April 26, 2022
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.
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…
Welcome Commissioner Arfa. It’s a real honor to be speaking with you today.
Thank you so much, Clare, and I’m looking forward to today’s conversation.
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
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Can you tell me about some of the things that are getting in the way to employment for people with disabilities?
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.
And speaking of problem solving, let’s talk about opportunities to address this key issue of low employment for people with disabilities.
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.
And then if you could sort of add on how and why employment inclusive employment has become a priority for MOPD.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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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