Champions of Change Blog

  • Inclusion Is Imperative in Today’s World

    Angela Mackey

    Angela Mackey is being honored as a Disability Employment Champion of Change.

    As an individual with a disability, I know all too well the barriers that those in this segment of our society face. Historically, opportunity and disability seldom go hand-in-hand. I grew up with a grandfather who also had a disability, and I learned that others sometimes used his disability as a reason for exclusion from privileges such as education, a meaningful career, and social acceptance. Being around him as a child, I knew the barriers I would also one day face. The conversations growing up between myself and my grandfather were motivational exchanges, in which he listened to me recite my goals for the future and, in response, offered words of encouragement regarding them coming to fruition. I often wonder what my fate might have been without those interactions.

    I was fortunate. At an early age, I understood that through my own determination, hard work, and God, I could be more than just a person with a disability. I also knew that with an education, and eventually a career, I would have a voice. Without a job, I knew that it would be extremely difficult for me to feel like I was in control. In my mind, work equated to personal power. Work, in a lot of ways, leveled the playing field. I might not have the ability to run a mile or score a homerun, but I could operate a computer system with the best of them.

    This ideology is why I believe inclusion is so imperative in today’s world of work. I often tell those I train that I am just as capable as someone without a disability, but until I am provided an opportunity to show what I can do, nobody believes it.  Luckily, I have had two organizations, South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation and Walgreens, to open their doors to me to show what I can do, and in doing so, I have assisted others in doing the same. Inclusion does not mean that we want an easier job or a different set of standards. We just want a chance to enter the door like anyone else.

    Angela Mackey is a Human Resources Generalist at the Walgreens Distribution Center in Pendergrass, Georgia.

  • Recruitment of All Abilities Is Just Good Business

    Oswald Mondejar

    Oswald Mondejar is being honored as a Disability Employment Champion of Change.

    As an immigrant from Cuba, my mother cherished the American virtues of freedom, independence, and opportunity. She told my sister and me that, in this country, anything is possible. The honor of being selected as a Champion of Change by the White House is proof of that. It’s so humbling because I know that I’m merely representing the work and voices of so many others who paved the way.

    Growing up with a limb difference, I learned from an early age that my biggest challenge would always be overcoming others perceived “limitations” of what I could and could not do. There’s no place that another’s perception about your abilities has a greater impact than in the workplace. I got my first job at age 13, and seeing my name on a paycheck for the work I’d done was empowering. A job wasn’t simply about survival; it provided dignity, camaraderie with coworkers, and a fully independent life.

    Fast forward to a career spent in Human Resources, and what I have seen is that people with disabilities are seldom given a fair chance to show what they can do. To many employers, the workplace is full of impediments (physical barriers, policies and, yes, attitudes), that make it “too much trouble” to hire them. While we’ve made great progress, there’s more work to be done.

    Unemployment and underemployment for people with disabilities remain incredibly high, and that is a call to action for all of us. Our charge is to seek out and find creative solutions to these old challenges.

    Working at Spaulding Rehabilitation Network (SRN) has been a great opportunity. At SRN, I have helped develop the “Working Partners” program, a first of its kind public/private partnership focusing on providing people with disabilities the skills and support they need to join the workforce and improve their overall quality of life. Like any worthy endeavor, it takes an intrepid group of collaborators to be successful, and I am incredibly fortunate to partner with my colleagues from Partners HealthCare and the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission (MRC) to make this all possible. Through Working Partners, qualified candidates with disabilities work directly with an embedded MRC employment specialist and Spaulding’s hiring managers to navigate the employment process with the ultimate goal of job placement at SRN or within Partners HealthCare.

    But Working Partners does more than provide assistance with finding a job. With their new positions, candidates are empowered to take more control over their lives. They feel the great sense of pride that comes with entering or re-entering the work force and contributing their talents to something far greater than themselves. 

    While many businesses and agencies speak about diversity or inclusion, much of this talk is hollow. In order to truly progress, leading companies must see what efforts like Working Partners are; just good business. The productivity and talent that people with disabilities can contribute is only limited by our own perceptions of what is possible. 

