Stop Underestimating, Start Helping: Disability Inclusion in the Workplace
It's not because of some deep dislike of shoes, but rather because she needs to feel the vibrations of the floorboards beneath her to stay on tempo. Harvey, an award-winning jazz singer-songwriter, is deaf. Her shoeless strategy is just one of several techniques she uses to deliver amazing performances, and last year it helped her win fourth place on the television show “America's Got Talent.”
Harvey, who recently shared her inspirational story with State Street employees, is living proof that a person can overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve their dreams. But another crucial takeaway from Harvey's example is this: With some help or modifications, people with disabilities can accomplish as much or more than their non-disabled peers. It's as true in business as it is in the world of music.
"Colleagues with disabilities do have the required ability to work in a knowledge industry, provided that the physical facilities and technology used become more accessible," says KB Sowmya, a senior manager in Global Inclusion and Corporate Citizenship at State Street's Hyderabad, India office.
Sowmya, who has a visual impairment, is starting the India-based branch of State Street's Disability Awareness Alliance. DAA is an employee resource group dedicated to understanding abilities, raising awareness and driving change within the organization. The DAA seeks to create an organizational culture where conversations about disabilities become normal, to influence enterprise hiring practices, and to improve day-to-day life for State Street employees with disabilities and for those who are caregivers. The DAA also facilitates opportunities for State Street employees to give back to their local communities. One example of this is a Boston based program with the National Braille Press where employees make children's books accessible to vision impaired readers by adding braille text to the book pages. The DAA's work is one of the reasons State Street was recognized this year by the Disability Equality Index, a joint initiative between the American Association of People with Disabilities and Disability:IN, as one of the best places to work for people with disabilities.
Having the right culture in place helps garner support for workplace accommodations.
The reason that State Street and other companies strive to support disability inclusion is twofold: It's the right thing to do and it’s the smart thing to do. State Street is a global company with a strong commitment to being a local citizen and supporting all employees. Most companies want to draw from a broader talent pool and recognize that a person’s disability, whether it’s visible or invisible, doesn’t automatically disqualify them from the job. Great talent is great talent, regardless.
This mindset also results in companies designing more products and services with clients, employees and consumers with disabilities in mind. Technological innovation, in particular, is helping to advance disability inclusion at a rapid pace and many times that innovation is engineered by employees with disabilities. IBM fellow Chieko Asakawa, a blind computer scientist, helped invent a smartphone app that helps people with a visual impairment move around more freely by giving them audio information about their surroundings. She was "able to turn her disability into a professional asset," according to Harvard Business Review.
Of course, innovation doesn't have to come in the form of a groundbreaking app to make a real difference inside companies. Scott Mahoney-Wright, a senior associate in Global Services Risk & Compliance at State Street, has a hearing impairment and is working with the DAA to develop an indicator that allows employees to identify their preferred means of communication, such as email or messaging.
"Certain situations are more stressful for me, like joining conference calls with a large number of participants or attempting to converse on the phone when there’s a lot of noise around me," Mahoney-Wright explains. "Having a tool available that tells people my preferred method of communication would take a great deal of stress off. It would let people at State Street communicate with me effectively and not waste time and energy trying to interact with me in a way that ultimately is unsuccessful and unproductive."
As organizations focus on creating a more inclusive work environment and making it normal to discuss disabilities openly, they may also gain a deeper appreciation for the needs of their clients with disabilities. It’s important to note that not all disabilities are physical, nor are they always obvious. The discussion needs to be as inclusive and nuanced as possible. That could result in businesses producing more accessible products and services, which again is both the right thing morally and the smart thing from a business perspective, to do. Sowmya says that when shopping for a smartphone she considered two popular brands, but ultimately chose the one that better fit her needs as a person with a visual impairment.
"If accessibility can drive such a purchase choice," she says, "simply imagine what it can do for our clients, and for the profits of a company in the long run, if we bring accessibility to every walk of work."
1. 2018 Best Places to Work. Retrieved August 7, 2018, from https://www.disabilityequalityindex.org/top_companies
2. Sherbin, L., & Kennedy, J. T. (2017, December 27). The Case for Improving Work for People with Disabilities Goes Way Beyond Compliance. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2017/12/the-case-for-improving-work-for-people-with-disabilities-goes-way-beyond-compliance
Brandon McCormick is a vice president of client services in IS Americas responsible for strategic client initiatives.
Prior to his current role, Brandon served as an IT audit manager of Corporate Audit leading internal audit engagements across State Street’s global business units.
Brandon is also on the leadership team of State Street’s Disability Awareness Alliance; a Global Inclusion employee resource group.