December 09, 2016

Podcast: Breaking Down Barriers for People With Disabilities

When the National Organization on Disability was founded 34 years ago, advocacy for people with disabilities was shifting focus from medical matters to civil rights. Today, the nonprofit is "exclusively about employment," says its president, Carol Glazer. "It’s the single biggest barrier to a good quality of life affecting working-aged Americans with disabilities."

That’s a population of 30 million, only 20 percent of whom are employed, as Ms. Glazer notes in this edition of the Business of Giving. That figure has remained unchanged since World War II, despite legislative milestones like the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans With Disabilities Act, enacted in 1990 and updated in 2008. Her organization has increasingly taken on a role as coach and guide to employers, offering data tools, webinars, white papers, and lessons from corporations like Lowe’s and Starbucks that have set the pace in integrating people with disabilities into the work force.

In this conversation, Ms. Glazer details the National Organization on Disability’s efforts to remake workplace culture and overcome "the tyranny of low expectations," promoting technology that levels the playing field for workers with disabilities and helping employers realize the benefits in productivity, persistence, and dedication that comes with hiring people used to navigating challenges on a daily basis.

Listen to the full interview below and/or read a transcript provided by the Business of Giving.

Denver: Researchers tell us that among the most important characteristics that a person must possess in order to be successful in any pursuit are passion and grit. My next guest has both of those, in abundance. She isCarol Glazer, the President of the National Organization on Disability. Good evening, Carol, and welcome to The Business of Giving!

Carol: Hello. It’s nice to see you, Denver.

Denver: Tell us about the National Organization on Disability, the mission and purpose of the organization, and where you place your particular focus to assist those with disabilities.

Carol: Sure. Thank you, Denver. We’ve been around for 34 years. When disability was just a thought… and the fact of equality for people with disabilities was still a thought, we were created as one of two so-called “cross-disability organizations” nationally. Very few disability organizations address all Americans with disabilities; we do.  The number is about 57 million today.

Denver: Wow.

Carol: That’s about one out of every five Americans. We were formed to ensure the full participation of all of those people in all aspects of American life. Over the 34 years, so much has changed about disability. NOD as an organization has changed and addressed whatever issue was dominant for the time, primarily from an advocacy orientation – it’s about changing public opinion.

Today, we are exclusively about employment. It’s the single biggest barrier to a good quality of life affecting working-aged Americans with disabilities. There’s only about 20% employment rate among those 30 million Americans who are working age, and we devote ourselves exclusively to try to change that number.

Denver: Well, that is refreshing to hear. I love organizations with focus, and so many of them out there try to be everything to everybody and really don’t make any kind of an impact. This kind of focus is going to let you dig deep and really change some things. So, let me ask you this, Carol. When you speak of disability, what exactly does that mean? How broad or narrow is that definition?

Carol: It’s a definition that was first placed into law in 1990 with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and later amended in 2008 with the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA). That Amendment Act said that “a disability is defined as one or more physical or mental impairments that substantially limit one or more major life activities.” That’s a very big group, and there’s a three-prong definition – either you have a disability or you had disability at one time, or you are presumed to have a disability. So that third bar is a higher bar to reach than perhaps any of the other definitions of disability, and it’s part of the reason that that number – 57 million Americans – is as large as it is.

Denver: Looking at that 57 million Americans– and the 30 million who are of working age, what kind of discrimination do they face? What kinds of limitations are placed on them living as full and productive lives as they possibly could?

Carol: If you look at history, Denver, you see a whole class of people that have basically been segregated, not only from society and from all the things that you and I take for granted living in a democracy… but hidden from view. For many years, we believed that people with disabilities could only live with other people with disabilities. If you had physical disabilities, there weren’t any curb cuts, so you couldn’t really go out much beyond your house. The first lightweight wheelchair that you could fold up and put into the back of a car was not invented until 1985.

Denver: Oh my goodness!

