Emily Cheng, of Oklahoma City, was elected Monday to be chairwoman of the Commission for Rehabilitation Services for the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services.
The commission is the governing board for DRS, an agency that annually serves more than 83,400 Oklahomans with disabilities through career planning, employment, independent living, educational programs and the determination of medical eligibility for disability benefits.
“I am excited,” she said. “I always loved advocating for people who need extra support. Becoming the chair of the commission gives me the honor and responsibility of helping lead that charge for DRS.”
It is the second key move for Cheng in the last few months. She was also recently named Director of Disability Services and Diversity at Oklahoma State University – Oklahoma City. She had previously served 12 ½ years as an academic advisor and disabilities services coordinator at the school.
Advocating for those with disabilities is a mission that Cheng said she had to grow into while in college.
“I wasn’t always comfortable with my disability,” Cheng said. “I have cerebral palsy. I wasn’t always comfortable with myself and my disability, but going to college and learning that I could live independently – that did a lot for my self-esteem. It did a lot for my self-confidence.”
Cheng split her childhood between Chicago and Orlando, Fla. She then went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology from Tulane University as well as a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling from Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center. Both universities are located in New Orleans.
After college, Cheng worked as a counselor at a nonprofit, which served those suffering from compulsive gambling. Less than two years later, she became a rehabilitation counselor for Louisiana Rehabilitation Services, that state’s DRS counterpart.
“I liked the idea that people came to us looking for work,” she said. “People had to have hope when they applied for our services. If they didn’t feel they could have a better outcome for their lives, they wouldn’t have applied for our services.”
Cheng and her husband, Cambre, were living in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit. They moved soon afterward to Oklahoma City, where her husband had accepted a job offer. Once here, she said she began considering the idea of working in education, especially in a university setting where she herself had flourished.
“I remembered how transformative college was for me,” Cheng said. “I gained so much self-confidence, and I got to reinvent myself. Any negative associations I had about being a person growing up with a disability or going to high school, I felt like I could leave all of that behind me when I went to college.”
Now in her new role at OSU – OKC, she has the chance to help others find their inner strength and realize their dreams by helping create an environment in which they can grow.
“One of the many reasons I am so excited for this position change is because it is going to allow me to really make sure the disability services we offer our students are the fullest and richest they can be,” Cheng said.
“I have been tasked with being the central data point and central thought leader for diversity issues on our campus. We have to ask ourselves: How can our school encourage more nontraditional learners to come here and successfully complete a college education? Once they get here, how can they feel supported, welcomed and accepted? We also have mission to create diversity in our faculty and staff so they model some of those more diverse experiences for students,” she said.
Cheng also sees her new role as chairwoman of the DRS Commission as one where she can champion the work DRS does to help Oklahomans with disabilities realize their dreams of a career and financial independence.
“It is important for Oklahoma to know the good work that DRS does and how we are unique in our support/provider role,” she said. “We know the challenges that job seekers with disabilities face. Looking for a job when you are a person with a disability can be very daunting, but having DRS staff who understand your disability and know the support you need – that can be very powerful.”
Other members of the Commission for Rehabilitation Services include Vice Chairman Jace Wolfe of Edmond and Commissioner April Danahy of Enid.