Rodney Christopher

As a consultant at FMA, I provide training, consulting and coaching to build the capacity of funders to engage with grantees about their financial needs. I also conduct business development for the firm, and recently started as the lead on a major project working for and with a collaborative of five of the largest private foundations.

Rodney gives a presentation to clients.
Rodney gives a presentation to clients.

To have lived the life I have is, in itself, an accomplishment I am proud of. I was raised on welfare by a single mom in a working class neighborhood of Brooklyn, and the odds were stacked against me in many ways. But I succeeded academically, and was building a nice career until a new obstacle presented: being diagnosed with a crippling mental disability.

Learning I have Bipolar II disorder – and how to live with it reasonably well – has been the biggest challenge of my life, professionally and personally. I’m grateful to my long-time therapist, Dr. Philip Spivey, because it was he who helped properly diagnose me and ensured I had appropriate treatment, including what I call my “head meds” (I’ve learned it often takes much longer than in my case for folks with my condition to be properly diagnosed).

Experiencing major depressive episodes for many weeks at a time during each of the four years till I was diagnosed, and once more in the middle of my first year of proper treatment, was soul-robbing. I was terrified that I would never be okay and capable of living a productive life. Somehow, I just kept trying. I was able to hide it for quite some time, but then I no longer could. I reached my lowest point and knew that if I did not admit myself to a psych ward I would have taken my life. It was just too hard to continue living with uncontrollable periods of deep depression, during which nothing was logical and I had no will to live.

I was fortunate to have incredibly supportive bosses. I must single out Clara Miller, for whom I worked 18 years at two different places. Her ability to respond with concern and give me space to learn about and manage my condition is a major contributor to the fact that I am alive today. I had to pull back, slow down and focus on my health. Along the way, I discovered that my condition is hereditary. On both my mom’s and dad’s sides of my family I have had relatives on the bipolar spectrum—I lost two uncles to suicide. And I learned a sobering data point: 1 in 5 people who have my diagnosis ultimately take their lives. I have now lived for more than 11 years without a major depressive episode. I have had a lot of help and it has been a lot of work. I must remain vigilant about having recovery time from intense periods of work. Without it, I could easily enter a hypomanic phase. If I spend too much time there, I run a strong risk of plunging into a debilitating depression. And I must always have patience with periodic anxiety and low moods. Clara—at Nonprofit Finance Fund and the Heron Foundation—and now my bosses at FMA, have all supported my working 4-day weeks, which allows me to manage my energy.

I was terrified that I would never be okay and capable of living a productive life. Somehow, I just kept trying. Rodney Christopher Senior Consultant, Fiscal Management Associates

Prior to joining FMA, I did not have much confidence that a new employer would consider hiring me, given my disability and because working a 4-day week is what best maintains my health. I figured that companies structure jobs to be held by 5-day people, why would they be open to hiring someone at 80%? Yet, when I embarked on the search that led to my current job at FMA, I summoned up the courage to disclose my disability early in the process. I did so largely to release the pressure I knew I’d feel if I waited to mention it either just before or just after getting/accepting an offer (should I have been so lucky), only to learn at that late stage that it would be a problem for the firm to consider my condition a disability and to be willing to accommodate it. I’d much prefer to be disappointed early. Amazingly, firms expressed a willingness to allow me to work 4 days/week.

I have continued to be open about my disability with the colleagues I work closest with. The folks at FMA have been, without exception, really supportive. Given that I am a consultant and trainer who works primarily from home it is extraordinary that I am supported and even encouraged to organize my travel in ways that allow me to manage my energy.

Earlier in my career I wanted to become a CEO or founder of a nonprofit organization. My disability forced me to re-evaluate. Today, I can say honestly that I am living out my professional aspirations. I do work that I love and am told I do well. Ultimately, I am more grateful than proud—many great people and positive circumstances appeared throughout my life that were purely good luck.

Kyle Waterworth

I was born and raised in rural Central Florida. I grew up riding horses, picking blackberries and wandering around barefoot. I spent a lot of time near or in the water. Whether at the beach, ponds or lakes – there are bodies of water everywhere down there.

