|The Spirit of Alan Reich
EXECUTIVE UPDATE, March 2004
An astonishing one-fifth of the U.S. population is disabled, and one man in particular is determined to improve their lives: Alan Reich. As founder of the National Organization on Disability, friend of some of the world's most influential people, and a fellow association leader committed to constant innovation and tangible results, Reich has never let a little fact like his own quadriplegic condition stop him.
By: Jennifer J. Salopek
He may be quadriplegic, but no one will argue about the power — or compassion — of the founder of the National Organization on Disability.
Alan Reich has a goal as lofty as almost anyone can imagine: Improve the lives of the 54 million Americans who are disabled. But the scale of that aim does not intimidate Reich — nor does much else that this president and founder of the National Organization on Disability (NOD) encounters in his daily life both as an organizational leader and as a quadriplegic.
Reich effects such fundamental change by extending his organization's reach into the classroom, the workplace, and the community — all of the places where life is lived. NOD defines a person with disabilities as somebody "who is unable to perform one or more major life functions." Disabilities might be visible, as in a person who uses a wheelchair, or invisible, as with carpal tunnel syndrome or mental or emotional disabilities. And the number of people who qualify as disabled under this definition is growing, both due to the increase and aging of the overall U.S. population and better, more-inclusive census methods.
In 1982, when Reich founded NOD, 37 million people with disabilities lived in the United States. When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed in 1990, that number had risen to 47 million. Today, one-fifth of the population has a disability.
So how does such a small organization best serve such a huge, diverse, and challenging constituency? With only 15 staff members, NOD's annual budget runs around $2 million — or less than four cents annually per constituent. Even so, its work embraces a wide range of life issues: community, education, employment, politics, religion, transportation, healthcare, technology, and emergency preparedness.
"Our actions are carefully managed and prioritized. We spend a lot of time asking ourselves, is this the most important thing we can be doing?" says Reich. "We select what we do based on whether others aren't doing it and whether it will impact all people with disabilities."
NOD is not a direct service provider. Rather, it works as a promoter and catalyst to bring about change and an improvement in attitudes. "NOD opens the gates; other agencies push people through," explains Reich.
To open those gates, Reich and his staff focus on mass communications to change attitudes and partner with group leaders and influential people, especially disabled people in leadership positions who can act as role models, such as Jim Brady and Christopher Reeve. Using these high-profile supporters as spokespersons, "we're able to demonstrate what a disabled person can do," Reich says. "They help us organizationally, but more important, they're helping people with disabilities.
"We must be careful to allocate our resources," he continues. "Relying on partners is a lasting principle for NOD. We select and cultivate those partners based on our mission, which is unchanging." He describes NOD's primary mission as "to expand the participation and contributions of the disability community."
His efforts have a special credibility: Reich fulfills this mission not only as a servant to the cause but as a representative member of the community he serves. A diving accident in 1962 left him a quadriplegic and permanent wheelchair user.
"I refused to accept the fact that I was going to be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. I was determined to get out of it and motivated to work for a cure," he says.
Measure of a Man
Reich's work as an activist didn't begin right away, however. After spending nine months in the hospital and supporting four children under the age of six, he went back to work full time at the Polaroid Corporation.
"I didn't have a lot of time to feel sorry for myself," he says. "As my friend Jim Brady says, 'You play the hand you're dealt.' … I was fortunate, really. I had my education behind me, lots of family support, and a job waiting for me."
A native of Pearl River, New York, Reich has attended Dartmouth College, Middlebury College Russian School, Oxford University, and Harvard. He holds a master's degree and an MBA, and he speaks five languages. He served as an infantry officer in the U.S. Army and as a Russian-language interrogation officer in Germany. While at Polaroid, Reich was an executive in manufacturing management and corporate long-range planning. He stayed there for seven years after his accident, turning to government service in 1970, when he became U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs.
"At the State Department, I became exposed to the disability problem in the world — millions of people who were neglected, discriminated against, and poverty stricken," he says. "I was also impressed by the efficiency and hard work of my colleagues there. My style became more broadly focused."
His frank take on reality, combined with his broad work and educational experience, especially in the international arena, led him to believe that he could indeed create positive change. "I felt that I had a responsibility [to other people with disabilities] and had always had an interest in international affairs, so I went to the United Nations. You must go straight to the top," Reich says.
His efforts eventually led the UN to declare 1981 as the International Year of Disabled Persons, and Reich became president of the organization coordinating American activities in observance of the year: the U.S. Council for the International Year of Disabled Persons. Afterward, leveraging the momentum from these observances, Reich led the council's evolution into an independent organization — NOD.
Three years later, Reich founded the Bimillennium Foundation to further extend the reach of the 1981 event and to encourage leaders of nations worldwide to set year-2000 goals aimed at improving the human condition. He also served on the People-to-People Committee on Disability and on the boards of the Paralysis Cure Research Foundation and National Paraplegia Foundation. He was the first wheelchair user to address the United Nations and has had an audience with the pope.
Clearly, Reich has uncommon access to world leaders and many powerful people, but one can sense the personal motivation behind his agenda when he says, "It is so important to realize that, for the 54 million of us living with disabilities, there are at least that many family members who are also directly affected. It's a big universe."
Rolling Out the Welcome Mat
In the business world, NOD gets right to the stakeholders with its CEO Council, composed of more than 100 leading companies and their chief executive officers, who are committed to increasing employment and opportunities for people with disabilities. Reich got the CEO Council off the ground with the help of his friend William "Bill" Kupper, president and publisher of BusinessWeek. Kupper runs donated public service announcements in the magazine several times per year.
