as a disability and civil rights attorney  and has held numerous civic and leadership positions. I recently spoke with Commissioner Arfa  to learn more about her career journey and current work at MOPD. During our conversation, we  discussed the ways in which podcasts, by nature, aren’t as accessible to people who are deaf or  hard of hearing. Since our launch of Amplify Inclusion, we’ve included transcripts with every  episode to ensure access. But we know there’s always room for improvement. And I’m pleased  to share that beginning today, in addition to a transcript, our episodes will now include closed  captions. You can utilize this feature by clicking the CC button next to the episode title in the  Podbean player. Today’s conversation marks the 20th episode of Amplify Inclusion. We’re proud  to celebrate this milestone by demonstrating our ongoing commitment to accessibility. And we’re  thankful to Commissioner Arfa for being a part of it. Here’s our conversation… 

Clare 01:35 

Welcome Commissioner Arfa. It’s a real honor to be speaking with you today. 

Rachel 01:40 

Thank you so much, Clare, and I’m looking forward to today’s conversation. 

Clare 01:44

I know that you and your team at MOPD are doing incredible work to advance access in the city  of Chicago. I also know that your work didn’t start here – you have many years of experience  and commitment to advancing access and inclusion. So I’d love to hear a little bit more about  maybe some milestones that come to mind for you when you think about your professional path  leading up to taking on the role of Commissioner 

Rachel 02:11 

Absolutely, I’m happy to- first, I would say that how I got here is by following what I love. People  always say you should follow your passion and I think sometimes that comes off as cheesy, but  the heart of the statement is follow what you absolutely love to do and it will open up  opportunities whatever that looks like. So a little bit about my career path. Right after I  graduated from college at the University of Michigan which I absolutely loved. I believe I was  given a space to develop my leadership skills and that helped to set the course for the rest of  my life. And one of the big things I discovered was a love of public service and government. So  when I was in college, I went to Washington DC for a summer and I did two internships, one at  the White House in the Office of the First Lady and the second internship at the United States  Senate and I just loved the experience. After college I moved back to Washington DC. And I  got a job at the United States Senate Judiciary Committee. One thing that I learned from that  experience was the power of advocacy. And I worked for other attorneys at the Senate  Judiciary Committee. I was on a team that was led by two female attorneys. And I knew my next  step in my career was to become an attorney so I applied to law school and I went to that  School at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and became an attorney and I moved to  Milwaukee, I worked at the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee and I represented low income clients  who were at risk of becoming criminals, so I was going to court 3-5 times a week to represent  people who were at risk of becoming criminals, and using all of my legal skills and tools  available to stop that from happening. And in that work, I noticed that many of the people I was  representing had disabilities and that the legal system did very little to acknowledge and include  those disabilities when in fact those disabilities shaped the very way the people uh experienced  the court system and the legal issues that were impacting them. So I knew that I wanted to do  more. Chicago is my home. I love Chicago and I wanted to be closer to my family, so when a  job opened up in Chicago, I took it. I worked at Equip for Equality which is a disability rights law  firm that advocates for the civil and human rights of people with disabilities statewide. And at  that job my work focused on representing people with disabilities in um healthcare access, civil  rights violations, and employment discrimination and so I was able to see firsthand exactly  where the barriers were. And I think that if we can make as many of our spaces accessible, then  that helps to make sure that anybody can participate in any part of our society, and that’s  something I’ve very committed to. So that’s just a little bit of my background. 

Clare 05:23 

Thank you. That means a lot to hear some of those moments in your life that really impacted  you in terms of leading you up to this leadership role you’re in now and the impact that you’re  having on the community. What were your sort of gut instincts? Did you know it was something  that you wanted when the opportunity to take on the role of Commissioner was presented to  you?

