MU School of Law alumnus returns to Mizzou as an advocate for inclusion
Story by Mitch Ryals
It was after attending a lecture by Harriet McBryde Johnson at the University of Georgia that Amber Cheek knew she would go to law school.
She remembers getting goosebumps as she hung to Johnson’s every word during a speech about civil rights for people with disabilities.
“The presence or absence of a disability does not predict quality of life", Cheek remembers her saying. Johnson was an attorney famous for her New York Times articles opposing abortion of infants with disabilities.
“I’d had a disability since I was born, but that was the first time I really understood that having a disability is just a normal, natural human difference," she says.
After the lecture, Cheek approached Johnson and proceeded to have an impromptu 30-minute conversation.
“I’d had a disability since I was born, but that was the first time I really understood that having a disability is just a normal, natural human difference"
“You know darlin’,“ Johnson said in her southern drawl. “You sound like a disability rights attorney. Why don’t you do that?"
And she did. In the fall of 2009, Cheek enrolled in her first semester at the MU School of Law.
Cheek began her tenure with the University of Missouri in June as the new Director of Accessibility and ADA Education, a position formerly known as ADA Coordinator.
Lee Henson, who previously held this position, knew Cheek well and was one of her most influential mentors during her three years in law school. The two met in the fall of 2009 and developed a close friendship. Henson’s words still linger in Cheek’s mind as she anticipates her responsibilities.
Specifically, Cheek remembers his message that disability is just another form of diversity. She strongly believes that improving inclusion and providing accommodations not only benefit those with disabilities but also employees with parenting responsibilities, sporadic medical issues, and those who are aging. Cheek refers to this as the “disability domino effect", a concept she learned from Henson, which shows that people with visible disabilities are not the only ones who benefit from accommodations and accessibility policies.
“When people think about what the Director of Accessibility and ADA Education does, they often imagine me arranging accommodations for employees who use wheelchairs, but inclusion is much broader than that", Cheek says. “These are human issues. Many faculty and staff members have invisible disabilities, and those who don’t have disabilities are still affected. Employees are going to start families, get older, acquire disabilities and deal with medical issues like cancer. An inclusive campus culture that effectively manages these issues increases retention of all employees, helps the university attract and keep the best talent and gives students positive expectations to take into their future workplaces."
“I think my experiences as a person with a disability and my background in disability studies help me to understand these issues on a deeper level and explain them practically,” Cheek says. “I often use my own disability – a congenital limb amputation – as an example in my trainings."
After earning a J.D. from MU, Cheek accepted a Presidential Management Fellowship in Washington D.C., where she was appointed to work in the Office of Disability Employment Policy. During her time at ODEP, Cheek assisted with crafting disability policy and nationwide outreach initiatives.
The bulk of her responsibilities throughout her term with ODEP, though, involved the Workforce Recruitment Program, which connects college students and recent graduates with disabilities to employers across the country. As co-director of the WRP, Cheek worked closely with students, hiring managers and more than 300 college campuses, all of which provided great experience for her position as the Director of Accessibility and ADA Education.
“I spent a lot of my time speaking with employers about why they should hire people with disabilities, about accommodations, answering all the questions they might be afraid to ask about people with disabilities,“ she says. “There are a lot of myths out there.“
After a year and a half, Cheek’s fellowship required her to rotate to another federal agency. She chose the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in St. Louis, where she’s been working for the past five months. With the EEOC, Cheek did everything from intake interviews with employees claiming disability employment discrimination to on-site investigations of discrimination claims. She also sat in on mediation sessions between employers and employees and evaluated hundreds of case files. By analyzing cases where disability issues were not handled properly, she learned valuable lessons in preventing discrimination before it happens.
“I’m more of a proactive than reactive person,“ she says. “It’s about closing the information gap for both people with disabilities and people without disabilities. I want to be a readily accessible resource for faculty and staff with disabilities, their supervisors, and others in the MU community. I want to be a bridge between those with disabilities and those without.“