LaWanda Cook, an extension faculty member at the K. Lisa Yang and Hock E. Tan Institute on Employment and Disability, has dedicated her life to helping people with disabilities achieve their career goals.
A certified rehabilitation counselor, Cook studies the work-life balance, access to worksite wellness programs and social inclusion of people with disabilities.
Although Cook uses a wheelchair, she said her conversations are largely focused on her work rather than on her disability.
“If you know me one-on-one, we’re not talking about the chair most of the time because that’s not who I am,” she said.
Cook said her research was inspired by her experiences with summer employment programs. Working made her feel “powerful and capable,” she said.
“I liked feeling that … in a work situation, I was a contributor and people needed the skills I had,” she said.
Cook started working with the Northeast Americans with Disabilities Act Center in 2010, before joining the Yang Tan Institute — part of Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
She said her goal is to help people with disabilities not only keep their jobs but also feel more satisfied with their work. Cook said leisure is just as important as employment in living a fulfilled life.
She added that, contrary to popular belief, employment and leisure offer similar benefits in terms of identity, skill building, social opportunity and structure.
“They’re not really opposites — people need both to feel whole,” she said.
At Cornell, Cook is working on an inclusive fitness initiative that supports wellness participation for people with and without disabilities. One of her current projects involves extending this initiative to Cornell Outdoor Education, through programs such as setting aside time slots at the rock wall for student workers to assist climbers with disabilities, she said.
Cook also co-teaches “Introduction to Disabilities Studies” — a class she said aims to show people “how close disability is to their own experience.”
She said she is constantly surprised by the need for public education in this area and attributes the lack of communication to people’s fears of uncomfortable conversations.
Building one-on-one relationships is an essential part of helping people see each other as full human beings rather than identifying others by their disabilities, according to Cook.
“Both sides [need to be] okay with not getting it ‘right’ and helping each other do better the next time,” she explained. “There’s still a ton of work to do.”
When she is not working on disabilities programs at Cornell, Cook said she makes a conscious effort to follow her own advice on work-life balance.
“I’m very deliberate about having those times when I’m not working,” she said. “That helps me a lot.”