2020: A Year of Gratitude, Grit, and Greatness
(Including Some Grief and Groaning Along the Way)
By: Shawn Henry, Executive Director, OCALI
I don’t think I would be alone in saying that most of us are ready to tie a bow on 2020. From experiencing a global pandemic to political and social justice unrest, and learning how to “Zoom,” social distance, and work and learn from home, this year was a year of unprecedented change and uncertainty. What everyone quickly learned was that life became different because our world became different—personally and professionally.
As I reflect back on the year, there are three words that come to mind—gratitude, grit, and greatness.
In the face of so much uncertainty, I believe the antidote is gratitude. But, expressing gratitude is something we have to continuously practice to perfect. Our thoughts can very easily turn to all of the challenges we’ve faced, particularly in a year like this. It seems everywhere we turn, there is another negative news story, another barrier to success, another roadblock in our way. So, at a time when it is so easy to have an attitude of, “Are you kidding me? Not another problem!,” we must choose to have an attitude of gratitude.
I am grateful to work with a team of professionals who are committed to a mission. I am grateful for our many partners in education, technology, healthcare, business and community, policy, and government. I am grateful that we are living through a time in history that we will someday tell stories about, that our grandchildren or great nieces and nephews or other children in our lives will ask us about. It’s not an easy time by any means, but it is definitely a historical time—and we need to appreciate that.
We must choose to find the things to be thankful for. And we must choose to express that gratitude to those who have supported us along the way.
While many things were constantly changing around us, one thing remained constant for our team—and that was OCALI’s unwavering commitment to inspire change and promote access for people with disabilities. Supporting our community and bringing hope and inspiration to the people we serve, became more important than ever. We just had to rethink how to deliver on that mission.
I have never been more proud to serve our staff and to witness their hard work, dedication, innovation, and passion for serving people with disabilities and our collective community. Despite being physically separated and challenged to think big and outside of the box, our team found new ways to keep our important work moving forward—always laser focused on ensuring educators, professional, and families had access to accessible materials, online learning, and other resources during the pandemic. I can honestly say that some of our best and most creative and impactful work happened this year.
I recently came across this quote from former NFL player, Jerry Rice, and I think it summarizes how grit and perseverance contribute to moving forward—particularly when faced with adversity: “Today I will do what others won’t so tomorrow I can accomplish what others can’t.”
Greatness is defined as the quality of being great, distinguished, or eminent. Greatness is also about making an impact and serving others with our passion, talents, and skills. When I think about each member of our team at OCALI, I see greatness all around me. I see people working and serving beyond themselves. I see countless hours and enormous amounts of energy spent ensuring that people with disabilities and those who live with, love, and care for them have what they need, particularly during this unique time. I see barriers and adversity being turned into advantages and opportunities.
Throughout the year, it would have been easy to fall victim to our circumstances. And if I’m being honest, it’s not always easy to choose the right mindset. But, once we realize that we have a choice when faced with adversity, we quickly learn that we are in control. Achieving greatness is not limited to who you are, what you do, where you live, or how you grew up. Anyone can do great things.
Grief and Groaning
While I try to remain hopeful and optimistic, I would be remiss to think that we haven’t experienced some grief and groaning along the way this year—myself included. Whether that be from home schooling our children or not being able to play sports or participate in extra-curricular activities, or being quarantined because of the virus, our lives have been inconvenienced in many ways. But these inconveniences pale in comparison to the grief that many of us have felt—grieving the loss of family members or friends who have succumbed to this dreadful virus. Our hearts ache for those who have lost loved ones and we want you to know that we are here for you. THIS COMMUNITY is here for you.
The roller coaster ride of 2020 has certainly had its ups and downs and twists and turns. And while I am so proud of our staff and partners and everything we have accomplished this year, we are far from where we want to be, which means there’s more work to be done. That’s why we will continue to explore and learn new ways of listening, understanding, and modeling. We will continue to work together with our partners because we know that we cannot do it alone. When we collaborate, we bring new ideas and diverse perspectives that expand our thinking, practices, and work. And, ultimately, our impact.
As we prepare to tie a bow on this year and this unique time in history, remember: Be grateful and grind like no one else. Take time to grieve and groan as you need to—we’re all human.
So long 2020. Great things await!
Making the Switch:
How OCALICON Transitioned from an In-Person to a Virtual Event
Like most events in 2020, OCALI made the decision to transition OCALICON from a face-to-face event to a completely virtual event.
While the format would be different, the conference planning team was committed to designing the same high-quality, best-in-class professional learning event that included the fun, creative, and collaborative energy that people had come to expect.
The team knew things would be different because our world is different. But “different” opened the door for new ideas and new ways of doing things. “Different” presented the team with “opportunities”—opportunities to think big and outside of the box.
Hear from the OCALICONLINE planning team and feedback from attendees, as they share about this year’s conference experience, including some funny stories, touching moments, lessons learned, and tips for others planning virtual events.
What were you most nervous about in making the transition from an in-person event to a virtual event?
