We believe CommunicationFIRST cannot be effective unless we are led and guided by the people whose interests and rights we seek to defend and advance. We work to ensure the majority of our leadership experiences a communication-related disability or health condition, or otherwise identifies as disabled. In addition, we strive to ensure that our community’s great diversity is reflected both on our Board and in our work. We seek improved leadership representation in the following areas: (a) disability type/health condition, including whether acquired at birth or later in life, (b) type of AAC supports used, (c) race and ethnicity, (d) gender and sexual identity or expression, (e) age, (f) geographic location, (g) professional experience and skills, and (h) life experience and perspective.
Please send ideas for diverse candidates for our governing Board and Advisory Council at any time to [email protected].
Board of Directors
- Grant Blasko
- Niko Boskovic
- Ben Breaux
- Devva Kasnitz
- Rachel Kripke-Ludwig
- DJ Savarese
- Lisa Vallado
- Angelica Vega
- Matthew Wangeman
- Alice Wong
- Alyssa Hillary Zisk
Emeritus Board Members
Jordyn Zimmerman (Chair)
Jordyn Zimmerman, MEd (she/her), is the Chair of CommunicationFIRST’s Board of Directors. During the day, Ms. Zimmerman serves as the Director of Professional Development at The Nora Project, which supports educators in their efforts to teach all students about disability as a valued and expected part of human diversity. She earned her master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction at Boston College in 2021. Before graduate school, Ms. Zimmerman interned at the National Disability Rights Network and completed her bachelor’s degree in Education Policy at Ohio University, where she founded an inclusive collegiate cheer team called the Ohio University Sparkles. As a nonspeaking autistic student who was denied access to effective augmentative communication until she was 18, Ms. Zimmerman has personal experience challenging the educational status quo, experience that is featured in the 2021 documentary This Is Not About Me. Technology helped open Ms. Zimmerman’s world and, in 2014, she began advocating for students through a series of national and global speaking engagements. She has keynoted conferences, written blogs for companies in Amsterdam, and been featured by educators in Singapore. An avid typist and advocate for all students, Ms. Zimmerman is passionate about ensuring every student is able to access effective communication and exercise their right to a truly inclusive education. In 2022, Ms. Zimmerman was appointed to serve on President Biden’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities. In April 2022, she was the only AAC user invited to provide remarks to the first US Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee meeting in years focused on the needs of nonspeaking autistic people. Ms. Zimmerman also serves on the Board of Hillel International. Her personal website is www.JordynZimmerman.com and she can be followed on Twitter at @Jordynbzim. She is also featured in the Anthem Award-winning See Us, Hear Us video series. She communicates most effectively by typing.
Clarissa Kripke (Vice Chair)
Clarissa Kripke, MD, FAAFP (she/her), is Vice Chair of CommunicationFIRST and Clinical Professor of Family and Community Medicine at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF). Dr. Kripke also leads the Office of Developmental Primary Care, which is dedicated to building the health care system’s capacity to serve adolescents and adults with developmental disabilities. She also founded and directs CART Services, a mobile health care consultation team serving adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities in Northern California who are transitioning from institutions to the community or are at risk of losing community placements. She regularly provides in-home primary care to medically fragile and behaviorally complex adolescent and adult patients. For over a decade, Dr. Kripke served as Associate Editor of American Family Physician, the peer-reviewed journal of the American Academy of Family Physicians, where she helped introduce the journal’s evidence rating system for clinical review articles and the Cochrane for Clinicians program to encourage deployment of the highest-quality evidence into clinical practice. Dr. Kripke serves on the founding editorial board of the journal Autism in Adulthood, and is a long-time member of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD), the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine, the American Academy of Developmental Medicine and Dentistry, and the National Association for the Dually Diagnosed. She writes frequently on the topic of access to health care for people with developmental disabilities, and served on the US Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee Working Group on Improving Health Outcomes for Individuals on the Autism Spectrum. In October 2021, Dr. Kripke was invited to provide in-person testimony before a US Senate Judiciary Subcommittee about the need to reform conservatorships and guardianships. Dr. Kripke earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard University and her medical degree from Temple University. She resides in San Francisco with her family and communicates expressively with typing and speech.