Kyle hard at work on his laptop computer
Kyle hard at work on his laptop computer

I guess you could say my journey to becoming an accessibility professional began at birth. My poor vision is a result of a congenital birth defect; essentially, my optic nerves didn’t develop correctly. I also have astigmatism, strabismus, nystagmus, severe myopia, glaucoma, and even minor cataracts. When I was in middle school I lost most of the vision in my right eye over a two-year period for reasons that still aren’t entirely clear, doctors at the time said it was due to glaucoma but I’ve heard 2nd, 3rd, and 4th dissenting opinions from other medical professionals since.

It was this sudden loss of vision that sparked my and my family’s interest in accessibility, and is the primary reason I enrolled at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind. Over the course of my high school years I learned orientation and mobility, including cane use, braille grades 1&2 (a little of 3 but that’s long gone), as well as using a screen reader (remember Window Eyes?), keyboard-only navigation, zoomtext, and a host of other accessibility technologies.

My journey to becoming an accessibility professional began at birth. Kyle Waterworth Accessibility Architect, Charter Communications

Also during these years I discovered my passion for music. I was the guitarist for a school sponsored rock band, “Outta Sight” (I know :P), that played all over the state. I haven’t stopped playing music since. I’m a guitarist, vocalist, drummer and DJ. I am currently the drummer for doom metal sensation Flat Earth, and regularly DJ bars and private events.

After high school I went to college at Florida State University majoring in classical guitar, however, I transferred to the University of Central Florida and graduated with a B.A. in Business and Management in 2014.

I graduated in August of 2014 and got on a plane to Denver three days after my graduation. I worked a series of terrible jobs after arriving to Denver – for example, door knocking sales and telemarketing – before finding a job at Walmart assembling bikes. I quickly climbed the ladder to Assistant Store Manager and learned A LOT about managing people and leading teams. It was while working there that I began moonlighting doing accessibility testing on a contract basis. That experience, plus knowing members of the blind community in Denver, led me to my current position as an Accessibility Architect at Charter Communications/Spectrum. I’ve never been happier at a job in my life.

Mark Balsano

Headshot of smiling Mark Balsano wearing gray collared shirt under black jacket
Headshot of smiling Mark Balsano wearing gray collared shirt under black jacket

As Vice President, Accessibility at Charter Communications, the second largest cable company in the country, I am responsible for the planning, strategy and execution of accessibility efforts and the Universal Design of the company’s products and services. Our goal is simple: to enhance the overall experience for customers, including those with disabilities. It’s not hard for me to imagine these customers’ experiences, because I am one of them.

I have low hearing, and before I started using assistive technology I’d often miss things in meetings and on calls, and found it increasingly difficult to function in the workplace. With the adoption of Bluetooth hearing aids, my hearing impairment has no impact on my work. It still takes an inclusive employer to see that, however.

It’s not hard for me to imagine these customers’ experiences, because I am one of them. Mark Balsano Vice President, Accessibility, Charter Communications

I came to Charter for several reasons, not least of which was its inclusive culture. My goal is to build the Spectrum Accessibility Office into a world class program; one that is recognized as best of the best by our industry and consumers alike! To do so, I need not only the best designers and engineers, but also people who live and breathe accessible devices. 60% of my team has a disability, and that diversity is our core strength. We are the users of the products we make.

Our largest challenge is getting people to understand the need for products and services to be accessible. I am very passionate about trying to connect people to what accessibility really means and why it’s important, and I often use personal stories to demonstrate the power of assistive technology (AT).  For me, AT has made all the difference, as it has for my father (who also has low-to-no hearing) and millions of others.  Living these experiences drives a passion for accessibility and a strong desire to improve the lives of others.

I am so proud to have had the opportunity to speak at the White House on accessibility and technology, and to have led the efforts to launch two separate accessibility offices; first the Corporate Accessibility Technology Office (CATO) at AT&T, and currently the Spectrum Accessibility Office (SAO) at Charter. Universal Design is better design for everyone, and my team helps all Americans enjoy their home entertainment—we feel pretty good about that.

Noah Al Hadidi

Noah Al Hadidi posing with service dog
Noah posing with his service dog, Amiga

At seven months old, Noah Al Hadidi lost his eyesight to retinitis pigmentosa, a rare inherited degenerative eye disease. From then on, Noah’s story would be one of perseverance and determination.

