Courageous Conversations Ep. 3 Recap – Disability Inclusion

The panelists participating in the Walter Kaitz Foundation’s (WKF) third Courageous Conversations discussed the through-line between the fight for equal access for disabled people and creating a diverse and inclusive workplace.  The event titled Disability Inclusion: Help to Ensure Your DEI Efforts Include Accessibility, showcased how both disabled and their advocates, are working to ensure equity in all facets of life.

The discussion was moderated by MaryAnne Howland, founder, and CEO of Ibis Communications & Global Diversity Leadership Exchange, an organization that advocates for the role diversity and inclusion play in a sustainable global economy.  Howland is a frontline advocate for disability justice, inspired by her son John Robert who has cerebral palsy and ADHD.  She is the author of a very personal memoir about raising him titled Warrior Rising: How Four Men Helped a Boy on His Journey to Manhood.

Candace Cable, who suffered a spinal cord injury at 21 yet went on to become a nine-time Paralympian and Vice-Chair of the Board of LA2028 bid for Olympic and Paralympic Games. She sees being disabled as a social justice issue.  “I amplify the messages of equality and equity from my BIPOC friends, as well as my messages around disability,” she says;  “My goal is to build a more equitable space for all of us.”

Steve Raymond, Vice President of Accessibility, Product and Technology at Charter Communications, was led to advocacy because of his friend Bob, who was paralyzed in a skiing accident.  He was one of the co-founders of Adaptive Spirit, an organization aligned with the telecommunications industry, that raises funds that benefit those competing on the U.S. Paralympics Ski and Snowboard Team.

Billy Sanders, a nationally certified ALA Interpreter with Bridges Consulting, shared how the racism his grandparents faced in seeking an education for his mother, who was deaf, inspired his lifelong advocacy on behalf of the hearing impaired.  The firm he founded has an emphasis on cross-cultural communications and he teaches extensively at colleges and universities about  American Sign Language (ASL) and Signed Language Systems.

Gail Williamson, department head and talent agent at Kazarian/Measures/Ruskin & Associates (KMR) Inc.’s Diversity Department, says that following her son’s passion led her to stumble into her own destiny.  A small role in a commercial about the Special Olympics for her son, who has Downs syndrome, led to her career of representing and placing those with disabilities in roles in television, film, theatre, commercials, and print.

In the U.S. alone one in four adults have a disability that impacts major life activities and, according to reports by the CDC, 33% of 20-year-old workers will become disabled before ever reaching retirement age.  Of note, is the total disposable income of the disabled community comes in at $8 trillion per year globally.

The group shared that it wasn’t until the passage of the ADA in 1990, that equal access for the disabled community was fully recognized.  Another big stride forward has occurred by happenstance.  Before the pandemic employers were much more stringent about having workers on-site.  Now, they have learned that employees do not have to be in the office to be productive, which leads beneficially to companies removing numerous barriers for the physically impaired.  Further, the panelists agreed that innovations being developed now in accessible products and tech, will be a boon to disabled people.

Raymond’s team at the Spectrum Accessibility Center of Excellence at Charter includes employees who have disabilities.  They are responsible for developing Charter’s inclusive line of services that include Spectrum Access, a free app designed to provide entertainment access to persons with vision or hearing impairments.

Cable gave a final key takeaway by stating, “you want people with disabilities to be visible, you want people with authentic lived experience in all types of positions within your companies.”

Walter Kaitz Foundation Executive Director, Michelle Ray concluded the episode by offering, “While words may inspire, only action creates change! It is incumbent upon all of us to be brokers of change.”