Susie Lotharius (Treasurer)
Susie Lotharius, MEd (she/her), is Treasurer of CommunicationFIRST and a disability advocate, community organizer, and educator. Over the past ten years, she has created and fostered several large communities to help support and mentor people with communication disabilities and their families. For nearly a decade, Ms. Lotharius taught reading and English language acquisition in US public elementary and middle schools. She also spent two years teaching in rural Namibia. Ms. Lotharius received a BS degree in Foreign Service with a certificate in African Studies from Georgetown University, and a Master of Education degree with a certificate in K-12 English as a Second Language from George Washington University. She resides near Atlanta with her family and communicates most effectively using speech.
Maria Ott (Secretary)
Maria Ott, JD, MEd (she/her), is Secretary of CommunicationFIRST and Assistant Director for Pro Bono and Public Interest Career Development at the Columbus School of Law at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. Previously, she was an attorney with the law firms of Crowell & Moring and O’Melveny & Myers, and recently spent a year on loan from O’Melveny to Disability Rights Maryland, where she represented students with disabilities. Maria founded and formerly chaired the Nonspeaking Autistic Students Committee at Partnership for Extraordinary Minds (xMinds), a non-profit organization focused on improving educational outcomes for students on the autism spectrum in Montgomery County (Maryland) Public Schools. She has a lifelong interest in the performing arts, having studied and performed in dance and theatre. Maria received her JD from the Columbus School of Law; her BA in French literature and Master of Education are both from the University of Pennsylvania. She is half Brazilian, has lived, worked, and studied around the world, including in Brazil, East Timor, Germany, Switzerland, and Saudi Arabia, and is trilingual in English, French, and Portuguese. Her most effective means of communication is speech.
India Ochs (Past-Chair)
Born with a speech-related communication disability, India Ochs, JD, MPA (she/her), is Past-Chair of CommunicationFIRST, and has been a social justice advocate her entire life. Currently a US government attorney, she previously worked on juvenile detention reform at the Pretrial Justice Institute and served as Legal Officer at the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, coordinating human rights initiatives in 24 countries. She also established and ran a nonprofit at AmeriCorps VISTA to unite youth with and without sensory disabilities through sports and service-learning activities. Since 2006, she has variously served the augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) community as President and Director of the US Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (USSAAC), Vice President of the International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (ISAAC), and member and/or chair of ISAAC’s Bylaws, Family Engagement, and AAC Awareness Committees. Her other volunteer activities have included representing children in foster care as a guardian ad litem, serving as a US Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla Commander, and leading the parent-teacher association at her son’s school. Ms. Ochs earned her law degree from Syracuse University, where she was elected president of her class, taught a “street law” course in a local high school, and assisted with the Pan-Am 103 bombing trial from 2000-2002. She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a BA in Political Science and an MPA with a certificate in Nonprofit Management. In December 2021, she shared her experience in a CommunicationFIRST webinar about Running for Office with a Speech Disability. She resides in Maryland with her son, and communicates expressively using handwriting, typing, or with speech, depending on the context and familiarity of her conversation partners.
Melissa Crisp-Cooper (Director)
Melissa Crisp-Cooper (she/her) is member of the Board of Directors of CommunicationFIRST and is a freelance writer and disability-focused health care advocate. Her moderate athetoid cerebral palsy affects her coordination and speech, and she navigates the world in a purple power wheelchair. Ms. Crisp-Cooper grew up and was mainstreamed in public schools in Southern California. She was lucky to have had a very good speech therapist who advocated on her behalf, and parents who had high expectations and instilled in her a strong ability to adapt and solve problems that has served her well. Ms. Crisp-Cooper served on California’s State Council on Developmental Disabilities and helped to interview hundreds of Regional Center consumers near Sacramento as a Consumer Visitor with the Life Quality Assessment Project. She currently serves as Chair of the WITH Foundation’s Self Advocate Advisory Committee. Ms. Crisp-Cooper received a BA in Human Development from the University of California at Riverside. She loves travel, yoga, and spending time with family, friends, and her cats. Ms. Crisp-Cooper resides in Northern California with her husband, and communicates expressively by typing with word-prediction software and speaking with the assistance of a revoicer. She has yet to find a dedicated AAC device that accommodates her thinking speed and snarky sense of humor.
