Cultural Connection: Celebrating National Disability Employment Awareness Month with Kelly Von Lunen

The U.S. Department of Labor observes October as National Disability Employment Awareness Month to commemorate the many and varied contributions of people with disabilities to America’s workplaces and economy.

To continue our commitment to our values and promote a culture of inclusion, the Ascend communications team spoke with Kelly Von Lunen, managing editor in shared services, who provided an insightful reminder to approach life from a person-first perspective — and the importance of understanding and appreciating the lived experiences of others.

Ascend Communications (AC): Tell us about your role at Ascend.

Kelly Von Lunen (KVL): I’m the managing editor within learning products. I’ve been here almost 10 years and work on a team with copy and developmental editors helping create print and online products for two of Ascend’s brands — ATI and NHA. I also serve as a member of our internal Diversity & Inclusion Council and am working on my master’s [degree] right now, focusing on diversity and inclusion in higher education.

AC: How did you become interested in diversity, equity, and inclusion?

KVL: Being an individual who is hard of hearing, it’s very personal to me. There’s a very strong Deaf community specifically for people who are manual language first — but not for people like me, who are hard of hearing but also don’t fit in Deaf culture.

There’s kind of a middle ground for people who might have an invisible illness [a medical condition that is not outwardly visible to others] but are expected to perform at an abled level. There’s a kind of normativity that everyone is fully able unless they strongly show you otherwise.

AC: We recently learned about the complexity of identity among Hispanic, Latino/a and Latinx communities in a conversation with [Ascend Learning Director of Talent Development & Inclusion] Carolyn Vasquez, who shared that self-identification is a personal decision based on one’s own lived experiences. Would you say that same concept is applicable to people with disabilities?

KVL: I think that that self-identification is really important, and sometimes forget that people view me as disabled. If I [were to] take out my hearing aids, I would be functionally deaf — but I’m not part of the Deaf community. Even though I am a hard of hearing person, that is not a key part of my identity.

I’m 36 and I’ve worn hearing aids since I was four. I don’t know what the [official] line is between hard of hearing and deaf, but there’s a distinction between Deaf with a capital D and deaf with a lowercase d.

[Editor’s Note: According to the National Association of the Deaf, Deaf with a capital D refers to a particular group of deaf people who share a language — American Sign Language (ASL) — and a culture. When spelled with a lowercase d, deaf refers to the audiological condition of not hearing].

AC: You mentioned this journey began for you at a young age. What was that like?

KVL: The thought has always been that something happened after I started to talk, but my hearing loss was diagnosed when I was four. My parents noticed that I would grab people’s faces to make them look at me and I would sit really close to the TV. At the time, schools didn’t offer a hybrid experience for students with hearing loss. You had to either pick a [mainstream] school or a school for the deaf — who told me my hearing was too high-functioning [to attend school there]. My parents took me to an audiologist, who had a similar viewpoint — they said, “Why is she here? She talks fine.”

AC: Can you trace your hearing loss to an event or experience?

KVL: Not an event or experience, but likely genetics, because my five-year-old son is having a similar experience [with his hearing]. I took him to an audiologist, and it was nearly the same experience as my own — the initial response was, “why is he here?” But they put him through the hearing test and discovered hearing loss.

AC: How did that feel having your son’s experience mirror your own?

KVL: It’s hard for me not to project my own experience on my child, but he’s going to have a different experience than I am. We’re in a different school district and in a different economic situation than I had growing up. Technology has progressed a lot in 30 years and the world has changed to be more accepting in a lot of ways — so that’s exciting — but it’s also exhausting to know that on some level I will need to continue to advocate not only for myself, but for him, too.

AC: How has being hard of hearing influenced your professional life? 

KVL: Working as an editor [at Ascend], I focus and try to keep a good pulse on person-first language. We have made a lot of strides in the past 10 years to improve that, reducing or removing a lot of biased language from educational materials. It’s important to have a person-first approach in everything.