Throughout his childhood, Noah’s family sought to help him regain his eyesight using the techniques and resources available to them in his native country, Oman. At 4 years old, his parents burned him on the back of his neck and head in hopes of improving his vision. Although the treatment was ineffective, the scars remain, as do the memories of his visits as a young boy to hospitals across India and Dubai – none of which were able to help him.

During the early 1990’s Oman did not have the resources available to support blind students. And so, at 7 years old, Noah accepted a scholarship from Oman’s Ministry of Education and left his family to study at Saudi Bahraini Institute for the Blind in Bahrain. He spent ten years in Bahrain and traveled to Saudi Arabia in 2005 to complete his higher education three years later.

A common belief in the Middle East is that vision is required to understand science and math. [I] wanted to prove them wrong. Noah Al Hadidi Accessibility Architect, Charter Communications

According to Noah, a common belief in the Middle East is that vision is required to understand science and math. Noah wanted to prove them wrong.  After graduating high school in 2008, he decided to continue his education and pursue a degree in Computer Science. After months of writing letters to Oman’s Ministry of Higher Education, the organization finally granted him a scholarship to study in the United States.

In 2009, Noah sold his mobile phone to pay for his visa to the United States. In his own words, “Being blind, my mobile phone is the main way I am able to communicate with friends and family, and so, this was a really difficult decision.” Noah flew on his own to Colorado, and, determined to improve his basic English, enrolled at Colorado State University (CSU) in 2010, beginning his studies with the Intensive English program. Throughout college, Noah worked with different departments at the university to improve courses and websites for people with disabilities. He graduated in 2015 from CSU with his Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and in 2017 with his Master’s degree in Computer Information Systems.

Noah challenged a number of cultural barriers in the years following his arrival to the U.S.: He got a guide dog named Amiga, defying the common perception that dogs are unfit as pets. He became the first blind person from Oman to study science. Noah’s success even inspired Oman to send more students with disabilities to the U.S. to study science.

Noah was hired as Charter’s first Accessibility Architect in 2018. Within his first year at the company, he obtained five professional certificates in accessibility. Noah’s goal is to help Charter become the most accessible company in the U.S. for both customers and employees.

James Gilliard

Years ago, when people would ask me to describe how my vision was, the best analogy that I could give them was ‘how a photo looks when it’s gotten wet and then dried’. Essentially, I was telling them that it would be faded, blurry and distorted.

Photo of James Gilliard at event high-fiving a teammate
Photo of James Gilliard at event high-fiving a teammate

That description was from more than twenty years ago. In the intervening years, my vision has greatly declined due to RP (retinitis pigmentosa). It’s gone from being able to read normal books and papers to needing a small magnifier to relying on technology to be ‘normal’.

Having a strong background in computers and technology, I started my own IT consulting company (Meow Productions) in 2001. After graduating from college, I began working within the payment industry (CardConnect Cardnetco). At the beginning of both these work endeavors, things worked reasonably well — a large monitor, a CCTV device at home and a Magnabrite in my pocket made things workable.

I think the biggest reason I've been able to succeed while the vision continues to decrease is my ability to adapt. James Gilliard Senior Consultant / President, CardConnect Cardnetco / Meow Productions

However, as time progressed and my vision decreased, these weren’t enough. Slowly I had to start relying on others to help with forms and paperwork that I used to be able to do. I also noticed that it became harder to make out things on the computer screen. When these occurred, we found ways to adapt so that others could help me with the paperwork, along with finding a better monitor.

Thankfully when the next major changes occurred in 2011, technology was there to help soften the blow. Between major parts of our processes becoming paperless, technology such as the Pebble and an even larger screen, things continued pretty much ‘status quo’.

Almost 10 years from that point, I think the biggest reason I’ve been able to succeed while the vision continues to decrease is my ability to adapt. There are so many different pieces of technology that I now use on a daily basis. And the technology is only going to get better as time goes on, making ‘normal’ life more obtainable.

Over the last several years, one important benefit of working has been a sense of purpose. Even when there are bad days, it’s much harder for me to say ‘I’m just going to go hide from the world’ since I know that my colleagues and clients are counting on me. Being able to work through those times has also helped to build confidence to try other things I would have never though possible.

