Embedding Disability in DEI with Kathleen West-Evans, Director of Business Relations, Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation

Jennifer Brown | |

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This episode was originally recorded as a DEI Community Call, and features a conversation with Kathleen West-Evans, Director of Business Relations, The National Employment Team (NET), Council of State Administrators of VR. Learn more about this diverse talent pool, and the intersections of race, culture and disabilities and what the impact will be post-COVID on retaining and returning the “long haulers” to the workplace.

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

Doug Foresta: Welcome to The Will To Change. This is Doug Foresta, of course I’m here with Jennifer Brown. Before we get into today’s episode, Jennifer, I want to make sure that the audience knows that there is a new DEI Foundations cohort coming up, is that correct?

Jennifer Brown: Yeah. Thanks Doug. I’m excited to announce our next cohort. So we run this about four times a year. So the next cohort is June 29th, and it lasts six weeks. It is an asynchronous and synchronous program, meaning, took me awhile to understand what that meant. Asynchronous means that it is self paced. And so we have prepared and made a big investment in uploading resources for you to absorb on your own time, in your own time and your own pace. But there is a synchronous element to the course, meaning that there are assignments, and yes homework that is graded by our faculty. And then there’s weekly calls on Fridays where everybody gets together to unpack what we’ve been working on our own. So that’s the synchronous part, which means the live instructor part.

Jennifer Brown: So it’s this wonderful blend. I think it’s a best practice in terms of attending to different learning styles. But I would think about if you want to start this cohort, maybe the summertime is a great time of year to make that investment in yourself and to spend that deep dive time into your own role, your own story, perhaps starting to think about what kind of work you want to do, what kind of contribution you want to make to the DEI space. It’s called foundations because it is meant to be a foundational program. And then we will be adding on and offering a level two and eventually a level three on top of this foundational program, which would be for people who are moving into having the responsibility for DEI in a given organization.

Jennifer Brown: So the foundations program though is something that I feel should be required, it’s kind of a prerequisite before folks progress onto the next conversation, which is much more I think about building a strategy, what are the best practices around strategic pillars and measurements and metrics and focus areas for strategies? That is much more applied. I think this foundations program is that, like I said, that personal deep dive, the investigation into our iceberg like what’s under our waterline? What do we hide or bring to the fore? What has shaped us in our lives? And I think about my storytelling and my journey with what’s under my water line. I think about investigating being LGBTQ, for example, but then doing the work around. It has formed and shaped so many attributes in me that I’m so proud of today and that I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t been challenged by the world, challenged around who I am and how I identify.

Jennifer Brown: I think it’s worthy for all of us to spend this time and give ourselves this gift to sit with our story, sit with our diversity dimensions, do that in a community, in a cohort that is also working on that where it’s a very, very safe and brave space. And then have that space also be held by our expert faculty who have been around the block when it comes to this stuff. I know that it just gets rave [inaudible 00:03:35] reviews, this program. We actually have a special discount code Doug for podcast listeners. So if you want to know more about the program, go to jenniferbrownconsulting.com, and you will see that it’s at the very, very top of the page.

Jennifer Brown: To learn more, you can read about the ROI and the kinds of learning objectives that we will be covering. There’s a registration link, and then there is a discount for podcast listeners. You only need to enter the code podcast, all capitals, podcast to get 20% off of the program fee. So please consider joining us, we’d love to have you. I hope the timing works, maybe it works beautifully because I hope for all of us we get a little bit of a break this summer because that’s what summers are for, right Doug?

Doug Foresta: That is true.

Jennifer Brown: Ideally, but we just work way too hard. Think about this as a treat to give yourself an investment in your current and future inclusive leader self and also perhaps you will end up doing this work someday, and this is a really critical piece to your toolkit. So go visit Jennifer Brown Consulting, look at DEI Foundations. And if you decide to enroll, use podcast for 20% off.

Kathy West-Evans: I think of Intel in Portland, Oregon where they have an engineer who was hiking with his family and fell and hit his head and lost his vision. And the company wanted to keep him working, so they reached out and worked with our local VR agency that supports people who are blind or have vision loss to help him accommodate back to his work, but most importantly, home life, transportation, that overall adjustment to disability and then bringing him back into the workplace. This was an engineer that holds 17 patents for that company. So obviously they really wanted to keep his talent in the workplace, and he wanted to keep working.

Doug Foresta: Everyone has a diversity story, even those you don’t expect. Welcome to The Will To Change with Jennifer Brown. Get ready to hear from leading CEOs, bestselling authors and entrepreneurs as we uncover their true stories of diversity and inclusion. And now here’s your host, Jennifer Brown. Hello and welcome back to The Will To Change. This episode was originally recorded as a DEI community call and features a conversation with Kathleen West-Evans, director of business relations the National Employment Team, Council of State Administrators of VR. And the episode covers topics, including the impact of disability on our communities, more about the diverse and sizable talent pool and the intersections of race, culture, and disabilities. You’ll learn about the federal VR program and the resources and supports available as well as post COVID the impact on retaining or returning long haulers to the workplace and much more. And now onto the episode.

