While the pandemic has led to the widespread acceptance of remote work and drawn increased attention to digital accessibility, in many cases, workers with a disability have not benefited from these advancements like their peers. In fact, a 2019 Rutgers study showed that among people who continued working during the pandemic, workers with disabilities were less likely than those without disabilities to be working from home and experienced heightened levels of joblessness.

In this Brave Conversation, Culture Moments podcast host Larry Baker is joined by guests Deb Dagit, the President and Founder of Deb Dagit Diversity LLC, and Tracy Lee Mitchelson, Director of Training, Disability, and Inclusion at GSK, to unpack these insights and more. Together they discuss what the impact of the pandemic has been on workers with a disability, what we have learned from this experience, and where we go from here.

After tuning in to the conversation, we encourage you to share your takeaways on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Show Notes & Highlights

9:50: Tracy speaks on how the pandemic has fostered an acknowledgement of how many jobs can be done from the home and what that means for workers with disabilities

10:33: Deb highlights how the pandemic has increased focus on digital accessibility and, simultaneously, ableism

13:24: Larry draws attention to the contradictory fact that while acceptance of remote work has increased, studies show people with disabilities are less likely to be working remotely and asks our guests to make sense of this fact

14:35: Deb names the epidemic of under employment and part time employment that workers with disabilities face

25:05: Tracy calls out how managers can support their employees with disabilities

Show Transcript

Larry Baker: Hello everyone and welcome to the culture moments podcast. I’m your host, Larry Baker. And I’m thrilled to have you join us for our second season called Brave Conversations with LCW.

In these episodes, you’ll hear from a panel of guests from specific communities offering a range of perspectives on the past two years. We’ll hear about their own experiences as well as their insights on what’s changed and more importantly, what needs to change to move equity forward.

As we all know so much has shifted and changed over the past two years, and for many of us we’re still in recovery from a very rough 2020.

We’re going to do some things that are a little bit different from our normal introduction, simply because of the important topic that we are going to discuss today. Today, we’re going to be using something called audio descriptions, and we are modeling this behavior to simply help with the broadcast so that it can be more inclusive to our listeners that could be blind or with low vision.

So I’m going to start off with my own personal audio description, and then we will begin talking about our topic around disability. So I am Larry Baker. My pronouns are he and him. I’m an African-American male.

I am an avid glasses wearer because I’m starting to need to have some of that assistance with reading, especially on the fine print. I have a daughter that has been diagnosed with ADHD, so I understand some of those challenges and opportunities that she faces. And today we will actually be discussing what the widespread shift towards remote work has actually meant for workers with a disability.

First, let me give you a little context. Before the pandemic there was a 2019 study that showed that workers with a disability, they were more likely to be working remote than workers without a disability. Now you might think that the pandemic shift towards remote work would have actually increased the number of people with a disability working remotely. However, this was not the case.

As a matter of fact, among people who continued working during the pandemic, workers with disabilities were less likely than those without disabilities to be working from home and experience heightened levels of joblessness. As a recent Rutgers studies puts it, when the big shock of the pandemic hit, workers with disabilities were left behind in the rapid expansion of remote work. Because they were less likely to be in the types of jobs that could be actually done from home.

Before the pandemic about two fifths of workers without disabilities were in jobs that could be done entirely at home compared to only one third of workers with disabilities. So today we’re going to uncover: what does this all mean? What was the experience like for people living with a disability? How has the pandemic continue to impact their lives today? And where do we actually go from here?

Now I know that that’s a lot for us to unpack, but luckily we are joined today by two distinguished guests to help us make sense of all of this. Today we have Deb Dagit, who is the president and founder of Deb Dagit Diversity, LLC. And Tracy Lee Mitchelson, who is the director of training and disability inclusion at GSK.

Thank you both for being here today. And while I did give you an introduction, I do want to take this opportunity for you to provide our audience with your audio description. So I’m going to start with you, Deb, and then Tracy, you can follow. So Deb if you would give us a brief introduction of who you are and what you do.

Deb Dagit: Well, thanks so much, Larry. And I’m so happy to be here with you and the LCW team. So, my pronouns are she, her and hers. I’m a white female with short reddish brown hair. And like you, Larry, I depend heavily on my glasses that are rimless and I’m wearing a multicolored top. Professionally I was vice president and chief diversity officer in both the tech sector and pharmaceuticals for 22 years and was also responsible for many other corporate HR functions during that period of time. From talent acquisition to employee relations, learning and development, et cetera. And then about 10 years ago, I became a consultant with a focus on disability inclusion, but still doing general diversity and inclusion as well. And I have a lot of passion around intersectional identity. So both disability and other aspect of lived experience.