Rachel 05:45 

I recognize the responsibility that comes with this role. I would say that one big thing that I’ve  noticed that uh women do, even people with disabilities do, is we don’t give ourselves credit for  the amount of experience that we have and we may self-select ourselves out of opportunities or  jobs maybe by saying “Well, I’m not good enough for this. I’m not smart enough. I’m not  experienced enough.” And I see that a lot with women, I also see it with people with disabilities.  That’s a thing I try to share with women and with people with disabilities, don’t underestimate  yourself, do not sell yourself short you have so much experience. So, when this opportunity  came around I realized it was the opportunity that I have been preparing for just about my entire  career. And I was ready for it and I feel ready for it every single day, even on the job, a lot of my  work is problem solving and I’m able to use my legal skills and analysis to look at things from  many different ways. So I was ready for this role, and I’m so honored that Mayor Lightfoot  selected me for this role and I never take that for granted. 

Clare 07:04 

Yes. And you’ve proven that you and your team have already been creating so many really  important initiatives and building partnerships across the city. I know that you came into this role  in the midst of the pandemic, right, and already really difficult, tremendously difficult time for  communities, but you’ve managed to still accomplish a lot of things on top of that layer of added  barrier. So can you talk about a couple successes or wins that feel really important to you to  spotlight from the time you’ve been in this role? 

Rachel 07:38 

Absolutely, so one thing I would like to mention is that um there are Mayor’s Office for People  with Disabilities in some of our large cities and so when I joined I met those fellow  commissioners across the country, but one thing stood out for me that was that uh there were  many different disabilities represented, but there had not yet been a deaf person named  commissioner or other government role, so I realized that I was now the first deaf commissioner  and I’m the first deaf person to serve as a member of a Mayor’s cabinet nationwide in a  municipal government. And that’s a responsibility that I take seriously, because I feel a duty to  pave the way for more people to follow. But also, for people to know what is possible, because I  never saw those role models growing up. In fact when I was preparing for this role, I researched  deaf people who serve in politics and there are so few that um I had to look to fictional  characters. We’re very fortunate in Illinois to have Senator Duckworth who has a disability and  she’s been an incredible champion. But then um I looked to the TV show The West Wing,  Marlee Matlin, whose a deaf actress and who’s won an Oscar, she played Joey Lucas and I  watched several of the episodes before I started my role just because I needed to see what that  representation looked like and that’s something that I think about everyday in this role- I want  people with disabilities, including people who are deaf and hard of hearing to know it’s possible  to become anything you want, including Commissioner. So that’s one thing that’s often on my  mind. So in terms of successes, in my departments that I supervise is a staff of 25 people, and I  created an Access Officer program which created a point person to focus on disability services 

and access in every single department and that person has to be a member of- a commissioner,  a department head, or executive director leadership team. So it’s somebody with authority and  from my experience in cultural access space, that often times the person assigned to do work  on access was very low on the totem pole so therefore they didn’t have the authority and they  were not in power to make these systemic changes that an organization needed, so I focused  on those points and what we did was we created a community of all of these Access Officers,  we have about 37 city wide. And we provided them with training on the Americans with  Disabilities Act and how to provide different types of accessibility, and I’m really proud of that  because as you mentioned, I started in a pandemic and most people think that because a  pandemic happened, the world is paused. But I was able to leverage the pandemic, for  example, my meetings are on virtual platforms. So I set up many many meetings and one  advantage was um that if I use sign language interpreters, my ability to use the interpreter  depends on that interpreter’s proximity to me – are they available at the exact same time and  location? But with the pandemic, sign language interpreters could work from home, they didn’t  have to travel , and I could use a national network of sign language interpreters, not just those in  geographic proximity. So I’m really proud that um I was able to use the pandemic to make  significant change both internally at the city, but also externally um with the disability community  and disability access including our responding to COVID-19 needs and making sure the vaccine  was accessible. We worked with 19 disability organizations to make 900 vaccine appointments  available at the United Center, um, we created a first social story about um how to get a vaccine  at uh VaxForAll.com. So MOPD worked with Infiniteach and they did a really outstanding job.  That’s the start of many more social stories that I want to create, so I think that the pandemic  provided an opportunity to do so much and I feel that I was able to leverage that. 