Gita Gupta (Director)
Gita Gupta, MS, MSE (she/her), is a member of the Board of Directors of CommunicationFIRST and is a disability advocate, community organizer, researcher, and Executive Director of the Anurag and Gita Gupta Foundation. She spent over 20 years in Silicon Valley in senior executive roles focused on market strategy and marketing execution in both startups and global Fortune 100 companies, including SAP and Oracle. For the past decade, she has managed a several-thousand-member global online forum to help raise awareness and disseminate pioneering medical research to help families find answers to complex medical symptoms. Ms. Gupta has a special interest in scientific developments surrounding the pathophysiology of autism, and collaborates with researchers in the fields of neurology, mitochondrial disorders, metabolic medicine, immunology, and the microbiome. Ms. Gupta received a Bachelor of Engineering (Computer Science) degree from Anna University in Chennai, India, Master of Science (Computer Science) from Rutgers University, and Master of Science in Engineering (Information Systems Management) from Purdue University. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area, and communicates most effectively with speech.
Judy Heumann (z’’l) (Director Emeritus)
Judy Heumann, MPH (she/her), was a member of the Board of Directors of CommunicationFIRST from spring 2019 until her untimely passing on March 4, 2023. She was a founder and leader of the international disability rights movement. At age 5, she was denied the right to attend kindergarten due to her mobility-related disability and perception that she would be a "fire hazard." Ms. Heumann, who survived polio at age 2, later successfully challenged the discriminatory denial of her teaching license to become the first wheelchair user to teach in New York City public schools. Her early career included stints at the US Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare and Berkeley’s Center for Independent Living. To protest delays in federal disability rights regulations in the 1970s, Ms. Heumann famously organized sit-ins at US Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) offices around the country, including one in San Francisco that lasted 28 days, an action memorialized in a 2018 episode of Comedy Central’s Drunk History and this award-winning 18-minute documentary. Her other accomplishments include helping to achieve passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1994 and its predecessors, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. She has served as Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitation Services at the US Department of Education, Director of the District of Columbia’s Department of Disability Services, the World Bank’s first advisor on disability and development issues, and the US State Department’s first Special Advisor on International Disability Rights. Ms. Heumann co-founded Disabled in Action and the World Institute on Disability. She hosted the weekly disability rights-focused show The Heumann Perspective. Her 2018 TED Talk, “Our fight for disability rights — and why we’re not done yet,” has been viewed more than 1.1 million times. A 2016 interview with Ms. Heumann conducted by high school student and AAC user Samuel Habib can be viewed here. Her memoir, Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist, was released in early 2020, and her early experiences as a disability rights activist were featured in the critically acclaimed 2020 documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution. She received her undergraduate education degree from Long Island University and her Master in Public Health degree from the University of California, Berkeley. A Brooklyn native, Ms. Heumann resided in Washington, DC, with her husband Jorge Piñeda, and communicated most effectively using speech. CommunicationFIRST published these reflections about Judy shortly after her passing, and Policy Director Bob Williams delivered this eulogy at her memorial service on March 8, 2023.
Tim Jin (Director)
Born with cerebral palsy, Tim Jin (he/him) is a member of CommunicationFIRST’s Board of Directors and advocates for the rights of anyone with a speech-related disability to have access to the communication tools and supports they need. He has used an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device since elementary school in the 1980s. He is Co-Director of Empowerment Programs at the California-based nonprofit Disability Voices United, and his work has been featured by TEDx and in ABILITY Magazine (video). In September 2021, Tim testified by video for a US Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on guardianship reform. Mr. Jin graduated from California State University in Long Beach with a degree in speech communication. He lives in the Los Angeles area.
Lateef McLeod (Director)
Lateef McLeod, MFA (he/him), is a member of CommunicationFIRST’s Board of Directors and is a writer, scholar, performer, and PhD student in anthropology and social change at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. His books of poetry include A Declaration of a Body of Love (2010) and Whispers of Krip Love, Shouts of Krip Revolution (2020). He co-hosts the podcast Black Disabled Men Talk with Leroy Moore, Keith Jones, and Ottis Smith. Mr. McLeod was formerly on the Board of Directors of the International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication. A full-time AAC user, he has consulted for assistive technology developers and providers on technical aspects of AAC. He has performed on stage with Sins Invalid, a disability justice-centered performance project. Mr. McLeod received a bachelor of arts in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master of fine arts in creative writing from Mills College. He is featured in the Anthem Award-winning See Us, Hear Us video series, and he lives in Oakland, California.
