Sometimes our most eye-opening experiences occur when we least expect them to happen. My awakening to the disability inclusion space occurred when I was asked, 15 years ago, by the CEO of one of our clients, to design and facilitate a disability etiquette workshop. I had absolutely no experience in the disability space, but the client, whose mission was to serve the disability community, demanded that I lead the project. So, I reluctantly agreed.
From that moment on, I was plunged deep into a world I had only seen from the surface. And yet, it’s a world of some 56 million people—or roughly one in five Americans! In sheer numbers, people with disabilities are the largest “minority group” in the United States. Today, 15 years on, amid the battle for gender equality and gay rights in America, and the ongoing fight for immigration rights for Hispanics and civil rights for African Americans, disability inclusion often takes a backseat in the broader diversity conversation. As we enter the month of October, which has been declared National Disability Employment Awareness Month, I want to remind us all that we shouldn’t have a diversity and inclusion conversation without keeping disability inclusion top of mind.
Now, back to my awakening. To design and deliver the content of this disability workshop, I was paired with Glenn McIntyre. Glenn, an entrepreneur and motivational speaker, happened to also be a person who uses a wheelchair. After acquiring a spinal cord injury in an accident several years ago, he became a consultant and disability etiquette expert. We were assigned to travel the country together—in over 10 cities—educating the client on how to successfully attract, retain, employ, and work alongside people with disabilities.
Frankly, the education was as rich for me as it was the client. My partnership with Glenn started me down a path of intense learning and interest in disability inclusion that continues to this day. As I began my travels with Glenn and his service dog, Boylan, my assumptions about disability were immediately challenged. “He can’t possibly drive,” I thought, “so I’ll always be behind the wheel.” But at the airport in Seattle, where we’d conduct our first training together, there was Glenn, waiting for me with a rental car agreement for a vehicle equipped with hand controls that enabled him to drive. My job? Disassemble his wheelchair and put it in the trunk.
We sometimes think that because we are gay, or black, or female, or a caregiver to an ailing parent that we must know all there is to know about diversity and inclusion. That’s a fallacy. Yes, we may know our experience but that doesn’t translate into automatically knowing about everyone else’s. Working with Glenn forced me to check the social and cultural baggage I was carrying about people with disabilities—my assumptions, my stereotypes, and let’s be honest, my anxieties. I could see firsthand many of the things that Glenn has to navigate every day. My proximity put me in a situation where I could ask questions while we traveled together, and explore the reality of living with a disability like Glenn’s. And let me tell you, such proximity provides us with a much clearer lens than, say, simply reading an article or talking to someone at a conference. As powerful as that experience was, it has been repeated countless times since because I’ve gotten to know and work with people with an array of disabilities. I’m still learning and asking questions. It would have been a mistake for me to think that just because I had better insight into Glenn’s disability that I now knew about ALL disabilities.
My advice to my fellow D&I practitioners and employers who care about the employment of people with disabilities is to find meaningful and similar circumstances to gain context in a business setting. This exposure peels away our anxiety and expands our knowledge. My partnership with Glenn contributed to my making huge leaps in understanding. In fact, that experience led to a whole new world of awareness, which led to workplace disability inclusion becoming a key area of focus for inQUEST and for me personally. I now sit on the corporate advisory board for the US Business Leadership Network (USBLN), which champions disability inclusion. I am a steering committee member of the Chicago Business Leadership Network (CBLN), and I’ve been an AbilityLinks steering committee member for more than a decade.
As D&I professionals and people who care about this space, we can’t afford to let our knowledge grow stale. My journey forced me to always challenge myself to broaden my understanding. So, just as I ask of myself, I ask you, “How are you always broadening your point of view and your experience?” And, “What actions are you taking to demonstrate your broader learning?”
I promise, challenging yourself will open your eyes to amazing and important new worlds.
- Find ways to directly interact with people with disabilities in a business context.
- Regard people with disabilities and the organizations that support them as equal, worthy, capable and professional, not as a charitable contribution.
- D&I professionals and corporate HR professionals, start researching disability inclusion and talking about how to incorporate it into your workplace.
- Corporate leaders, consider how to include a disability Employee Resource Group (ERG) into your D&I initiatives, or expand its scope if such a group already exists.
- Ensure disability inclusion is as prominent in your D&I Strategy as Gender, Race, and Sexual Orientation.