Career Conversations with Tai Tomasi
APH’s Director of Accessibility, Diversity, and Inclusion
When you grow up as one of 27 children adopted from all over the world, embracing diversity comes naturally. That’s certainly true for APH’s Director of Accessibility, Diversity, and Inclusion, Tai Tomasi (she/her/hers), J.D., M.P.A., who joined APH in January 2021.
Blind since birth, she considers herself fortunate to have grown up in a family that encouraged her to do everything her siblings did, as well as being mainstreamed in a public school that offered resources such as adaptive sports programs.
“I didn’t think about blindness,” she admits. “When I was a little kid, I didn’t even know I was blind. I believed I could be anything I wanted.”
Tai has certainly proven that to be true. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Political Science, then a master’s degree in Public Administration, followed by a law degree, all from the University of Iowa. During and after college, she worked for the Iowa Department for the Blind. Once she’d finished law school, Tai started working for Disability Rights Iowa, where she had a paralegal to assist her and felt well-supported, although technology could present challenges.
“I sometimes had to explain to my employer why I needed technology that could be expensive,” Tai says, “but once I explained why I needed it then it was fine.“
Proving Anything is Possible
Although other attorneys were sometimes surprised to learn Tai was blind or would provide inaccessible documents because they didn’t know any better, she says the biggest challenges she faced were societal ideas about what blind people can do.
However, while working at Disability Rights Iowa she left no doubt that as an attorney, she could handle any case that came her way.
“Disability law covers a lot of different areas: employment law, helping people with jobs to maintain; housing law, because sometimes landlords don’t grant accommodations; health care law, because Iowa had privatized Medicare, so I was representing people whose benefits had been cut although they truly needed them,” she says. “I also did some special education law, helping students get the right services.”
Tai also learned to think on her feet. At one administrative hearing, the computer that contained everything she uses as an attorney who is blind wouldn’t start. Fortunately, she had put all her questions onto a separate Braille display she had with her. “That client was depending on me, so it was a great lesson in being prepared,” she says.
Bringing Even More Accessibility, Diversity, and Inclusion to APH
After moving on to work for the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind’s adult program for a couple of years, Tai applied for a position she was interested in at APH. As it turned out, the accessible presentation she created for the interview, which also had an emphasis on diversity including introducing herself as multiracial, landed her a job – just not the one she had applied for.
APH’s Director of Accessibility had recently left the organization, so APH created a new position for Tai that takes full advantage of all her skills. What’s more, it reflects APH’s commitment to accessibility for everyone.
“The underlying premise of our program is you can’t have full diversity, equity, and inclusion unless everything is accessible,” she explains. “I’m making sure our internal accessibility is in tip-top shape and also thinking about external accessibility, like evaluating APH’s products to make sure they’re as accessible as possible, such as creating products easily used by people who don’t speak English.”
Tai is also providing support to any organization that reaches out to improve their own accessibility.
“Implicit bias can cause people to make assumptions that aren’t necessarily correct, so it’s really important to talk with the populations impacted – those you want to serve or hire – to find out what they need to improve systems of inequity.”
Speaking Up and Reaching Out
Although Tai certainly encourages people to advocate for themselves by explaining what they need to be successful in their work or their life, organizations must be proactive about making sure their environment is accessible.
“Do your research – find out everything you can about people with disabilities or anyone whose lived experience is different from yours,” Tai says. “Someone who is visually impaired, for example, might have to explain themselves to 100 different people.”
Even better, she says, companies should look to people with disabilities to design technology and systems for people with disabilities. Not only do they automatically understand their needs, it helps the community in the process by hiring them.
Tai acknowledges the important role mentors have played in her professional development, whether they have been sighted or blind.
“I think reaching out to people who have had similar experiences can be extremely valuable, especially if you’re experiencing microaggressions and feeling people don’t believe in your capabilities,” she says. “It can be hard for anyone to advocate for themselves in the face of adversity, but confidence can also come from people who are sighted. There was a judge I worked with back in law school who was not only a wonderful mentor but a great believer in what people with disabilities can do – like the time we rode a tandem bike together across Iowa. People with disabilities can do anything.”
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