Pancho Ramirez (Director)
Pancho Ramirez (he/him) was elected to the Board of Directors of CommunicationFIRST in 2021. As a Mexican immigrant farmworker, he acquired his speech disability in 2003 at age 20 from a brain stem stroke after a car accident, and has lived in hospitals and nursing homes in Northern California ever since. Mr. Ramirez has taught himself English, earned his GED and a web developer certificate from Santa Rosa Junior College, started learning French, and has become an instrumental member of a research team at the University of California, San Francisco, that is developing groundbreaking communication technology to produce words from thought. A one-minute video about this technology featuring Mr. Ramirez can be accessed here. He was profiled in the July 2021 New York Times article “Tapping Into the Brain to Help a Paralyzed Man Speak.” When not designing websites and participating in pioneering research, he visits his local community in his power wheelchair as much as possible. Mr. Ramirez currently communicates using facial expressions, gestures, a head mouse to type on a computer, and a laser pointer to point at a laminated letterboard.
Erin Sheldon (Director)
Erin Sheldon, MEd (she/her), is a member of CommunicationFIRST’s Board of Directors and is a thought leader, writer, speaker, and consultant in the areas of assistive technology, literacy, and school inclusion. Professionally, she serves part-time as the CEO of Integration Action for Inclusion, Ontario’s nonprofit association for school inclusion, and as a part-time consultant for a company that makes AAC software. As an independent consultant, Ms. Sheldon gives professional development workshops and webinars on communication and literacy supports for students with significant disabilities for audiences of educators, speech therapists, and parents. In addition to speaking regularly at major professional conferences in the field, including Closing the Gap, ATIA, and ISAAC, she has written journal articles, book chapters, and manuals for educators. She also developed several dozen free webinars on AAC and literacy instruction for students with significant disabilities for the Angelman Syndrome Foundation’s Communication Training Series. Ms. Sheldon entered the field after her first child was diagnosed with deletion-positive Angelman Syndrome and autism. Previously, she was a negotiator and organizer for labor unions. In her free time, she manages several popular Facebook groups for communities of professionals and families who support individuals requiring expressive communication supports. Ms. Sheldon received an MEd degree in special education from Queen’s University in Ontario, an undergraduate degree in Labor Studies from Western Washington University, and is a graduate of the Partners in Policymaking program. Ms. Sheldon lives in Ontario, Canada, with her family. She communicates expressively by speaking and typing.
Grant Blasko (Advisory Council)
Grant Blasko (he/him) is a young adult nonspeaking autistic student who communicates using augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). He lives in Mercer Island, Washington, where he currently attends Bellevue College. He is also a University of Washington DO-IT Scholar, an active member of TASH’s National Communication Access Workgroup, and an Advisory Council member of the civil rights organization CommunicationFIRST. Since the age of 11, Grant has been advocating for himself and other non-speaking autistics at schools, conferences, and universities throughout the United States. He is passionate about curriculum accessibility, Universal Design for Learning (UDL), and inclusive practices. He has served as a stakeholder on panels guiding autism professionals at the American Occupational Therapy Association, CAST, and the International Society for Autism Research (INSAR). Currently, he is co-designing a course for classroom support considerations for AAC users at New York University’s Program for Inclusion and Neurodiversity Education (PINE). In 2021, Grant completed the Autistic Self Advocacy Network’s Autistic Campus Inclusion Leadership Academy. He was featured in the short, award-winning film LISTEN and his essay was published in the book Leaders Around Me (2019). Grant shares a unique and compelling perspective as a non-speaker with autism and is motivated by the opportunity to stand up for the systemic change needed to improve the lives and educational access of disabled individuals, especially those impacted by autism and communication challenges. His personal website is www.grantblasko.com. For Autism Acceptance Month in 2022, he wrote a guest blog about the need to recognize and accept communication stress. He also shared his reflections on the 2022 Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee meeting. He communicates expressively by typing.
