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Meet Kevin O’Connor: VSA Executive Leadership Conference 2022 Master of Ceremonies!

Blue graphic with VSAELC logo that reads "Speaker Highlight: Kevin O'Connor." Beside is a photo of Kevin smiling at the camera.

Click here to listen to Kevin O’Connor on the Voices of Vision Leaders Podcast

Meet Kevin O’Connor, the Master of Ceremonies for our Executive Leadership Conference (VSAELC) 2022. Kevin is a professor at Loyola University in Chicago and a professional speaker specializing in nurse and physician leadership.

He has Master’s degrees in Education, Counseling Psychology, and Spirituality.

Close to Home

Kevin has been involved with the blind and visually impaired community since his son, now 33, was four months old. 

“We were sort of drafted into this blindness movement,” he said. “Since then, we’ve belonged to a club we never thought we would belong to.” 

He attributes much of his son’s development to the doctor and services they visited throughout his son’s youth, “It occurred to me how many people did not have those services.” 

Kevin was determined to give his son a life that wasn’t different from other children’s. When bringing him grocery shopping, he encouraged his son to bring his cane rather than hold his arm so that they could shop together. 

“I think it started to give him more confidence in his skills,” he said. Kevin’s son has since graduated with a double major from George Washington University and has worked in several leadership positions.

What to Expect

Kevin is no stranger to the Executive Leadership Conference, as he attended the virtual conference after the Covid-19 pandemic made it impossible to gather in person. He will be opening the conference at the reception on the first night and is excited to meet the guests. 

Kevin said that the conference is a place to learn more and lead better, not just by listening to the speakers but also by getting to know each other in the conference spaces.

“Our job in that very first time we’re together is to say, ‘Who can I meet?'” Kevin said. “Because they want to meet me too. We both have something we can exchange; we’re both on level ground with one another.” Hear more of Kevin’s discussion with VisionServe Alliance and what to expect at the conference on the newest episode of Voices of Vision Leaders.

VSA’s Executive Leadership Conference returns in person in beautiful Tampa this weekend! The 3-day event will offer opportunities to attend exceptional learning and networking sessions on topical issues, including specific learning tracks for CEOs, Programing, Fundraising/Administration, and Advocacy. 

Learn more about the #1 conference to advance your professional development, organizational effectiveness, and more.

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The Big Data Project

VisionServe Alliance and The Ohio State University College of Optometry provide groundbreaking data on the rate of blindness and low vision among people over 65 in eight states.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

April 1, 2022 – VisionServe Alliance (VSA) and The Ohio State University College of Optometry have partnered, embarking on a project to analyze standardized statewide data and national reports of people who are blind or have low vision. Its initial findings will be released to the public on April 4 at VisionServe Alliance’s Executive Leadership Conference.

The Big Data Project provides state-level data on the rate of blindness and low vision among people aged 65 years and older for eight states: Pennsylvania, New York, California, Louisiana, Florida, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Illinois. These briefings also describe the rate of chronic conditions, quality of life, and disability indicators among older people with and without blindness and low vision. 

“We really have limited resources to address public health initiatives when thinking of things like vision—so determining where the most immediate needs are turns out to be really helpful so you can start to direct scarce resources to groups that could benefit the most,” said Dean VanNasdale, OD, Ph.D., Associate Professor, The Ohio State University College of Optometry.

The Big Data Project briefings are the only studies providing comprehensive descriptions of older people with vision impairment at the state and county levels in one document. The current eight states’ reports have been posted on the VSA website as publicly available downloadable PDFs.

“These are factual reports,” said John E. Crews, D.P.A., the former Lead Scientist with the Disability and Health Team in the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “We can apply the content to funding, services, and advocacy efforts in any venue.”

The data sets included in the project are the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) and the American Community Survey (ACS).

Policymakers and advocates can use the Big Data Project briefings to develop programs to improve the lives and independence of older people with vision loss. President and CEO of NewView Oklahoma, Lauren Branch, said one of the biggest challenges in providing services to the low vision community is a lack of funding, which ties to a lack of data. 

“We’ve been talking about needing data for years,” Lauren said. “Those of us who have been serving in this field anecdotally know how large this population is, but we’ve never had this specific data to back up what we are saying.” 

