By: Joni Schmalzried

Meet with AWS Foundation to discuss –

Get through Covid so it can finally happen –

Write a social story –

Advertise event –

Work with a consultant for support with the details –

Discuss disability with staff, volunteers, and musicians –

Host an instrument playground (before & after the event) –

Invite providers, music therapists, and others to host a table or activity –

Have the consultant serve as emcee and explain the orchestra and music –

Make sure there is an interpreter for any of our deaf or hard of hearing friends –

Create an experience that is ‘friendly’ for everyone –

Survey the audience to see how the experience was –

On April 2nd, the Fort Wayne Philharmonic completed the extensive checklist above. Bravo, as the audience of 100+ learned to say when they feel something is well done. In fact, my granddaughter was saying Bravo for many days after the concert, just as she watched herself playing the cello time and time again. The entire concert was 30 minutes – the perfect amount of time for a first-time experience.

Over 100 tickets were sold, indicating the value people saw in the experience. Tickets free of charge were also available for anyone who needed them.

To be honest, before the event, I worried – would the music be too loud, would the large member orchestra be overwhelming?  I need not have worried, however, because the emcee and conductor introduced the audience to each section of the orchestra so we could hear the sound that they would be making. Of course, headphones were available if the noise did happen to be too much. The audience was encouraged to move in their seats or stand up and show how the music made them feel.

In my three+ years working at AWS Foundation, this experience has set the bar for me. It went beyond ‘sensory friendly’ and became universally designed. Whether on purpose or not, the event was not just for individuals who had sensory needs. It was perfect for any young child or first-time Philharmonic attendee (my four-year-old granddaughter).

What the Philharmonic accomplished was no small feat. They looked beyond just performing to creating an experience that was truly inclusive and accessible for all.


AWS Foundation logo

AWS Foundation Awards $3,222,620 to Four Disability Service Providers

Fort Wayne (March 17, 2022) – AWS Foundation awards a second round of Vantage Grants totaling $3,222,620 to four select nonprofit disability service providers serving Northeast Indiana: The Arc of Wabash County, Life Adult Day Academy, The League, and The Arc of LaGrange. In August, second round Vantage Grant participants initially received $75,000 and six months to identify and explore significant barriers and find a path toward solutions that would transform how they serve the disability community. After analyzing their findings and developing a plan to meet those needs, each organization was extended an invitation from AWS Foundation to apply for up to $1,000,000 of additional funding to implement a three-to-five-year plan of action. $3,222,620 was awarded based on presentation findings. Since August, nine nonprofit disability service providers have received Vantage Grants totaling $7,887,707.

“We are pleased to award Vantage Grants to these four organizations. They have worked hard over the past six months to tackle a challenge that has repeatedly been beyond their reach,” says Patti Hays, AWS Foundation CEO.  “The Vantage Grant will allow them to provide services or processes in their organizations that might have otherwise been years away from their existing resources.” Ms. Hays goes on to say that direct nonprofit service providers rarely have time, personnel, or budgets to look beyond their daily operational demands.

AWS Foundation established the Vantage Grant to offer nonprofits by invitation, the opportunity to take a reflective position intended to give them a strategic advantage and perspective on their operations.

Group of two women working at the office. Mature woman and young woman with Down syndrome working at inclusive teamwork.

More Than Awareness

By: Andie Mosley

As an autistic person, “awareness” months always make me chuckle. Often interpreting things literally, I think, “people aren’t aware this exists?” Of course, I understand the actual purpose is to spread awareness of the struggles, needs, messages, etc., of whichever cause or group the month is celebrating. Bringing awareness leads to action, usually in volunteering time or donating money to reach a specific goal, for example, cancer research. However, during this Disability Awareness Month, I would like to propose a new challenge for the celebration.

Last year in April, known as Autism Awareness Month, autistic self-advocates made the change to celebrate “autism acceptance” rather than awareness. I’m not suggesting copying that specific idea, but I like the thought of shifting the message to something more direct. Rather than just being aware of the challenges faced by people with disabilities in our communities, think about what you can do to become an ally. Donating to organizations that serve individuals with disabilities or volunteering your time to these organizations is indeed important. Still, there are things we can do in our everyday lives that are as easy as simple changes in mindset.

