Pictured above is Thomas Waldschmidt, and his beloved service dog, Bodie. (Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame)
Rob Kelly, senior director of operations in the Mendoza College of Business, remembers when his second child, Keelin, was born like it was yesterday.
“The doctor told us Keelin has Down syndrome,” Kelly said. “We didn’t have a prenatal diagnosis so it definitely caught us by surprise. I can still recall sitting down in the hospital room that afternoon and emailing my Notre Dame colleagues to let them know that God had given us this precious gift. Within hours, I heard from others who had children with Down syndrome. They connected us with their resources and were so comforting. I never would have expected the level of support we received. That experience 14 years ago drew my family very close to my Notre Dame colleagues and teammates.”
It's this story and others like it that Kelly has experienced in his 15 years with Notre Dame that made him an obvious choice to be the executive sponsor for the new Employee Resource Group (ERG) launching in April for staff members with disabilities. The ERG is also open to allies and those who have family members with disabilities.
“I was asked by Eve Kelly [no relation to Rob] in HR to be a champion for this group — to create an organization where we help individuals with disabilities not feel alone. We will be looking for a person to lead the ERG. I look forward to being part of this process,” he said.
ERGs are formal groups, sponsored by Human Resources, that are created to support networking and social outlets for specific groups of employees. They also assist the University with recruitment, retention and educational activities. There are currently eight other ERGs on campus: Adelante Hispanos, Black Faculty and Staff Association, Association of Faculty and Staff of Chinese Heritage (FSCH), Notre Dame Staff of International Descent (NDSID), Notre Dame Veterans Association, SPECTRUM (LGBTQ), THRIVE! Inspiring ND Women, and Young Leaders.
“We realize that these ERGs do more than support our staff,” said Eve Kelly, Notre Dame’s diversity and inclusion program manager. “They support the families of our staff, too. ERGs are employee driven and are created based on what our employees and staff tell us they need.”
One vocal advocate for the newest ERG is Thomas Waldschmidt, a safety specialist in Risk Management at Notre Dame.
Waldschmidt was born with sensorineural bilateral hearing loss, which occurs when there is damage to the inner ear or to the nerve pathways from the inner ear to the brain. “For my first five years, I couldn’t speak more than a few words,” he said. He had his first cochlear implant in 2006 and his second in 2016, right before accepting a job at Notre Dame.
Before joining Notre Dame’s staff, Waldschmidt completed his bachelor's degree in environmental sustainability, health and safety from the College of Applied Science and Technology at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in Rochester, New York. At RIT, approximately 1,200 deaf and hard-of-hearing students live, study, work and socialize with 15,000 hearing students.
“I was accepted at the University of Illinois and Purdue, but they didn’t have the resources to support me that RIT did,” Waldschmidt said. “I remember when I was choosing my classes at RIT, I had the option to have a sign-language interpreter or real-time captioning for every single class they offered.”
It was at RIT where Waldschmidt became more confident and felt empowered to fight for access and opportunity for people who have disabilities.
“People sometimes judge me because they don’t understand what it means to be hearing impaired,” he said. “My hope is that someday when we talk about diversity, the definition not only includes people of different races and genders, but people with disabilities, too. We don’t see lots of people with disabilities in leadership roles and I’d like to see that change.”
When Waldschmidt was hired by Notre Dame, he mentioned to Eric Love, director of staff diversity and inclusion, that he was passionate about helping those with disabilities.
“Eric was very interested in getting an ERG for individuals with disabilities off the ground, but COVID slowed down the process,” Waldschmidt said. “But when things started to feel more normal again around campus, he reached out to me and asked if I would join the steering committee for this group. I’m so excited that it’s happening.”
Some may recognize Waldschmidt from around campus as he’s often accompanied by his beloved service dog, Bodie.
“I don’t rely on him as much these days, but he has helped me avoid a few close calls with the scooters that are everywhere on campus,” Waldschmidt added with a laugh. “While I can’t hear the scooter, I can tell by how Bodie’s body reacts when one is nearby that I need to get out of the way.”
As a member of this new ERG that has yet to decide on its formal name, Waldschmidt hopes that in sharing his story he can help others.
“Every person faces challenges,” he said. “Some are physical. Some are hidden. But we don’t have to be on this journey alone. This is where I want to contribute, and I’m grateful to Notre Dame for making this a priority.”