Being a successful leader encompasses accountability and responsibility, which are two critical characteristics. Willingness to own your mistakes, and of your employees, bolsters cohesiveness and trust.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Regina Blye, Chief Program and Policy Officer of the Reeve Foundation Looking Forward: 20 More Years of the National Paralysis Resource Center.
On her 45th birthday, Regina Blye gave herself the gift of a new challenge.
Before sustaining a spinal cord injury at the age of 10, basketball was her passion. But Blye hadn’t played on a sports team since and missed the camaraderie.
She called up a wheelchair rugby team and — after becoming its only female member–spent an exhilarating season competing in the local league.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you ended up where you are?
I was born in Brownfield, Texas, a small country town just outside the City of Lubbock. There, I sustained my spinal cord injury (SCI) at the age of 10. I would never have thought an end-of-the-school-year slumber party would change my life forever, but it did. I went from being a high-energy athlete with aspirations of becoming a professional basketball player to being a gun violence survivor and a person with quadriplegia. Life dealt me a different hand, so I struggled to learn how to live my life as a black disabled female using a wheelchair in rural “nowhere.” Today, this does not seem as daunting of a task to overcome. But, in the late 80s, it was especially difficult to have an obvious disability, limited financial means, and a rowdy personality. For context, I sustained my disability prior to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the establishment of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, so federal protections were not available and there were few resources for people living with significant paralysis. Unknowingly, my parents and I were disability advocates fighting for appropriate and immediate personal assistance services, access to accessible education, and respect for my new existence. Thankfully, my super-hero parents gave me the strength to succeed.
I gained pure clarity when I was in high school about the overt discrimination still ahead of me. After the passage of the ADA and years of seeing me use a wheelchair, certain people in my town thought it was still acceptable to verbally abuse me for being me. I received many discouraging comments but being told I would never be anything because I was “black, female, and handicapped” almost broke me. My stepfather and mom helped me realize people will ridicule you, but you must push on. After some time, I accepted this advice and learned to live my life unapologetically. While in Texas I graduated from West Texas A&M, and became a radio DJ, and TV news producer. I was selected as Miss Wheelchair Texas, hired as a Community Integration Specialist, selected as the Executive Director of the State Independent Living Council, and appointed by President Barack Obama as a public member of the United Access Board. Years later, I moved to Washington, DC to serve as a Program Officer with the Administration for Community Living (ACL). As of February 2022, I serve as the Chief Program and Policy Officer overseeing operations of the Reeve Foundation’s National Paralysis Resource Center (NPRC). Honestly, the struggle is still real, but I no longer push on. I am now rolling sexy!
You are a successful leader. Which three-character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Being a successful leader encompasses accountability and responsibility, which are two critical characteristics. Willingness to own your mistakes, and of your employees, bolsters cohesiveness and trust.
- I strive to be a long-term thinker and strategist. Planning according to federal and state regulations yields success when you truly understand the requirements and can develop quantifiable goals. Ultimately, I need to help my team understand the need for continuous change and identify new approaches to solve problems or improve processes.
- Personal and professional motivation is needed to keep leaders going and attain goals despite setbacks. In addition, good leaders try their best to exceed and not just meet expectations.
Can you share a story about one of your greatest work-related struggles? Can you share what you did to overcome it?
My greatest work struggle started prior to my current position. I became the youngest black disabled female to serve as a State Independent Living Council Executive Director in the United States. Starting out, I was well-versed in media and communications, but I quickly learned I needed more management skills to lead a state-wide organization. Thankfully, I had a dedicated support network that guided me in the right direction.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
The Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation’s National Paralysis Resource Center (NPRC) has an extraordinary outreach program, and we are expanding our audience to ensure we are meeting everyone within the paralysis and disability community. Some crucial facts that motivate our outreach to various groups within the disability and paralysis populations are:
- Appropriately, “61 million adults in the United States live with a disability”
- “More than 3 million children in the U.S. had a disability in 2019, slightly up from data collected more than a decade ago.”
- “1 in 50 Americans are living with some form of paralysis. That is almost six million people.”
- “24% of injuries have occurred among non-Hispanic blacks, which is higher than the proportion of non-Hispanic blacks in the general population (13%).”
These alarming facts indicate the NPRC must continue our efforts to add various strategies to our current remarkable outreach efforts, because those we serve are not a monolith. For example, we have new Racial Equity Grant opportunities that fund projects that explicitly benefit people of color living with paralysis and individuals living in rural or unserved populations.
The third annual Reeve Summit will take place in Washington, DC, on October 13–14, 2022. We will discuss topics addressing access to healthcare, health equity, caregiving, research, transportation, education, and emergency preparedness.
