LEAP’s history is rooted in the Independent Living (IL) Movement, which originated during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Before this time, many decisions were made for people with disabilities by family members, service providers, and medical personnel, often without any input from the person with the disability. As part of the IL Movement, people with disabilities demanded control of their own lives.
LEAP was founded in 1981 as an independent agency affiliated with Cleveland’s Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry. Known then as the Lutheran Employment Awareness Program, the agency originally focused on helping people with disabilities secure employment.
In 1986, Doris Brennan became LEAP’s first executive director. Brennan—who had become a quadriplegic after a tragic automobile accident in 1954—had already established herself as a powerhouse in the Independent Living Movement in Ohio, and she brought the vision and philosophy of that movement to LEAP. Over the course of her nearly 20 years with LEAP, she led the agency as it became a federally recognized Center for Independent Living (CIL) and expanded services to address the desire of people with disabilities to live, work, and participate in their communities. Brennan was present at the 1990 signing of the historic Americans with Disabilities Act, and in 1998 she was the first Ohioan inducted into the National Hall of Fame for Persons with Disabilities.
Upon Brennan’s death in 2000, Melanie Hogan became LEAP’s executive director. Under Hogan’s leadership, the agency again expanded the scope of its services. Additional focus was placed on advocacy at the federal, state, and local levels for changes that would improve the lives of people with disabilities. An assistive technology center was established, services in benefits planning and analysis were enhanced, programming for high school students was expanded, and collaborations and partnerships with other agencies were forged and strengthened. In 2010, Hogan led LEAP’s move to independence from LMM, as well as the move of its main office to its current location in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood.
During Hogan’s tenure, LEAP has been recognized by PepNET (the Promising and Effective Practices Network) for the quality of its programs for high school students with disabilities who are transitioning to work and adulthood; by the Ohio Association of Nonprofit Organizations for meeting its standards of excellence; by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission with a Freedom to Compete award; and by the U.S. Department of Labor with a New Freedom Initiative Award.
Today LEAP is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that is recognized for offering high-quality services and producing excellent results. Despite 35 years of growth and change, the original vision of Doris Brennan—that LEAP would help level the playing field for people with disabilities who wanted to be recognized for their abilities and live lives of full inclusion—remains the agency’s cornerstone.