Jennifer Brown: I want to let everybody know that Karen Dahms is actually going to play another moderator role. Thank you Karen today. Because Karen, you’re close friends with Kathy and you also have worked in the disability space for a really long time. And so I’m going to take a back seat and give you the reins here and to have the conversation with Kathy. And everybody, this is your opportunity to ask every question you have really. This is a place to learn, terminology is fair game. I was quizzing Kathy earlier about where does this work kind of live in organizations, where does it align to structurally? What do you recommend? What would be better? So as people who think a lot about structure and accountability and how DEI is connected into the fabric of our organizations, this is somebody we have in both Karen and Kathy today to really pick their brains and then to engage with them afterwards.

Jennifer Brown: So make sure that you’re clear on how to do that by the end, and Karen will do that as well to make sure you know how to follow up because what we really want is to connect you all to what Kathy’s organization enables. And I think you’ll see why as we talk about and learn more about what they do. So Kathy is director of business relations for CSAVR, which is the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation or VR. And so without saying more, Karen, I’ll let you take away.

Karen Dahms: Great. Thanks for that welcome Jennifer. And I’m, as Jennifer mentioned, very excited to have Kathy as our guests today. We do have a past that has connected, I did work with the US Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services for about 17 years, possibly even a little bit longer. So Kathy and I had an opportunity to connect at various points not only during that, but since then around embedding disability into the DEI strategy, which is our topic for today. So just briefly I wanted to go over what we’ll be talking about. Kathy is going to be able to bring to us some really up-to-date and in-depth knowledge about what disability looks like and how it impacts our communities and society overall. We’re going to be talking more about this sizable talent pool, which in many organizations is still untapped.

Karen Dahms: And we still see that some organizations are just now beginning to include disability as part of the DEI equation. Jennifer mentioned briefly that Kathy is with us from the federal VR program. And I’m just interested in chat briefly if anybody can put in there if they are familiar already with what the federal VR vocational rehabilitation program is and whether their organization has potentially partnered with VR agencies in the past. So that would just be interesting if anybody has any insight or experience. Yeah, they’re very good. Yeah, a mix, not familiar. Yeah, I’m not surprised. There still is a lot of work for organizations to be connecting with these types of resources. And I think this is going to be a great opportunity for all of you to learn more about the resources that the program brings to employers.

Karen Dahms: We’re also going to be talking about the NET, and that stands for the National Employment Team. And that is the arm of the VR program that actually is available to work directly with employers. So we’ll get into that in more detail as we move into the conversation. But I think another really interesting part of the discussion is going to be on post COVID and what happens with the long haulers. And what has the impact of COVID-19 been on the disability community? And what are some considerations employers will need to be thinking about as they start to bring employees back? So with that, Kathy, I’d like to bring you into the conversation. And I’m hoping you could start just maybe telling us a little bit more about disability, what is this talent pool? What does it look like in the US today? And Gia, could you move to the next slide also? Thank you.

Kathy West-Evans: Thank you Karen, and thank you Jennifer, Gia, Veronica, thank you for hosting and opening up this dialogue. It’s great to be with you today. I’m here East of the Seattle area, so it’s great to see people across the country. So Karen, the most recent data on disability comes out of the CDC. And it was just released within the last year showing that 61 million adults with disabilities, so 26% of the adult population in the US is impacted by disability. I think one of the things to remember is we’re talking about the adult population 18 and over. We don’t have a lot of solid statistics around youth, and yet need to be really planning for that population as they move through school systems and transition into their careers.

Kathy West-Evans: So this really is one of the largest diversity groups in the country. And unlike other diversity groups, this is a group that anyone of us can join at any time because disability happened, it’s part of the normal human condition. And I think we need to open the dialogue for that reason because it doesn’t only impact individuals. The last statistics I saw is that it impacted about 20 million families. So we all know if we’re working to support a child with a disability, a parent with a disability, our generation is known as the sandwich generation where we’re providing those supports. And as you said earlier, I think COVID adds to that dialogue.

Kathy West-Evans: On the next slide, I also wanted to share that intersectionality piece because I think this is key. There’s disparity in the medical services for communities of color. We see that with inner city communities, we see it with Native American and Alaska Native communities. Communities that are not receiving the types of medical support for conditions at a young age or any time during the life cycle. And that really does contribute to the population of people with disabilities in those ethnic and racial communities. I think that’s a dialogue again that we really need to open.

Karen Dahms: It’s so interesting. And those numbers are really quite staggering when you think about it, particularly when you point out that children are not included in that 69, what was 69 million, was it?

Kathy West-Evans: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Karen Dahms: Kathy, in the pre-call you mentioned something about census and how disability is not captured. I just think that would be an interesting tidbit to share with the group.