Are we allowed to say ‘everything’? There was so much we were nervous about because there were so many unknowns. Initially, there were nerves about whether we were even making the right call to transition to online-only. We made a decision in May about an event in November, and some wondered if that was premature. Fortunately, time proved that right because the highest number of COVID cases in Ohio to that point hit the very week of the conference. But after the decision was made, implementation questions took center stage. Things like: How do we project attendance? How do our expenses change? How do we continue to create connections? What about exhibitors? Like the rest of the world, we were flying by the seat of our pants, making rapid-fire decisions and compressing our entire implementation process down to several months. But, we knew no matter how many questions and uncertainties we were being faced with, we had to figure out how to give this event our very best because educators, service providers, parents, and policy makers needed the content and expertise our staff, speakers and presenters provide.
As an organization committed to promoting access and inspiring change for people with disabilities, how did you ensure accessibility needs were met in an online environment?
Accessibility is our top priority, not only as an organization but also within the context of OCALICON—it’s at the forefront of all that we do. There were several areas where accessibility played a significant role:
1) Preparing presenters. In some ways, our presenters are an extension of our reputation as an event, which means if we expect everything we create as an organization to be accessible, then we should expect the same of our presenters. To prepare them, we coached them on making accessible presentations and handouts, explained the importance of describing what’s on their slides as a way to provide audio description for those who are blind or visually impaired, and instructed them on how to use Zoom chat in a way that was most helpful for those who are simultaneously using screen readers or watching a sign language interpreter.
2) Partnering with our event production company. We teamed up with Markey’s Rental and Staging, an event production company that we historically used for our in-person event to help us bring OCALICONLINE to life. We worked closely with them to make sure that every single session was captioned and that they were able to place interpreters within the necessary sessions, using picture-in-picture functionality. We spend a lot of time educating our contractors and partners on our needs and what it actually means to make something accessible. If they can develop a deeper sense of what we are actually trying to accomplish and really understand why it matters so much, then we find that they also get on board with our mission and commitment to meeting the needs and expectations of everyone involved.
3) Developing the online platform. We have an in-house team of all-star web developers, and OCALICONLINE would have been non-existent without them. They are well-versed in creating and designing accessible websites, evaluating everything from color contrast to alt text in images to font sizes to running tests with screen readers to make sure everything is being tagged and coded properly. When you have an event that is 100% online and your website is your primary means of access, if you have people who can’t navigate it or it’s not user-friendly, you’ve lost them. The people we serve are too important to us for us to let that happen.
Your conference tagline is, “Welcome to the community. There’s a place for you here.” How did you maintain that sense of hospitality and community in a virtual setting?
One of the questions we began asking ourselves almost immediately after making the decision to flip the format was, “How can we still create a tangible experience in a completely virtual environment?” That’s where the idea of creating a hospitality kit sprang forth. We decided we would create a custom-curated, locally-sourced thank-you box for all of our presenters, and an abbreviated version of that for all of our general attendees. We knew we were asking A LOT from our presenters this year, and we wanted to make sure they knew how grateful we were and that we cared about them. We also wanted our attendees to feel valued, so we created a fun little surprise that we sent to them through the mail – which also helped create buzz leading up to the event. We sincerely care about every attendee that participates in OCALICON, and we wanted people to know that and be able to hold something in their hands that was a tangible expression of our sincere gratitude and appreciation. Especially in 2020.
Once we had put something tangible in their hands, during the live event, we wanted to provide them with direct connections to our staff. We hosted OCALI Central, which was an all-day Zoom meeting managed by our staff. Staff members floated in and out all day, facilitating conversations and connecting with attendees around any questions they might have. People want to know there is a real person on the other end of the computer or the phone, so we place a high value on putting our attendees in direct contact with our staff and experts. As an organization, we want to be in the trenches as much as possible with the people we serve. So any opportunity where we can connect and chat with the community, we’re going to do it. We crave the networking and interaction just as much as our attendees!
Give us some ‘behind the scenes’ scoop. What is something unexpected that happened during the event that caught you by surprise?
From an event production standpoint, there was one moment when Markey’s lost power and internet connection, which caused most of our sessions to stall out for a bit and our own hearts to skip a beat. Markey’s had teams in Louisville, Indianapolis, and Columbus, but the main hub was in Indy. Their building lost power, and since they were the source for streaming all of our sessions, if they went down, it was going to cause some major ripples. Thankfully, the outage was short-lived and most attendees likely weren’t even aware. We worked through what seemed like a hundred-and-one contingencies for scenarios like that, but it just goes to show that you can’t predict them all!
From an event design standpoint, we were all a bit surprised at how well the networking sessions went. We knew networking was one of the hallmarks of the in-person event, but how well was that going to translate to the online version? Would people even participate or say anything? We ended up hosting 111 separate networking sessions over the course of 2.5 days, and we as the conference planning team were floored by the level of interaction and engagement in those sessions.
