Wendy Strobel Gower Challenges Assumptions at Work
With a professional mission of challenging assumptions about limits around disability, Wendy Strobel Gower has a long to-do list and a long list of accomplishments. How is she so effective? What is her take on successes and challenges in her field? We found answers to these questions and more in this interview, which has been edited and condensed.
How did you begin in the disability field?
My first job after college was at a pre-work program for people with significant disabilities. We would give the program participants a job and they would do it, and then we would pull it apart and give it back to them to do again. There was a belief that they were not “trainable” to work.
People with disabilities were made to feel that because you have a disability you can’t and you won’t succeed at work. And you don’t matter. I didn’t believe that was right, and I didn’t last long in that job.
What was another early job for you?
I worked at the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center at Virginia Commonwealth University doing innovative work to help people who have significant physical disabilities find real paying jobs using assistive technology. [Assistive technology is equipment, software or products that allow people with disabilities to maximize their skills and functions.]
I would meet with employers and say, “what tasks do you have that could benefit from a more focused effort? Those tasks could be an opportunity for a person with a disability.” Using technology that maximized people’s skills and abilities, we found jobs for people.
“My career is based on the idea that it’s not possible to determine what somebody can achieve based on some disability or diversity characteristic that they have. Everyone has a right to participate in society to the best of their ability.” —Wendy Strobel Gower
What do you do for fun?
I love to read epic sci-fi books, especially huge world-building stories by authors like Brandon Sanderson, George R.R. Martin or N.K. Jemisin. The ones that take you away to entirely new worlds.
I dedicate a lot of time to my husband and to my one human child, who is 12, and my four fur children — two dogs and two cats. More because of silent, sad-eye pleading than any commitment to fitness, I walk a few miles a day with my dogs. One of my cats demands regular games of fetch, the other just demands food.
I enjoy trying new recipes with my NY Times cooking subscription when I have time. It doesn’t always work as planned — but it’s always fun! I could say the same of gardening. It’s fun, but my thumbs lean more black than green.
Finally, I enjoy fun and fancy shoes — especially boots!
Why did you choose to not pursue a doctorate after earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling?
I took one PhD course at Cornell. It helped me realize that I’m not a theory person. I’m a practical person. I didn’t want to be meshed in the theory of what could be. I am more interested in moving forward to make things better.
What is your time management philosophy?
I try to get things done as quickly and efficiently as possible.
I think it’s important to have a full understanding of what’s on your plate and to have a solid plan in place to do that work, and then to implement the plan. Another important piece of success is to rely on the expertise and the skills of your team. Together, you can do what you could never do alone.
Do you have any tips on moving projects forward?
It’s all about having relationships with people and doing an honest assessment of the work. It’s also about trust and being trustworthy.
You need a plan. You work with other people to build a plan. And then you work together to get the job done. You should always do what you said you would do.
What is your favorite snack?
I love to snack on whatever fruit is in season. My favorite snack right now is apples.
How long have you been working at the Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability?
What does the Yang-Tan Institute do?
The institute is dedicated to changing culture and systems around disability. We want to make sure people can be involved in their communities and get jobs and be successful at work. We want people to understand that disability is just part of human diversity.
In addition to national and global impact, how does the institute impact New York state?
Providing practical information to employers, school districts, government agencies, and others across the state and nation who assist people with disabilities is a core focus for the Yang-Tan Institute. We aim to share research-based, best-practice recommendations, bridge gaps between state and federal policy, and assist separate agencies with working together around a common goal.
The institute has been working with the NYSED Office of Special Education for nearly two decades to support educators to improve the experiences and outcomes of teens with disabilities as they prepare to leave high school and begin to move forward in life. Currently, the Institute is providing support as part of the Office of Special Education Educational Partnership.
Another important project is the New York State Consortium for Advancing and Supporting Employment, which trains community-based professionals who help people with disabilities find jobs and support ongoing employment and career development. We are actively working to improve outcomes for justice-involved youth with disabilities in New York as well.
The Northeast ADA Center, which I direct, provides a hotline, website, training, and more to help everyone understand their rights and responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act and other disability-rights laws. We support ADA implementation in communities, state and local government, and businesses in our region. Our region includes New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. The center also works closely with partners to support their work to implement the ADA. For example, the center’s access specialist sits on the NYC Construction Code Accessibility Committee. This group advises on accessibility requirements in the New York City building codes. The committee’s work was recognized by Mayor Adams in 2022 for their invaluable contributions.
The institute typically has over a dozen big projects, so our employees have broad experience with disability issues based on collaboration across these diverse projects. We inject that experience into everything we do, so the results of one research study spill over into multiple outreach efforts, and feedback from our outreach and training contribute to future research plans. Everything that we learn from our projects comes home to New York and helps us to make a difference here.
“What I love about working at the Yang-Tan Institute is that I work with smart people who do great research that we can then apply to making people’s lives better in the real world.” —Wendy Strobel Gower
What influence did Thomas Golden have on you?
Thomas [the institute’s former executive director who passed away in 2020] believed in me. Everyone needs someone in their life who just knows they can do it. It gives you such confidence in your ability to make a difference.
Susanne Bruyère [the institute’s academic director] and Thomas Golden built the institute together and created a vision for who we are and what we do, and I’m proud to help carry on that vision.
Another part of your job is directing the Northeast ADA Center. What is that like?
The Northeast ADA Center team is incredible. Many of us have been working together for 15 years. There’s a lot of respect amongst the team for each other. Everyone has their areas of expertise and has carved out a niche for themselves, so everybody is doing something that they believe in strongly. Everyone is also willing to pitch in to help each other and cover the work. It’s been great to watch everyone learn and grow and do work they love to do.
For culture change around disability in the workplace, where has the most progress been made?
We’re starting to see a shift in general attitudes about what people with disabilities can do. There is less in the way of low expectations. People are starting to realize the benefits of hiring people who think and approach work a little bit differently, and how that can contribute to an organization.
How can workplaces improve more quickly?
Workplaces need to more fully take on the idea that accommodation policies are about getting people what they need to succeed rather than about giving someone with a disability something extra. If everyone gets support to succeed, then everyone succeeds. We don’t need to categorize everybody into this group or that group.
We need to keep on removing systemic barriers that get in the way of the success of people with disabilities, especially in terms of career opportunities. When people don’t understand what’s possible, they don’t make changes in policies and procedures to make sure people can access all the services that are available.
How can we remove systemic barriers around disability faster?
Education alone will never get us where we need to be. Nor do I think regulation alone can make the difference. You can’t legislate culture change.
We need to challenge what’s possible as early and as often as possible. For example, when kids are in classrooms that include people with disabilities, they get the idea that people with disabilities should be in the real world.
At the Northeast ADA Center, we are challenging what’s possible with a series of videos for children in elementary school that will eventually be part of a curriculum. We want to get it in people’s heads early that anything is possible, and to show examples. We are saying don’t limit yourself, and don’t limit other people.
What do you love about your job?
This is an incredible opportunity to make a difference. I believe in the people at the Yang-Tan Institute, and I want to make sure they are in an inclusive environment that is supportive of their work and that lets them do work that they enjoy, and that helps them feel like they’re making a difference. The work that we do is important. The people who are doing it are therefore very important.
Would you say that there are no limits to what the Yang-Tan Institute can accomplish?