Kathy West-Evans: Well, we’ve all recently been through a census. And if you look back at the document you completed on the census, you’ll recognize there is not a question that says, are you a person with a disability? They measure disability in this country by looking at a segment of the population, but it’s not a question that we’ve seen on the census. And I think that that’s definitely where we’re missing a lot of individuals. So I think our numbers are higher.

Karen Dahms: That’s concerning.

Kathy West-Evans: The American Community Survey versus the census, yes, Veronica is absolutely right. And there is the link to that.

Karen Dahms: I did want to point out that Veronica has shared links for all of the slides that Kathy shared so far. And I also wanted to reinforce something that Jennifer mentioned at the outset of the call. If you have any questions, we are going to allow about 15, 20 minutes toward the end of the conversation for any of you to ask Kathy more about how to get involved and specific questions about how the NET works with employers. But if you have questions that come up now, go ahead and put them in, and our team will grab them and make sure that we get to them toward the end of the call. So thanks for that.

Karen Dahms: So Kathy in terms of the work that the federal VR program does and the work of the NET, I know on the next slide we have some breakdown of some specific roles and responsibilities under those. But I think if you could take us through them. I saw in that early opening chat that a lot of folks are not familiar with the VR program. So I think it would be good to spend a little time right now just giving us the scope and scale of this resource.

Kathy West-Evans: And I do want to clarify one thing if I may, Karen, I’m seeing the question come up asking about disability. We are looking at the broad scope of disability in this session and with these numbers. There are over 350 different conditions that are defined in the world by the World Health Organization. So this is a broad scope of disability, and oftentimes we’ll see individuals with dual diagnosis. So I just want to be clear about that upfront, so thank you for asking that question. So the public vocational rehab program, and Karen and I get a good laugh about this because when we use the acronym VR a lot of people say, “Oh, virtual reality, what a fun field to work in?” And it is a great field, I don’t want to dismiss that.

Kathy West-Evans: But this program has been around for 100 years. And this movement really started with veterans who were returning from service with disabilities and the realization that with a disability it doesn’t mean that you need to be warehoused somewhere. That you have the opportunity to return to your communities, to your families, to your work, and how important that is to think differently about individuals with disabilities. So their program came on early on, and then the population shifted to include all individuals with disabilities. The public voc rehab program entered the US Department of Education that Karen referenced earlier has existed since 1920. So we are in our hundred and first year as a program. And the focus is on careers, employment, independence. So when you look at the foundation of the Rehabilitation Act, you’ll see how it’s changed over the years, but that’s been the scope from day one. And the focus is on how we look at people’s abilities and how we enable them to be productive.

Kathy West-Evans: We do serve veterans in our system, so veterans who have acquired their disability after service are served through our system. Veterans who acquire their disability during service are served by the VR system and the VA. But we also have a partnership where we support each other. And I think that’s key because we’re working toward the same goal. We also have a program that serves individuals living on or near Native American reservations and Alaskan villages, and we collaborate across the country. So when we’re talking about a large talent pool, that’s the talent pool that you have access to. The key is really shifting to what does the individual need, how do we set that person up for success? And then on the NET side, how do we set the business up for success?

Kathy West-Evans: So we’ve really focused on that dual customer, how do you make a plan with an individual? How do you plan with the business, and how do you connect that talent to the employment need? And then the retention piece that we’ll talk about as well Karen. So we have 78 agencies, we’re in every state, the territory [inaudible 00:19:18] is DC, we serve roughly 1.2 million individuals with disabilities a year. And our goal through the National Employment Team is to work together so that we’re supporting business across their footprint. And we want to do that by listening and learning about where a company is, where a company wants to go and how we can build a plan with you that focuses on that recruitment, hiring, advancement, and retention.

Karen Dahms: Before we move more into the work of VR and the NET, I was wondering if you would just briefly mention transition services and how this is connected to children with disabilities.

Kathy West-Evans: Absolutely. In the last reauthorization of our federal legislation, which amended the Rehabilitation Act, there was a focus on what they call preemployment transition services. And I think there’s a realization that students at a young age, particularly those with disabilities may not have a vision of a career for themselves. So how do we start to explore that, support parents, support teachers, support those students to look at a career after graduation? What career depends on the skills and interests of that individual, but the focus is on the career and not necessarily graduating without those options and potentially onto government support. So we’re really trying to have a dialogue about that early vision. And getting adults with disabilities connected back to youth to walk the talk and show what really can be done with support.

Karen Dahms: And before we leave this slide, I just wanted to reiterate when you talk about serving one million plus individuals per year, those are individuals with disabilities and that assistance is to get them employed. So this is all around creating independence and employment for this population.

Kathy West-Evans: Yes. And then also the retention Karen. I’m going to keep coming back to that because I think we-

Karen Dahms: That is the key word.

Kathy West-Evans: Yeah. Because I think that companies are recognizing that they’ve got a lot of talent, and disability happens at any time during that employment life cycle. So how do we keep people employed and keep them productive? They are a huge part of our talent pool already.