Niko Boskovic (Advisory Council)
Niko Boskovic (he/him) is a nonspeaking autistic man living in Portland, Oregon. He graduated high school in 2019 with a regular diploma, and is pursuing his Associates degree at Portland Community College. Since gaining access to augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) at age 11, he has dedicated himself to writing about life as a nonspeaking autistic, and finds that he is best able to express his lived experience through poetry. Niko is a columnist for Spectrum Life Magazine, and wrote a monthly blog for four years for the Oregon Council on Developmental Disabilities. He regularly presents at conferences and virtual events. Niko’s poetry has been published in Montana Mouthful (2020); Lunch Ticket’s Amuse-Bouche: Spotlight (2019); In Parentheses Magazine (Fall 2020); The Pointed Circle (2021); MediaRites’ The -ISM Youth Files (2022); and Kind Writers Literary Magazine (August 2022).
Rachel Kripke-Ludwig (Advisory Council)
Rachel Kripke-Ludwig (she/her) is a nonspeaking, college-bound autistic advocate. She is a Community Partner in the AASPIRE Community Based Participatory Research Group. She is working on a five-year study to develop tools to measure outcomes for adult autism services and is developing a suicide prevention project for autistic adults. Rachel leads The Other Option, a workshop and program for AAC users with high support needs who want to direct their services. The program models how to run a successful group of self-advocates who require Communication Regulation Support. She is on the organizing committee for the Stanford Neurodiversity Summit, and is a frequent speaker on neurodiversity and the rights of nonspeaking autistics. To learn more about Rachel, please visit Rachel Tells It All.
DJ Savarese (Advisory Council)
David James “DJ” Savarese (he/him) works to disrupt ableism as an artful activist, public speaker and scholar, multi-genre writer, teacher and practicing optimist. Co-Chair of The Alliance for Citizen Directed Supports, he designed and directs the Lives-in-Progress Collective, a national, grassroots project focused on expanding and transforming self-direction. A 2022-2023 Iowa Arts Fellow and Zoeglossia Fellow, he is the author of Swoon, whose title poem is nominated for a Pushcart Prize. DJ has also published Studies in Brotherly Love, a co-authored chapbook based on the artwork of minimally speaking autist Malcolm Corley, and A Doorknob for the Eye, a poetic series focused on the artwork of seven autistics. Co-producer, narrative commentator, and subject of the Peabody Award-winning, Emmy-nominated documentary film Deej: Inclusion Shouldn’t Be a Lottery (2017), he teaches inclusive, multigenerational, global poetry writing classes through Listen2Us, and poetry writing courses for alternatively communicating autistics through the LYNX Project in Chicago. An advocate for the communication and literacy-based educational rights of all students, he founded Listen2Us: Writing Our Own Futures as an Open Society Foundations Human Rights Initiative Community Youth Fellow. A Pushcart Prize nominee and a notable essay in Best American Essays (2018), his lyric essay “Passive Plants” in The Iowa Review disrupts the cultural assumptions underlying communication and movement biases. A public scholar, he teaches and presents nationally on a range of topics, including a National Endowment for the Humanities-sponsored talk on “Disrupting Ableism Through Artful Activism.” His published scholarship includes an article on multimodal communication in Logic magazine, “Disrupting the Garden Wall” (2021); the co-authored essay “Enmeshing Selves, Words and Media, or Two Life Writers in One Family Talk about Art and Disability” (2021); an essay in Autism in Adulthood on his embodied experience, “Coming to My Senses” (2019); and “Unearthing the Concepts That Bury Us,” a chapter forthcoming in the scholarly anthology Disability in Dialogue. One of only two AAC-using American autistics to be fully included from kindergarten through college graduation, he has been actively disrupting the status quo since he was five years old. Before moving to Iowa City, DJ graduated with a double major in Anthropology and Creative Writing from Oberlin College in 2017.
