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Elise Olsen: Early experiences and connections to Shirley Ryan AbilityLab make her job 'very full circle'


You could say it was inevitable that Elise Olsen would find her way to Shirley Ryan AbilityLab where she is a research assistant in the Center for Rehabilitation Outcomes Research (CROR). 

Her father worked in research and development, her cousin advocates for people who use home and community-based services, and her mother is an occupational therapist whose first job was at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, now Shirley Ryan AbilityLab.

“It was very full circle when I got this job,” Olsen says.

Olsen works on research projects on home and community-based services (HCBS) funded by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research. She contributes to the development and testing of HCBS outcome measures and to a project highlighting organizations that excel at providing HCBS. She also works on research funded by the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation focusing on mental health among people with spinal cord injury.  

Olsen, 26, grew up in Glen Ellyn, Illinois with the belief that inclusivity was the norm. She attended one of the first mixed abilities day care programs in the country at Easter Seals DuPage and Fox Valley, where her mother is an occupational therapist. “For my whole life it’s been normal to interact with people with disabilities because that is normal,” Olsen says. “The disability community has always been part of my life, but I knew I didn’t want to be a therapist like my mom, or a doctor like my sister, so I didn’t think that disability was a field I could go into as a career.”

It took a little while for Olsen to make her way to rehabilitation research, but the steps she took taught her valuable lessons.
Olsen attended Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where she majored in psychology with a minor in mathematics. During college, she interned at GN Resound, a hearing aid company where her father worked developing and testing new products. 

At GN, Olsen was part of a cross sectional team in the hearing aid and audio divisions with the goal of improving the video conferencing experience for people who use hearing aids. This was at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when video conferencing was relatively new and people had to get used to communicating through their computers. For hearing aid users, there were additional challenges associated with video conferencing. “Sound that comes from a screen is flattened, whereas in-person communication has dynamic spatial qualities that people use to know where to direct their attention. We wanted to come up with solutions that would provide a better hybrid communication experience for people who use hearing aids,” explained Olsen. 

 After college, Olsen had more opportunities to be part of a research team. She was asked by her cousin, Vice President of a policy-focused organization that advocates for people who receive HCBS, to help gather and analyze data associated with a court case in Oregon. 

The suit, Lane v. Brown, was a class-action lawsuit that challenged segregated sheltered workshops as a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Sheltered workshops are segregated employment options for people with disabilities that allow the employer to pay below the minimum wage. Olsen worked on the review ensuring that the State of Oregon distributed settlements and followed the mandate to expand community integrated employment for Oregon residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She set up interviews with people who received HCBS and were working with vocational counselors and asked about their job opportunities, experiences at work and wages. The data she collected was used to make sure that Oregon was making progress to follow the integration mandate and to help identify areas where improvements still needed to be made. 

“When I thought about my experience on the court case, I realized I could contribute to research in the disability field, which I didn’t really realize before that,” Olsen explains. “So, when I saw the CROR job posting, I was really excited.”

In her free time, Olsen goes fishing on Lake Michigan with her fiancé, John, with whom she will tie the knot in October 2024. She is part of a book club she started with friends in high school and works on embroidery projects on the side. She says embroidery is something “my great grandmother taught my grandmother who taught my mother who taught me.”  

Olsen is uncertain about the next step in her career, but she does know that for the near future she wants to stay with CROR.  “I really enjoy being part of CROR,” she says. “Everything has kind of come together here and it feels right and where I should be.”