Karen Dahms: And I see Joanne in the chat has a question, are children supported with these programs? So that would be that program you just talked about that also comes out of the Department of Education. That’s under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, correct?

Kathy West-Evans: Yes.

Karen Dahms: It’s still called that, IDEA?

Kathy West-Evans: Right. And the segue between our legislation, so that’s the connection.

Karen Dahms: So great. We can provide a link to that, Joanne, and as well to the state VR program. With the states that you’re operating in, if you were to pretty much Google state VR agency in New Jersey, for example, I did some work here in New Jersey, and there were two. One was specifically set up to serve individuals that were blind or visually impaired. And then there was a separate agency where the larger disability community is served. So if we can go on to the next slide, I wanted to see Kathy if you can tell us a little bit more about how you actually go in and work with employers. And if you can tell us where is the entry point for the NET, for your team when they come into an organization to talk about disability and diversity and inclusion?

Kathy West-Evans: Those are great questions Karen. So on this slide, there’s a number of services. And I’m going to apologize for anyone that has a vision loss and maybe can’t see the slide, we will make these available to you. But let me hit it at a high level. Working with a company because we coordinate a national team, and we begin this work with the National Employment Team by sitting down with 35 of our business customers and asking, how do we do this differently? It doesn’t make sense to build a plan with a person if it’s not connected to what a business needs and those opportunities. So I think that was key to our strategy. And that dialogue took place 2003, 2004. And that’s when we actually started building the National Employment Team. The second thing they told us was build the trust.

Kathy West-Evans: We’re not going to make a shift in the employment of this population if we don’t open the dialogue. I’m a strong believer that we cannot lead with litigation. You’re not going to build a relationship where people feel free to ask questions by starting with a lawsuit. And we talk about that a lot within our team. So for a company, we’ve started at different points. It’s amazing once you open the dialogue around disability in a company how many people identify that they themselves have a disability, a family member, a friend, there’s a connection. I mean, if all of us think about that, people with disabilities are us, they’re part of who we are already. And I think the key in working with the company is at any point that you enter. We’ve started with human resources, we’ve started with the compliance team. We’ve started with corporate leadership.

Kathy West-Evans: We’ve started with the ERGs and the affinity groups, the BRGs within companies. And I think those are key pieces internally in a company. But we’ve also started it with facilities because the company has reached out to us and said, “We’ve got a person who was deaf, can they drive a forklift? How do you meet health and safety standards? The entry point is anywhere, but the key is really sitting down with the company and looking at what they need, how to support them where they’re at and where they want to go. And on the slide, you’ll see we’ve worked with companies around that preemployment internships. Apprenticeships are huge avenues for supporting a shift into careers, and we’re seeing more of that.

Kathy West-Evans: Again, the retention supports accommodations. We have a team of assistive technology specialists on our team. We also have a team of occupational therapists. So we do work in the work site. Staff training, if we’re going to open the dialogue, how do we open the dialogue in a company? And there are programs that we’ve used where we’ll train people for a lunch and learn. It depends on the company again, Karen, we want to build with that company. There are certain strategies around universal design, and I think this is a growing area that will make a big difference for all of us. If you think about some of the accommodations that you now see in the workplace and in everyday life, I mean, how many people will hit an electronic door opener when they have their arms full or they’re pushing a stroller or whatever? That was an accommodation.

Kathy West-Evans: How many people use texting? Did you know that that was an accommodation that was originally developed for people who are hard of hearing and deaf? That’s become mainstream. So as we start to think of universal design, they’re really things that we find that benefit the whole workforce, they make us all more efficient. Diversity programs, I’m so excited to be working with you and your team, Karen, because I think this is a key place to open up this dialogue. It can’t just sit in compliance. If you’re going to make a shift, it’s not a compliance issue. It really is part of the diversity program. But we’ve also worked with product development, customer service, marketing, and outreach. One of our early customers Nordstrom decided they were going to put models with disabilities in their catalogs. They wanted to know where do I contact a modeling agency that employs models with disabilities, I don’t want to take an able-bodied person and put them in a wheelchair. And I think that says a lot about companies when they step forward with that.

Karen Dahms: It’s really interesting. I’m familiar having done some work with VR agencies in the past with the great work that they do. And for the audience, it’s just interesting, you look at all of these different services. And Kathy, maybe you can tell us a little bit about what these services cost an employer when they bring you in?

Kathy West-Evans: You’re good at that, you’re good at that, Karen. So these are your taxpayer dollars back at work in your business. These are no-cost services that we offer to business because we understand at minimal level for every dollar we invest in rehabilitation, there’s a $12 return, which impacts all of us as taxpayers in the country. But more importantly, these individuals want to work. And it’s about creating that opportunity and working with companies that want to hire this talent.

