How To Have A Meaningful Conversation About Disability At Work

Nicole, who co-owns a salon

Nicole, who co-owns a salon in Newton, Massachusetts, says her learning disability is a strength that sets her apart. 

August 22, 2018 | Denise Brodey, Contributor

If you have a disability, you very quickly come to understand that it is an issue most people don’t open up about at work. Sure, talking about your experience with chronic fatigue syndrome, depression or a learning disability such as dyslexia might happen behind closed doors. But in a larger setting? It’s still taboo. To say the silence millions keep each day is stifling is an understatement. Many people describe it as feeling like their true self has been hijacked and replaced, at least during working hours. Hiding a disability does colleagues a disservice, too. Truth is, every time someone speaks up for people with disabilities in the workplace, particularly if they have lived experience, it has the potential to build trust, empathy, and engagement.

Advocates, role models, mentors—whatever the label, I know one thing for sure: the workplace needs many, many more to share their strengths. Unfortunately, only 3.2 percent of employees “self-identify” to their employer if they have an invisible disability, according to a National Organization on Disability study. As for people with visible disabilities advocating in the workplace? Well, you may not see as many as you should because, literally, they aren’t there. In 2017, 18.7 percent of persons with a disability were employed, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported. In contrast, the employment-population ratio for those without a disability was 65.7 percent.

Keep reading to get an idea of how organizations can start a real conversation not just about people with disabilities—but with them—in the workplace:

 — Consider The Value Of Peer Specialists.

Rob Walker, who runs the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health Office of Recovery and Empowerment, says programs that use peer specialists in addition to trained counselors and medical care, have been very successful. He’s hopeful that “younger adults, who seem to be much more accepting of their learning and mental health challenges” and have been offered curriculum on topics of mental health will help end workplace discrimination against people with disabilities. “It’s harder for older adults to admit they need help and you can see a generational divide on this issue,” says Walker. People who are open about their disabilities often become champions of workplace programs. Walker, for instance, talks openly about his diagnosis of bipolar disorder many years ago and says he shares his story often as part of his programming.

— Rethink Your Wellness Program To Make It More Visible Internally.

Some large organizations have been retooling the old ways of assisting employees with mental health issues and creating programs that go beyond telephone consultations or outside referrals for medical issues of concern in the workplace. American Express’s Healthy Minds program is one. “We have been doing this program for a long time. And from the beginning we knew it was key to reach out and educate management about the importance of our mental health programs, says Charles Lattarulo, Ph.D., director of Healthy Minds at American Express. “Through our discussions with senior leaders, they have come to understand how crucial it is that they lead the way in creating a safe, healthy space for our colleagues.” American Express offers on-site face-to-face counseling in addition to traditional services, such as telephone-based employee assistance programs. But it is the internal communication element of the program—asking key players inside the company to recognize and promote the value of destigmatizing mental health issues—that Lattarulo says is crucial. You can find case studies on workplace mental health programs, including the one at American Express, here. 

–Empower Colleagues To Help Each Other.

One way to build trust and open up a conversation is to offer courses such as Mental Health First Aid. The course is an eight-hour immersion in helping someone who may be experiencing a mental health or substance use challenge. Having taken the course, I can say, it’s a long day. But it is time very well spent. I now have it drilled into my mind how to get help for a colleague or friend who appears to be in crisis. A side benefit of taking the course? You’re walking the walk. By setting aside a day to learn about Mental Health First Aid you are showing others this is an issue that really matters to you. Getting the facts straight and sharing them is also empowering. You can learn more about the Americans with Disabilities Act here.

Sharing personal experiences, however, seem to make the most impact. Author Mandy Froehlich’s The Fire Within captures the stories of educators who have gone through trauma and taken strength from what they have learned. She says, “Organizations create a huge disconnect when they say they talk about the value of wellness but don’t show they truly value it.” In education, she told me, the newest thing is to suggest that teachers practice mindfulness.

“That’s just scratching the surface for social-emotional health for teachers who have experienced trauma,” says Froehlich, who is also the director of innovation and technology for a school district in Wisconsin. “We are often afraid of the ramifications of what we tell their colleagues. That’s not how it should be.”

— Talk Often About Your Strengths.

Audrey Bentley, a student at Michigan State University says, “People really do want to give you help if you ask for it.” Her story is one of four documented in Normal Isn’t Real, a short film that shares the experiences of successful people with learning and attention issues. Nicole Vaiani, a master colorist who owns her own salon in Massachusetts, says: “I learn differently. I learn by seeing and doing and it turns out I am better at my job than a lot of other people.” Her differences are her strength and when she talks about it, she isn’t bragging. She’s starting a crucial conversation about her ability, not her disability, which is the key to becoming an effective role model, advocate or mentor. Even if your colleagues don’t recognize it now, the evidence is clear, say economists, that a diverse workforce performs better.

