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Making Connections

As Executive Director Dr. Kathy Sheppard-Jones tells it, 2023 was a year of connections for the Human Development Institute.

Connections, according to Sheppard-Jones, are a key aspect of how we do our work – one that can extend beyond the needs of individual projects. “Grants end. Leaders will come and leaders will go. If we make connections across people, across organizations and across efforts, we will endure and we will continue to build on what has been accomplished. That is particularly important for an organization like ours,” Sheppard-Jones said. “We want to innovate. We do not want to make silos full of re-invented wheels. We are doing important work. We will continue to do so. That takes all of us and a spirit of collaboration, knowing that we are all very different and that is our strength in building inclusive communities, addressing inequities, and improving lives of all people who experience disability across the lifespan.”

Throughout the year, HDI worked hard to forge new connections, strengthen old ones, and ensure those connections help it work towards its mission. One of the most exciting new connections this year was with the state and its Olmstead planning activities. “Many of us are familiar with the Olmstead decision in 1999. It found that unjustified segregation of People with Disabilities was discriminatory and violated the ADA. This was a landmark case,” Sheppard-Jones said. “HDI participated in developing Kentucky’s first Olmstead Compliance Plan in 2002. HDI will again have a leadership role in the next Plan, in partnership with people with disabilities, family members, state agencies and community partners. That connection will help ensure that Kentuckians with disabilities have choices and agency when it comes to community-based services, long-term care options, housing opportunities and employment.

HDI also built up its connection to the University of Kentucky, furthering its work with the Department of Early Childhood, Special Education, and Counselor Education. With this alliance, HDI launched the College and Career Studies program during the 2022-2023 academic year. It also worked with the university to establish a Disability Employee Affinity Group. “This is especially exciting because it is a new offering of the University. I am hopeful that it will be an avenue to help change the dialogue about disability and increase pride and sense of belonging for staff and faculty,” Sheppard-Jones said. “It is also a next step toward gathering data about disability in higher education. Conducting research and educating students is part of our charge at HDI and how wonderful it is to recognize our own University as leading the way building a workforce that is inclusive of disability. This can be an exemplary connection that we can amplify together.”

Outside of the University community, HDI worked alongside the Chamber of Commerce to hold the inaugural Inclusive Workforce Summit, creating new connections with professionals across the state, especially in the healthcare and employment fields.

“With over 250 registrants, attendees at this event last September connected with each other to consider how we can all improve opportunities for a highly underutilized segment of the talent pipeline – people with disabilities,” Sheppard-Jones said. “It was an incredible day, with connections to resources, to new ideas, and to new people who are committed to continuing the conversations in the days ahead.”

But connections are not just between organizations – they are also between people, and HDI values meaningful connections between its employees as well, engaging in intentional efforts towards fostering friendships among coworkers and an inclusive workplace. “Everyone works for different reasons, and we all have different interests and motivation. In recognition of this, we try to provide many different ways for people to connect with each other. This can be through our own seminars, trainings, office hours and events – thank you to Kristen Dahl and Dr. Nicholas Wright for your ongoing amazing offerings; or it can happen through connecting our staff to other activities UK offers that may be of interest,” Sheppard-Jones said. “How lucky are we to work in an environment that nurtures so many different learning opportunities?”

And it goes beyond learning opportunities that one would traditionally associate with a university. “It is also UK Health and Wellness ongoing events, finding a self-paced training on Excel, or going to a concert at the Singletary Center for the Arts. I mentioned the Disability Employee Affinity group, and there are several others as well” Sheppard-Jones said. “There is so much we can experience here, if we are interested.”

Looking to the future, HDI hopes to further its work in the early childhood field. “HDI continues to do powerful early childhood work under the leadership of Mary Howard, Dr. Joanne Rojas, and an incredible team of content coordinators, and regional and community level powerhouses. Early childhood efforts are connected to workforce, families, and communities in many ways,” Sheppard-Jones said. “I want to help strengthen our early childhood connections to workforce and employment and build awareness and opportunity for career exploration for children with disabilities and developmental delays at the earliest ages. It is never too late, but it’s never too early to start making connections. And we must do this if we want to improve outcomes as children grow up!”

Sheppard-Jones is also thrilled about future connections that are already planned.

“I’m also really excited about some plans that are in store from our Research and Evaluation Committee,” she said. “That group is going to expand to include faculty from across the University. This will bolster connections for new research, expand our audience for training, and broaden outreach to students. All these efforts increase awareness of HDI at UK. We do not want to be a well-kept secret!”