Karen Dahms: We will make sure in the followup when we send out the recording and the transcript to provide links to how to find the VR agencies where your organization has operations. So we’ll make sure to get to that. Kathy, I was wondering if you could give us a couple of examples of a few companies in particular that you’ve worked with. I know we’ve talked in the past about CVS, and you just mentioned Nordstrom’s. And of course Microsoft you’ve had a great deal of success with. But I think it would be interesting for the participants to hear how you come into an organization and who you’re working with within that organization and how these initiatives roll out.

Kathy West-Evans: Okay. And we have some of that on our next slide Karen.

Karen Dahms: Yes, I think we do, there we go.

Kathy West-Evans: There we are. I wanted to share that because the link to the CVS video is there. So there are a number, we’re working right now with roughly 350 companies across the country. And I saw Bank of America pop-up in the chat, great company to work with. Again, it starts at any point within a company when they’re reaching out, maybe they’ve got an individual who has acquired a disability and they’re looking at how you keep someone. I think of Intel in Portland, Oregon where they have an engineer who was hiking with his family and fell and hit his head and lost his vision. And the company wanted to keep him working, so they reached out and worked with our local VR agency that supports people who are blind or have vision loss to help him accommodate back to his work, but most importantly, home life, transportation, that overall adjustment to disability and then bringing him back into the workplace.

Kathy West-Evans: And this was an engineer that holds 17 patents for that company. So obviously they really wanted to keep his talent in the workplace, and he wanted to keep working. So that was one example of reaching out. Microsoft is a company that’s gone through a lot of changes. And I live not far from the corporate headquarters, so we’ve had a long-term relationship with them. But with their new CEO, and if you haven’t read his book called Hit Refresh, I would recommend that. He has a son with a disability, and he was the executive sponsor of the ERG for disabilities in Microsoft. So as he rose to his new role, he really made it a point to look at universal design. And they’re one of the first companies that has a chief accessibility officer.

Kathy West-Evans: So they have a whole team of people building technology inside the company as well as working with people outside the company, Their autism hiring initiative, we’ve worked with them to recruit people from around the country. And if anyone knows a person on the spectrum, someone who’s neuro-diverse, someone with autism, as I say, if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. But a 30 to 45-minute interview does not really get at the skillsets of a lot of people in this population. So what they did was they increased this to a two-week working interview. They bring in support, a life coach. And we recruit from across the country as well as several other partners and help fund the life coach so that individuals really have an opportunity to demonstrate their skills.

Kathy West-Evans: They’ve hired 115 engineers from that one focus. And they’ve helped us also launch those same initiatives with Hewlett Packard, Dell. Ernst & Young has an initiative and several other companies, SAP. I think it’s again that company to company connection. With CVS, they’ve got a team internally that we’ve worked with for a long time. Helped them build their pharmacy tech training program. So if you come to work at a CVS, this is a company that has, they started with retail, they’ve acquired Coram, which is an in-home health care provider, which has gotten a lot of business during the pandemic. Obviously, the minute clinics, their retail front, their pharmacy, they own and operate all of the pharmacies in Target. And then they’ve also acquired Aetna. So as they’ve grown, we’ve grown with them and looked at creating opportunities where individuals could come in and maybe start in the retail side. But if they want to move into pharmacy tech, they have that option, and it’s supported.

Kathy West-Evans: I would invite people to look at the video to learn more about that. Hyatt Hotels, we have focused with them for a number of years, probably 18 years. It really started out because there was a realization that individuals in that profession who wanted to be in that profession, you don’t always need a college degree. And there were individuals who really wanted to be a chef, to work in that end of the industry. And so we’ve worked with them across the country again to set up a program where individuals actually get hands-on experience working in the kitchens, in the banquet areas of Hyatt Hotels. And that’s increased, and people are hired from that. We’ve got a partnership with Travel Unity, which is a national trade association that focuses on diversity in the customers that travel organizations. And this includes museums and destination travel as well as what we think about with airlines and hotels. But we also focus with them on how do you reflect that diversity of your customer group and the staffing of your organizations.

Kathy West-Evans: And I could go on and on, Karen, but that gives you an overview. We’ve worked with federal agencies, states that are looking at how to be model employers. And when we look at Amazon, we’ve got a meeting with 75 of their recruiters in two weeks where they’ve really laid out an all-out initiative called All Abilities. I think if you look at that, you could see … I think it’s All Abilities. I’ll send you the link to the program. But it’s focusing on hiring again, advancement, and retention. They have a great commercial out right now that focuses an engineer who was deaf. If you haven’t seen that commercial, I’ve got the link to that. But they’re really looking again at how you diversify and expand your workforce and support everyone. So hats off to all of our company partners who have really reached out and said, “We want to partner, and we just don’t know what we don’t know, but don’t be afraid to ask.”

Karen Dahms: Maybe you covered this, I’m not sure. For example, you talked about the hundred plus engineers that Microsoft hired through that initiative. Do you help find those engineers?