This data will now give agencies like NewView Oklahoma a boost in talking with their community and policyholders. Lauren said this would genuinely express the needs and impacts their services do and can have on their population without being siloed.

According to the report, 7.3% of elderly individuals report blindness or vision loss. This is not distributed equally across racial or ethnic groups or by state or county lines. According to Crews, the BRFSS survey handles 440,000 individuals. In this report, a breakdown of national visual impairment goes as follows:

  • White non-Hispanic: 6.1%,
  • Black non-Hispanic: 10.5%,
  • Native American: 14.2%,
  • Hispanic: 13.9%.

Respectfully, showing a significant impact on individuals with a visual impairment in minority populations. Additionally, the data reports 5.8% in Illinois, while in Louisiana, 12.4%.  “Even within this country, the prevalence of visual impairment varies from state to state,” Crews said. “We found even more variability from county to county.”

Looking at the state of Missouri, the overall prevalence of visual impairment is 7.3%. The counties’ prevalence ranges from 2.6% to 21.1% within the state. Crews said the higher prevalence is typically in rural areas.

“Those areas tend to be under-resourced,” Crews said. “People are poorer in those areas. They don’t have access to healthcare, eye care, and have virtually no access to anything that looks like vision rehabilitation.”    

With the groundbreaking insight of the findings of the first eight states, VSA is determined and dedicated to completing the project for the rest of the country, starting by recruiting an additional ten states for the next phase.

“The Big Data Project is VisionServe’s most ambitious undertaking to date,” said Lee Nasehi, President and CEO of VSA. “It is an honor to work with the distinguished Ohio State University College of Optometry to bring this project to fruition.” 

To learn more about VSA and the Big Data Project, contact Lee Nasehi at leen@visionservealliance.org

VisionServe Alliance: VisionServe Alliance is a leadership collective of organizations and individuals in the US and Canada engaged in building a better world with and for people with vision loss through education, advocacy, research, products, and services. We provide education and opportunities for dialogue and collaboration to strengthen leadership skills, the quality of services, and the positive impact of our field on people of all ages living with blindness, low vision, and other vision impairment. 

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Education Department Launches Historic Real Pay for Real Jobs Initiative for People with Disabilities

The following is a press release sent on behalf of the United States Department of Education.

States eligible to compete for Subminimum Wage to Competitive Integrated Employment Grants totaling $167 million

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

March 18, 2022

Today, the U.S. Department of Education’s Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) released the notice inviting applications for the Subminimum Wage to Competitive Integrated Employment (SWTCIE) demonstration project, aimed at increasing access for people with disabilities to jobs that pay good wages.

The SWTCIE project is the largest discretionary grant administered by RSA, with $167 million available to State Vocational Rehabilitation agencies and their partners.

“Economic security should be available to all Americans,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. “Providing individuals with disabilities with a high-quality education and the services that they need to thrive will result in real pay for real jobs, empowering them and leading to greater social and economic inclusion.”

SWTCIE is a step toward ending practices that have allowed some employers to pay less than the federal minimum wage to people with disabilities. The new grant program will sponsor innovative approaches that allow people with disabilities to successfully secure jobs working alongside their non-disabled peers while earning the same pay.

“More than 30 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, far too many people with disabilities continue to be denied equal opportunity,” said U.S. Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott of Virginia, chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor. “The subminimum wage for workers with disabilities is a relic of a time when people with disabilities were viewed as unable to work and lacked federal protections. It is long past time that we help phase out the subminimum wage for people with disabilities and expand access to fulfilling employment and economic self-sufficiency. We must continue working to ensure every American can succeed and earn a fair wage.”

To help eliminate subminimum wage employment, this competition will award grants to as many as 18 State Vocational Rehabilitation agencies and their partners that will create employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities. The jobs will be in critical need areas, including home and community-based services, the arts, or transportation and related industries. In addition, applicants may submit proposals in other areas that will transition individuals from subminimum wage employment to competitive integrated employment.

“Some workers with disabilities spend decades earning a subminimum wage without the opportunity to gain new skills or move to a job that pays a higher wage. Today, the Department of Education took an important step to end this discriminatory practice,” said U.S. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. “I applaud Secretary Cardona for his leadership and I will keep fighting to ensure all workers with disabilities are paid at least minimum wage and have the opportunity to succeed in the workplace.”