Denise Brodey is a writer on mental health and disability. She is the author of The Elephant in the Playroom. 

Read on Forbes

How Google has stepped up its efforts to makes its own tech more accessible to the disabled

A group of Google employees, including Allen (center), prepare to give product demonstrations at an Assistive Technology Industry Association conference

Jillian D’Onfro | Published 11:00 AM ET Sat, 18 Aug 2018

Homework is a drag for any high schooler, but for the class of 2006’s Laura Palmaro Allen, even starting an assignment required a laborious, multistep process.

She and her family had to strip her textbooks from their bindings, run the pages through a high speed scanner, and digitize them — all before she could use text-to-speech software to actually ingest her history lesson or reading exercise. Allen has limited vision because of a rare eye condition called Choroidal Osteomas: At the time, her school didn’t offer any easier ways to accommodate her.

Fast-forward a decade and a half and Allen now regularly coaches visually impaired kids on far simpler ways to get their work done using near-ubiquitous smartphones or laptops. As a program manager for accessibility for Google‘s Chrome software, she not only gives demos, but spends her days making the company’s products work better for people with all different kinds of disabilities.

Over the past several years, the tech industry generally — and Google specifically — have been more deliberate about baking accessibility into products, and beefing up overall resources for the roughly one billion people worldwide with some form of disability.

While there’s still considerable work to do on existing products, Google sees its next big challenge as exploring how it can use its technology to help make the the wider world — not just the bits and bytes of digital screens — more accessible.

Here’s how the company’s trying to make that happen.

From grassroots advocacy to a cohesive system

Allen first joined Google in a sales role in 2010. She quickly noticed ways that products she used every day, like Docs and Gmail, could be improved for blind or low-vision users like herself.

Back then, there were some Google employees focused on accessibility, but the group was small and scattered. It spurred Allen to take on a “20 percent project,” consulting with different product teams across the company.

By 2013, Google realized that it needed to do better and do more. It launched a centralized Accessibility team to oversee all its products, as well as user research and employee education focused on disabilities.

The crux of that change was that while accessibility-related product decisions used to too-often rely on grassroots advocacy from people like Allen, there’s now a standardized process in place.

“Any new product or piece of a user interface needs to go through a set of accessibility checks and tests,” she said. “In the same way that privacy and security is checked for every product, accessibility is now checked as well.”

Allen now works full-time on making sure Google’s browser, operating system, and laptops work well for people with hearing, vision, dexterity, or cognition impairments. For example, the ChromeVox screen reader and adjustable magnification and contrast settings aid visually impaired users, and there’s a keyboard guide for people who can’t use a mouse.

Eve Andersson, who heads up Google’s centralized Accessibility team as the director of engineering, says the goal is to codify accessibility into every stage of a product’s life-cycle.

That kind of focus pays off widely, according to Dmitri Belser, executive director at the Center for Accessible Technology.

“Designing products with disabilities in mind creates products that are better for everybody,” he said. For example, captions aren’t just helpful for deaf people and even if you’re not visually impaired, high-contrast fonts are just easier to read, period. Plus, disability shouldn’t be a matter of us versus them.

“It’s is the one group we all join,” he added. “We all age, and so we’ll all get to be there at some point.”

Google’s next challenge

Google is quick to admit that it still has a ways to go to improve its existing products, but the company is eying another kind of tech potential, too.

“Disability is still so stigmatized that disabled people often face the ‘tyranny of low expectations,‘ where less is expected of them,” says Carol Glazer, president of the National Organization on Disability (NOD). “But you can’t just assume that people with disabilities are sitting at home in front of their computers — they’re out and about in the community.”

While most of Google’s accessibility efforts center on making all its digital products work better for people with disabilities, Andersson believes that the big opportunity lies in finding ways to use Google technology to make the physical world more accessible.

In March, Google Maps introduced “wheelchair accessible” routes in transit navigation. In May, it previewed a forthcoming app called Lookout that uses a smartphone camera, computer vision, and natural language processing to give users real-time descriptions of the world around them.

The latest safety report for Alphabet’s self-driving car unit, Waymo, includes a section about how it’s developing features like braille labels and audio cues (though it doesn’t mention accessibility for wheelchair users).

Andersson sees voice-controlled smart assistants as being one of the clearest ways to make many more products accessible. As connected-devices become more popular, blind or mobility-impaired people can suddenly control a much wider range of products simply by speaking.

For example, Google’s smart home division has approached senior living facilities to try to figure out how it could tweak its products to work better for older people, several people familiar with the discussions previously told CNBC.

“The possibilities are just wide open,” Andersson says. “With the advances that are happening now in AI and computer vision and internet of things, there is so much opportunity.”

Outside the Googleplex

While Google works to improve its own products and processes and launch into new domains, the Accessibility team has also ramped up its external focus.