Clare 12:02 

So I understand that your work at MOPD is really wide ranging. I know that you’re addressing  everything from independent living to accessible housing, assistive technology, the list goes on.  But one thing I’m hoping we can discuss in a little more depth today is employment, specifically  employment for people with disabilities because I know this is a top priority. And first off I’d like  to know why this is a priority for you personally. 

Rachel 12:31 

Absolutely, I’m happy to. First, I think when someone gets a job, and it’s a job they’re excited  about, then something then happens to that person – you could tell from the outside. Their  energy changes, their demeanor changes, and so much that comes from knowing that you’re  able to be independent, and you’re able to earn your own paycheck, you’re uh given this  possibility. And I also know that there are a lot of barriers to employment. I experienced many  different barriers throughout my career in my own path to this role. And I want to do whatever I  can to make sure that other people with disabilities do not experience barriers, but that anybody  can grow up and dream to be whatever they want to be. Also, in my previous role as a disability  rights attorney, I helped many people with disabilities with employment discrimination cases and  I saw first-hand some of the barriers that people experience. 

Clare 13:35 

Can you tell me about some of the things that are getting in the way to employment for people  with disabilities? 

Rachel 13:42 

One barrier is that while people with disabilities have a civil right to reasonable accommodations  and in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, there seems to be a biased  assumption about reasonable accommodations and that assumption is that reasonable  accommodations are expensive. Therefore, the assumption is that people with disabilities are  expensive. Most reasonable accommodations cost very little. There are other accommodations  that may have a cost, but the reality is that many people are working at corporations with  millions and billions of dollars and the cost of any reasonable accommodations would merely be  a drop in the bucket. So I think that’s something that we really need to address and one  accommodation that people with disabilities we’re often asked about is uh the ability to telework  due to their disability. And before 2020, I would have to tell someone I would fight to get them  the option to telework but I have to work it almost never happens, it’s very difficult to get  because employers were so resistant to telework. But I think in March of 2020, when the world  literally went to telework overnight, we proved that tele-work is possible. And many people  they’re still tele-working, many corporations are still remote. So I think that we have changed  that attitude a bit. Then the other area that I think we need to be honest about is that there is a  bias against people with disabilities and it comes from that natural urge where um something is  new we may feel uncomfortable, we may feel discomfort. I see a lot of times with me, people  will not ask me to repeat what I’m saying, and I would rather someone asks me to repeat what  I’m saying, because it tells me that they’re listening, and that they want to make an effort to  understand me. But instead, they ignore what I’m saying, and I could pick that up very well at  their facial expressions or by their response when I think that we need to feel comfortable with  that discomfort. And then people may have a discomfort when um interacting with the  disabilities that they’re not familiar with, and I think that we need to really address that attitude  and bias to increase representation of people with disabilities. One of the ways to address that  is to hire people with disabilities. And I would say that people with disabilities are some of the  best problem solvers around. And the reason for that is because we have to navigate access  barriers every single day, so we have to address and think creatively about those solutions and  it is our emotional labor on our part. But if somebody could do that every day, that skill is very  important on a team when you’re trying to solve a barrier or a problem, it’s such an asset to  have somebody who’s actively problem solving or troubleshooting any needs and anytime. 

Clare 16:48 

And speaking of problem solving, let’s talk about opportunities to address this key issue of low  employment for people with disabilities. 

Rachel 16:58

So I think that there are um a lot of opportunities to create lasting change around inclusive  employment opportunities. First, I think it’s really important to um make sure that our HR  personnel are trained on the Americans with Disabilities Act and making sure that our job  application processes are um as accessible as possible, including the ADA just applying to  every single stage of employment, including the recruiting and hiring process, interviewing  process, onboarding at the job. Second, I think it’s really important to um ensure that we have  different pathways available uh for different career fields and ensure that those are accessible to  people with disabilities. So we want to make sure that any folks with a disability can access any  pathway they want to be, whatever their dream is. We also have to think about um  intersectionality and make sure that disability is part of that intersectionality and really um doing  the hard work in coming out of our comfort. Racial equity is one of the most important priorities  led by Mayor Lightfoot and I apply a racial equity lens to all of the work that we do to make sure  we’re serving every single community, including black and brown communities. 