As part of my audio description, it’s important I feel for my audiences to know when I have a chance to get to know folks about my lived experience. I am four feet tall, so I identify as a little person. When I leave my home I use either a push wheelchair or a motorized scooter depending on the size of the venue. I’m hard of hearing and use hearing aids and I have a service dog to help with post-traumatic stress.

And, you know, in some cases in employment settings, we call that TMI or too much information, but that lived experience is as much of what I bring to today’s conversation as my professional background. And I’m really happy to be with you and Tracy Lee today. Thank you.

Larry Baker: Awesome. Thank you so much, Deb. Tracy now on to you, if you could give me your audio description and a brief introduction to who you are and what you do.

Tracy Lee Mitchelson: Thanks, Larry. And I’m really excited to join you, LCW, and Deb on this discussion. I think it’s really important to share. And so my audio description, well I’ll start with my pronouns. She, her, and hers. My audio description: white woman, curly reddish wavy hair. I have a blue top on, I also am a person with a disability that is not always evident.So it’s mostly invisible, which can lead to misunderstandings and misconceptions. So you know, not only am I a passionate advocate, I also have lived experience of disability as well.

So, as you talked about my job title, I’ve been with a global pharmaceutical company for over 20 years. And most of my career here has been in R and D, but I was able to transition into my current position focusing on an area that I feel passionately about, which is disability inclusion. I actually started our global disability competence network employee resource group about eight years ago and had become a consistent advocate subject matter expert and champion for disability inclusion.

And as I talked about as a person with a mostly non-visible disability, I wanted to ensure people with disabilities had a voice and advocate in a way to support the company to become disability competent. My focus includes strategic global efforts to drive accessibility process and policy enhancements needed to support people with disabilities.

As it relates to accommodations, resilience, flexible working, some of the new COVID related protocols, procurement technology, learning, and development to name a few. And I also provide disability education and awareness across my workplace as well as externally to external disability focused organizations.

Larry Baker: Awesome. So needless to say, Tracy, you’re pretty busy. I can imagine that that is definitely what’s going on in your life right now. So I want to just kick off the conversation and Tracy, I’ll ask you to feel this first part of the question. And then Deb, of course, I’d like you to respond as well.

Can you tell me what have you observed, whether it’s in your work life or your personal life to be some of the biggest impacts on the pandemic on people with disabilities?

Tracy Lee Mitchelson: Yeah, I think one of the biggest impacts to me is the acknowledgement that many jobs can be done at home. Before that you know, it was more difficult to do that.

And I think this opens up so many job opportunities for people with disabilities that may have had difficulty getting to an onsite location, or they may find an onsite location, not as accessible as they need.

Larry Baker: Great. Okay. Deb. How about your insight? What have you observed to be some of the biggest impacts on the pandemic, on people with disabilities?

And again, it could be work. It could be outside work.

Deb Dagit: Sure. There are two things that come to mind is predominant because there’s so much we can cover here, but, building on what Tracy already shared, I’ve seen a much greater focus on digital accessibility because we did all have to rely so much more for office space jobs on digital platforms, and it became much more evident to people that we needed platforms that worked better. Pending a sign language interpreter, or having captioning that was accurate. And to keep up with the person that was speaking. So I think that became a much greater focus. We saw a big difference between people, and rural communities and urban communities in terms of internet access. But also access to services that a person would need. Where I live there is no Instacart. And there’s almost no restaurants other than one kind of, not that great pizza place that delivers. So we became heavily dependent on a combination of Amazon and you know, who was going to go brave going to the store with the masks on and you know, the gloves and all that.

And then finally, and sadly, I would say that ableism reared it’s ugly head and this is still a problem. And what I mean by that is both for people who are older and people with disabilities that are either immune compromised or otherwise at a higher degree of risk, if they get COVID. This whole thing about not wanting to wear masks and not remembering or choosing not to focus on the fact that masks are as much or more to help people around you as they are to protect you yourself.

So I found it really disconcerting to experience a high degree of hostility when, you know, someone would come to our home and they wouldn’t want to wear a mask. Or we would be out in public and people would get right in your face and be angry with you because you have a mask on. And that would be enough to be viewed as a challenge to them.

So that was really an unfortunate part of this whole thing. And really, I think highlighted the divide between the disability community and people who, even if they have a disability, don’t like to think about that and the risk level.