Angelica Vega (Advisory Council)
Angelica Vega (she/her/hers) is a May 2020 graduate of American University in Washington, DC, where she earned both department and Latin honors in Philosophy. Angelica is a passionate advocate, and served as a 2021-2022 Law Fellow of The Coelho Center for Disability Law, Policy and Innovation at Loyola Law School. She has continued her work with The Coelho Center as Chair of its Advisory Committee on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access, a committee that she proposed and co-created. In 2018, she was a Lime Connect Fellow, a leadership training program for college students with disabilities. Angelica has interned on Capitol Hill for Representative Frank Pallone, Jr. (NJ-06), and for The Arc of the United States. In 2022, she, along with other prominent disability activists, met with the White House Gender Policy Council and the White House Office of Public Engagement to discuss reproductive health care in the disability community. Angelica has written several guest blogs for CommunicationFIRST, including “When Professors Are Welcoming: Disability Inclusion in the Classroom,” and “This Black History Month, It’s Time for Disability Justice,” and “Communication Disabilities and the 2020 Presidential Debates.” As an Afro-Latina with multiple disabilities, including a speech disability and PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome), her long-term goal is to advocate for people with communication disabilities to be included in all aspects of society. She also aspires to run for public office, as she described during CommunicationFIRST’s December 2021 webinar, “Running for Office with a Speech Disability,” which she co-moderated. Angelica lives in New Jersey and currently works at JPMorgan Chase & Co. as a Data Management Associate.
Alice Wong (Advisory Council)
Alice Wong (she/her) is a disabled activist, writer, media maker, and consultant. She is a relatively new AAC user and nonspeaking person. Alice is the founder and director of the Disability Visibility Project, an online community dedicated to creating, sharing, and amplifying disability media and culture. Alice is the editor of Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century, an anthology of essays by disabled people and Disability Visibility: 17 First-Person Stories for Today, an adapted version for young adults. Her debut memoir, Year of the Tiger: An Activist’s Life, is available now from Vintage Books. Disability Intimacy, her next anthology, will be out in 2024. Twitter: @SFdirewolf.
Alyssa Hillary Zisk (Advisory Council)
Alyssa Hillary Zisk, PhD (they/them), is a member of CommunicationFIRST’s Advisory Council and a consultant for the AAC Counts Project. They are an Autistic part-time AAC user. Alyssa does AAC research, some of which is related to their own AAC use and needs and some of which is not. They completed their PhD in Interdisciplinary Neuroscience in May 2021 at the University of Rhode Island, working on brain-computer interfaces for people with ALS. Their undergraduate degrees were in Chinese, Mechanical Engineering, and Mathematics, and they have a master’s degree in Mathematics. Alyssa is the AAC Research Team Lead for a company that makes AAC software and one of the moderators of the popular Facebook group, Ask Me, I’m an AAC User. They also teach neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island and mathematics for The Art of Problem Solving.
Tauna Szymanski (Executive Director & Legal Director)
Tauna Szymanski, JD, MPA (she/her), is the Executive Director and Legal Director of CommunicationFIRST, the only civil rights organization dedicated to protecting and advancing the rights and interests of the estimated 5 million people in the United States who cannot rely on speech alone to be heard and understood. Before joining CommunicationFIRST in 2019, she spent more than a decade practicing at a multinational law firm in London and Washington, DC, representing clients in high-profile environmental and climate change-related cases before federal and state appellate courts, in federal regulatory proceedings, and in environmental commodity transactions. While in private practice, her pro bono and volunteer work focused on disability rights and inclusive education. She represented the National Disability Rights Network as amicus curiae in the US Supreme Court case of Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, 137 S. Ct. 743 (2017), which unanimously upheld the rights of students with disabilities to seek justice under the Americans with Disabilities Act and other civil rights laws. Ms. Szymanski received her JD from Stanford Law School, MPA and MA in Urban Planning from Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs, and BA in international relations from Carleton College. She is licensed to practice law in New York and Washington, DC, and serves on the Board of Directors of the Disability Rights Bar Association. Ms. Szymanski grew up in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Israel, Burma, and the United States, is neurodivergent and multiply disabled, and expresses herself most effectively by typing, though is usually able to communicate using speech.