    Oswald “Oz” Mondejar is the Senior Vice President for Mission and Advocacy for Partners Continuing Care, the non-acute care division of Partners HealthCare based in Boston, Massachusetts. 

  • It’s the Economy!

    John Robinson

    John Robinson is being honored as a Disability Employment Champion of Change.

    Did you know that individuals with disabilities have $2.7 trillion in annual disposable income in the United States? Did you know that the unemployment rate for individuals with disabilities is 12.3%, as compared to 5.5% for able-bodied citizens? Now imagine what the disposable income would be in the United States the unemployment rates of those two groups was the same.

    It's the economy! We live in an economy that is built upon growth. Yet, we are seeing the baby boomers leaving the workforce. We see an increased population of individuals with disabilities in aging citizens, soldiers coming back from service injured, and individuals with developmental disabilities. We as a society need to be able to filling positions with individuals with disabilities. If our economy is to grow, this population must be utilized.

    Twenty-five years ago, at the beginning of the Americans with Disabilities Act, I had just graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in television, radio, and film management. Many of my peers received job offers around the United States, while I moved back in with my parents and cleaned swimming pools to make ends meet. I had strong grades, had a successful internship in Boston, and was well prepared for an entry-level position. Unfortunately, society was not ready for a quadruple amputee looking for gainful employment in media. It took me four years before I was offered an entry-level position inside a television station.

    Twenty-five years later, I am proud to have had a long career inside the television industry. I am equally proud of my advocacy work on behalf of individuals with disabilities. At Our Ability, we are working inside American companies to facilitate employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities. We are using our communications experience to help facilitate internal messaging. We are building disability etiquette training seminars inside companies. We are building an online portal for individuals with disabilities to be able to upload their skill set—Our Ability Connect. As the founder of Our Ability, I am very purposely building the foundation that I and so many others needed 25 years ago.

    I know we are on the right path. With the changing regulations for federal contractors and subcontractors, there is now an increased interest from businesses to find out more about including people with disabilities in their workforce. I can see it in the seminars I give to human resource managers, who pick up the pens and take notes especially when I talk about disability etiquette and sensitivity. There is an increased awareness about communicating effectively with people who are deaf and visually impaired. This expanded understanding of how to communicate with coworkers is vital to a successful inclusive organization.

    While it seems like an impossible goal to level the unemployment statistics between individuals with disabilities and able-bodied citizens, it is something we all need to work towards. Our global economy is built upon growth, and by including individuals with disabilities in the next 25 years we can increase that $2.7 trillion annual disposable income.

    Why are the statistics so important? Employment is only one portion of the total self-worth of the individual, but it is quite possibly the most important. We all identify ourselves by where we work. It's one of the first things we mentioned when we introduced ourselves to someone new. We all understand how inferior we feel when we are unemployed or underemployed. This is especially true with someone with a disability. By opening opportunities for inclusive hiring inside major companies, we are not only affecting our economy but are also building the next generation of confident individuals. We as a society are truly becoming inclusive.

    John Robinson is Managing Partner and CEO of Our Ability, a company owned and operated by people with disabilities for people with disabilities.

  • Disability Is My Strength

    Jenny Lay-Flurrie

    Jenny Lay-Flurrie is being honored as a Disability Employment Champion of Change.

    As a person with a disability who is passionate about enabling others with disabilities, I am humbled and honoured to be a White House Champion of Change.

    My journey with disability started early. By the age of 5, my hearing was already declining, a process that would continue over the next 30+ years. As a teenager and even through most of my twenties, I felt that I needed to hide my disability. My hearing loss is now profound, but by asking for the help I need and seeing my disability as a strength, I have been able to make myself – and now my employer – stronger. I am fortunate to work for a company that empowers and enables people to be successful.  I wake up excited every morning, eager to get to work. I’m lucky to be in a position to make a difference, and this fact drives me to do more every day.