The SWTCIE project advances a key Biden-Harris Administration goal – strengthening the economic security of Americans with disabilities. This funding opportunity aligns existing and emerging employment opportunities with the needs of employers and the public infrastructure. Most notably, activities will ensure people with disabilities are earning real pay for real jobs.

The Department’s Rehabilitation Services Administration web page provides additional information about vocational rehabilitation opportunities for people with disabilities.

The Notice Inviting Applications is available for public inspection at the Federal Register. The Federal Register will publish the official version of the notice on Monday, March 21. The deadline for submissions is June 21, 2022.

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Meet Gidget Hopf: A VSA Executive Leadership Conference 2022 Speaker

Blue graphic with VSAELC logo. Speaker Highlight: Gidget Hoph. Beside, Gidget smiles at the camera.

Meet Dr. Gidget Hopf, one of our inspiring speakers for our Executive Leadership Conference (VSAELC) 2022. Before retiring in 2020, Dr. Gidget Hopf served as President and CEO of Goodwill of the Finger Lakes for 34 years.

She earned her Ed.D. in Leadership and Organization Studies in 2005 from George Washington University and believes Executive Coaching is one of the most effective means for developing transformational leaders. She is an expert in board relations, having led local, state, and national boards.

She has an extensive history of working with individuals who are blind, have developmental disabilities, are victims of domestic abuse, and those who have been oppressed through systemic racism and social injustice.

Removing Barriers

Hopf graduated with a Bachelor of Science in speech pathology from Geneseo College in upstate New York and immediately began work with individuals with disabilities. Her relationship with the blind and visually impaired community grew stronger when in 1986 after she began as the CEO for Goodwill of the Finger Lakes and its affiliate, the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired. She secured a major federal contract that created hundreds of jobs for individuals with visual impairments.

That was just the beginning, with many more contracts to follow, including producing products and services for the Coast Guard and Air Force and additional state and federal agencies.

Through all this, Hopf worked to implement many strategies that would allow individuals with visual impairments the same opportunities that presented themselves to others. However, she believes that many hiring managers are still unaware of what individuals who are blind are capable of and may assume it will be costly to accommodate them. “I believe that many barriers exist today within the broader community and private enterprise due to century’s old stereotypes that, while lessened, is still held by many hiring leaders.” She strongly believes that the way to overcome that barrier is with trust.

“Empower and trust your employees who are blind and let them lead the way.”

Dr. Gidget Hopf

One of Hopf’s most notable successes in creating upward mobility for individuals who were blind or visually impaired was developing a call center. What began as a two-person operation grew into a state-of-the-art 24-7 crisis and information contact center that employs over 100 people and serves over 100,000 individuals annually.

In 2020, Dr. Hopf received the R.B. Irwin Award, the highest honor from the National Industries for the Blind, “for her innovative work creating employment opportunities for people who are blind.”

Transformative Learning

At the Executive Leadership Conference, Hopf will present “How Executive Coaching Fosters Transformative Learning: Begin a New Leadership Journey,” an exclusive for CEOs. Her session will help leaders identify issues that impede their success and encourage applying meaning to those issues to reveal a path forward. With this transformative process, leaders will obtain a new understanding that will lead to new perspectives and action.

Join us in person in beautiful Tampa this spring! VSA invites industry professionals and leaders to provide service to or with people who are blind or have low vision to reflect on our industry’s impact on society and share ideas for a transformative future. The 3-day event will offer opportunities to attend exceptional learning and networking sessions on topical issues, including specific learning tracks for CEOs, Programing, Fundraising/Administration, and Advocacy. Attend the #1 conference to advance your professional development, organizational effectiveness, and more.

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Meet Justice Shorter: A VSA Executive Leadership Conference 2022 Keynote Speaker

Blue graphic with VSAELC 2022 logo. It reads "Speaker Highlight: Justice Shorter." Beside is a picture of Justice wearing sunglasses and smiling at the camera.

Click here to listen to Justice Shorter on the Voices of Vision Leaders Podcast

Disclaimer: Justice spoke to us independent of any specific organizational affiliation. As such, all opinions and comments are her own.

Meet Justice Shorter, one of our inspiring keynote speakers for our Executive Leadership Conference (VSAELC) 2022. Justice is the National Disaster Protection Advisor for America’s Protection & Advocacy System as well as a global facilitator/trainer on issues related to fires, disasters, humanitarian crises and other emergencies.  