Carol: That was because people with disabilities were not expected to go anywhere in cars– certainly not to work, or to theater, or to church,  or to anywhere beyond their house. People with mental and cognitive disabilities were institutionalized for many years in state hospitals. The thought was that they needed to be with other people like themselves; they potentially posed a danger to themselves or to society; and they had to be cared for by so-called “specially-trained individuals.”  So, most of us in our society have not really been around a lot of people with disabilities for most of the 20th century… and even into the 21stcentury. That’s where it all begins. The Disability Movement has been increasingly successful, and more and more people with disabilities are part of mainstream America. You still have a lot of vestigial fear, misapprehension, myths, fears, and stereotypes – the usual that people feel about a whole class of people that is not familiar to them.

Denver: You’re focused, as you said, on employment.

Carol: Yes.

Denver: So, let’s take a quick look at the law in that regard and specifically, the disability regulation under Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act. What exactly does that state?

Carol: Well, it’s very interesting, Denver. The Rehab Act of 1973 was the first law that treated disability as a civil rights issue, and not a medical issue. Prior to that, it was thought that disability was a medical condition that needed to be cured– or risen above– before somebody could expect full participation in our society. The Rehab Act of 1973 required any company doing business with the federal government to not discriminate on the basis of disability. That didn’t really accomplish a lot in terms of workforce participation, but it did signal a new way of looking at disability that, prior to that, was foreign. That paved the way for non-discrimination and, indeed, for the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990– that was modeled after the Civil Rights Act, but, of course, came a quarter of a century after it.

Denver: Right.

Carol: What happened recently with Section 503 and the so-called “rule change” is that the Department of Labor took a look at what has happened since the ADA– in terms of workforce participation by people with disabilities, and they saw the numbers hadn’t changed.

Denver:  20% as you said. Not doing very well.

Carol: Twenty percent. And that number has remained unchanged, Denver, since World War II.

Denver: Wow.

Carol: Recently, our main focus was–as the authoritative source of data on disability…on all the gaps between people with and without disability… on a number of quality of life indicators. That gap on employment remained the same year after year, survey after survey, and that’s why NOD decided to focus on employment.  What the Department of Labor realized is what we’ve all known– which is employment numbers haven’t changed–even though this segment of the population has enormous benefits to bring to the workforce and to employers and productivity, and a whole bunch of other qualifications and characteristics that make them excellent workers.

The Department of Labor recognized this number had to change. In the ‘60s when the Civil Rights Act was passed, very little happened with the employment of racial and ethnic minorities. It took Affirmative Action… almost a decade later… to make sure that employers got the message, and that more people would be included in the workforce. Preventing discrimination and incentivizing employment are not one and the same. And so in 2012, the Department of Labor came out with the new rule that said that all employers who do business with the federal government – that’s a big number; it’s about 25% of the country’s workforce – have to set a 7% workforce goal for people with disabilities.

Denver: And from what I understand, they have not been aggressively enforcing that law until now. They gave them a little time to catch up, but now the rubber is going to meet the road, and people are going to have to to hit that number.

Carol: That’s correct. The Department of Labor, first of all, required that federal contractors have a year in which they can survey their entire workforce to determine what their current level is. And by the way, 503 has some very important requirements –that employers begin to track all of their job applicants, all of their applicants with disabilities who are willing to self-identify, and then track how many of those people they hire.

So, the first year, they had to figure out how many people were in their workforce to begin with. And then the Department of Labor had a lot of conversations, went around the country, talked to employers, tried to understand the barriers,  the costs. That took about another year. But this year, 2016, the Department of Labor has been very clear that this is the year. It’s no longer a planning year; the waiting period is over. It’s time to act.

Denver: You had time to ramp up. Well, there’s a bit of a dynamic at play, Carol, with those that are disabled… and the service agencies that represent them…and the employers that are looking to hire. So, NOD plays the role of guide and coach, and in a sense, you’re a broker to the parties. Tell us how you assist in this role of “matchmaker.”  What formula have you found works best?

Carol: This is a new population, as we talked about, Denver, for most employers. Often, taking that very first step can be very intimidating. We have a handful of employers who have been willing to go out, make that commitment, hire their first few people, and see what the experience is like. But most employers– as they are with any new segment of the workforce– are a little bit afraid. “How do you talk to people? How do you interview people? How do you screen them out?  How do you word your job description?”

Denver: And:  “Can you ask whether they have a disability or not?”