A common mistake I see when people try to support individuals with disabilities is infantilization and sometimes dehumanization. If you’re talking about kids, treating them like kids is fine. But a disabled adult has adult emotions, adult experiences, and adult aspirations. It’s both dangerous and offensive to treat us otherwise. Think of disability as an identifying factor such as race or gender. Having a disability doesn’t make us less capable, we just experience the world and approach challenges differently. And this is not to be inspiring, nor does it warrant a “sure you can.” It just is. If someone with a disability gets asked to prom, it makes national news; but a non-disabled teenager does not make news for the same. Neither situation is newsworthy. Paralympians coming home with a medal is exciting because they represent our country as some of the best athletes in the world. Trischa Zorn should be no more inspiring to you than Michael Phelps. It takes zero effort to treat someone as your equal, yet it is the most important thing you can do to support individuals with disabilities.

Another aspect of disability allyship is to consider how decisions impact us. Are you aware of how policies made by our leaders affect our livelihoods? Are you calling out friends and family that use offensive language such as the “r” word? Small acts of kindness such as ensuring the sidewalk in front of your house is clear of snow or debris can make a huge impact on someone who uses a wheelchair or crutches. Be sure your kids understand inclusion and that they are kind to kids with disabilities at school and on the playground. Please encourage them to make friends with kids that are different than them. Remember that before you help someone with a disability, you ask them if they would like your help. When approaching a disabled person who may have someone else with them, address the person with a disability directly, do not assume they can’t speak for themselves. I could list examples all day, but it comes down to treating people with disabilities as people and expanding your horizons to understand people that experience the world differently than you (which can go beyond disability).

This advocacy should bleed into our work as well. Create an environment where a person with a disability feels comfortable and safe to self-identify. When working on diversity, equity, and inclusion, remember disability is part of that. When planning events or projects that impact the community, include people with disabilities, in not only the decision-making but also the ideas.

A wiser person than me once said that when you design for disability, it benefits everyone. If we design how we think about disability to be better allies, we will be better equipped to treat all people with equity and inclusion.

platform for wheelchairs, prams, elderly people in the cabin of a modern and comfortable city bus or electric bus.

From the CEO: Accessibility Around the World

“We are so lucky to have ADA in this country.”

That was my thought when I recently visited a city that, while beautiful with its cobblestone streets and trams throughout, made me wonder how a person with a physical disability could navigate those historic streets. I quickly concluded that the person with a disability was likely living a life of seclusion when, at the end of the week, I realized I had seen no wheelchairs and only one person on crutches.

Inability to navigate environments that are both visually oriented as well as busy and cluttered limits daily mobility and contributes to fear of traveling for those with disabilities.

Consistently, the most accessible cities are those with accessible 24/7 transportation.

No city can claim to be fully accessible because the definition of accessibility is as unique as the person, but I still decided to do the research. Is there a “most accessible” city? What I found was a list of attributes that were highlighted in a particular city. What can Fort Wayne do to enhance accessibility?

  1. Pedestrian crossings can be activated by approved cards to allow a longer time for crossing.  (Singapore)
  2. ALL buses are wheelchair accessible. (Barcelona)
  3. Beacon technology helps visually impaired residents move independently with the use of a smartphone.  (Warsaw, Poland and Seattle, WA)
  4. Pavements in good repair with curb cuts and tactile paving.  (Denver)
  5. Public toilet map including accessible bathrooms with changing place. (Melbourne, Australia)
  6. Universal design principles for all new buildings, products, and environments. (Oslo, Norway)
  7. Handrails on both sides of stairs, wider gates, and hearing loops throughout the metro system. (Seattle, WA)
  8. Hotels with rooms that include ceiling hoists.
  9. Subways with priority elevators, tactile wayfinding, and visual & audible indicators on platforms. (Singapore)
  10. Taxis that accommodate wheelchairs for airport transfers.
  11. Removal of cobblestone and brick-paved streets. (Warsaw, Poland)
  12. Accessible attractions offering ability to go to the head of the line, free entry for companion, guide dog-friendly rules, and free shuttle services.

Fort Wayne International Airport is in the process of a multi-year renovation that will include many enhanced features. These changes will include a family bathroom and changing place, a sensory room, a hearing loop, and a cane trail. This month they announced the implementation of The Sunflower Program to help identify those with invisible disabilities who might need a little extra assistance as they navigate the airport. Watch for more information as AWS Foundation provides grants and ongoing training to help us be a little more accessible to those who call Northeast Indiana home….or just come to visit.