She is also a Disability Justice advocate, Black Disabled Lives Matter amplifier, and a national expert on disability-inclusive disaster protections. VisionServe Alliance recently sat down with Justice on a new episode of our podcast, Voices of Vision Leaders, to discuss her career and what she plans to bring to this year’s Executive Leadership Conference.

No Time to Waste

Justice began as a youth journalist in 2005, where she wrote on topics such as community development, humanitarian affairs, and youth empowerment. She received a B.A. in Journalism with a minor in Justice & Peace Studies from Marquette University. After that, Justice earned her M.A. in Sustainable Development and authored three inclusion guides for the U.S. State Department. She has interned within the White House Office of Public Engagement & Intergovernmental Affairs and produced multiple people-centered projects with various organizations.

Access to equity and justice, she says, is at the core of what she does, whether that is in the workplace, classroom, hospital, or courtroom. “No longer are folks asking, or even accepting, the premise that we should sit back and wait until it is our time.”

The Intersection of Justice

Justice’s work sits at the intersection of disaster, race, disability, and gender justice.

“They are inextricably linked,” she said. “You cannot have a conversation about disaster justice without also being inclusive of a disability justice perspective. Those who are most impacted by disasters and crises, more often than not, tend to be individuals with disabilities.”

She further states that these disasters also disproportionally affect minority populations, “People tend to cherry-pick what they focus on and push everything out as if we live single-issue lives, which we do not.”

Power Moves

At the Executive Leadership Conference, Justice will present her keynote, “Power Moves: Transforming Leadership by Centering Marginalized Communities.” which will expand on many topics she introduces in her episode of Voices of Vision Leaders. This immersive session will equip executive leaders with equitable strategies for recruiting and retaining more Black, Indigenous & Other People Of Color with disabilities. It will focus on issues at the intersection of Racial Justice, disability Justice, and Gender Justice.

Join us in person in beautiful Tampa this spring! VSA invites industry professionals and leaders to provide service to or with people who are blind or have low vision to reflect on our industry’s impact on society and share ideas for a transformative future. The 3-day event will offer opportunities to attend exceptional learning and networking sessions on topical issues, including specific learning tracks for CEOs, Programing, Fundraising/Administration, and Advocacy.

Attend the #1 conference to advance your professional development, organizational effectiveness, and more.

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Meet Dana Draa: A VSA Executive Leadership Conference 2022 Speaker

Speaker Highlight for VSAELC 2022. Meet Dana Draa.

Meet Dana Draa, one of VSA’s inspiring speakers for our Executive Leadership Conference (VSAELC) 2022. Dana is the Chief Program Officer for Metrolina Association for the Blind, Inc. (MAB), which provides services for blind and visually impaired people in Charlotte, North Carolina. 

Her career in the blindness field has lasted almost two decades. It has included positions as a Visual Impairment Services Team Coordinator for the Department of Veteran Affairs, where she case managed for over 300 legally blind and visually impaired veterans. She was also an Assistive Technology Consultant for the NC Division of Services for the Blind. She had extensive experience using assistive technology to help individuals regain independence after losing vision. 

Expert in the Field 

Dana earned her Masters of Arts in Rehabilitation Counseling from the University of Arkansas and her Masters of Arts in Counseling with a focus on Orientation and Mobility for the Blind from Western Michigan University. She is also a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor, O&M Specialist, Certified Adaptive Sports Specialist, has a certificate in Applied Positive Psychology and is currently studying to be a Certified Meditation Instructor. She is a Veteran of Desert Storm/ Desert Shield, having served four years of active duty in the United States Navy and three years in the Alaska Army National Guard. 

After her service, Dana spent time helping her grandmother and step-grandfather, who lost his vision due to diabetes. She said, “I’d help him with his technology, and that was always fascinating for me.” 

She also volunteered as a reader for Services for the Blind in Florida while working towards her undergraduate degree in Criminal Justice at UCF.

Transcending Visual Art

Dana soon discovered how individuals with visual impairments wanted to participate in traditional activities, but due to accessibility limitations, that was not always a consideration. 

“I made it a mission to ensure that events I was planning be exclusively for individuals with vision loss or be as inclusive as possible,” she said. “Visual arts are just that. I started asking myself how we make them transcend vision alone and what can we learn from it?”

