Passion, Leadership, Hope

Alpern winner Yang ’74 is a passionate advocate for people with disabilities
Wednesday, February 26, 2014

One person at a time, K. Lisa Yang ’74 works to heighten society's value for people with disabilities and their right to meaningful paid work.

"I hope, one day, people will understand" that individuals with disabilities belong in the workplace as much as anyone else, she said.

Until then, the retired investment banker spends much of her time advocating for people with disabilities, including two of her three grown children.

Yang will be honored March 27 with ILR's 2014 Alpern Award, which recognizes service and support to ILR, and career accomplishment outside the field of industrial and labor relations.

In 1971, Yang arrived in Ithaca from Singapore, where she grew up. It was her first time away from home.

"I was young, idealistic, and did not have a road map for the rest of my life. I was dealing with a blur of balancing academic demands and coping with personal, cultural and social challenges," Yang said in an interview.

Professor Gardner Clark stands out as an outstanding teacher for her at ILR. "In addition to being a very kind man, he was a great teacher. I thoroughly enjoyed and was inspired by his course," said Yang, one of only two international students at ILR during the early 1970s.

After graduating from ILR, Yang earned an MBA at Columbia University. Then, it was off to Wall Street, where her career flourished.

When she retired in 2001, Yang was on her own. Instead of being supportive, relatives stayed away, either embarrassed or fearful to be associated or called upon for support with her children who are autistic.

As her special needs children grew older, Yang became aware of how young adults with disabilities "age out" of services provided by schools and government agencies.

Cynically, she remarks, "What happens to them after school? They fall off the cliff."

Yang does not accept that having a disability "means you can't be successful."

However, the world of work has to accept that fact, she said.

Acceptance of people with disabilities "makes us better human beings," Yang said, noting that disability touches most people's lives; an estimated 24 percent of American households include at least one person with a disability.

One of the organizations for which Yang serves as a board member is The Devereux Foundation, a national non-profit organization providing services for persons with mental health, developmental and educational disabilities, including those on the autism spectrum.

Yang became involved in the organization when her middle child, Douglas, who is moderately autistic, started day school in his teens at a Devereux school. He now lives in a Devereux group home near Yang's Bryn Mawr, Pa., home.

Eva, her youngest and an "Aspie" (Asperger's Syndrome), will graduate in May with an associate’s degree from Harcum College in Bryn Mawr. Nicholas, Yang's eldest child, graduated from Stanford in 2005 and lives in San Francisco, where he is an investment banker with JP Morgan.

Yang reconnected with ILR seven years ago when she met ILR Associate Dean Susanne Bruyère, director of the school's Employment and Disability Institute (EDI). Immediately, the two recognized a common sense of purpose that has forged a personal and advocacy alliance between them over time.

Yang and EDI share the same vision – helping people with disabilities attain skills and employment, working with companies to raise awareness of the value of employing people with disabilities and how to customize the workplace to help them be successful, and widening the circle of awareness beyond the workplace.

Yang has chosen to support EDI at Cornell in deepening and broadening this shared vision.

A major gift from Yang to EDI has, so far, enabled 18 students from ILR and across Cornell to also become advocates. Through Global Service Learning internships with local institutions in places such as India, Israel and South Africa, they experience "on the ground" employment and other issues facing people with disabilities.

But, more importantly, they are challenged to be part of the solution, Yang said. This summer, two students will work in Israel with the Equal Rights Commission for Persons with Disabilities, the Israeli Ministry of Economy and Israel Elywn, which serves people with disabilities. Additionally, three students will be working in India with the Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement (SVYM).

The gift from Yang, who serves on the Cornell University Council and the ILR Advisory Council, has also expanded the number of EDI disability studies courses that are also open to non-ILR Cornell students and the general public. Currently, there is a one-hour online short course available to the public and production is nearly complete on another online, e-learning six-part course focusing on advancing knowledge and promoting equality and independence of individuals with disabilities.

To quote Bruyère, "Support, such as that provided by Lisa, has been imperative in enabling EDI to expand its reach globally through student Global Service Learning experiences and development of coursework that can reach many more practicing workplace professionals internationally."

"The support has also helped development of our on-campus course sequence. Those classes reached more than 300 students in 2013 and helped prepare them to bring a more informed perspective of disability issues into their future professional careers."

To emphasize her faith in Cornell’s land-grant mission, Yang has established an endowment that sponsors scholarships for international undergraduate students at the university. Separately, she helped fund a position at the Johnson Museum that develops outreach programs in the arts for local children with learning disabilities.

When honored in 2013 by the Cornell Asian Alumni Association, Yang said, "Cornell's land-grant mission has only now become apparent to me -- to provide seamless transition from the world of knowledge to application of educational 'deliverables' to solutions and public engagement to the real world."