Carol: Right. And up until recently–up until 503– the employers were not allowed to ask “pre-hire offer,”  whether somebody had a disability. Now, if you’re a federal contractor, you are allowed to inquire at the so-called “pre-offer stage.”  But if you’re not a federal contractor, you still can’t ask. And until recently, nobody could ask. So, that too is a whole new step that employers have to go through.

Denver: All evolving.

Carol: The other thing to mention is that this is a population where certain adaptations have to be made – in the way that you interview, in the way that you screen. The behavioral interview, for example, which most employers use… especially for professional positions– doesn’t work with people who have Asperger’s or autism. They don’t look you in the eye when they speak to you. That doesn’t mean that they’re not going to be ideal workers in your workforce. But there are a lot of adaptations that employers have to make to their traditional process: first, advertising, then screening, then recruiting, and then onboarding. That’s where NOD fits in. We help employers.

You asked earlier:  What is the niche that NOD plays in this market?  We have a corporate board; we always have. We have a CEO Council. We have always been oriented towards the employer’s side of the labor force equation. Unfortunately, a lot of social programs in this country are looking at the so-called “supply side,” like the job seekers.

Denver: Yeah. Now, that’s brilliant.

Carol: How do we prepare them and train them and get them involved? And how do we help service providers market their candidates? We decided, because of our orientation towards corporate America, and because we have both feet planted on both sides of that labor force equation – the supply and the demand – not enough attention was paid on the demand side. And because employers need a little bit of extra help, that was a place that NOD could really make a difference. And even before 503, we piloted a program to help employers identify which positions they could hire, put together the job descriptions, identify the right sourcing agencies, go out and find them, make the match, adapt the interview process, adapt the way that they teach employees, set the same exact standards for the same exact pay. We like to say that employers have to change the how of the way they hire, and that’s where NOD fits in.

Denver: But not the what!

Carol: Not the what!   Our very first employer partner was Lowe’s, the second largest home improvement retailer worldwide. Lowe’s wanted to take some of their distribution centers and set a workforce target for people with disabilities in the workforce. They asked us to help; we did. It was a pilot. It was philanthropically funded at the time. It was risky – 503 wasn’t around; there wasn’t a lot of incentive for employers to do this. But a forward-thinking executive at Lowe’s named Steve Szilagyi came to us and asked us… one of the first questions he asked us was, “How do I have to change my productivity standards?  What are the performance indicators? Should it be 90% of the rest?”

Denver: Yeah. Where do I compromise?

Carol: We said, “Absolutely not. The same jobs, the same pay, the same expectations.” Again, it’s not the what, it’s the how.

Denver: Now, that’s great.

Carol: That’s where NOD comes in.

Denver: Well, speaking of those employers, you announced earlier this year that you are going to recognize some of the leading disability employers with a seal of approval. Tell us about that initiative, and what you hope it accomplishes.

Carol: Sure. We know that there are many things that create incentives for employers to change the way they hire, or look at themselves internally and try to get better at hiring a more diverse workforce–in this case, obviously, a disabled workforce. And we recognize that one of the things that companies respond to is a little bit of competition with one another. But they also care about brand recognition. We know surveys show that consumers prefer and, in fact, will switch brands to companies who show more of a concern for a diverse workforce. So we understood, and do understand, what motivates employers, and we believe that part of the motivation is to be seen for what you are… is to be seen as a company that really thinks in a forward way about its workforce… especially when it comes to disability inclusion.

Denver: And the way they would have to apply for that is through the Disability Employment Tracker. How does that work?

Carol: That’s correct. We know that data is king. We know that nothing tells a story in a more powerful fashion– particularly for employers– than data. There are many outfits that will come and talk to employers in a more qualitative way about how they have to change their behavior in order to change their workforce practices or, in fact, in order to engage in any kind of business practice. We know that what really gets the attention of the C-suite, more than anything else, is data.

The Disability Employment Tracker is an 80-question, online, confidential survey that allows an employer to answer questions, and get benchmarked– in all 80 questions– against the now 200 employers that are in our pool. So, when we work with an employer and make recommendations– just as McKinsey would, or any other business consultant would,  which is really the role that we play with corporate America– we can back up our findings and our advice to companies with data that says, “Here’s where you do not stack up against your peers. Here’s where you exceed the performance of your peers. Based on that data, we can then come in and make recommendations, based on what we know is good practice in business.”

