“By fostering a culture of inclusivity and understanding, we can attract more talented prospective students with disabilities to Wharton and have them to believe they can make a meaningful impact in their careers beyond Wharton.” – Sheila Xu, WG’24

Sixty years after the founding of the first Mental Health Awareness Month in May 1949, Wharton students are united in creating an intentional community dedicated to supporting the many neurodivergent and disabled students who live, work, and thrive on campus. Meet Wharton’s DEAL Club, the School’s student-founded, student-run Disability Empowerment and Action League, the mission of which is “to build a supportive community for people with disabilities at Wharton in order to make Wharton more inclusive and accessible to all.” 

This is why opening DEAL’s doors beyond Wharton, to all of Penn, remains one of the most significant decisions executed by DEAL student leaders upon the club’s founding in Fall 2023. Today and moving forward, all club activities and events are available to all Penn students, club partners, and allies alike. 

DEAL club members enjoys a regular lunch together on campus. On the left side of the image: Portugal is second-right; Xu is at the end of the table. On the right: Burgoyne is pictured in the back. (Image: DEAL)

Navigating the diverse needs within DEAL requires a commitment to inclusivity. Neurodivergent conditions such as autism and ADHD are most commonly identified by DEAL group members, while others navigate disabilities like deafness, blindness, plus a variety of other mental and physical health challenges – all while earning their degrees and supporting one another.

How DEAL Went From Idea To Inception

Outgoing DEAL president and club co-founder Sheila Xu, WG’24, is a deaf-signing woman who remembers arriving on campus feeling highly visible, yet also somewhat isolated, from her peers. “Many of my Wharton peers confided in me about their own disabilities, but feared disclosing due to stigma and lack of understanding from others,” Xu says. “This realization sparked my desire to create a safe space for students with disabilities and allies to connect, share experiences, and advocate for inclusivity and accessibility at Wharton.”

Portugal (top row, far left) and Xu (bottom row, left of center) at the DALSA and DEAL joint event.  DEAL event with club members and allies. (Image: DEAL)

Also reflecting on DEAL’s genesis, board member John Burgoyne, WG’24, notes that he and his fellow co-founders discovered inspiration in each other’s respective leadership styles and vision. 

“I wanted to be a founding board member for DEAL,” says Burgoyne. “Seeing the evolution of the club from a small group of passionate individuals into a community of people supporting each other and advocating for accessibility has been so exciting.”

Inclusion’s Winding Road

The journey toward the creation of DEAL, plus its mission of inclusivity for all student members, was not without bumps in the road. Edwin Portugal, WG’24, due to serve as DEAL’s incoming 2024 – 25 Club President, highlights his own challenges in the context of the need for DEAL on campus. 

“The reason why I joined DEAL is deeply tied to my journey of understanding my past challenges, and the challenges facing many other people with disabilities,” reflects Portugal, who received an autism diagnosis at age twenty-five. This combination of empathy and self-awareness is a running theme for DEAL and its members, many of whom face similar hurdles as Portugal, whether in that same sphere of neurodivergence or through navigating other disabilities. 

Because club leadership is mostly of Wharton students, many of DEAL’s initiatives focus on championing disability inclusion in business education and in the business world writ large.

Portugal (right) stands with professional advocates who lend their time to disability advocacy in the workplace at a DEAL event. (Image: DEAL)

“Even with DEI’s growth, we still see too many businesses neglecting aspects of identity related to disability,” says Burgoyne. “When a company intentionally weaves accessibility, intersectionality, and belonging into their work, that’s a great signal for potential talent, in addition to a differentiator for the team.”

Xu echoes Burgoyne’s perspective with numbers to back up this claim. “With 1 in 4 people globally having a disability and the disability market worth $13 trillion, it’s crucial we tap into this overlooked sector,” she says. “By promoting visibility and inclusion, we empower our nondisabled allies to become more aware and thoughtful leaders in their career, especially when working with their colleagues or clients with disabilities.”

DEAL’s philosophical foundation of intersectionality lends itself to supporting its student members’ post-grad journeys. DEAL leadership organized a panel with Penn’s Office of Student Affairs that focused on hiring and supporting employees with disabilities through an event co-sponsored by Wharton’s Human Capital Club

Through active bridge-building and the spearheading of other collaborative efforts, now visible throughout both Wharton and student life throughout the broader University, DEAL continues to amplify the voices of those often marginalized in corporate discourse.

By Opening Its Doors, DEAL Broadens the Wharton Student Experience

Networking with other students across Penn is a cornerstone of DEAL’s commitment to building a safe and supportive community that extends beyond Wharton’s tight-knit campus community. Other events DEAL leadership organized include a lunch meet-and-greet with the Disabled and Allied Law Students Association (DALSA) out of Penn’s acclaimed Carey Law School. 

From DEAL’s “Ask Me Anything” event with Wharton’s Office of Student Life . (Image: DEAL)

In addition, over a dozen events took place across the 2023 – 2024 academic year, both hosted independently by DEAL and with partnering organizations. A few of these events also hosted expert disability advocates from outside of Wharton and Penn, who met with DEAL members and allies to workshop how students can achieve future success in conjunction with their current challenges. 

Xu offers advice for anyone looking to advocate for the neurodiverse and disabled community, and anyone within the community themselves. “I encourage others to be fearless and speak up when necessary, as change requires courageous leadership,” says Xu. “As I’ve learned at Wharton, if you want to see change, be the leader and set an example for others to follow.” 

– Grace Meredith

Posted: May 23, 2024

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