Ally Is a Verb: Looking at Disability Through My Eyes

Diversity & CultureDiversity, Equity, and Inclusion Advisory
Article Icon Social Post
October 07, 2020
4 min read
Diversity & CultureDiversity, Equity, and Inclusion Advisory
Disability is a form of diversity, as this term encompasses the infinite range of an individuals' unique attributes and experiences.
rra-ally-is- a-verb-looking-at-disability-through-my-eyes

I have been legally blind since birth and although I wear contact lenses, my corrected vision still falls into this category. Text is extremely difficult for me to read from a distance. I have never been able to read the blackboard in any classroom from my chair, even while sitting in the front row. 

So started my application essays for The Wharton School and The Fletcher School, from which I graduated with an MBA and MALD, respectively. 

While technology has helped me, I still struggle to read street signs, to read the print on menus, to read presentations shared on Zoom screens, to read gate departure info on the screens near the ceilings of the many airports through which I have traveled. People judge me or call me unfriendly if I don’t say hello in the elevator or when I pass them on the street. It’s not because I don’t like you—I just can’t see your face.  

I’m guessing that 99 percent of people whom I encounter through my professional or personal endeavors don’t know of this disability. I don’t wear thick glasses or have other aids that typically accompany people who can’t see.  

Having a disability that is not readily apparent to others means that I often experience the following kinds of behavior. People use insensitive examples (“let’s uncross our eyes and really focus”) or other language when presenting or training (“as you can see here….” when I have told them I can’t see what they are highlighting). They ask “why?” when I ask for help in reading some print. They make fun of me as I try to focus or read. They laugh when I say I can’t drive and offer “you’re such a New Yorker.” They forget to share materials in advance so that I can participate during meetings. 

When this happens, sometimes I correct people; usually I don’t. Why? Maybe I don’t want to call attention to myself or embarrass my colleagues or repeat requests for help. When I do correct people, some don’t say anything or say “I didn’t know” or “I forgot.” I encourage all of us to take the conversation one step further. Instead of focusing solely on our intent, we should acknowledge the impact of our actions. How we respond in these key moments can make a difference. 

Disability is a form of diversity 

I’ve long held back from being so public in sharing this information for fear of being discriminated against or thought of as less capable or different. I’ve worked hard, and continue to do so, to make sure that my disability has not held me back. 

So why come forward now? I feel emboldened by the current social and racial justice movement. Among the many things it has taught us is that people want to be heard and valued for their differences. Disability is a form of diversity, as this term encompasses the infinite range of individuals' unique attributes and experiences.  

Recognizing employees with disabilities is not just a matter of common decency; it also makes good business sense. According to the US Office of Disability Employment Policy, in August 2020 just over one-third of America’s “working-age population” identified as having a disability. We bring tremendous skills to the workplace. “People with disabilities are experienced problem solvers with a proven ability to adapt,” said ODEP Deputy Assistant Secretary Jennifer Sheehy. “Now more than ever, flexibility is important for both workers and employers.” 

What’s more, a wide range of data shows that diverse organizations perform better as they are able to tap into varied perspectives when tackling challenges and chasing opportunities. But to truly unlock this potential, companies need to foster a culture where employees appreciate and value individual differences—ensuring that people with disabilities are supported in their workforce and have a strong sense of belonging. 

In my role as a Managing Director and the Global Digital Education and edTech Practice lead at Russell Reynolds Associates, I am a search consultant and industry advisor to clients and candidates. I help organizations and individuals rethink their preconceived notions and overcome inherent biases around “talent.” I gently but clearly challenge their ingrained practices by leveraging conversations and using data. As my RRA colleagues Tina Shah Paikeday, Yen Ling Shek, Dheeraj Vashista and Alix Stuart say in “Shattering the Bamboo Ceiling,” we must help organizations nurture the talent pipeline, redefine internal definitions of who is qualified, and equip all leaders in an organization to build an inclusive culture.   

Be an ally 

This year marks the 75th observance of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) in the US, observed annually in October by the US Department of Labor. It also marks the 30th anniversary of the passage of The Americans with Disabilities Act (The ADA). The ADA was landmark civil rights legislation that significantly increased access and opportunity for people with disabilities across all aspects of society, including in the workplace. While great progress has been made, there is still much work to be done. 

In a year marked by major crises—health, racial justice, economic, climate—which have torn at the social fabric of our communities, we need to realize that our humanity does not exist in a vacuum. Our words and actions have impact on others. What we say and what we do matters. Challenging how we think about talent and leadership, specifically regarding people with disabilities, is an important step forward. And we need to have increased awareness and comfortability in engaging in these conversations. 

I have stayed quiet about my disability for a long time. That time has passed. I’m not afraid TO GET LOUD and talk about my vision—and I am no longer shy about doing so publicly. I hope my actions will embolden others to step forward. We all need to be comfortable with our own abilities and realize what we can achieve. I am training for my first marathon. I was on the Board of Trustees of an Ivy league University.  I am (somehow) excellent at darts. And soon I’ll drive myself somewhere (anywhere!) as self-driving cars are closer to making their mass-market debut than ever. 

We all play a role in creating an inclusive society. What can you do to be part of the solution? Be an ally and do everything in your power to support positive change and change agents. Engage with me and read the links above to learn more. Shut down insensitive actions or language when you encounter it. Ally exceptional talent with opportunities. Be aware of your own impact. Put your values in to action.