Dana learned and taught from these questions she asked herself. She taught how to describe ethnicity or color to someone who has never seen or “felt” visual art. 

“The more we understand each other’s perspectives, the more community building that is possible,” she said.

One piece of advice Dana offers to others is not to be afraid to express oneself in a way that feels natural. Additionally, she suggests reaching out to creatives and artists in your community to learn new ways to get innovative. Finally, she recommends reaching out to local vision loss rehabilitation organizations to find the right tools to make things happen. 

The Importance of Community 

At VSAELC, she will deliver “Art is for Everyone,” a how-to guide for partnering with local artists and community organizations to build relevant and innovative accessible art programming for your neighbors with vision loss. She will look at projects with the Bechtler Museum (No to Low Vision), Art Walks CLT, Van Gogh Immersive Experience, their impact, the nuts and bolts of how-to, and the importance of these opportunities for our communities in advancing equity. She will also emphasize the vital role AT plays in these ventures. 

Join us in person in beautiful Tampa this spring! VSA invites industry professionals and leaders to provide service to or with people who are blind or have low vision to reflect on our industry’s impact on society and share ideas for a transformative future. The 3-day event will offer opportunities to attend exceptional learning and networking sessions on topical issues, including specific learning tracks for CEOs, Programing, Fundraising/Administration, and Advocacy. 

Attend the #1 conference to advance your professional development, organizational effectiveness, and more. 

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Meet John Samuel: A VSA Executive Leadership Conference 2022 Keynote Speaker

Blue graphic with VSAELC logo that reads "Speaker Highlight: John Samuel." Beside is a headshot photo of John smiling.

Click here to listen to John Samuel on the Voices of Vision Leaders Podcast

Meet John Samuel, one of our inspiring keynote speakers for our Executive Leadership Conference (VSAELC) 2022. John is the co-founder and CEO of Ablr 360, which assists companies in developing better inclusion strategies. Ablr focuses on removing barriers that have hindered people with disabilities from accessing education, retail, entertainment, and employment.  

VisionServe Alliance recently sat down with John on a new episode of our podcast, Voices of Vision Leaders, to discuss his plans to bring to this year’s Executive Leadership Conference.  

Early Struggles  

Much of what John Samuel and Ablr 360 work with is bringing assistive technology to employers and employees to reduce the effect that visual impairment can have in the workplace. John himself was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare degenerative eye disease in college.  

“I was embarrassed and ashamed to tell people that I lost my sight,” he said. “I kept it a secret.”  

After college, John traveled the globe, not to seek thrill and adventure but to seek a sense of belonging. He said he went around the globe because he was running away from telling people and trying to find workarounds. 

While his early career in the US left him unable to build the team he was looking for, he found immediate success in his travels.  

“To me, it was a necessity. I went to India because I knew I could get a car and driver for pretty cheap. I moved to New York City because of the public transportation. I moved to Africa because it gave me the opportunity to build a team around me.”  

Through the years, John became aware of more assistive technology that could help him expand his personal and business ventures and wanted to take that technology and inclusion to new heights.  

The Future is Limitless  

For John, he says assistive technology is life-changing but still has a way to go. “I think about AI (artificial intelligence),” he said. “Those technologies can be beneficial for us, but we also have to be careful about the replacement with AI of digital accessibility on a website.”  

John said people with disabilities have unique problem-solving skills and that Ablr is in the business of using technology to augment that. “The future is limitless for us,” he said.  

Belonging in a Diverse World  

At the Executive Leadership Conference, John will present his keynote, “The Idea of Belonging in a Diverse World,” which will expand on many topics he introduces in his episode of Voices of Vision Leaders. He will speak on diversity, equity, and inclusion and tell why it is more than race and gender. The audience will leave with an understanding of digital accessibility, its importance, and why proximity builds empathy.  

Join us in person in beautiful Tampa this spring! VSA invites industry professionals and leaders to provide service to or with people who are blind or have low vision to reflect on our industry’s impact on society and share ideas for a transformative future. The 3-day event will offer opportunities to attend exceptional learning and networking sessions on topical issues, including specific learning tracks for CEOs, Programing, Fundraising/Administration, and Advocacy.  

Attend the #1 conference to advance your professional development, organizational effectiveness, and more.