    I am a Senior Director at Microsoft, leading the Trusted Experience Team (TExT), which focuses on privacy, online safety, and accessibility. Our goal is to provide a positive experience for all customers. As with any great journey, mine started by taking big terrifying steps. The first was to identify to Microsoft as a person with a disability.  I joined the deaf ‘huddle’ group at Microsoft and went on to create and lead the DisAbility Employee Resource Group (ERG), a community of amazing people with disabilities, advocates, colleagues, and parents who share best practices and elevate understanding. At our first annual ‘Ability Summit’ four years ago, 80 people showed up. This past spring, 800 people came to Redmond headquarters to spend the day, which featured our CEO Satya Nadella, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, and many others. The theme of the summit was “Imagine, Build, Enable,” and we have taken that to heart at Microsoft.

    In 2012, we announced the Disability Answer Desk (DAD), providing specialized support for customers with disabilities. Today, DAD helps about 4,000 customers a month do more with Microsoft products and services. The team is made up of talented people both with and without disabilities. In addition, I work with the Washington State Disability Taskforce, a public-private group focused on driving representation of people with disabilities in state government to at least 5%. Lastly, I sit on the US Business Leadership Network (USBLN) board of directors, which works towards disability inclusion in the workplace. It’s more “than just doing the right thing;” it’s about enabling people to be successful and achieve their dreams. It’s about changing lives, just as mine was changed. 

    At Microsoft, we are imagining and building technology for people with disabilities. During our company-wide ‘Hackathon’, we had projects focused on improving technology for people with deafness, blindness, autism, and more. Out of nearly three thousand submitted “hacks,” six of these projects placed in the top 100.  I’m most proud of our work with former NFL player Steve Gleason, who is living with ALS, to help create prototype technology to independently move a wheelchair via eye tracking. This work won the 2014 Microsoft Hackathon Grand Prize!

    My disability motivates me to strive for a higher bar—a new level of independence and empowerment. It helps me to understand and have empathy for our customers.  I work to drive this understanding into Microsoft to create better products. So go on, if you want to know more about your customers, take that step and hire a person with a disability. They’ll teach you all you need to know.

    Jenny Lay-Flurrie is a Senior Director at Microsoft, leading the Trusted Experience Team (TExT).

  • We Can All Be Change Leaders: Employing People with Many Abilities

    David Bartage

    David Bartage is being honored as a Disability Employment Champion of Change.

    I am surprised and incredibly honored to be recognized as a White House Champion of Change for Disability Employment. What began as a small project has led to be my passion, encouraging businesses to find good-paying and sustainable employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

    In 2010, the Procter & Gamble (P&G) site in Auburn, Maine, began planning to add a customization (FlexiCenter) center into their 24/7 manufacturing operation. During our initial discussions, we discussed how we should staff this center and quickly concluded that we should reapply a staffing model we saw at Walgreen’s Distribution Center, in which 30% to 40% of the employees were people with disabilities.

    A local hiring agency for people with disabilities recommended me to reach out to the Maine Bureau of Rehabilitation Services (ME BRS) to develop strategies to integrate individuals with disabilities into our new customized packaging facility, the FlexiCenter. P&G and ME BRS partnered together to identify people with disabilities, the individuals were trained and assessed by ME BRS, and they were then re-assessed in the P&G workplace. ME BRS also worked with our manufacturing site, providing training to all our employees to better prepare us to encourage and support inclusion in the workplace.

    Today, more than three years after opening the doors to the FlexiCenter, 40% of the FlexiCenter employees are individuals with disabilities, working alongside workers who have not disclosed any disability, performing the same jobs with the same expectations and same pay. Some of the benefits of the FlexiCenter include: increased productivity, zero safety incidents, zero quality incidents, 90% reduction in turnover, a significant improvement in morale, reduced hiring costs, reduced training costs, and increased “goodwill” in Maine.

