It’s time to change our minds about disability.
Disability isn’t always seen as a sexy topic. It doesn’t arouse our curiosity. Most of us don’t even really think about it much—until we experience it in a profoundly personal way.
My own experience is as close as my 23-year-old son, Evan, who my husband and I adopted when we were doing relief work in Albania and staying at an orphanage during the Kosovo crisis. At 15 months, Evan lay in a crib, unresponsive to auditory or visual stimulation. Still, something told me he was mine. I’d go to the nursery and hold him every day. One day, when I went to set him down, he burst into tears and moved his arms and legs as if to say,” Hello! I’m a person. There’s somebody in here.” Long story short, we adopted him.
As a parent, I see my son’s developmental disabilities through two lenses. One is grief for what could have been. Grief is like a pot on the back of the stove; you may forget about it for a while, but it’s always there, simmering. Grief brings sadness. Yet it also frames another lens I see the world through thanks to Evan—the lens of possibilities. Evan has helped me break through my own paradigms about success and perfection. I’m a better person because he’s pushed me to recognize potential in everyone. To know that everyone has a purpose. To see the heart of the human condition and be more empathetic. And to really see what the power of love can do. Evan embodies the saying on a little bracelet I keep: “Imperfectly perfect.” We are all imperfectly perfect. Without speaking too much for my husband and our other two sons, I can say that each of us has a special place in our hearts for Evan and the gifts he’s given us. Evan’s zest for life is in connecting with people and he is often asked to be a ride along for adventures where they need someone to rally the troops! He loves sports and has found his place as a volunteer (and occasional assistant coach) with my sons’ and other sports teams, where players see the appreciation and excitement of a game shine through him as a contrast to the lens of personal performance. He loves his job at a local pizza place where workers are quick to say, “The best days are the ones where Evan is here.”
My experience is both unique and universal. There are millions of people with a wide range of disabilities in our country—one in four Americans—and millions more who love and care for them. In 1990, the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act created laws around accessibility that still govern how we operate today. Over 30 years later, despite leaps in technology, communication and medicine, our society still mostly complies at the bare minimum of those legal requirements. And as a result, it is easy to fall into traps of identifying the outcomes of people with disabilities as “inspirational” which can sometimes feel patronizing, or to reflect on this population as a way to feel better about one’s own life and possibilities instead of recognizing the inherent value in all people.
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. What better time to take the next step and use it as a catalyst for change?
The biggest barrier we face is not money. It’s our mindset. Our challenge, and our opportunity, is to think beyond, “How do we follow the ADA rules?” to, “What can we champion as a society—around all people—in ways that help us learn and grow and accomplish our business goals?”
This leads to a deeper question, as I see it: “How can we move beyond the narrow definitions of performance that drive our society, and open our minds to people with different abilities who have much to contribute?”
Businesses tend to underestimate the ingenuity and initiative that people with different abilities could bring to the table, if only they were invited. We talk so much about adaptive thinking in business today, while these people are the original adaptive thinkers. Our disabled communities take a world that has not been set up for them and figure out how to make it work. They are communities of independent thinkers who overcome adversity to blaze new trails and pursue their dreams. I wonder what we could learn, as business leaders and as a society, if we spent more time understanding how they do it.
As Chief People Officer at Point B, I strive to foster a culture that embraces people with different needs to help them achieve their full potential for the greater good. And as Executive Sponsor of bAbled, I’m excited to champion this group’s vision to support Point Bers who have disabilities or who care for loved ones with disabilities. In its first year, bAbled, led by Amy Hoyt, has also built awareness among our leadership and reached out to all Point Bers who want to understand the perspective of people with differing abilities. Together, we want to see the possibilities through a new lens and help debunk the misconceptions that hold us back from what we could accomplish together.
What’s the next step look like for your business? It might be as fundamental as getting to know your people better and finding out what they need to thrive. This effort could not be timelier, as COVID-19 continues to disrupt lives in personal and professional ways. If your company is like ours, you’ll find there are more people with disabilities in your workplace than you realized. The better you know your employees, the better you can set them up for success.
Ready to take a bigger step? Are there jobs that could be done in your workplace right now by someone with different abilities? How can you reconstruct some existing jobs or even job descriptions to include them? These are questions we’re asking at Point B, and we’re learning as we go.
On a personal level, you don’t need to wait for organizational change to take your own next step. If you don’t know someone with a disability story—whether they have a disability or someone in their family has different abilities—you need to. Take the time to create your own awareness.
We’re all here because we have a purpose. When you encounter someone with a disability, you could stop and ask yourself, “What is this person’s purpose? How can I help them fulfill it?” Or maybe you’ll see a new connection: “This person is here for a reason. What does that reason mean to me?”
It’s amazing how far a little curiosity can take us, and what a catalyst for change our next steps could be.