The Reeve Foundation has new Diversity Equity inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) initiatives such as:
- Revamping our cultural awareness training content for the NPRC’s Peer & Family Support Program.
- Refining our DEIA message internally and externally.
- Reviewing the NPRC’s inclusive system that supports our Quality of Life Grants Program, to increase outreach to diverse communities to receive more funding opportunities.
Fantastic. Let’s now shift to our discussion about inclusion. Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
The Reeve Foundation is working to ensure we constantly promote and highlight diverse individuals living with paralysis. For example, we ensure that when we review material, we try to recognize the impact of the program in development. This can be as simple as making sure we discuss internally if a picture utilized on our material can be interpreted as offensive to a particular group. Or, as complicated as recognizing the need to ensure we are developing relevant content to reach all communities living with paralysis (women, older adults, BIPOC, LGBTQA+, etc.). Our approach ensures cross representation is present within all our programming and materials. For example, “In 2018, non-Hispanic blacks were twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to die from diabetes.” Also, “African American adults are 60 percent more likely than non-Hispanic white adults to be diagnosed with diabetes by a physician.” And “African Americans are 50 percent more likely to have a stroke (cerebrovascular disease), as compared to their white adult counterparts.” The statistics emphasize our need to vary our programs and services to gain support from each group, and for our work to be successful.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have an inclusive work culture?
Companies are missing opportunities to learn about the amazing people that are achieving major successes daily. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it is vital that employees feel they can bring their true selves to work. It’s important for companies to recognize their employees choose to work for them, and it’s only right that companies accommodate all to ensure they feel they belong. Another perspective is the more authentically inclusive your organization is the more opportunities you gain to increase your success and impact. This can be accomplished by ensuring individuals within your company feel empowered to speak up and provide their perspective on a topic they wouldn’t have felt safe to do so in a non-inclusive environment.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires businesses to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. For the benefit of our readers, can you help explain what this looks like in practice? What exactly are reasonable accommodations? Can you please share a few examples?
The US Department of Labor defines accommodation as “a modification or adjustment to a job, the work, environment, or the way things are usually done during the hiring process.” The Reeve Foundation offers opportunities for every employee to request an accommodation when needed. We offer flexible work hours, hybrid work options, and competitive sick and vacation annually. At the Foundation, we also support our employees by providing electronics, adaptive equipment, and modifying their workspace to accommodate mobility devices. We aren’t perfect but we continue to try to improve our overall employee experience.
Aside from what is legally required, what are some best practices that can make a business place feel more welcoming and inclusive of people with disabilities? If you can, please share a few examples.
Ensuring that policies are in place to help mitigate bias in various areas of operation. For example, hiring, performance appraisals and allowing people to be human. Our work is serious, but we don’t want to be so serious and rigid that we lose amazing people because we couldn’t recognize the humanity in them, and only wanted a robot that follows orders. For instance, we don’t want a person to feel that if they made a mistake or need accommodations, they would be judged negatively for that.
Can you share a few examples of ideas that were implemented at your workplace to help promote disability inclusion? Can you share with us how the work culture was impacted as a result?
The employees at Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation work under an open-door policy that leads our work culture. We pride ourselves on providing opportunities for staff to get to know each other. We pair new employees with a buddy to help them learn about programs, the mission, and culture. At the Reeve Foundation, we have a high retention rate for key roles of importance. Additionally, employees that join our organization at the entry-level receive support and encouragement for development. This is key because in the last quarter we promoted three amazing professionals and expanded positions to hire more staff to ensure the workload is distributed equitably.
This is our signature question that we ask in many of our interviews. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started My Career”? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Learn to build sustainable wealth at an early age.
- Find a good mentor and coach to help you develop and achieve your career goals.
- Never accept the statement, “we do this all the time” without questioning the process.
- Learn to say no without remorse.
- Work-life balance is possible if you delegate and trust others.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story about how that was relevant in your own life?
My favorite quote is a derivate of Gresham’s law and a saying people use when playing dominoes, “all money isn’t good money”. The quote keeps me grounded. It helps me to remember chasing after jobs for money only, will make you rich and unhappy. When I was younger, I valued money way more than I respected the mission and quality of work. Thankfully, I now find satisfaction in being a public servant and giving back to my community.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Embrace your strengths and weaknesses and learn to love yourself unapologetically. It took some time for me to realize the power of being a beautiful, disabled, black woman.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I welcome readers to visit our website at christopherreeve.org, sign up for our newsletter and connect with us on social media.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!
Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Regina Blye Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.