Kupper, who has known Reich for four years, decided to support NOD because Reich "is an outstanding individual, and the organization really tries to attend to getting more of the disabled into the workforce," he says. "We at BusinessWeek thought that was a very noble cause: to remind executives who run companies that the disabled can be just as productive — if not more so — than the next person they interview."
He calls Reich "very motivational. He sets a high standard and is an excellent role model."
Eric Vaughn is another NOD supporter. Vaughn is legislative counsel to the National Structured Settlements Trade Association (NSSTA), the only association represented on the CEO Council. NSSTA provides information about NOD and its critical agenda issues through its Web site and its 500-plus broker offices nationwide — and gets something in return.
"In association work, we become deeply, aggressively involved in our own issues. Working with NOD has given us an opportunity to learn about entirely new legislative issues and view them through another association's eyes," Vaughn says.
NOD partners with associations and other nonprofit organizations through its National Partnership Program. Participants are organizations whose primary focus is not disability but whose efforts can help reach people with disabilities and increase their participation in society, especially through local chapters and programs. NOD awards each national organization $1,000 annually to conduct a cash award competition that recognizes outstanding disability programs by local affiliates.
"Associations are our channel to people. Plus, we want to inspire and motivate nondisability organizations," Reich explains. He adds that he is personally motivated by other association leaders: "In association work, there's no such thing as a priority. Leaders must do everything at once. We can't focus too narrowly and must constantly make difficult decisions."
Aside from the programmatic angle, associations can do more to reach out to the disabled community, particularly with regard to employment, Reich emphasizes. He points to a Labor Day 2003 report by the Employment Policy Foundation, which predicts a shortfall of more than seven million qualified workers by 2013, and urges employers to explore new applicant pools, such as senior citizens and people with disabilities.
Reich notes that employers sometimes operate under a misperception about what disability actually means, and that perception can be colored by fear — fear of onerous accommodation measures, attendance problems, even lawsuits. "Associations can hire people with disabilities and promote hiring in their local chapters and affiliates," he says. "They can communicate through their publications and programs about this great resource of ability that can be tapped. Associations are so good at communication, at highlighting best practices, and at featuring successes."
Further, he continues, associations can be inviting by being accessible, architecturally and otherwise. In the past decade, for instance, Web sites have become one of the most crucial concerns of accessibility. Indeed, the content of many organizations' sites are not accessible to people with vision, hearing, or mobility impairments. Total accessibility to government Web sites and those operated by government contractors is mandated in legislation known as Section 508, part of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998. NOD's Web site serves as an example of total accessibility, and Reich encourages association leaders to visit it to learn more. (Other information on creating accessible Web sites can be found at www.section508.gov.)
In addition to promoting employment of people with disabilities, NOD runs a Community Partnership Program (CPP) that consists of dues-paying localities that want to welcome and improve access for citizens and visitors with disabilities. The CPP conducts an annual $25,000 Accessible America Award competition to reward a city or town for its disability progress. Winners to date are Phoenix, Arizona; Venice, Florida; and Irvine, California.
NOD also launched a unique initiative 14 years ago — the Religion and Disability Program — to urge congregations and religious institutions of all denominations to identify and remove architectural, attitudinal, and other barriers. To support and expand the program, NOD holds an annual Disability Convocation and has published several guides to improving accessibility.
One of NOD's newest programs is its Emergency Preparedness Initiative, launched in late 2001 after the September 11 terrorist attacks brought the vulnerability of people with disabilities to the forefront. Public officials and emergency responders are encouraged and taught how to include people with disabilities in all levels of emergency planning and response. To handle common questions, NOD created a 28-page guide that it has mailed to more than 20,000 members of the emergency management community.
How does an association leader create a climate of innovation? "We are constantly innovating within our programs while operating within the context of our mission," Reich says. "I give people the maximum amount of responsibility that they can handle well. I try to keep people inspired with challenging, meaningful work and try to hire good people in the first place."
In addition to his NOD duties, Reich chairs the World Committee on Disability, which is co-headquartered with his organization. He also helped establish the Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) International Disability Award on October 24, 1995, the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. The award recognizes and encourages progress by nations toward "the full and equal participation of people with disabilities in the economic, social, and cultural life of their countries, regardless of the level of development." The winning country receives a $50,000 cash prize for an outstanding nongovernmental disability organization in the selected nation, which is presented to the head of state at an annual ceremony at the UN. The winner also accepts a replica of the statue of FDR in his wheelchair situated at the FDR National Memorial — the only public monument in the world of a head of state with a disability. The creation and placement of the statue were a direct result of efforts led by Reich, NOD, the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, and the World Committee.
Admirers might believe that Reich, with so many accomplishments, would have to think hard before choosing one of which he is most proud. Not so. Creating NOD has brought him the most sense of achievement, he says. Indeed, observers wonder how the organization will change when he finally retires.
"The entire NOD staff is inspired by Alan's example," says Brewster Thackeray, vice president and director of communications. "He's here every day, arriving early and staying late. Many of us have quit taking sick days, realizing what an extra effort it is for many people just to come in every day. He inspires us."
For now, though, Reich is gratified and further motivated by the changes he continues to witness: "When I was in school, I had never seen anyone in a wheelchair. There have been great, positive changes in attitudes toward and participation by the disabled. … I consider myself fortunate to be able to do the work that I do." Whether they know it or not, 600 million disabled people around the world are fortunate that he can, too.
Author Link: A frequent contributor to Executive Update, Jennifer J. Salopek is a freelance writer in McLean, Virginia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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