Portrait of mixed-race joyful children in masks standing in female class at school with young pretty African American female teacher looking at camera, smiling and waving hands during covid pandemic

Support Educators

By: Joni Schmalzried

I know that it seems like it is impossible to read anything or turn on the TV without hearing about the ‘P’ or ‘C’ word (pandemic and COVID). The world, nation, and our communities are tired. Unlike much of what you read and hear, I promise this is not a political post about vaccines (though, seriously, please get them) or who controls what (my bet is still on the science of it all). I want to take a minute to urge you all to support your local educators.

I am referring to ALL of those in our school systems. Those who keep showing up – regardless of who might be sick in their classroom, who might be at an emotional breaking point, or who might be attacking them for who knows what today. I am aware, as I have been told that everyone doesn’t see them in the same way as our front-line doctors/nurses, law enforcement, or health care workers. However, I am very aware that they are the ones keeping kids in school, providing a safe and stable place in an unstable world, and supporting parents who are still trying to work in this critically changing environment.

Educators (and I am referring to teachers, administrators, bus drivers, custodians, and support staff) are seeing first-hand the educational, social, and emotional trauma impacting our children. They live it daily. How can you reach out and support them? A note, a call, a small gift card, lunch that might give them a few minutes to breathe.  Better yet, let your principals and school board members know how much you value your child’s (or grandchild’s) teachers. Stand up when they are being micromanaged and devalued.

We often say that our children are our future. Without our teachers, where does that leave our future?

Opening Up

By: Andie Mosley

At AWSF, we often talk about inclusive hiring and how an organization has not truly accomplished diversity without including disability. To those outside of our staff, it may seem that we are touting a message in which we do not follow up with action. However, a person with a disability is working at AWS Foundation; me.

I only got my diagnosis a mere three years ago, so my coworkers have given me grace and the privilege of privacy until I was ready to take on this identity openly. While I am not ashamed, it is still new. For a while, I felt imposter syndrome. How could I openly declare I am disabled if, for 29 years, it went seemingly unnoticed? Even now, I’m sure I will get many remarks like “I would have never known” (don’t do this to disabled people, by the way). But that isn’t fair to myself or others like me who may not be able to hide. So, here I go:

I am autistic.

A year up to my diagnosis, I suspected this was the case. Working in the disability world and learning more about autism, I realized that many of the ways I struggled throughout my life may have had a reason. Still, I never said anything to anyone. Then one day in therapy, almost exactly three years ago, my therapist said the words, “you are autistic.” I remember vividly, tears instantly overcoming my face. He handed me a tissue and apologized for upsetting me. But I wasn’t crying because I was sad. I was relieved. Having this diagnosis helped me to better understand myself, my needs, and how to overcome barriers that held me back. I can now accept the things about myself that cannot change (it’s a process).

A study done by the Center for Talent Innovation in 2017 found that 30% of the workforce in the United States has a disability. However, only 3.2% self-identified at work. This is primarily due to judgments made about people with disabilities and their capabilities, either being actively insulted or avoided by coworkers or not feeling comfortable enough in the workplace environment. Even working somewhere disability-focused, I was nervous opening up about my diagnosis at work for fear of these same things.

The first person I told at work was Patti, our CEO. She was quick to say that I could come to her with whatever I needed, though at the time, I was still clueless. Shortly after, I told Joni, who if you don’t know, has a Ph.D. in Education and worked in special education for most of her career.  She replied, “I know.” She may not realize it, but those were the most validating words I could have ever received at that moment. Slowly, but eventually, I have informed everyone in our office. I was still not ready to be openly autistic, and they have been great with respecting that. Together we have worked to make our working environment more accommodating to my needs.

So, what does our inclusive office look like? It’s much more than just the physical space in which we work. Yes, we have a sensory room where I can go and either work for a couple of hours or just take a break for ten minutes. But most of our inclusion is less concrete and specified to my unique needs. If I am struggling with a task due to overstimulation, my coworkers will step in and help, but only after they have asked and I have agreed to the help. I am given specific deadlines instead of vague timelines such as “no hurry.” My coworkers understand that I need to doodle to stay focused in meetings. They are enthusiastic about learning more about autism and the different ways it is present in each autistic individual. They get excited to share a new fidget toy, book or article, and stories about autism or one of my special interests. While my sometimes blunt approach to communication can seem intense or rude, they have grown not to let it undermine the message of my words.  My perspective as an autistic person is both respected and considered in our work. Not only do these things allow me to thrive in my work, but I feel welcome in the place where I spend the majority of my week.