So it’s a combination of our qualitative judgments, our decades of experience working with employers …and understanding how disability plays out in the workforce, but also the quantitative data– with 80 questions to backup recommendations we make.

Denver: Speaking of exceptional employers, you mentioned Lowe’s. Another one is Starbucks. You were out in Carson City, Nevada at their roasting plant last Fall?  What are they doing?

Carol: That’s correct. Starbucks is forward-thinking in so many ways. Starbucks is really a company to watch, and I know they’ve taken a little bit of heat for what some would deem “controversial approaches,”  but you’ve got to take a little bit of heat. You’ve got to take a few risks if you really want to make a change in society, as you know.

Denver: Absolutely. You play it safe, and nothing ever changes.

Carol:  Right. So, I give Howard Schultz a lot of credit. He changed the coffee-drinking experience for America.  And he set out to change the hiring experience for his company– knowing that he’s a beacon for the rest of corporate America. Howard Schultz and his team decided to take in their distribution centers, some of their manufacturing centers, and roasting plants, to try to recruit a more disability-inclusive workforce. To their credit, they understood that they were going to need a little bit of help from somebody who understands disability, and that’s where we came in.

Starbucks asked us to help them– in a number of their roasting plants– to bring in more people with disabilities, to train them, and to help them work side by side their non-disabled peers. We’ve worked with them in three sites. The site that you referenced was a replication in York, Pennsylvania, of something called “Inclusion Academy,” where Starbucks brings people in. It’s not a heavy investment. It’s a six-week program. They bring people in; they train them for six weeks. About 80% of the people that they train go on to work at jobs that are paying $15 to $20 an hour at Starbucks. These are people who have never worked before. These are people who, in some senses. are the only paycheck in their entire family. And it’s a new workforce for Starbucks.

To their credit, they are expanding that initiative into other roasting plants. We’re very excited about that relationship, not only because Starbucks is a great company to work with, but because we know that people are looking at companies like Starbucks as a beacon.

Denver: Yeah, they are. Absolutely. That’s fantastic. Let me circle back to 503 for a moment. As I understand it, Carol, this 7% guideline …or more than a guideline… law that has been established for these federal contractors:  If you’re a big company, it  can’t be just 7% of the workforce across the entire company. It has to be 7% in each division and unit of the company…

Carol: That’s correct.

Denver: So the question I have for you:  Are corporations having a more difficult time in finding exempt– or management-level people– as opposed to finding people that they might, say, put in a call center and think they fulfilled the law? What is the status of that?  And what are they doing?

Carol: Very good observation.  Frankly, it’s been a surprise to us. We assumed that it would not be that difficult because we know that kids who have gone through the special ed system in this country have gone in increasing numbers, on through college, and are getting college degrees. We did not assume that companies would have a hard time finding candidates with college degrees to fill their middle-management positions. It turns out that those are the hardest positions to fill. Why?

First, because it is somewhat of a new workforce. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act wasn’t approved until 1993. We are now in the first generation of kids who have gone all the way through special ed and are now going into college in increasing numbers. So once again, it’s somewhat of a new population that we have to account for.

Secondly, lower level positions are largely filled out of the country’s public disability workforce system, otherwise known as “vocational rehabilitation.” You can find candidates through that system. There are candidates who use the benefits provided by so-called “voc rehab.” You can find them – they gather in one location. College graduates with disabilities don’t disclose their disability often. They are told not to. They understand the stigma, and they’re very hard to find. They’re widely dispersed throughout the population.  We don’t have the “Disabled Engineering Association” yet.

So this turns out to be a new, very widely dispersed population throughout our country and throughout their communities. Much harder to find, much more difficult to get them to disclose. This is the place where employers are having the greatest difficulty right now in meeting that 7% goal.

Denver: Yeah. And I think on these college campuses, too, you don’t have the greatest communication between disability services and career counseling, do you?

Carol: That’s correct. And once again, a vestige of the past. Kids who go to college now and who have disabilities are able to access all kinds of accommodations through their Disability Student Services Office–untimed tests and aid, if you need it, accessible buildings… and ramps everywhere.