    As I was getting involved with our FlexiCenter, I worked with the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, and the ME BRS to start up the Maine Business Leadership Network (ME BLN). Since its inception, I have been the business leader of the ME BLN. The ME BLN is a state affiliate of the United States Business Leadership Network (USBLN). The ME BLN offers member employers resources for recruiting candidates with disabilities, information on disability issues, recognition for best disability employment practices, and exposure to an untapped market for their goods and services. We also view our role as that of a catalyst and a "connecting point" to promote dialogue and sharing of best practices between employers in a peer-to-peer setting.

    Upon meeting someone for the first time, we are often times asked, “What do you do?” When asked that question, I imagine that for many the first response is what you do for a living. We take a lot of pride in what we do, and it helps to define who we are. It gives us an identity. 

    Over the last several years, I have seen what employment opportunities have done for our P&G employees with disabilities.  It has given them an identity. It has provided them with an opportunity to be integrated into everyday life. It has impacted the employee and the employee’s family. I have heard parents thank us for giving their child an opportunity to work. They have expressed concern that they felt they had to outlive their child to provide them support. They now have hope that their sons and daughters can make it on their own. 

    What started as a project has turned into a passion for helping others and spreading the word of sustainable employment opportunities for people with disabilities. I encourage you to get started and make a positive change in your own way.

    David Bartage is the Plant Finance Manager for the Procter & Gamble, Auburn, ME facility leading the Auburn sites’ efforts in hiring people with disabilities.

  • ABLE to Work

    Alexandra McArthur

    Alexandra McArthur is being honored as a Disability Employment Champion of Change.

    I love my job. As an Associate Consultant at the Taproot Foundation, I work with the country’s top companies to help them build high-impact corporate pro bono programs. I enable companies to use their most important resources, their people, to support nonprofits that are strengthening our communities. My position is challenging, fulfilling, and provides me with a livelihood. Seems pretty lucky, right?

    As a person with a disability, a member of a population where only one out of three of adults ages 18-64 are employed, I’m more than lucky. Barriers, such as poor inclusion training, inaccessible workplaces, benefit systems that disincentive savings, and lack of financial literacy, are keeping talented persons with disabilities out of the workforce. Thus the poverty rate for people with disabilities is nearly double the U.S. national poverty rate.

    This is why I work to reduce these barriers and change these statistics. In 2011, I was chosen as Ms. Wheelchair America on a platform of promoting workplace inclusion. In this position, I traveled across the nation to speak with corporations, associations, diversity groups, government officials, and job-seekers about how every sector can benefit from the talent, perspective, dedication, and creativity that people with disabilities bring to and encourage in their workplaces.

    As a Co-Chair of the Junior Board of Resources for Children with Special Needs, I’ve helped to expose over 60 young professionals to the often-overlooked needs of the disability community. The Junior Board meets regularly to advocate for policy changes, volunteer with youth with disabilities, and to raise money for the organization. I’m thrilled that this year we chose disability employment as our advocacy focus. The board members now know how to make their workplaces, which include schools, investment firms, media agencies, just to name a few, more open to hiring people with disabilities and more accommodating to employees with disabilities. 

    There is much more work to be done to make improvements in the disability employment statistics, which have remained essentially unchanged since the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act nearly 25 years ago. Workforce development programs must integrate specialized programming for people with disabilities. Employers need training about the positive ways hiring people with disabilities impacts their bottom line, in addition to tangible strategies and avenues for recruiting people with disabilities. The disability community needs specialized financial literacy education.

    But perhaps the most significant change needed is currently sitting in the hands of our lawmakers: the ABLE Act. Presently, a person with a disability who receives Social Security benefits cannot have more than $2,000 to their name without losing those benefits. $2,000. Total. The ABLE Act will provide the option for people with disabilities on benefits to earn a living and save for crucial expenses, such as retirement or medical equipment. Thus, it will allow gainful employment to be a realistic option and a true avenue for wealth accrual for people with disabilities.

    I envision a world where people with disabilities are seen as assets in the workplace and are represented in the middle class. Through workforce development, financial education, and passing of the ABLE Act, let’s take steps together to make this vision a reality.

    Alexandra McArthur is a Senior Associate Consultant at the Taproot Foundation and was Ms. Wheelchair America 2011.