Last, but certainly not least, was seeing Temple Grandin present from what appeared to be her kitchen table. Besides a wonderfully engaging, enlightening, and humorous keynote session, you also got a little peek into Dr. Grandin’s personal life. She has a poster of the Hubble Telescope and a cow on her refrigerator! That was a special treat that you wouldn’t get in the in-person event. I think everyone who attended will remember that forever because you can’t necessarily duplicate candid and intimate moments like that in-person.
What advice or tips do you have for others who are considering planning a virtual event in 2021?
A primary piece of advice would be that you’ll need to build in a lot of preparation and rehearsal time. In many ways, the virtual event is more like broadcasting, so it’s important to think and prepare like a broadcaster. You need to be sure to stay on script and on schedule. Testing is also important – you don’t want to wait to go live the day of the event and just hope it all works out. Can your system or platform handle hundreds, if not thousands, of simultaneous users? What’s your backup plan if something goes down? We worked closely with our web development team to discuss, test, and run simulations as part of our event preparations.
Beyond that, the list of tips and advice could be endless, but maybe the best advice is actually to ignore everyone else’s tips and advice. If you know your attendees and you know your event, then you’re the only one who is going to know best how to provide what they need in the format they need. The people you serve are the people you need to listen to the most, even more so than any sort of industry expert. There was a heightened sense of information overload right from the onset of the pandemic, with industry experts specifically within the event and hospitality industries doling out all their predictions, advice and “10 Steps to a Better Virtual Event,” which, in some ways, aren’t all that helpful, and sometimes just got flat out overwhelming. The bottom line is that we marshaled the skills and assets we knew we had, acquired the ones we didn’t, and dove into the deep end of the pool, hoping that someday we’d be able to fill our lungs with air again.
What Attendees Had to Say
“I thought the planning committee did an excellent job! I’ve participated in quite a few conferences since all the virtual stuff has been happening and OCALICONLINE has been the absolute best one so far. I am so impressed by the quality of the setup, ease of access, and variety of sessions.”
“The online option was great for me. I am visually impaired so it created a great option for someone with anxiety related to transportation and navigating sessions.”
“Despite the online nature of this year’s event, I really felt like a community was created and fostered. Thank you to all of the OCALI team for all of their hard work and dedication to pull this off!”
“This conference was extremely well run and exceeded my expectations for an online event. Having the networking sessions kept the personal and interactive touch in an online format. I also loved the variety in sessions and having the opportunity to catch missing sessions on demand is a definite perk!”
“I absolutely loved attending OCALICONLINE 2020! Thank you, everyone, for your hard work in organizing this iconic conference. To make this happen in the middle of a pandemic was a fantastic feat. I have nothing but compliments for the presenters, and loved the meet and greets I attended. Very well done.”
To check out the program from this year’s event and to watch for details on OCALICON 2021, visit https://ocalicon.org.
What’s New at OCALI
InspirED Virtual Learning Series: January Sessions
As we continue to watch the COVID-19 pandemic evolve in Ohio, one thing we know for sure—the 2020-2021 school year looks different—for students, families, teachers, and administrators. With a shared vision for promoting access and inspiring change for people with disabilities, OCALI and the Ohio Department of Education’s Office for Exceptional Children are partnering together to launch InspirED. This free virtual learning series is designed to help educators, administrators, and families find the information and resources they need to support learning and successful outcomes for their students or children during a very unique time of learning. Check out our upcoming sessions, which air on Thursdays at 4:00 p.m. You can also catch previously aired sessions in our video archive. Learners have the opportunity to earn a professional development certificate by completing a survey at the end of each session.
Mark your calendar for these upcoming sessions:
- January 7: Transition Planning
- January 14: Strategies to Support Early Learning and Well-being in Changing Times
- January 21: Online Instruction Based on Communication Mode
- January 28: Why Checklists: Especially Now When the World is Upside Down
The Journey: A Free Webinar Series, 2021 Dates
To support County Boards of Developmental Disabilities in helping youth with complex needs and their families navigate the journey to from school to adult life, the Lifespan Transitions Center at OCALI has created a free, four-part webinar series, called The Journey, designed to support topics, such as:
- Creating structure,
- Improving self-determination,
- Planning for transition, and
- Supporting literacy.
New AIM and ATIM Courses
Check out these new Autism Internet Modules and Assistive Technology Internet Modules and earn grad credit. Certifications of completion also available.
AIM: Motor Differences: Learn about the three main body systems that impact motor control, identify aspects of typical development, and understand motor differences that can impact people with autism throughout the lifespan.
AIM: Girls on the Spectrum: Learn strategies to support girls on the spectrum during their school years, risks of incorrect or missed diagnoses, the benefits and challenges of ‘camouflaging,’ and strategies to improve outcomes.
ATIM: ATIM is designed to provide high-quality information and professional development on assistive technology (AT) for educators, professionals, families, persons with disabilities, and others. Explore modules covering a variety of topics.
[Video] Barb and Ron having a lighthearted conversation. “Same great content, [sort of] new channel! 10 minutes with Barb & Ron – New Episodes + Full Archive. NOW AVAILABLE AT OCALI!”
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