The Disability Student Services Office makes the campus experience for kids with disabilities a good experience. They do not see it as their job to prepare that group of students for the workforce. Frankly, I believe it’s because of something that we at NOD call the “tyranny of low expectations.” We do not expect people with disabilities–whether they have a college degree or not– to work.  And that applies even to many Disability Student Services offices.

Then, you go across and you look at Career Services on campus. That’s where employers go when they want to hire people. Those two offices on campus, it turns out, do not to talk to each other. They tend to be very “siloed.” So you’ve got the people who know disability… not addressing career, and the people who know career and have employer relationships… don’t understand disability. Until those two pieces come together more effectively, we are not going to be able to help employers meet that 7% goal when it comes to professional positions.

Denver: Excellent point. When people look at the disabled, I think there’s a tendency to look at their limitations.

Carol: Yes.

Denver: And in so doing, we tend to overlook some of the real assets that they might bring to the workplace that have been developed as a result of their disability. Speak to that a little bit, if you would.

Carol: That’s correct. Well, I like to tell a personal story there, Denver. My son, Jacob, is 24-years old and has both cognitive and physical disabilities. He spends time at Housing Works, which is a thrift store here in New York.  He works behind the jewelry counter there. If you know people with cognitive or intellectual disabilities, you know that they tend not to have filters. They tend to tell it like it is. When Jacob works behind that jewelry counter, and a woman comes up to look at a pair of earrings – man, he’s going to tell her exactly what those earrings look like. And if they don’t look good on her, he’s going to say, “No, don’t get those.” And he’ll say it three times until she tries on that fourth pair of earrings, and she’ll buy those earrings because Jacob says, “Get those! They look good.” I will tell you, that woman is going to come back and back and back to Housing Works because she found herself somebody who’s going to tell her the truth about how she looks. She loves that store now.

You take that story on the intellectual disability side. You take the story of people with autism who have a mind for detail, who are good with repetitive tasks, who can spot anomalies in code better than anybody else, and you see those people getting hired for professional positions in IT, at companies like SAP and Microsoft. So what you’re seeing– and the point I’m trying to make– is that across the spectrum of types of disabilities and scale of disability, you find people who – because they are trying to navigate a world that wasn’t built for them – have tenacity, have problem-solving experience, have resilience. They’re persistent; they’re dedicated;  and they’re hard working. And then you add to that these special talents that people have because of their disability… not in spite of them.  What you get is a marvelous workforce, and employers who try this workforce cannot believe the kind of results that they get in terms of productivity, safety, attendance at work, loyalty, and dedication because of disabilities.

Denver: Yeah. The story that sticks with me in that regard is that I used to be a consultant for the American Institute for Stuttering. At one of our galas, we were honoring Joe Biden who had a debilitating stutter when he was a child.

Carol: Yes.

Denver: And in speaking to him, he said that of all the things that he has achieved in his life, overcoming his stutter was the one that he was most proud of… certainly much more proud than having been elected Vice President.  Because, he said,  it made him the person he was. And as you know, Carol, stuttering can really be tough because other kids make fun of stuttering. “It’s Porky Pig!”  You don’t do that with a lot of other disabilities, but you do with stuttering. So, he said, “It thickened my skin.” And he said that determination and tenacity– that you just mentioned– and “just knowing that I could do this, it made me a better person.” So, I know exactly what you’re talking about.

Carol: That’s right. Yeah. When Eleanor Roosevelt was asked why her husband did so much for this country and for the world in spite of his disability, she said, “No, no, no! He did those things because of his disability.”

Denver: Yeah. Right. That’s a great point. When you place an individual with a disability,  that is certainly fulfilling to them and to their family – but I’d be curious as to what the effect of it is on their co-workers. How are the other employees of the company impacted?

Carol: Yes. So many companies who have tried this will tell you that among all of that data– about productivity,  about attendance at work, and the usual measures that they were testing and weren’t sure if it would work (And they did work!)–the biggest surprise about what worked…and what surpassed anybody’s expectations… was the effect on the rest of the workforce. People with disabilities in the workforce tend to be a “leveler” in many ways. They bring a note of levity. Think about my son, Jacob. Everybody loves working with Jacob. He’s fun; he’s interesting; he’s different.

Denver: He’s candid.