Know that these adjustments did not happen overnight. There is a learning curve, and I am still learning about my own needs. I know how lucky I am to receive this diagnosis while working for an organization whose mission is an inclusive world for people with disabilities. But I believe that my treatment at work can be a reality for anyone with a disability in any workplace. It starts with respect, but we all need to be better educated about disability. I mask well at work (though I have days where I can’t, just ask my coworkers), but not everyone can hide their disability. I encourage everyone to show one another more grace, learn about disability, evaluate how your office can be more inclusive. It may empower more people to open up about their disability at work.

Young woman with Down syndrome doing a yoga pose

From the CEO: January Blues

While we have yet to see the typical Midwestern January of snow and sub-zero wind chills in 2022, we have not escaped the oft-referenced most depressing month of the year. I so dread the sunless days of winter that my mantra of “the days are getting longer” starts on the December 21st solstice.

This is the time of the year that the offices at AWS Foundation are aglow, not with Christmas lights but with SAD desktop lights. Whether it is the grey days, the cold, the guilt of already failed resolutions, or CDR (Christmas Debt Remorse), we all struggle a bit with those post-holiday blues. And let’s not forget the challenges compounded with COVID.

There is a reason that January is Mental Wellness Month (not to be confused with May’s Mental Health Awareness Month). Remember, the lack of mental illness is not the same as the presence of mental health.

For the person with a disability, January can be that combination of negative events and conditions in freakish alignment and create the proverbial “Perfect Storm” for depression.

Adults with disabilities are five times more likely to suffer from mental and emotional health disorders than those without a disability. The person with early signs of mental illness may be easily agitated, socially withdrawn, have low energy, anxiety, or difficulty concentrating. One challenge is that these may be attributes already present in a person with a disability.

Go ahead and Google “January Blues.” Ignoring the first four posts for the hockey team, St. Louis Blues, the results numbered 1,560,000,000 (that’s billions)! There is limitless advice on how to manage this “month of Mondays” including exercising and seeking out new activities. But what are the options when access barriers limit a person’s ability to engage in the most recommended practices to manage winter melancholy?

What can the disabled person do if a brisk walk or an exercise class are not options?

  1. Be alert to early identification of the problem.
  2. SAD (seasonal affective disorder) lights at just a few minutes a day can help before the hole of despair gets too deep.
  3. Deep breathing or meditation can be as important as that brisk walk (
  4. Observe and record sleep patterns. Too much, too little, or early morning awakening can signal impending problems.
  5. Positive messages from yourself or others can interrupt those pathways to negativity.
  6. Basic healthy diets with water, nutritious foods, and limited processed or high sugar foods can avoid those extremes with blood sugar levels that fuel those blues.
  7. Don’t hesitate to add mental health therapy to the list of other treatments that contribute to optimum performance (OT, PT, ST, etc.).

If you support an individual with a disability, be alert to those early signs. Making daily check-in calls and asking how they are doing can be the tether that is needed to ride out this challenging time. Remember, the days are getting longer. Watch for that first robin of spring and the buds on the trees. You may find that you are supporting each other.

You Give, We Give

Northeast Indiana Disability Service Providers Raise $495,043 on Giving Tuesday

AWS Foundation matched $130,000 for a total of $495,043 raised between 12 regional disability service providers in their GivingTuesday campaigns. Leveraging AWS Foundation’s match potential to inspire philanthropy in their communities, these non-profit organizations exceeded the totals raised in 2020 by more than $165,000. The participating disability providers included: Arc of LaGrange, Arc of Noble County, Arc of Wabash County, Bi-County Services (Bluffton), Camp Red Cedar (Fort Wayne), Cardinal Services (Wabash), Carey Services (Marion), Easterseals Arc of Northeast Indiana (Angola, Columbia City, Fort Wayne), LIFE Adult Day Academy (Fort Wayne), Pathfinder Services (Huntington), The League (Fort Wayne), and Turnstone (Fort Wayne).

