Lisa Newmark with daughter Allie Cannington, who is disabled
Lisa Newmark with daughter Allie Cannington, who is disabled

Q&A: Disability advocacy is her life’s work

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Lisa Newmark, 56, has been affiliated with the San Rafael-based nonprofit Integrated Community Services for almost two decades. ICS provides employment, independent living skills and community mental health services to Marin County residents with physical, developmental, psychological and other disabilities.

As employment programs director, Newmark works with staff to ensure that ICS clients develop and cultivate professional skills that allow them to join the workforce. She also helps build bridges in the business community so that employers understand that hiring people with disabilities is a win-win situation: not just for the individual, but also for the business. She also is active at Congregation Rodef Sholom, where serves on the board of directors. She lives in San Rafael.

J.: Your entry into the nonprofit world is as much a story of fulfilling a long-term career goal as finding meaning in a personal family situation. Would you elaborate?

Lisa Newmark: My undergraduate degree from UCLA is in Jewish/Judaic studies, but I always thought I’d work in social services. I went to San Francisco State University for my master’s degree in vocational rehabilitation counseling. [The impetus] is my daughter, Allie Cannington, now a 26-year-old queer disabilities activist who was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, which is a condition characterized by brittle bones. She has had several surgeries on her spine and uses a wheelchair to get around. She has been my greatest teacher.

J.: What have you learned from Allie and from other people with disabilities?

LN: The old-school thinking about people with disabilities is, “There is something wrong with them, and they need to be fixed.” When I first came into this job, I thought that I was going to help these people. Now I am in service of the disabilities community to work in partnership with individuals to help them achieve their goals. I meet them where they’re at — not where I want them to be. My job is to listen and to work next to them, not ahead of them.

Cannington in a wheelchair wearing bright rainbow accoutrements, with parade-goers in the background
Allie Cannington at Pride, where she helped organize the first disability contingent.

J.: What are some of the greatest challenges for people with disabilities?

LN: There is still a lot of unemployment among people with disabilities. National Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that in 2017, 18.7 percent of people with disabilities were employed. That compares to 65.7 percent of those without a disability. In Marin County, where there are 22,000 people with disabilities, 39 percent of people with disabilities are employed versus 76 percent of those without a disability. Statewide, among all those employed, people with disabilities earn significantly less than those without disabilities.

J.: But it’s great to see so many people with disabilities in the workplace now, particularly at grocery stores and movie theaters.

LN: Yes, it is good, but many people with disabilities get pegged for jobs [where there’s little room for advancement]. I believe that the more we see people with disabilities as coworkers, we will just see them as coworkers. The disability becomes inconsequential.

J.: There’s no doubt, though, among parents who have been told that they have a child with a disability, there are feelings of sadness and worry. How, as a parent, do you advise others?

LN: Give yourself permission to feel what you have to feel. The world is not constructed to deal with people with disabilities. It’s natural to [experience grief]. Connect with others with shared experiences so that you don’t feel alone, and stay open to the belief that your child is complete and perfect as they are and that they are not broken because they have a disability. Connect and tap into organizations where your child can take pride in who they are, since there’s still so much stigma and shame.

J.: Did you become involved Rodef Sholom as a way to feel empowered?

LN: Yes, I became involved with the congregation’s Kulanu Committee to make the synagogue more inclusive for kids with disabilities. That led to my involvement with its chevra kadisha [burial society] and the High Holiday sanctuary services committee. Being involved with Rodef Sholom has been a labor of love, and it has deepened my spiritual connections to liturgy and my relationships.

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Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.