Google reps sit on various web accessibility standards boards and committees, and the company publishes accessibility guides for third-party developers. It launched a free online accessibility development class, which includes training that all new Google employees complete during orientation, and Allen just helped put on an event with Teach Access, an organization that aims to make accessibility training mainstream in higher education.

Larry Goldberg, one of the founders of Teach Access and a director of accessible media at Oath, says that he’s seen an acceleration in interest, resources, and awareness from all major tech companies over the past half decade, in both product development and representation.

“The idea of ‘diversity in tech’ has traditionally looked at women, people of color, and LGBT representation— and now disability is becoming a bigger part of that conversation too,” Goldberg said. “The best way to make sure that products work for their stakeholders is to have people with disabilities on staff: It’s not just what we create, but the way we create it and who creates it.”

NOD’s Glazer says that the tech industry still ranks lower than others when it comes to disabled representation, according to its disability employment tracker.

Part of attracting disabled candidates is making sure the work environment accommodates them seamlessly. Andersson said that the Accessibility organization has steadily helped steer all Google’s campuses to being better equipped for people with disabilities. That includes small tweaks, like putting braille labels on the food in its micro-kitchens, or wider initiatives, like guiding managers on how to make every presentation accessible.

“We’re working really hard to make things better,” Allen stated. “I can’t say that everything is perfect or that our technology works for everyone, but we’re learning and changing so much all the time and that’s exciting.”

Read on CNBC

Let’s Stop Cheating the Disabled

Sheltered workshops are vestiges of the past and should be reformed or abolished.

Woman in a wheelchair using a computer

By Carol Glazer, President of the National Organization on Disability

Consider this: Businesses in regions with the lowest unemployment rates employ disproportionate numbers of workers with disabilities [1].

The implication? People with disabilities are more than capable, they’re just not companies’ first, second, or even third choice. But when employers need talent, they give new people a chance. And when given the chance, people with disabilities succeed.

Many of those without job prospects end up in sheltered workshops, places that legally perpetuate segregation by isolating workers with disabilities and, for over 140,000 Americans, by paying far less than minimum wage—as little as pennies per hour. Sheltered workshops are vestiges of a misguided time when people with disabilities were believed to need charity and seclusion. We now know both beliefs are incorrect.

Moreover, workshops – which claim to be training grounds for bigger things – don’t actually prepare workers for competitive employment; only 5% of people leave workshops for community jobs. Not because they can’t perform, but because there aren’t pathways. Most go from sheltered workshops to elder care, not better lives.

What many workshops actually do, even with ironic names like Opportunity Village, is profit off of their practically-indentured workforces by providing cheap labor to major corporations. Is this illegal? No. Immoral? Certainly. Can we do better? Absolutely.

Worst of all, the payment of less than minimum wage to Americans with disabilities is a callous rebuke to the dignity for which workers have fought and bled. To pay us less is to imply that we are less. People with disabilities can’t work? Neither could black people or women, at one time. It’s an inane belief, and suited more to 1918 than 2018.

The 40-hour work week. Safe working environments. Child labor bans. A minimum wage.

As recently as 75 years ago these standards would have been dismissed as fantasy. Yet here we are. And as we celebrate our 124th Labor Day this year, we not only pay tribute to the workers who sacrificed to advance our well-being, we also recertify our collective obligation to leave behind a better workforce than we inherited.

So what can we do?

First, do your homework on the businesses you support. If businesses are profiting off of workers earning subminimum wages, stop buying from them. How do you know which businesses those are? Here are the lists. You may see some familiar names, with Goodwill the most notorious (and frequent) opportunist.

Second, and more simple, tell your friends and families. Sheltered workshops have lasted this long because they exist largely unbeknownst to the public. So spread the word.

We must reform or abolish these institutions. It will be hard for some people, but change always is. For a small number of Americans with disabilities, sheltered workshops provide a purpose and place to go each day. That’s a good thing. But they are woefully inefficient; with a 5% success rate, this cannot be argued. And no one should be paid less than minimum wage.

[1] Brookings Institute, 2018.

Republished from where, Carol Glazer is a regular columnist.

NY1 Interview with Carol Glazer: Changing Attitudes Towards Workers with Disabilities

Video still of Carol Glazer speaking on set

With the unemployment rate at 3.9 percent, companies are desperate for workers. Yet, employers often either don’t consider recruiting from the disability community when looking for workers or are afraid to hire them. Spectrum News-NY1’s “In Focus with Cheryl Wills” takes a deep dive into the changing attitudes towards including employees with disabilities in the workplace.

In a two-part interview, Carol Glazer, president of the National Organization on Disability, Victor Calise, commissioner, Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, and Edward R. Matthews, CEO of the ADAPT Community Network, dig into how companies can successfully onboard talent with disabilities.

Watch the First Segment | Watch the Second Segment