NDEAM Poster from 2018

Is it a little premature to think about a post-inclusionary world – a world that is both true to the theme of this year’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) -  “America’s Workforce: Empowering All,” as well as authentic to the experience of many of us who have disabilities or are affected by disabilities?

The workplace trends are there -- the lowest unemployment in decades; a generation of young people with disabilities who are more educated and qualified than ever with expectations of being part of the greater talent pipeline; seasoned baby boomers who even in light of a chronic health condition or two choose to contribute their institutional knowledge, experience, and skills to the workplace; servicemen and women injured in war but determined to offer their mission-driven approach towards meeting the demands of the civilian workplace; proliferation of corporations who value a diversity of opinions and perspectives; a robust ecosystem of governmental and non-governmental supports; a plethora of enabling technologies; and an ever-sensitized society to the diversity of the human experience.

So what is holding us back from full workplace equity for people with disabilities? For years, research has suggested it is negative attitudes. At the recent 2018 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Diversity and Inclusion Conference, Denise Young Smith, former Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Apple now a Cornell Fellow, suggests the fundamentals of inclusion are: 1) functional and operational inclusion –metrics collected, benchmarked, and budget provided for inclusionary efforts; 2) digital inclusion – workplace tools accessible to employees, customers, and vendors; and 3) cultural competency – developing leaders who are curious to listen and learn. Once these fundamentals are achieved, leaders must then challenge workplace bias and negative attitudes. Challenging bias requires we be more empathetic and embrace learning from one another. Denise Young Smith made a compelling argument for countering negative attitudes by telling our stories.

One such story shared this month in JAN’s monthly webcast is that of Bob Vetere, Corporate Manager for Disability Partnerships at Northrop Grumman Corporation (NGC), whose 41-year career has paralleled the disability rights movement. Bob has been a major contributor to NGC’s success in recruiting, retaining, and advancing people with disabilities. Bob shared his story of losing his sight progressively through his career at NGC. He calls his journey “growing from an unwilling victim to advocate.” He also spoke of NGC’s successes in creating an inclusive workplace. NGC’s programmatic achievements echo Denise Young Smith’s approach – foundational inclusion work complimented by story. 

For the past several years, I have had the opportunity to share our resources in the Hawaiian Islands. There, I’ve been exposed to the idea and practice of “talk story.” While far from being an expert, I understand “talk story” to be a deeper form of conversation and engagement – one that acknowledges that each person’s background and experiences offer a new opportunity to listen and learn. Conceivably, this may be a way we move towards a post-inclusionary world where differences are known, valued, and recognized as an important workplace cultural asset. Perhaps we need to be more open, more engaged, and more willing to share our stories. Denise Young Smith ended her keynote with a vision of storytelling bridging the islands of humanity. Maybe we should all become more culturally competent in understanding “talk story.” Once the fundamentals of inclusion are in place, “talk story” may be the path towards full inclusion where everyone at work is empowered to do their best.