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Katie Fields joins SDI to launch Access U

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Even as a student at Webster University, Katie Fields already found herself on the front lines of the fight for disability rights.

She remembers a situation where a set of accessible doors in the business building was not working properly, preventing students with mobility disabilities from getting to class.  One student informed her that the doors hadn’t been operational in six weeks or more. Katie immediately contacted facilities to get the situation resolved. She also invited the student to join her as part of a Campus Accessibility Board. From then on, Katie knew she had found her calling.

“I don’t want students to feel like their disability is a burden or that they need to remain quiet about it,” Katie says. “I think it’s something they need to learn to self-advocate on. A lot of times, they don’t know what resources are actually available.”

Although her degrees are in business administration and management, Katie always felt like there was more to a career than personal success in the corporate world.

“I want to put my business skills to good use,” Katie says. “But If I have the ability to affect positive change and don’t do that, it would feel like a waste.”

Katie was first introduced to the Starkloff Disability Institute (SDI) in 2016 while working at a Job Fair hosted by the Career Planning and Development Center at Webster. At the time, SDI was in the process of developing a marketing internship role and Katie seemed like the perfect candidate to fill it. She became the marketing intern in January 2017, continuing as an actively engaged volunteer even after her internship concluded.

Graduation can be a stressful time for many reasons, not the least of which is the prospect of a lengthy and arduous job search. But Katie wasn’t on the market for long. After receiving her diploma in May of this year, Katie became Starkloff’s College Outreach Coordinator less than a month later, officially joining the SDI team June 3.

Lori Becker, Chief Operating Officer at Starkloff, said the organization was eager to build upon the momentum Katie established as an intern.

“We’ve been waiting a year to bring Katie on board, so we are pretty thrilled the day is finally here,” Lori says. “As an intern with us, Katie created a series of YouTube videos with David Newburger to help employers answer questions about disability hiring. We could see then that she was bright, dedicated and hard-working.”

Katie’s new position involves several interesting challenges, but her primary tasks revolve around education and communication. “I’m ensuring that students with disabilities know about the accommodations they can receive,” she explains. “They have social, academic and physical barriers they’re facing in college, and I want to make sure the Access Offices are aware of that, so we can build some programming to teach students about self-advocacy.”

Disabled students also encounter unique challenges as they graduate college and embark upon their own job hunts. Unfortunately, University Career Centers often lack the expertise to help students prepare for this crucial transition.

“Career offices don’t know how to talk to students about disclosure during interviews and what accommodations look like in the workplace, so I’m trying to help facilitate those conversations,” Katie says.

In an effort to bridge this gap, SDI has introduced a program called Access U. Its curriculum, which Katie is helping to create, includes resume-building, mock interviews and role-playing activities, as well as lessons in self-advocacy and disclosure of disability. Once students complete the classroom component of Access U, they are then placed in internships where they can apply these new skills.

Katie is currently working to build relationships with community partners who can offer these internship opportunities.

“Students will benefit by being able to put some work experience on their resumes,” she says. “It will teach them workplace professionalism, communication and leadership, so they’ll be more competitive as they seek employment after graduation.”

Success in a job like this calls for more than just the proper educational background and technical skills. It requires an uncommon level of personal investment, a quality Lori has already seen in her new hire.

“Katie is passionate about disability inclusion,” Lori says. “In addition to the many advocacy groups she has joined over the years, she has learned some American Sign Language and plans to continue that education.

“You can teach employees many things,” Lori concludes, “but you can’t teach them passion for a cause. That must come naturally.”

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