“Disabilities do not discriminate.”
That was one of the messages Sarah Cline, training manager and U.S. Disability ERG lead for Accenture (No. 7 on the DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list and No. 3 on the Top Companies for People with Disabilities specialty list), had at DiversityInc’s ERG Festival on Nov. 12 at Newark Liberty International Airport Marriott.
No one group is spared of the possibility of becoming a person with a disability. Cline, who suffers from hearing loss and wears hearing aids, has firsthand knowledge.
“It took me a while to even be comfortable with the fact in admitting that I had a disability, as if there was something to admit,” Cline said. “There’s nothing to admit. There’s no shame in hearing loss.”
Lisa Slater, manager of diversity and inclusion at The Hersey Company (No. 25 on the DiversityInc Top 50 and No. 11 on the Top Companies for People with Disabilities specialty list), implemented the service dog program at Hershey and has raised and trained five service dogs. She said “it was not always a positive experience” to be out in public with a service dog because of how she was treated.
“The day I remember I came home I said to my husband, ‘so this is what it feels like to be invisible,” she said.
Slater said since then, every moment has been about “education awareness for every person to be valued, to have voice and to have a place.”
Cline and Slater shared the stage with Gerardine Mobley, enterprise lead of Individuals with Diverse Abilities and Veterans at TD Bank (No. 19 on the DiversityInc Top 50 and No. 13 on the Top Companies for People with Disabilities specialty list) in the opening panel of ERG Festival, “Growing and Effectively Leveraging Your Diverse Abilities ERG,” moderated by DiversityInc CEO Carolynn Johnson, to have a discussion about how companies can best use their ERGs to empower professionals with disabilities.
For all three companies represented in the panel, the goal is a comprehensive effort, which requires multi-city and multi-department cooperation. Accenture designates one person in each city to go into disability communities, such as college offices of disabilities and local nonprofits, in order to identify untapped talent of differing abilities. The goal is to create an inclusive culture by not being afraid to speak about disabilities and different abilities.
Cline said this is not an impossible feat to accomplish as long as one is capable of simply removing preconceived notions by shedding light on these issues. She said putting everything on the table and being vulnerable forces other people to look beyond a disability and see a person for who they are.
Adolescents who participate in the program work as interns in three, 11-week rotations where they develop essential job skills in different departments for real-life experience.
Slater said at one event, Hershey employees experienced the world through the eyes of a person on the autism spectrum, among other diverse abilities, through virtual reality and artificial intelligence technologies. Slater got emotional discussing the positive response it got from families who thanked them, and she said it prompted questions leading to education and awareness.
“When you can be that lighthouse of ‘come here, let’s talk,’ that’s where we can help,” Slater said. “And we make that way for both sides, both the personal and the organizational structure.”
Cline said one of Accenture’s most successful programs, “Walk in My Shoes,” highlights personal stories of employees with disabilities in hopes of increasing understanding and knowledge around the topic of disabilities. TD Bank has a similar initiative in “Moments of Truth,” a monthly video series that showcases diverse abilities. It encourages people to self-disclose by explaining what their disabilities are and educates others by motivating them to not be afraid to ask questions.
“We want to show the talents but also encourage people to feel comfortable to ask for help or accommodation when they need it,” Mobley said.