Speaking from my own experience, I simply ask for what I need in a professional setting. It’s important for me that people turn on their cameras because seeing their face(s) and being able to lip read greatly enhances my ability to understand and interpret what they’re saying. I’ve been fortunate that the people I work with directly are all very understanding and accommodating, as are many of the people I meet with.

AC: How can folks be more accommodating towards people with hearing loss?

KVL: If somebody doesn’t hear you, don’t assume that they didn’t understand it. They just need you to repeat it one more time, and if you can, repeat it the exact same way instead of rephrasing. For me, I’ve already got this “Wheel of Fortune” puzzle in my brain right now with about 60% of the information, and I’m working to fill in the other pieces. If you rephrase what you said, I have to start over. If that still isn’t working, then try rephrasing yourself.

AC: Thank you so much for taking the time to share your story with us. Your perspective and experience have been so enlightening, and we look forward to sharing it with others.

KVL: Thanks for the opportunity. Disabilities are not monolithic, and people experience things in different ways. It’s important to be able to connect with people and hear about their lived experiences.


Five Tips to Communicating with People with Hearing Loss

Combining tips and resources from the Hearing Loss Association of America and the Association for the Study of Higher Education, here is a helpful guide on how to communicate and host meetings with people who have hearing loss.

  1. Speak clearly, distinctly and at normal speed unless asked to slow down. Use a normal tone unless you are asked to raise your voice.
  2. Speak expressively and provide a clear view of your mouth so lip reading is possible. Because persons who are deaf or hard of hearing [sometimes] cannot hear subtle changes in tone, which may indicate sarcasm or seriousness, many will rely on your facial expressions, gestures, and body language to understand you.
  3. If you are having trouble understanding the speech of a person who is deaf or hard of hearing, feel free to ask them to repeat. If that does not work, then use a paper and pen.
  4. Meeting Tip: Provide agenda items, background materials and names of attendees in writing in advance. If meeting in person, provide seating so that the person with hearing loss has their back to any windows and sits as close to the main speaker as possible.
  5. Meeting Tip: Background noise, music, cross-conversations, reverberation, and distance from the speaker all contribute to a difficult listening environment. Ensure that subtitles and/or the meeting transcript are enabled for all users. Ask what can be done to make hearing easier.

FACTS Education and Kognito Partner to Help Educators Support Student Mental Health

FACTS Education Solutions, a provider of K-12 professional development and instructional services and Kognito, a leading health simulations company, announced a partnership to help private and faith-based schools address student mental health related to the fallout of COVID-19.

Through this new partnership, FACTS Ed customers now have the opportunity to access several Kognito simulations to support school climate, safety, and wellness. Educators, staff, students, parents, and caregivers can gain knowledge and skills surrounding critical topics including emotional and mental wellness, trauma, social emotional learning, substance use, and coping with loss.

A FACTS Ed facilitator will guide educators through simulations either on-site or online, and facilitate conversations surrounding the experience to help ensure they are getting the most out of the training. This holistic and tailored approach combines the power of Kognito’s evidence-based simulations with FACTS Ed private sector expertise and hands-on, personalized services to best prepare learners to meet the needs of today’s students.

“Enhancing our professional learning portfolio with Kognito content – which is proven to impact the lives of students and educators – directly aligns with our mission at FACTS Ed. We couldn’t be more pleased about bringing the programs and services to our school partners,” said Tiffany Wilbur, Manager of Educator Services at FACTS Ed.

During the 2020-2021 school year to date, nearly 24,000 teachers and leaders at private and faith-based schools have participated in 370 live and on-demand professional learning and development events. Kognito’s role-play simulations have been deployed by more than 13,000 schools and districts, but the power of its role-play experiences has yet to be fully harnessed by the private sector. This new partnership will enable private institutions to rapidly build the capacity of educators and students to lead real-life conversations that can improve student mental health, academic performance, and school safety.

Student mental health and the mounting anxiety related to COVID-19 is a huge concern among educators and administrators. A Reuters survey found that 74% of districts reported multiple indicators of increased mental health stresses among students since the onset of the pandemic. Educators are on the front lines, and because they see students on a regular basis, they are uniquely positioned to identify those who may be struggling, and when necessary, connect them to support.