Clare 18:20 

And then if you could sort of add on how and why employment inclusive employment has  become a priority for MOPD. 

Rachel 18:28 

First I wanted to make sure I specify I’m time talking about what the Mayor’s Office for People  with Disabilities does around employment. Right now um we have two um staff members who  focus on providing benefits counseling for people who are beneficiaries of SSI and SSDI.  Because if you are a recipient of social security, you are only allowed to earn a certain amount  of money before you go over that amount. And it’s something that is not easy to understand, so  we do have benefits counselors to help people who are working and want to uh maintain  benefits. One thing I learned from those two staff members is that half the time, people will call  MOPD and ask for help with getting a job while navigating the job search, and MOPD has not  historically provided that assistance. When I saw that people in Chicago are still coming to  MOPD and seeking employment services. And so that, for me, that was an opportunity. And  also I’ve been uh watching the pandemic and the impact on our city and one observation is that  uh there is an abundance of jobs right now. I know that uh people with disabilities historically  have had a hard time getting jobs especially in the tight labor market, because of attitudes and  bias, barriers and the perception that reasonable accommodations are expensive, so um  employers may opt to not hire somebody with a disability. However, the pandemic has shaken  up our job market and there’s now so many job opportunities available and there is a shortage  and some areas are back. So, I along with Mayor Lightfoot wanted to leverage this moment and  do what we can to create new pathways to help fill uh openings but also to create opportunities  for people with disabilities. We have people who are highly skilled and highly qualified. I want to  make sure that those pathways are open to them. So that will be one of my biggest priorities  throughout this year. So stay tuned on that. 

Clare 20:40

Those are such important points. And I think that a lot of people that don’t have a disability or  can’t relate to the experience of disability, would think that this issue of unemployment really  doesn’t affect them. What would you say to the larger community in terms of the true benefits for  all of us in terms of inclusive employment? 

Rachel 21:05 

Thank you for that question. First, a lot of people think that their lives are not impacted by  disability. But in fact, one in five Americans has a disability, and disability is the only group that  anyone could become a member of at any time. And people also have an assumption that  disabilities are visible, but there are so many invisible disabilities that uh they may not know  about, or that may not be disclosed, but chances are very high that somebody they know and  love has some type of disability. So, uh the person may make a statement that disability  employment does not impact them, but in fact it does. But also like I said before- people with  disabilities are some of the best problem solvers around and I think that that’s what any team  can benefit from. People with disabilities have different life experiences and perspectives and  talents and all of that will help to create a better and stronger team. 

Clare 22:07 

Thank you Commissioner Arfa for being with me today. And I want to thank you for the focus that I know that you have on partnerships because I think that it’s been very evident in your  leadership style and working with agencies, businesses across the community, because I know  that you believe in teamwork, and that if we’re going to make change, we all have to be  collaborating. So I just want to thank you for your partnership with Aspire and all local agencies  that you’ve been really dedicated to. 

Rachel 22:37 

Thank you so much, Clare. Um, I really appreciate all of your time and all of the work that you  and the entire team at Aspire does in helping people with disabilities gain access to employment  and really ‘walking the talk’. So I want to thank you and Aspire and I’m glad that we work  together and you’re absolutely right, I believe in collaboration. I think that uh exchanging ideas  and working together is the best way to accomplish this good work together. 

Clare 23:10 

Thank you to my guest Commissioner Arfa. Join us next time for conversations with several  guests as we discuss the power of mentorship as a gateway to employment. Until then, stay  connected with us at AspireChicago.com and be a part of the inclusive movement by rating and  subscribing to Amplify Inclusion. This episode was co-produced and engineered by Subframe  Sound. This season is made possible thanks to generous support from the Fred J. Brunner  Foundation and members of the Aspire community.

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