Kathy West-Evans: Yes. We’ve recruited from across the country for people who are interested in that. And in that particular population, because of the impact often on the communication and social aspects, there was one young man who was, I think he was collecting carts in the parking lot of a large big-box store, and he had a degree in math, but he just hadn’t found his fit. So yes, we recruit nationally for those opportunities.

Karen Dahms: And do you maintain a job board, do you actually have a resource where all these resumes live, these talent resides?

Kathy West-Evans: So we work with a large number of individuals, and they’re at different points in their career transition, whether they’re shifting out of high school and graduating and moving into college or training programs or apprenticeships. At any one time, we probably have at least 200, 250,000 people that are looking at entering the workforce. So we have developed a fully accessible talent platform called the Talent Acquisition Portal or TAP. And you can see that at tapability.org. And again, this is a known talent pool of individuals with disabilities. There’s nothing about their diagnosis on the platform, but we’ve developed a fully accessible platform with a disability owned company out of San Diego.

Karen Dahms: Thank you for that. So there are a couple of questions that have come up in the chat before we jump into the next segment, which I really wanted to get your insight and thoughts about the impact of COVID on disability overall and return to work strategies, what companies should be thinking about. But before we jump into that, there’s just a couple of questions here I thought we’d get through. Somebody is asking when we’re talking about the disability population as we have so far this morning or this afternoon, depending on where in the country you are, are the mentally disabled included in the population or we’re talking about just physically? We’re talking about everyone, correct?

Kathy West-Evans: We’re talking about everyone.

Karen Dahms: And then there was another question that came in from somebody that was applying for jobs. Here’s the question, do some people know they qualify as disabled? For instance, this individual has been applying for jobs and found that migraines qualify as a disability and didn’t know that. How do you define disabled? How do you figure out if maybe you’ve got a condition that is disabling and limiting your ability to function completely? Is there some place to go to understand what that definition is and what it includes?

Kathy West-Evans: Yes. If you want to see the definition around the Rehabilitation Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act, generally you’re looking at a condition that impacts your ability to function in the world, whether that is how you work, how you live, your access to transportation. It impacts a major life function. I could see where a migraine could impact an individual’s ability to concentrate on their work and things that you might be able to do in the workplace with lighting or other types of accommodations.

Karen Dahms: My youngest son suffered severely from migraines as a kid, he’s somewhat outgrown them. But in fourth grade, he missed 36 days of school where I had to go pick him up from the nurse’s office throwing up all the way to the car in the parking lot, quite debilitating. But I was not aware that that would qualify as a disability. Another question that we have here, as a small business, how does an HR and risk manager assess where to begin to build a strategy to incorporate the NET initiatives?

Kathy West-Evans: Let’s talk.

Karen Dahms: Reach out.

Kathy West-Evans: [inaudible 00:41:06], reach out to me and let me get you connected to someone on our team. Let’s talk about how we can support you.

Karen Dahms: We had another question. On one of the sides, we used the acronym WOTC. I should know what that is, but I’m going to ask you.

Kathy West-Evans: I love this federal speak, Work Opportunity Tax Credits. So there are tax credits and tax deductions for hiring individuals with disabilities.

Karen Dahms: Okay. So that’s another advantage an employer has with employing this population. And that’s not just working through your team, that’s just generally.

Kathy West-Evans: That’s generally, yes, yes.

Karen Dahms: Let me look. I’m trying to look at my phone. We’re very high tech here at Jennifer Brown Consulting, the questions are coming in on my phone. How do you partner with academic institutions to create that bridge?

Kathy West-Evans: To create the bridge of individuals graduating?

Karen Dahms: I’m wondering if it’s the bridge between the services to children, we have to transition, and then we have services to adults. So does VR-

Kathy West-Evans: Karen, you’re on mute.

Karen Dahms: Maybe you can tell us a little bit about the transition aspect of that.

Kathy West-Evans: So there may be two transition points we’re talking about. So how we work with schools, that K through 12 system to help focus on careers and start transitioning people into a career path that’s a fit for them depending on, again, their goals, their skillsets, what their work values are. I mean, there’s a lot of discussion with individuals around what they want to do and how that all works. So there’s that transition piece there. So we do have counselors that work directly with school systems to focus on that. In terms of colleges, universities, tech schools, trade schools, apprenticeships, we often support people or help them get enrolled in those programs, help an individual look at potentially some of the funding that’s available to them as a first dollar resource, federal grants and things that would be supportive to them.

Kathy West-Evans: And then what they’re not able to, we can support. So we’ve supported individuals in different ways. We work a lot with colleges and universities and trade schools around accessibility in that environment. And as they’re transitioning out, a lot of times the schools will have programs, disabled student services. But there’s a disconnect with career services. So we’ve been working a lot between that space. I just had a call yesterday with a technical college system that’s looking at how they do a better job there. So however we can support that because, again, great skills, how do we get it to the workplace?