Bob Williams (Policy Director)
Bob Williams (he/him) helped co-found CommunicationFIRST in 2019, after retiring from a distinguished four-decade career in federal and state government and the nonprofit sector, most recently as Director of the US Independent Living Administration at the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). He is a nationally recognized leader on policy issues relating to supporting people with the most significant disabilities to live, work, and thrive in their own homes and communities. When Mr. Williams was born with significant cerebral palsy in the 1950s, his parents were told to put him in a state institution and to never look back. His parents rejected that advice; he did not enter that institution until he was an adult assisting with the lawsuit that closed it down. As a teenager, he led a successful strike of students in his segregated special education class to fight for equal educational opportunities and inclusion in regular education classes. After graduating with a degree in Urban Affairs from George Washington University, he joined the team appointed to monitor the closure of Forest Haven, the District of Columbia’s institution for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, advocating on behalf of 120 residents with complex communication, developmental, and health needs. Mr. Williams has also served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of HHS for Disability, Aging, and Long Term Care Policy, and Commissioner of the US Administration of Developmental Disabilities. He was HHS Secretary Donna Shalala’s principal advisor on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and he co-led the task force that developed the US government’s successful arguments in the Olmstead v. LC case before the US Supreme Court. Subsequently, he led HHS’s efforts to facilitate state implementation of the Olmstead decision to reduce the unnecessary institutionalization of people with disabilities and ensure they receive services in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs. Mr. Williams has also served as head of the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) Office of Employment Support Programs, Senior Advisor to the Deputy SSA Commissioner for Retirement and Disability Policy, and has held positions with the United Cerebral Palsy Association, the Youth Policy Institute, and the US Senate Subcommittee on the Handicapped. He has served on the Boards of TASH, Quality Trust, and Hear Our Voices. A video of Mr. Williams answering questions about the passage and implementation of the ADA on its 20th anniversary can be viewed on YouTube. For over 60 years, Williams has relied on an array of AAC strategies, including a series of speech generating devices over the past three decades. He lives with his wife, Helen Rader, in Southwest Washington, DC, where they enjoy visits with the grandkids, walking along the riverfront, Netflix binges, and all things Springsteen.
Tony Alexander (Program Associate)
Tony Alexander, JD (he/him), comes to CommunicationFIRST having previously served as the inaugural Policy Director for the Autistic People of Color Fund and the Policy Manager for the Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network. Mr. Alexander received his JD from Northeastern University of School of Law and BA in American Studies with a Sociology concentration from Ursinus College. He is most passionate about using collective organizing and policy advocacy through an intersectional lens as drivers for change and empowerment for fellow disabled and multiply-marginalized individuals. A metro Atlanta native, Mr. Alexander currently resides in Los Angeles with his partner and four dogs. His most effective means of communication is speech.
Ren Koloni (Program Associate)
Ren Koloni, MA (they/them), is a Program Associate at CommunicationFIRST and disability justice worker. As a multiply disabled and chronically ill autistic person, they’ve been doing justice work from the sickbed for over a decade, beginning with their work as a community moderator for a transgender youth support blog in high school. They earned a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Gender Studies from the University of Mary Washington and a master’s in English from George Washington University, where they focused on disability and racial justice. In addition to their work with CommunicationFIRST, they serve as an expert advocate on the National Healthcare Transition Resource Center’s Youth Steering Committee, and provide support to the RAISE Center, a national youth disability resource hub. Ren’s background in linguistics, pedagogy, and trauma studies, combined with their passion for disability justice, drives their interest in communication access, including plain language and AAC. They are semi-speaking and communicate most effectively by typing.
Erika Prado (Program Associate)
Erika Prado, MA (she/her), is a social justice advocate and researcher. Over the five years before joining CommunicationFIRST, she designed and conducted original research projects that explore how English and Spanish-using Latinx augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) users and their families manage the benefits and limitations of AAC technologies in order to better support today’s diverse communicators. She has actively collaborated with AAC users on these projects with the goal of centering their lived experiences and challenging misconceptions about people who do not reliably produce speech. Her research projects have been supported by the National Science Foundation and the Ford Foundation, and she has presented her research findings at conferences and to families across the United States. Ms. Prado received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Minor in Sociocultural Linguistics from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a Master of Arts degree in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago. She lives with a disability, resides in Southern California, and communicates most effectively with speech in both English and Spanish.