Recently, this has included an unplanned and unexpected athletic career. The snowball started with a single 5K and has now grown into 12-15 Triathlons and 8-10 5Ks per year. It’s been and continues to be possible because of the support of Dare2Tri, Challenged Athletes Foundation, Team RWB, Achilles, Naperville Noon Lions Club and a long list of other supporters, all of whom I’m extremely grateful to. The family and support networks that I’ve built because of this are and will continue to be extremely beneficial as the vision decreases. And I know that because of their support I’ll find ways to continue to adapt and be able to work even when I no longer have sight.

I believe that ANYONE with a disability can and WILL be a valuable part of any company’s workforce if they’re willing to try. An employer believing that they can be creates a huge win for both of them. It also helps others have the desire to ‘come out of the shadows’ and talk with employers when they see friends with disabilities succeeding in their new positions.

Charnette Lewis

Headshot of Charnette Lewis wearing red blazer
Headshot of Charnette Lewis wearing red blazer

I am a Senior Account Analyst and Communication and Speech Coach. I have been diagnosed with advanced Narrow Angle Glaucoma in both eyes five years ago.

Due to the eye diagnosis, I have lost a large percentage of my vision in both eyes and considered legally blind. I will use my professional communication skills to promote awareness on Visual impairments.

AnnMarie Duchon

Headshot of AnnMarie Duchon
Headshot of AnnMarie Duchon

I have the honor of working with people with disabilities in higher education. As a person with a disability myself, I am aware of the challenges one faces in the academy and I am blessed to be able to support others on their journey.

Disability is a gift; another way of experiencing the world through the many lenses of identity we share. My disability has taught me grace, perseverance and to reserve judgment. Disability teaches us the power of struggle, the appreciation of success and the limitless ways in which we all experience life and joy.

Alec Frazier

Photo of Alec Frazier holding a copy of his book,
Photo of Alec Frazier holding a copy of his book, "Veni! Vidi! Autism!"

I have always been a proud self-advocate. At first with proper guidance, and then with experience, I was able to parlay my talents in order to help others. Now, I am a proud consultant helping to further the disability agenda. I have done a great deal of public speaking, have lobbied and befriended legislators, have mentored peers, and have helped to increase visibility for those with disabilities or facing other forms of adversity.

A key turning point in my career took place when a large advertising firm was able to help me become published, and allowed me to give the gift of publication to a number of other authors with disabilities. Through the Stories about Us campaign, we are increasing disability visibility in the key world of publishing, and helping dreams become a reality!

Peppy Greenberg

They call me Peppy because I am extremely energetic and enthusiastic. I was born in ’57 and, growing up in the sixties, had a hard time in school. It was not until I was in my 20s (in the ’80s) that I was diagnosed with ADHD. I also suffer from anxiety.

Headshot of Peppy Greenberg
Headshot of Peppy Greenberg

Nevertheless, I have had a long and varied career. I worked as an Executive Assistant for one of the Look Closer campaign sponsors — PricewaterhouseCoopers — for 22 years, so I know they are committed to working with people with disabilities. I now work as a paraprofessional for special needs high school students and also work part-time as a barista at Starbucks. Starbucks is well-known for their dedication to employment diversity in all areas and works hard to support everyone they employ. The Department of Education in New York is, of course, deeply committed to helping its students make their way in the world and, having disabilities, I am more qualified than many to support and encourage them.

I love both my jobs, but working with kids is extraordinarily gratifying and I attempt each day to build them up, let them know how much we care, and make sure they know how special they are. I let them know that their disabilities do not have to hold them back and can actually make them more qualified than others for particular jobs. They just need to figure out what they do best and follow that lead to find satisfaction and meaning in their lives.

I let them know that their disabilities do not have to hold them back Peppy Greenberg Paraprofessional/Barista, Department of Education/NYC and Starbucks

Emily Zimmermann

After losing my sight as a sophomore in high school, I had to refigure everything.

I love and pursue motivational speaking, getting my degree in speech communications at Metropolitan State University. In my last semester at MSU, I started to inquire about internship opportunities to help my resume. At that point, MSU was in the process of updating their website, ensuring it met the ADA criteria. So although it wasn’t what I was looking to do at the time, I took it.

In the process of that internship is when I learned how much I truly enjoy accessibility work. Emily Zimmermann Accessibility Intern, Charter Communications

In the process of that internship is when I learned how much I truly enjoy accessibility work. There is always more to learn, and things are constantly evolving and changing, but that is what keeps me interested.