Larry Baker: Yeah. Thank you so much for that insight, Deb, and you know, one of the things that really surprised me as I gathered research to prepare for this conversation that we’re going to have, was the conversation around so many companies being willing to offer remote work. But how it disproportionately impacted individuals with disabilities. So Deb, I’m going to ask you to start. How do you begin to reconcile the fact that while again, acceptance of remote work has increased, the likelihood of people with disabilities working from home has decreased? And touch up on that but also tell me a little bit about what are some of the lessons that we can take away from that seemingly contradictory trend.

Deb Dagit: Great question. And I think a couple aspects to this. First of all, while we talk about the very high unemployment rate of people with disabilities, we often don’t focus on the epidemic of under employment as well as part-time employment. And when there was a constriction in many businesses due to the pandemic and companies needing to, you know, really change how they conducted business, people who were in lower paying entry level jobs, you know that old saying, “last in, first out”. You know that was part of what caused that, you know, and so people weren’t getting these opportunities. And I gotta tell you, it’s pretty annoying when you spend, you know, decades trying to get remote work to be something that is accessible to people with disabilities, and you get a ton of pushback. But as soon as everybody needed it, “Hey, no problem!”

You know, but the other thing is I have three children with disabilities, like Tracy, they’re not always apparent, they’re situationally apparent and none of them were able to work remotely. And, it’s partly because they’re part of the ADA generation of people who grew up after the ADA. And they are at an age where they’re still very early career. They’re not at an advanced level in their career where they’re able to work remotely. They’re still in those entry level jobs. One of my kids works for Amazon and was making sure everyone got their packages and another one was in a healthcare setting that has to be delivered in person.

So yeah, I think that, I’m sure Tracy has some different and interesting insights, but those are the two observations I had about how it played out.

Larry Baker: Okay. So with that in mind, Tracy hop in there. Talk to me about how do you reconcile this contradiction, right. Remote work has increased, but individuals with disabilities working from home decrease. How do we reconcile that?

Tracy Lee Mitchelson: Yeah. And I think I’m just going to build on both what you end Deb said, something that you said earlier is that I think the trend is in part due to the types of jobs people with disabilities are being hired for. Such as the lower skill jobs with limited educational and experience requirements.

That may not allow for that flexibility to work from home. I think it just highlights the need to ensure that people with disabilities have the opportunities for advanced education, higher skill jobs. We really need to put that effort in there. And I think the amount of people that are now interested in remote work has also increased, right? So people are realizing, wow, I can do this. And I really love doing this. I hear it all the time from people that weren’t interested in it before, which then increases the competition for the available jobs that can be done remotely. Right? So we’ve increased the jobs, but now we’ve increased the pull on those jobs.

Larry Baker: So as we think about this whole work experience, and Tracy I’m going to start with you. as we think about this shift towards a hybrid or remote work, I know that there are some benefits to doing it from, you know, of course from my perspective, but share with me some insights that you might have in regards to the benefits for this hybrid remote work style for workers with disabilities.

I know that we talked about, you know, the opportunities, but like what are some real tangible benefits that we can point to. With the shift towards this hybrid or remote workstyle for staff or workers with disabilities. So, Tracy.

Tracy Lee Mitchelson: Yeah, absolutely. And what I’ve heard from, from other people with disabilities that I work with is it it’s actually leveled the playing field for them.

Right? So. You know, they may have had difficulties with transportation, or they may have found the office environment not as accessible as they needed. You know, when sometimes people with disabilities don’t feel comfortable asking for what they need and it may be for all sorts of different reasons, right?

So they may be, you know, don’t feel comfortable asking for it or don’t want to call attention to their disability. So maybe they don’t have what they need, but at home they have things set up. So for me, as a person with a disability, working from home has benefited me tremendously. And I don’t have the commute. I don’t have to carry my laptop and other work-related materials around and, you know, move from conference room to sit in another desk location to a conference room. Because I would come home exhausted and in pain after the day. Right. So you know, my life part out of work, here I am like just, you know, not feeling great.

Right. And now working from home has allowed me to be more productive and not have to deal with the physical discomfort that I was dealing with. Getting into the office.

Larry Baker: Yeah, that’s a great point. Deb hop in there. Talk to me a little bit about, from your perspective, what are the benefits with this shift towards hybrid and remote work for workers with disabilities and even a follow-up question to that?

How do we make sure we keep them, how do we make sure that they remain in.?

Deb Dagit: So just building on what Tracy said, as a consultant with clients all over the place geographically, I was traveling a lot, so not only what’s it like going back and forth to an office. But it was planes, trains, and automobiles, and traveling with my husband, who is my personal assistant when I travel, my dog, my wheelchair, all that.