Unfortunately, research shows that although students at private schools need support surrounding mental health and substance use, they aren’t currently getting that support. A quantitative survey published in “Frontiers in Psychology” before the pandemic revealed that only 24% of private/independent high school students cited teachers as helping them cope with stress, and over 30% reported using alcohol or other drugs within the last 30 days.

FACTS Ed and Kognito are confronting this gap, and this new partnership provides schools with the superior content and support they need to successfully implement mental health training into their professional development curriculum. By giving educators the knowledge and skills they need to support their students during this unique time, schools can create a more supportive community that enables their students to thrive.

“The importance of and need for social emotional learning has been spotlighted by the pandemic,” says Jennifer Spiegler, SVP of Strategic Partnerships at Kognito. “We’re excited to work with FACTS Ed to help educators across the country learn valuable skills that can help them meet students where they are, and set them up for success during this critical time.”

About FACTS Education Solutions
FACTS Ed is committed to making educational dreams possible through service and technology. Combined, they serve more than three million students and families at over 11,500 schools. FACTS Ed’s education services include professional learning and development, instructional services, title funding consultation, and a coaching program that uses video technology to help teachers develop their skills. FACTS also offers a comprehensive suite of technology services including tuition management, a student information system, payment administration and processing, financial needs assessment, admissions/enrollment solutions, and a fundraising and development platform.  For more information, visit

New Kognito Online Simulations Give Educators Hands-on Practice to Support Students’ Emotional and Mental Wellness

Kognito brand logo with tagline "Conversations that change lives."

Kognito’s newest training tool builds awareness, knowledge and skills around emotional and mental health, as well as suicide prevention, as schools expect a surge in children who need help.

Kognito, the leading evidence-based simulation company, today announced a new professional development training tool for educators. The online role-play simulation, Emotional & Mental Wellness, builds awareness, knowledge, and skills around emotional and mental health as well as suicide prevention.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has brought students’ emotional and mental wellness to the forefront,” said Scott Healy, General Manager of Kognito. “To address the needs of schools and districts, we developed the Emotional & Mental Wellness module to train teachers and school staff on identifying the warning signs of psychological distress. It also builds upon utilization of effective communication techniques with students to discuss concerns, build resilience, and increase connectedness.”

With an SEL (social and emotional learning) and trauma-informed lens, the Emotional & Mental Wellness program prepares educators to lead real-life conversations that build resilience, strengthen relationships, and connect students with appropriate support. The program introduces new features such as an optional advanced practice scenario and the inclusion of de-escalation and mindfulness techniques.

“The training was very inviting and not intimidating. It was constantly reassuring me that we all go through this. I need to have that self-awareness,” said a parent in New York that participated in a review of the online simulation.

Kognito’s evidence-based simulations have been used by more than 750,000 educators, staff, and students in over 13,000 schools and districts across the U.S. These unique online learning experiences have been proven to change behavior by increasing skills and confidence to manage critical conversations around topics that impact social and emotional wellness, school climate, and school safety.

Cultural Connection: Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month with Carolyn Vasquez

Inclusivity is one of our values at Ascend Learning; we are eager to include all people and diverse perspectives. To learn more about what it means to live our values both in and outside the workplace, we sat down [virtually] with Carolyn Vasquez, Ascend Learning director of talent development and inclusion, to discuss National Hispanic Heritage Month — which is observed Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 in the U.S. — to explore the uniqueness and complexity of identity among Hispanic, Latino/a and Latinx communities, and gain insights on how to celebrate this month in your own community.

Can you provide some background about National Hispanic Heritage Month — whom is being celebrated and how did it start?

Carolyn Vasquez (CV): In 1968, [then U.S. President] Lyndon Johnson instituted a national weeklong celebration of Hispanic Heritage Week to acknowledge the contributions of people of Hispanic descent in the fields of art, business, science and those who bravely fought as soldiers during American wars and conflicts. He famously proclaimed “this is our heritage” in that speech, which was an important moment in our history where Hispanic and Latin Americans were publicly recognized as being in fact American.

