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  • September 15, 2011

The Senses of It All: New Insights on Disability Diversity (Sidebar)

accessibilityMy visit to Serasa Experian  that prompted the blog post, “The Senses of It All: The Blind Proofreader and Other Remarkable Stories of Normalcy,” led me to some new insights on disability diversity:

  • The Best Advocates for those with Disabilities Are those with Disabilities
  • Until There Is a Compliance Mandate, Nothing Moves
  • Everyone Needs Accommodation

The Best Advocates for those with Disabilities Are those with Disabilities
It’s so easy for sensitive and inclusive diversity practitioners to not forget to include “disability” in the laundry list of diversity issues that must be addressed. But how well do we, plus business and HR leaders and managers, truly know how to best meet their needs? My sensory disorientation during my lunch time conversation with Felipe, Diego, and João was indicative of my being blind to the subtle needs of those who couldn’t see and unable to truly listen for the needs of those who couldn’t hear.

For the organizational gyroscope on disability inclusion to be properly calibrated it’s vital to have a leader or change agent involved who also has a disability to ensure the readings of the visible and invisible oscillations are true and helpful to navigate through them. It’s no surprise then that under a diversity leader with a disability such as João, that Serasa Experian’s has become a benchmark for best practices for creating inclusion for salaried professionals with a disability.

The Environment Has to Be Deliberately Nurtured So All Can Collaborate in Creating Inclusion for those with Disabilities
To break bread over a meal is always a choreography as we sit, serve, chew, talk, listen, gesture, sip, swallow. Food is cut, drink is poured. Plates, cups, silverware, napkins come and go throughout the various courses. Our hands and arms poke, slice, bob, weave, undulate as we intermingle conversation with consumption. The choreography then becomes much more complex as a deaf, blind, quad, and clueless guy sit down to for white bean soup, sole, and filet mignon.

And here’s where waiters in the Serasa Experian dining room sprung into action. Without missing a beat, they joined the dance in anticipatory ways as they put placemats, salt and pepper shakers, glasses within the reach of the one who has blind, at times guiding his hands toward the desired object, ensuring line of sight with the one who was deaf so he could read their lips, cutting the meat into bite size pieces for easy access. Conversely, as tuned in as the waiters were to the special needs they needed to tend to as part of their job, the executives at the neighboring table carried on with their business, not in a oblivious or neglectful way, but rather in a casual way that indicated that the extraordinary choreography nearby was an ordinary part of life at the company.

This scene did not happen by happenstance. It is the result of an explicit, deliberate strategy that has been well communicated and where all employees have been properly oriented to best create an inclusive environment for those with disabilities.

Until There Is a Compliance Mandate, Nothing Moves
As much as Serasa Experian is a values-driven organization that believes in diversity, inclusion, and the financial power of having an engaged workforce, the catalyst for their extraordinary story around disability diversity was the law that set a quota for the percentage of people with a disability that should make up Brazilian companies’ workforces. It was in response to this that they brought in João who then had the powerful combination of a compliance mandate plus a leadership team that wanted to go beyond doing just enough.

And here’s a telling contrast between disability-related laws passed in Brazil and in the US, not only how compliance brings about change, but also on how the law is framed impacts the outcomes. The Americans with Disability Act (ADA) focused on accessibility and accommodation. But unlike Brazilian law, it did not address representation. At its core it was about mandating that companies be appropriately proactive in creating architectural accessibility to anyone who may show up on public sidewalks, lobbies, hallways, and restrooms so that those with disabilities could get around. It also mandated that reactively accommodations be made to enable someone with a disability to do their job.

So with this compliance framing, the US ends up with wheelchair accessible buildings and handicapped parking sprouting up systematically throughout the country yet not with very many people with disabilities in the workplace.

Conversely, through compliance Brazil chose to emphasize representation but not so much accommodation in public spaces. And guess what? Brazil ends up with a much better workplace representation story but poor accessibility of public spaces.

Everyone Needs Accommodation
As I heard the stories of Nancy, Diego, Felipe, Lais, João and observed their working environment it reinforced for me that in this upside down world we need to redefine what we need disabled and accommodation and instead talk about being differently abled.

Before I elaborate, let me insert this caveat: In making the point that follows, I do not intend to equate all limitations as being equality difficult or easy or equally costly or painful. Rather I suggest that instead of looking at this as being an either/or of being able bodied or having a disability that we instead look at the issue as a continuum.

So back to my point. I see organizations and society resisting proactive and reactive accommodation because of cost and inconvenience, But let’s get some perspective about what accommodation really is. Because don’t we all, in one way or another require some form of accommodation? And are there are myriad ways in which society, the workplace, those around us accommodate our needs without question? So why should we suddenly question request or needs that may be less common but are just a serious and important as those we address without question.

Walk with me through this thought process. We can’t be in two places at once so we need telephones. We are limited in how much we can handwrite so we have devices with keyboards.. We are limited in how many tasks we can tend to so we need administrative assistants. We don’t work very well when its too hot or too cold so we need heating and air conditioning. We can get physically I’ll so we need healthcare coverage. Most of us aren’t inheritors of wealth so we need retirement savings benefits. We can’t work without resting so we need breaks during the work day and weekends every 5 days, and vacations at least once a year. We need to find babysitters so we get childcare referrals on the web. We have bodies that get fatigued and need the proper support so we have ergonomically sound chairs.

So how is this any different from the reality of a having some form of disability? In essence all things above have to do with an element of limitation of the human body and mind. We are always providing accommodation to all types. Those with disability at some level have the same need to address some physical or mental limitation that may be less prevalent than, say. our susceptibility to hot or cold. Addressing disability is simply providing what workers need to be as efficient and effective as possible and with their talents have the best chance to come out flush for the sake of the organization and the individuals.

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