And then dealing with, you know, all the accessibility issues and having your wheelchair your scooter still work once it arrives, because so often it’s damaged in transit. Trying to find accessible, you know, taxi or Uber, or Accessoride. Getting into the hotel and getting a room that’s going to work just like one long negotiation.

And you know, because I have post-traumatic stress there’s a lot associated with travel that’s very triggering. And I have PTS because I have brittle bones. So when you’re in situations where you feel like you’re at risk and you could get hurt, cause you’re in unfamiliar territory. For me, my clients being perfectly okay with me delivering a training or a seminar or a fireside chat or a keynote, or being their thinking partner, you know, in a more comfortable setting where I feel safe has allowed me to really perform much better.

I have a lot more energy to give, you know, it it’s productivity, but it’s also insight and wisdom that sometimes it’s hard to have access to when you’re stressed. But in terms of the second part of your question, I think that what we’re really going to need to focus on is managers dealing with burnout and people feeling like they live at work and not having boundaries between, you know, our home life and our work life.

And so people just really getting too stressed out from not having time to recharge their battery and focus on their health issues. I know for me, what’s been super important is, despite my disabilities, I consider myself very fit and much more so since the pandemic. Because I make sure that every single day I find a least two or three ways to carve out time to exercise, get some fresh air, eat the right things instead of going to the vending machine, you know. It’s just, it’s easier to maintain my physical, emotional, and mental health.

And I hope that’s something we get managers to do a better job of encouraging their employees to work on.

Larry Baker: Yeah. Thank you so much for that insight for both of you in regards to, you know, that whole work-life balance tying into wellness, which then ties into productivity because I echo some of those statements that you made Deb. When you travel so extensively, and, and in a week you may get to maybe one or two clients, but remote work allows you to get to I’ve up to 10 in one week, right. When that was like impossible to do. So I absolutely echo with those sentiments. So I want to ask another question. So we want to make sure that we give our listeners tangible things that they can do after they listened to the podcast, because that’s really one of my main focuses of having these podcasts. So I want to get insight from both of you in regards to what do you personally believe needs to happen from here? How do these workplaces use the pandemic to become more inclusive of workers with disabilities?

So, Tracy, I’m going to ask you to kick us off and then Deb, you can bring it home. But from your perspective, what do you think needs to happen from here? How do they take advantage of this pandemic to be more inclusive of workers with disabilities? So Tracey?

Tracy Lee Mitchelson: Yeah thanks, Larry. Great question. And I really think it starts with a dialogue directly with people with disabilities and making sure that managers and leaders focus on asking employees what they need and how they can help them get it versus why they need it.

You don’t need to know all the medical details of someone’s disability to be able to get them what they need and support them in that. So, you know, removing the barriers. So that’s part of that. That’s part of removing the barriers and trusting that the employee with a disability knows what they need to be successful.

And, and knowing that it takes a lot of courage, even to ask those questions as a person, with a disability to ask for what you need, it takes a whole lot of courage and understanding that you know, as a manager or a leader. It’s also about recognizing and interrupting potential bias that a manager or leader may have around managing people face to face versus remote, right?

Allowing people with disabilities to work in an environment that supports them. Versus requiring someone to be face to face when the job duties actually don’t require it. And making sure that you have those policies to support it. And the last piece is making sure that the managers have the skills needed to be able to effectively manage and support remote workers and making sure that the person at home has what they need.

You know, the ergonomic and, and maybe accommodations that they may need at home as well. Just so that everybody can feel included no matter if they’re there, you know, face-to-face or remote. And if you have like hybrid meetings, how can you make sure you include everybody have processes in place to do that and make sure that you, as Deb mentioned earlier, the digital accessibility. Are you using platforms that have captioning? And other accessibility tools that are already embedded?

Larry Baker: That’s great. That’s some fantastic insight. So Deb, your turn again, you probably talk about this all the time, but share with our listeners. What do you personally believe needs to happen from here and how do the workplaces really take advantage and use this pandemic to be more inclusive to workers with disabilities?

Deb Dagit: Well, with the Great Resignation and so many companies struggling for talent. The number one thing is hire people with disabilities. I am still baffled as to why we have disability hiring initiatives that are not being run by people with disabilities. If we were wanting to bring more women into the organization and make sure that they got into more senior level roles and looking at who is gonna figure out how we would be successful in that endeavor, we’d asked women.