Karen Dahms: I’ve got another question here for you Kathy, this is from an individual. I’ve heard from some members of the deaf community that the recruitment process is an even bigger barrier than seeking employment accommodation once you’re hired. Are you seeing any best practices worth sharing? And do you recommend disclosure as part of the application process or only if you’re invited to an interview?

Kathy West-Evans: Those are great questions, Karen, and I would love to talk with that person. That’s my are of specialty. I have a history myself of hearing loss, and my husband is deaf. Yes, let’s talk about that. When to disclose, how to disclose, particularly when you’re talking about a communication need in an interview I think is key on the timing of that. And again, we’re working with a lot of companies about how do you make that process user-friendly? So if you’re a company and I’m looking to apply, how do you really look at that accommodation process? Is there a link on your homepage? Do you make it easy? So we could talk about that.

Kathy West-Evans: For deaf people, as I was sharing with Karen and Jennifer and Gia, Veronica earlier, the pandemic has been tough. One of the first pieces of work we did with companies was this, the clear mask and how that should probably become mainstay because here’s the mask that my husband has been wearing for a year. It says I am deaf, I cannot read your lips. So when you think about 48 million people with hearing loss in this country, the pandemic has cut off basic communication.

Karen Dahms: We are as always getting close to running out of time, but we do have some other questions. But I want to make sure that we have the opportunity to talk about the impact of COVID and the events of the past year. So it’s not just COVID, but also the social unrest in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and mental health issues. What are you seeing in terms of the impact of these events on the disability community and the world of work going forward?

Kathy West-Evans: That’s a huge question Karen. I’d love to hear from other people what they’re seeing in their communities. But overall, I think we’re just starting to see the cutting edge of the impact of COVID. And as you mentioned earlier, the predictions are one out of three individuals that were impacted by COVID will have a lasting impact. And what we’re starting to see in requests from companies and partners in federal and state agencies is how we accommodate people coming back. So we’re seeing hearing loss, we’re seeing vision loss, neural processing, what sometimes you hear people describe as chemo brain, that foggy brain syndrome, the physical aspects, breathing, the impact on kidneys, other organs, and the mental health impact.

Kathy West-Evans: Now, this crosses a lot of the things you just brought up, it’s been a tough year. It was interesting to talk with an individual who had been hospitalized for COVID and is now also dealing with post-traumatic stress. And so PTS is a real condition coming out of this. And just mental health overall from COVID, from the racial unrest, from the political scenario we’ve all been living in. We could go on and on. But I think mental health is an area that as a country, as a world we really need to focus on and be more open about that dialogue. When people are afraid to say that they need help, we’ve got an issue.

Karen Dahms: So, Kathy, I have another question for you. And I think this really is a question that most participants are probably thinking about. What’s the best way to get started in the organization and to get internal buy-in to bring in a team like the NET to work with the organization?

Kathy West-Evans: What’s interesting is companies have champions internally, because as I said, everyone has been touched by disability. And we’ll see champions step up and say, “Why aren’t we doing something?” And then all of a sudden you’ll have people from the company say, “Oh, yes, I’m a person with a disability. I have a brother, sister, niece, neighbor, friend, why aren’t we doing something, and how do we do that?” There was one company where the employee resource group started the dialogue. And this was a resource group that included individuals with disabilities, parents, people who were very supportive of the community. And they went to their CEO when they started a lunch and learn. So the first lunch and learn was a general overview, who are people with disability? Some of the same things we talked about. And then people started identifying, “Geez, I want to know more about deafness.”

Kathy West-Evans: So we brought in someone to talk about what does that mean? And then we demoed some of the assistive technology that a person could use. People had questions like, what’s the difference between a traumatic brain injury, is that a mental health condition? How does that all fit? How does ADHD? They’re all neurological at the core, but what’s the difference? So it was really great to see that open up, and the CEO joined the conversation. The ones that they included was how do you support family members who are caregivers? And I think, again, that’s a key piece of the dialogue that companies need to have.

Karen Dahms: We’ve got another question coming in, do you work with companies to assess if they are equipped to be the best environment for the candidate? For example, how do you work with those companies that are not ready to get ready to have an inclusive workplace? And this participant is saying they see a lot of companies that do this just to get the badge or check a box that they are being diverse, but then the candidate doesn’t feel like they belong.

Kathy West-Evans: Wow, that’s a great question. And I think, again, we could look at the physical environment, the workplace, we can have the dialogue. Starting that dialogue again is so key because there’ll be, depending on the environment, questions about health and safety. There’ll be questions about how you access something, and we can answer those. But I think the bigger dialogue comes around being able to talk about what disability is, and how do you approach a person? How do you open a dialogue without being seen as being too personal and how we support each other? We need to open the dialogue Karen.

Karen Dahms: Yeah. There’s a lot of work to be done. I wanted to bring back this slide. This really ties into one of the earlier questions about how do you sell this if you will internally. And I agree, it’s always great, Microsoft is a great example of this, if you have a senior level champion that can really push this through, of course that’s wonderful, but that doesn’t exist in every organization. So part of it is also just frankly with diversity and inclusion overall, it often has to begin with the business case to get things moving. But if you could just take us through this list, that would be great.