The Sept. 15 date was selected to recognize five Latin American countries who gained their independence from Spain 200 years ago on that date. There are three others that gained independence in the days after September 15. Fast-forward to 1988 — [former U.S. President] Ronald Reagan extended it to 31 days, and in 1989, it was first proclaimed by [former U.S.] President George H.W. Bush.

This period is referred to as Hispanic Heritage Month, and you’ve also used the term “Latin American.” Can you elaborate on the difference between these terms?

CV: “Latin American” is generally understood to include people from Central and South American countries as well as Mexico. Although “Hispanic” originally referred to somebody who originates from Spain, it was adopted in the 1970s as a term that now usually refers to people whose origins are from Spanish-speaking countries; in other words, Hispanic is a language-based term that does not include Brazilians or Haitians. 

Over the decades, the terms Latin, Latino and Latina — and now, the contemporary term Latinx — came into the fold as terms for anyone whose families’ lineage could be traced to Central and South American countries [and not Spain]. Like many other cultures and countries, many in our community do not identify with the words chosen to historically categorize them [but] instead self-identify in a term for their country of origin because each country has such diversity in terms of their traditions, culture, and even variations in language.

For those unfamiliar with the term, what does Latinx mean?

CV: Latinx is a non-binary expression of Latino or Latina. It is a source of heavy debate in the Hispanic and Latino/a communities, because it is a gender-neutral term intended to categorize a particular group of people whose heritage is rooted in the Spanish language, which grammatically uses genders.

Which brings us back to the challenge that there isn’t one term that encompasses and feels right for everyone in the Hispanic, Latino/a or Latinx communities. To say “I’m Latinx” versus “I’m Hispanic” is a deeply individual choice that references the different intersectionalities of ourselves.

What about individuals who were born outside the U.S. in a Latin American country, but were raised here — or U.S.-born individuals whose family members immigrated from a Latin American country? How do those circumstances influence their identities?

This is a very personal question to me because I come from a multiracial family that is made up of Hispanics, Latinos and Latinas all from different countries of origin. My husband, who is an incredibly proud Guatemalan man, was born and raised in Boston [and from birth was a U.S. citizen], but if you were to ask him about his background or ethnicity, he will say he’s Guatemalan because it’s where his mother and biological father are from.

I was raised in a multiracial family where each of my immediate family members was born in a different place. I was born in Colombia, was adopted as an infant and was raised by two Caucasian parents in a predominately white suburb of Boston. If people ask me about my background, I will often say I was born in Colombia, but in some ways, I identify more as an American or Latinx — or more simply, a human ‘mix’ — than as a non-Spanish-speaking Latina. I am somewhere on the sliding scale in between where any terminology really fits me. I think my personal identity is still being formed.

My [non-biological] brother also was adopted from Colombia. As a Black Latino man raised in America, his identity has been more distinctly carved from his race rather than what language he speaks. He would identify as Afro-Latino, but it doesn’t quite encompass who he is either.

Some categorizations don’t necessarily translate to self-identity in an easy way — they don’t always match up. Ultimately, folks will use the term that’s right for them, depending on their lived experiences.

In what ways can people celebrate during and after Hispanic Heritage Month?

CV: There are so many wonderful ways to acknowledge the month, and it’s based in awareness and education. I always believe the best way to celebrate different cultures is to follow the thread that interests you most — food, fashion, film, music, dance and others — then pull on it and see what you uncover. We have very complex histories — while we are celebrating many different countries and their many contributions to the world, it is important to also acknowledge and understand some of the hardships that folks have had to face in this country.

Another way to engage is through conversation. If you have friends, colleagues or neighbors who are part of these communities, ask them about their personal narratives, their culture or their familial culture.

The list of ways to engage or celebrate is endless — but the best way to embrace the culture is to follow what interests you.