Carol:  He’s human. He’s candid. Oh my god, it just levels everybody out.  And people want to work with a company that they know cares about them—

Denver: That’s a great point.

Carol: …that allows everybody to bring their whole self to work, that really is hiring every segment of the society. The workplaces of companies who have hired people with disabilities have consistently reported out… and it started with Randy Lewis, who is a pioneer of Walgreens on this and who has a son with autism. Everybody, of course, has a personal story who has been a pioneer here. When you speak with Randy Lewis, what you will hear is somebody who improved the morale for all of Walgreens’ distribution centers… including and especially those cohorts working side by side with people with disabilities… who suddenly realized that they had a special purpose for coming to work every day that they hadn’t had before.

Denver: Yeah. I was very excited to see earlier this week, and I’m sure you were as well, that made a $20 million grant to 30 nonprofit organizations to help people with disabilities through technology, including in the workplace.

Carol: Yes.

Denver: Tell us about some of the technological breakthroughs in this area that you think have particular promise.

Carol: There are a number, Denver, and I think if you look at the whole constellation of reasons why people with disabilities…why the day has come where our workforce is going to increasingly look to those people,… it’s a whole host of reasons: demographic–the aging of the baby boomers; more and more employers understanding this is a benefit; 503 compliance; increasing data that show customers will switch brands for a company that will hire people with disabilities. So, you look at Screen Readers, you look at TTY on the phone, you look at interpreters– increasingly visible at meetings that you go to. Technology has absolutely been a huge breakthrough and a huge leveler in people’s ability to work at every level, at every job category, with every type of ability or disability.

I wanted to say, though, one thing about technology – because obviously my organization cares very, very much about workforce – I want to issue, if I may, Denver, a challenge to the high tech industry–which is regrettably very white, and not very diverse. I commend Google, LinkedIn, Facebook and Apple…all of whom have developed really advanced technological solutions for people that can be levelers for workforce participation. Very, very, important. We know that companies will do the right thing when they know that they’re doing something that helps their business.

But I think I want to issue a challenge to high tech to not only invent products for this growing consumer base… and we know it is a growing consumer base…  but also to try to include that consumer base in your workforce. Because industry has known for a long time that having a workforce that reflects your consumer base is absolutely critical to doing the right thing, and to developing the right products.

So, love what Google is doing, love what its other brothers and sisters in the high tech industry are doing to create technological advances that help people with disabilities. I hope the next step that they all take is changing their workforce to reflect the consumer base.

Denver: Right. You said before that equal rights and opportunities for the disabled is a civil rights issue.  You came out of the Civil Rights Movement yourself… and then the Women’s Movement in the 1970s. What are the parallels you see?  And what lessons do you think that the Disability Movement can learn from the Civil Rights Movement?

Carol: Yes. That’s a great question. I think the fact that we are, as a movement, 25 years behind the Civil Rights Movement.  If  you look at the ADA versus the Civil Rights Act and many other advances that had been made… both by law and through the Supreme Court… I think that it’s been a higher bar for people with disabilities. It’s been a higher bar for a number of reasons, not the least of which is:  it’s a very heterogeneous population. Being blind or being hearing impaired– those two people have very little in common with each other except for what they can’t do, except for their major life activities that they are impaired from doing. But other than that, there really isn’t the same kind of discrimination and the same kind of an ability to unify as one cohesive group, as one homogeneous group of people, the same way that the Civil Rights Movement had in its day.

I think also, frankly, the fact that there are physical barriers in the accommodation of people with disabilities into the greater society, into the communities. It costs money!  It’s a little bit harder. So that bar has been a little bit higher. Nevertheless, I think that the movement has been enormously successful in learning from what happened in the Civil Rights Movement, in banding together and setting aside differences, and picking the key legislative battles to fight. And it’s because of that that we’ve had so many legislative advances and so many advances throughout the society.

Denver: Let me ask you one last question about you being a mother of a child with a disability. When that happened about 24 years ago, you began to navigate that multi-faceted, complex system, and to look around to try to put the pieces together. And you said: Who is going to be the advocate for my son?  And you found that person in the mirror.

Carol: Yes.

Denver: The question today is how much better… how much simpler is it today than it was 24… 25 years ago?