Kathy West-Evans: Sure. So a lot of people ask why. There is in this population a discretionary income of $175 billion. So people with disabilities are a large customer base for any company, whether it’s the goods or services that any company could offer. And what we see as a trend is that when a company is supportive of customers with disabilities or hiring individuals with disabilities, family members also tend to purchase from those businesses. So there’s a real recognition of just like other diversity groups, we’re going to shop in places where there are employees who look like us, who are us, who have our experiences. And that there’s a royalty with this population. Individuals that want to go to work and have been looking to do that for a time, I don’t want to paint everyone with the same brush, I don’t want to create stereotypes, but we do tend to see people staying longer and working for companies longer.

Kathy West-Evans: And it’s really an untapped talent pool because in the last sentence here, the biggest barrier for people with disabilities is attitudinal, we just don’t know what we don’t know when we’re afraid to ask. And that’s really the core of what we need to focus on. Again, we’ve got a great return on investment. People with disabilities are innovative every day of their life, and I’ve seen them creating great innovations to companies and seeing those innovations used, like I shared earlier, texting. Texting was really an accommodation that was developed so that people who had a hearing loss can access a phone. And now you see the Google Pixel where they’ve got captioning built into the phone. I think we’re going to continue to see that creativity, that innovation because we’re embedding people with disabilities into the way we do work, we develop our products and that whole concept of universal design.

Karen Dahms: And before we go to the next slide, I just wanted to briefly have you talk just for a minute about accommodations. It’s something that I always remember hearing as this idea that to accommodate a candidate with a disability is going to change the entire organization and cost so much money. But if I recall the cost, the average cost of accomodation is pretty small.

Kathy West-Evans: Yeah. The Job Accommodation Network has done a lot of research around that. And I think they’ve said it’s less than 5 or $600 on average. And again, when you think of an accommodation, think of a person in a wheelchair and the desk is too low. You don’t need to buy a new desk, you can raise it on bricks. We worked with a bank which was not Bank of America early on, and we ended up working with their corporate team. They had put braille on their drive-through banks, and we had a good chuckle about that, how much they invested because they didn’t ask first. Blind people are probably not going to be driving through your drive through windows. Anyway, I think ask, involve people, ask what would make sense. And it’s usually not that expensive, and it usually benefits a large segment of your customer base.

Karen Dahms: And then if you could just briefly anything on here as reminders when we’re thinking about rolling this out in our organizations, these kinds of considerations.

Kathy West-Evans: Absolutely. Disability is a medical diagnosis, it does not define the person. We’re working hard to move away from that medical model. We need to understand what the disability is and how we can support that individual and their needs but don’t get caught up in the assumptions because you never know. Generally when you use a term like blind, people assume individuals who are blind have no vision. That’s not true. There’s usually some level of vision that we can accommodate. If it’s peripheral … Anyway, I could go into a whole medical definition, but don’t make assumptions. Disability is part of the whole person, and it impacts people in different ways. Like I said earlier, you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.

Kathy West-Evans: So the age of onset impacts it, the severity of the condition. Really because any one of us can acquire a disability at any time, and we call people TABs, Temporarily Able Bodied. I think again as a community, as a world, as a country, we need to look at our overall environment and accessibility. So don’t get caught up in the labels and make assumptions, look at the person first. Some people will prefer to be known as an individual with a disability. Some people will be preferred to say I’m deaf, I’m proud of it, I don’t care. So again, individual choice. But usually that dialogue begins with individual with a disability, which reinforces that person first focus. And consider that universal design concept and opening the dialogue, I just can’t say that enough. The attitudinal barriers continue to be the number one barrier for people, and it’s all about having a discussion. So I want to thank you for allowing me to have a discussion.

Karen Dahms: Well, thank you. That’s the perfect departure point here to close this part of the conversation. Thank you so much Kathy. And I look forward to continuing the dialogue in other forums and moving the work forward.

Jennifer Brown: I just appreciate this. So I learned so much, I can’t wait to relisten and rewatch and look up all these resources. And thanks to everybody who shared more ideas in chat and other real thought leaders in this area too. Enjoy the beginning of summer. Hi, this is Jennifer. Did you know that we offer a full transcript of every podcast episode on my website over at jenniferbrownspeaks.com. You can also subscribe so that you get notified every time a new episode goes live. Head over there now to read my latest thoughts on diversity, inclusion, and the future of work and discover how we can all be champions of change by bringing our collective voices together and standing up for ourselves and each other.

Doug Foresta: You’ve been listening to The Will To Change uncovering true stories of diversity and inclusion with Jennifer Brown. If you’ve enjoyed the episode, please subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. To learn more about Jennifer Brown, visit jenniferbrownspeaks.com. Thank you for listening, and we’ll be back next time with a new episode