So I just don’t get it, that we try to bootstrap ourselves, without actually integrating people into the work environment. Second. According to the center for talent innovation and a study they did in 2017, 30% of college educated office-based employees identify as living with a disability. That’s three, zero.

And so you already have a lot of people with disabilities. And if your self ID rates are at 3% instead of 30 or, you know, it’s great if you’re maybe at least getting 7% as in section 5 0 4, which is the aspirational goal for a federal contract. But if you have a low self ID rate and you’re not visibly and intentionally recruiting talent with disabilities, that would be absolutely a number one.

The second is really look at your reasonable accommodations process. How easy is it to figure out how to request an accommodation, how efficient and effective is it? It shouldn’t take more than four or five days for the lion share of accommodations to be received. Make sure there are people in the functional areas that need to support accommodations requests so that there’s not any long gated process because of a learning curve.

And then circle back to ask not only the employee how their accommodation is working for them from the satisfaction level, but also their manager. Also because of stigma employees with disabilities do not share that they need an accommodation until there’s a performance issue. And then the conversations kind of sideways with their manager.

They’re not in as good a place. So both parties need to say, you know what? This was a really good idea. And oh, by the way, you know what, what we did for this person, there are some aspects of this that might be good for everyone on the team. That’s how we ended up with stand, sit desks and other accommodations that are now no longer considered an accommodation, just like remote work.

People without disabilities are just as anxious to have these kinds of tools available to them as people with disabilities.

Larry Baker: Yeah that’s such a great point, Deb, that, you know, something may seem to be focused only on one group, but it actually benefits the whole organization. So I’m glad that you made that connection.

And, and before I go, I do want to give each of you an opportunity to maybe even share word of encouragement to employees with disabilities as we are dealing with not only the pandemic, but remote work. Maybe some words of encouragement, some things that, you know, in your experience you’ve done that has been successful for you.

So, Deb, I’m gonna start with you and then Tracy, I’ll give you an opportunity too. “Words of wisdom”, if you will, as we get ready to wrap up.

Deb Dagit: Well, I would say if you are in a company that you have some tenure with and some, you know, fairly high level, it’s a mid or senior level person, then please, please be out and proud with your disability and share your story. Because there’s a whole lot of people who are feeling more vulnerable either because the type of disability they have tends to be more stigmatized, like perhaps mental health. Perhaps they’re newer to the organization and they’re still feeling like they have to prove themselves. But you know, if we had a quote unquote epidemic of people in important level, important role jobs, being out and proud as individuals with disabilities, remembering that 75% of disabilities are non-appearance or only visible situationally, then we would see a workplace where people feel a lot safer sharing that part of their lived experience. And I think it would make the company. Stronger in terms of how they serve the marketplace, as well as a work environment where they’re more likely to see higher productivity, innovation, and lower turnover.

Larry Baker: That’s great. Thank you so much, Tracy. Same thing, words of inspiration.

Tracy Lee Mitchelson: Absolutely. I think a lot, you know, building on what Deb said, I think it’s, you know, organizations like, you know, we have a disability employee resource group. So looking for that, when you start with a company and see if they have something like that and, you know, seek out an advocate or an ally that can help, you know, that someone that you trust, that you can have conversations with.

And how do you have a discussion around disclosure? What, you know, what is the best way to handle that? You know, having. So many there to help you with that. There’s a lot of organizations that you can reach out to. And there’s a lot of support that is there. Just knowing where to look. And like I said, within the company, finding someone to, to help you and be your advocate and, you know, having that confidence in your abilities, you know, sometimes it’s hard, you know, you feel like people focus on the disability, but you know, we all have things we may require assistance in doing. Right? And, you know, understanding that and hopefully having that confidence in yourself and hopefully, you know, being part of an organization that has that confidence as well.

Larry Baker: Yeah. Awesome. Thank you so much. And you know, Deb, with that statistics 75% with disabilities that are situational. I think that that’s incredible to realize that, again, it just speaks to the fact that it’s not focusing on one group. To try to benefit one group, you will be surprised that how many individuals can absolutely benefit from those accommodations. So I just want to thank both of you for this engaging conversation.

Definitely enlightening, allowing us to jump into this conversation with some really good action items and takeaway points for the folks that are going to be joining us in our podcast. So once again, Deb, Tracy, thank you so much for your participation and your engagement in this particular podcast.

Thank you.

Tracy Lee Mitchelson: Thanks, Larry for having me.

Deb Dagit: My pleasure.

Larry Baker: And to all of you that are listening, we want to know what were your biggest takeaways from this conversation? Please share them with us on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn at Language and Culture Worldwide or LCW.

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