Carol: Oh, it’s hugely simpler. Hugely, Denver. One of the things that made me take the job at NOD when I was coming in – I came as a consultant initially –  when I was offered the position, and I was scratching my head and wondering whether I wanted to live disability 24/7 in the same way that I had devoted my career to the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Rights Movement, I turned on a video, and I looked at an exposé that journalist Geraldo Rivera did. It’s a Peabody Award-winning exposé of conditions at Willowbrook State Hospital in Staten Island, New York.

Denver: I remember it.

Carol: It wasn’t that long ago. And I realized that had my son, Jacob, been born 20 years before he was, he would’ve been taken from our home, taken from his community, and put in a state hospital. It was originally meant to be humane, but– out of sight, out of mind, funding cuts and so on. Jacob would’ve been chained to a bed, eating his food off of a bowl on the floor, no clothing to wear, no programs in his day. He would not have had an education, and I would barely get to see him because there was no place for him to live in that community. It wasn’t that long ago that that was the fate of people with intellectual or mental health disabilities. And, of course, we know about curb cuts and lack of access to buildings that were the case for people with physical disabilities… mobility issues up until the ADA of 1990. It was only 25 years ago. So we’re still experiencing these radical changes that have been the case really in the last quarter of a century or more.  And we’re continuing to grow. The pace of change that has already been very, very fast over the last couple of decades… that pace of change is accelerating now.

Denver: Yeah. We are definitely gaining momentum. So what should a person do, Carol, if he/she or a family member has a disability, and they are anxious to get back into the workforce?

Carol: I think that the first barrier to overcome is that “tyranny of low expectations.” I can’t say enough about the way that that has been a pernicious force, not only for society and the people without disabilities, but for people with disabilities themselves. It’s very hard to expect much of yourself when other people don’t expect much of you. So, the very first step to take is to know that you are as smart, as talented, as productive, and you have as much to contribute to the workforce as anybody else.

Denver: It’s mindset issue.

Carol: It starts with the mindset. If you don’t have that mindset, you’re going to walk in and you’re going to just bear out the worst expectations that anybody has for you. Then you have to start really understanding what you can bring… and get help. There’s lots of help around. There is the voc rehab system. There are service providers. There are schools. Regrettably, you still have to be a self-advocate because a lot of those supports that are out there in the community are not in abundant enough supply for every single person with a disability. You have to go after them.  And being a self-advocate is part of that overcoming the tyranny of low expectations. It is knowing: I deserve this; I need this; I’m going to go out and get it.

And so… accessing those services and resources that are available to you, and knowing what you can ask an employer to do.  Because you can go into a job interview before you even have a job and tell an employer what kinds of accommodations you might need. If you’re a veteran, and you have post-traumatic stress disorder, and you can’t sit with your back to a door because you’re having a flashback… or because you have some sort of psychological barrier about somebody coming up behind you? You have a right to tell an employer where you want to sit in a job interview.

So there are so many ways that you can adapt the interview process, the recruitment process, and the hiring… and the onboarding process. You have to start with a mindset, continue with being a self-advocate, and then access all the resources that are available to you.  And most importantly, tell employers what you need. Let them know that you know what they have to do.

Denver: That’s great advice. And if there’s somebody out there who wants to get their company involved, get the Disability Employment Tracker, or even wants to make a financial contribution to support your organization, what should they do?

Carol: Thank you, Denver. is a very quick and simple website. The Disability Employment Tracker is a great place to start. It’s a free tool. We will come and help you analyze the results of the Tracker. And the other, I would say, is to join our CEO Council. That’s a body of corporate, senior executives who come and want to learn more. It’s more outward-facing than our Tracker– which really takes an inward-facing approach and allows you to look at yourself. Come and join the CEO Council. Learn from other executives. Learn from us. Learn from our webinars, our whitepapers, our conferences, our meetings. We pull people together as often as we can because we understand that this is all very new for employers. They need not only the one-on-one help that we can provide, but they also want to talk to each other, so our CEO Council is a very good forum for corporate executives to learn from each other.

Denver: Well, Carol Glazer, the President of the National Organization on Disability, thanks so much for being here to enlighten me and, I’m sure, many of our listeners– on this vitally important issue. It was a real pleasure having you on the program.

Carol: Thank you very much, Denver. I appreciate being here.