“GivingTuesday highlights the power of our collective efforts,” says Patti Hays, AWS Foundation CEO. “As the pandemic continues to disrupt fundraising events and needs throughout the disability community grow, it is important for all of us to recognize and participate in giving year-round. Channeling the generosity, kindness, and efforts of people around Northeast Indiana beyond GivingTuesday could break down a number of barriers that those with disability face every day and spark innovative solutions to build a fully inclusive community.” Hays goes on to say that each of the agencies receiving matching funds has continued to provide services, some 24/7, during the pandemic.

AWS Foundation matched up to $10,000 dollar-for-dollar donations made to eleven organizations that focus specifically on improving the quality of life for those with disabilities in our region. If all organizations did not meet the $10,000, any organization raising more was eligible for a 50% match on those excess dollars until the foundation spent the total $130,000. Nine organizations exceeded their $10,000 goal and received extra matching dollars.

“Our fifth year of providing an annual GivingTuesday match has been our most impactful yet,” says Patti Hays, AWS Foundation CEO. “Thanks to the donors who acknowledge and support these vital services supporting inclusion and quality of life for those with disabilities. The generosity of the community matched with the hard work and creativity of each agency’s staff to bring in more donations and to reach new donors inspires us each year.”

$GivingTuesday is a global campaign positioned the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, designed to encourage giving back. This year, in a single day, people in the United States gave $2.7 billion with the generosity movement reporting record-breaking giving by millions of people worldwide. GivingTuesday not only encourages monetary donations but the idea that giving your time or goods is also valuable to your community.

You Give, We Give

Giving Tuesday 2021

It’s that time of year again! Our regional disability service providers work hard to provide the best care possible for the individuals they serve. Now is your chance to help them with their work through our Giving Tuesday donation match. On Tuesday, November 30, 2021, your donations to the below organizations will be matched by AWS Foundation dollar – for – dollar up to $10,000. Consider adding one (or more) of these organizations to your year-end giving.
Father and Son looking at computer

Tennessee Adopts Software Developed by Northeast Indiana Nonprofit and Disability Community

Fort Wayne, Ind. (Nov. 1, 2021) — AWS Foundation announced today that its software platform, Indiana Disability Resource FINDER, was chosen by Tennessee Disability Pathfinder ( to help people with disabilities living in Tennessee. FINDER, Indiana’s statewide portal to disability-related information, is designed to make it easier for individuals and their families to find services. Pathfinder’s adoption of the FINDER platform highlights the opportunity to expand Indiana’s centralized resource model to additional states.

“The FINDER program is uniquely positioned to support the disability community,” states Patti Hays, AWS Foundation CEO. “When we realized individuals in other states could benefit from the software, Tennessee Pathfinder was a natural fit with their desire to upgrade an existing platform. Developed in collaboration with individuals of the disability community, we are continually adding new features and functionality based on their user feedback.”

The website of disability-related information was created in Fort Wayne by AWS Foundation in collaboration with disability service providers, people with disabilities and their families, and local software developers. The Indiana Disability Resource FINDER program is administered by IU’s Indiana Institute on Disability and Community (IIDC) as part of its library information and referral services. Funded by AWS Foundation, FINDER is free to users.

“We’re proud of the entire Pathfinder team and the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s partnership with so many state agencies and AWS Foundation to make this new website a reality,” said Elise McMillan, JD, Co-Director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy University Center for Excellence in Disabilities and the Faculty Director of Pathfinder.

Tennessee Disability Pathfinder is a project of the Vanderbilt Kennedy University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, part of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. The new website upgrades the program’s original online directory. Updated interactive features match users anywhere in Tennessee with disability resources, service providers, and community events.

Tennessee Pathfinder recently kicked off the new website with an online Nashville-style launch celebration live across its social media pages, complete with special guests, musical entertainment, and giveaways.

“It has been a great experience working with AWS Foundation,” said Pathfinder Program Director Megan Hart. “This upgrade has allowed us to keep the important parts of Pathfinder’s existing online services while adding new features that allow users to better access and save information.”

InChoice Navigation, LLC, AWS Foundation’s fully-owned subsidiary, plans to expand the FINDER platform and its availability to other University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities.

About Tennessee Disability Pathfinder (
As part of The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, “Pathfinder” helps people with disabilities, their family members, educators, and other professionals across Tennessee connect to appropriate community resources, provides innovative trainings and presentations. The Pathfinder program aims to remove the barriers that many culturally diverse communities find when trying to access disability resources.