Inclusivity 101: Q&A with Eve Hill and Regina Kline

How did Inclusivity come about?

Gina Kline and Eve HillComing from the federal government, we saw how the landscape of disability and employment law is changing rapidly, and that there are very few resources out there to help organizations navigate it.

We started Inclusivity to help fill that gap, and help organizations who want to do the right thing, to actually do the right thing and bring these ideas to scale.

We don’t just want to penalize bad actors, we want to help organizations be proactive and implement highly effective policies that really move the needle on disability employment nationally.

Our goal is to decrease the disability unemployment rate, and in doing so we hope to strategically target folks who have been historically under-represented in the workplace and have been shunted to the side in subminimum wage and often exploitative work environments.

We know that even people with the most severe disabilities can work in competitive jobs, and we know that when they do, they improve the overall effectiveness and productivity of the entire workforce.

We have the legal resources and know-how to navigate federal rules, regulations, and the public workforce system in order to help get there.

What benefits should organizations expect to see from building a more inclusive workforce?

There are many: A stable and productive workforce, higher morale, higher productivity, greater creativity, greater commitment to the employer.

One company’s experience was that they brought on a critical mass of employees with disabilities, it became “a no-whining” zone. Working alongside people with disabilities helped the non-disabled workers have a greater appreciation for their employer, have a better work ethic, and an improved perception of their workplace. Productivity went up because the accommodations they put in place for people with disabilities actually benefit everybody.  And we see that over and over again.

In Rhode Island, we saw the experience of a worker with an intellectual disability who moved out of a sheltered workshop and into a garage. One of his jobs was to make sure that all the tools were in the right place at the end of the day. But what they learned was that marking each tool with where it belonged, helped the worker with disabilities, but it also helped everyone else. They didn’t have to go hunting for tools all the time. They knew where it went.

Integrate people with disabilities into your workforce, and productivity increases every time.

While productivity goes up down, accidents go down, because when you teach people with disabilities how you want things done, they do it that way – in a safe way, in a way that reduces injuries, in the way that is more efficient.

And employees with disabilities bring a creative approach to getting things done.  Bringing this creativity of people who solve problems all day long helps employers set up systems that work better for everyone.

In some cases, a business may not have thought about employee training at all, until they bring on people with disabilities. They implement accommodations, and the result is that everyone is able to do their job better.

What’s the biggest mistake organizations make when it comes to disability and inclusion policies?

The biggest mistake organizations make is that they don’t think about it as diversity and inclusion at all. They focus just on the legal requirement of reasonable accommodation and nondiscrimination, but they don’t make any effort to create a culture that incorporates people with disabilities.

For example, recently there was an internationally-covered decision by a major corporation in Silicon Valley to rectify its lack of diversity and inclusion. It did not even include the word “disability” in its policy. They’re talking about inclusion, but people with disabilities are not even in the conversation.

What are some of the common misconceptions organizations and policymakers have about employing people with disabilities?

That it’s expensive and hard. But it’s not either of those things. It’s neither expensive nor hard. There are many free resources to make it more than worthwhile, but employers aren’t taking advantage of them. Money and resources are being left on the table.

For example, employers are not sufficiently accessing state and federally-funded vocational rehabilitation services, and they’re not sufficiently connecting with schools and service providers who can really make it easy and inexpensive – or free – to bring on people with disabilities.  Most reasonable accommodations cost nothing, and the really expensive ones average $500 – total.

What they need is the assistance of people who understand those laws and who understand how people with disabilities can be on-boarded effectively.  Even people with the most severe disabilities who have the need for publicly funded services, we can help organizations and companies navigate those rules and bring those ideas to scale.

The other mistake is that they think that people with disabilities don’t bring value and aren’t part of the positive benefits of diversity. But if you want problem solvers, people with disabilities are solving problems all day every day – from how to get into this building, to how to get ready in time, and deal with all the barriers they’re going to face on the way to work. They do it every day and they can explain to you how to make your jobs better.

No other consulting practice is doing this type of supply chain analysis. Talk about what made you want to tackle this frontier.

Many companies have paid attention to the working conditions and wage practices of their vendors in terms of race and gender and child labor. But they haven’t paid attention to the abuses and the exploitation that take place among certain vendors who employ people with disabilities.

There needs to be a mechanism to recognize that problem and fix it – and we can fill that niche.

The fact that the businesses haven’t said “we don’t allow this for anyone else, why would we allow it for people with disabilities?” is a real oversight. Businesses really can make a difference in terms of people with disabilities having real jobs and real wages, and being able to live in the world without having to rely on charity and public benefits.

Other sectors have seen this problem, where there is a heavy reliance on independent contractors, and there’s not much transparency built in. What we’re really looking for is to employ a top-down and bottom-up strategy at the same time.

The top down strategy is that a company will revise its policies to make clear from the outset that they will not tolerate subminimum wages in their supply chain. The bottom up strategy is the audits we conduct to provide transparency and to ensure that actually happens.

Importantly, we don’t just want to help companies identify the problem – we also want to help them fix it, and to on-board people with disabilities directly into their workforce, rather than as independent contractors. This serves the bottom line, serves federal policy, including the affirmative action obligations of federal contractors, and serves people with disabilities and our communities.

What other newly emerging areas do you have a unique perspective on?

There are several emerging areas where there is a clear need for the services we provide.

Youth transition from school to work. One of the things we’ve realized is how many people don’t understand that the various new disability-related laws are all really consistent with each other.Our experience in the federal government and as lawyers means we are uniquely positioned to navigate federal rules, specifically as they relate to young people transitioning from school to the workforce.

Many people don’t realize that Olmstead and the ADA, along with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) and WIOA, apply to young people in transition and aren’t familiar with the resources that are available to help bridge the gap.We’re providing strategic consulting services about how to navigate those requirements that are highly complementary to each other, to help students never have to go to a sheltered workshop in the first place, but to leave school and transition into an integrated job that pays at or above minimum wage.

Our previous experiences at the federal level have given us a unique perspective on how to navigate the complex web of rules and regulations around youth transition and we want to make that more accessible to organizations, parents, and families.

Accessible Technology. We also have worked extensively in the area of accessible technology. Technology has potentially great benefits for people with disabilities and for the businesses that want them as customers. But too often, companies hire an outside consultant to make their website or other technology accessible and then think “it’s fixed, so I can forget about it.” That’s an inefficient, expensive, and dangerous approach to making your technology welcoming of all customers. We help companies build that capacity in-house – to make sure their websites are born accessible and stay accessible, so all their customers can access them.

Educational Access. Higher education is a key tool for people with disabilities to secure employment. Higher education is essential to overcoming the stigma of disability when trying to get a job. So more and more students with disabilities are pursuing higher education. Colleges and universities need to be ready to seamlessly incorporate these students into their student bodies on every level.

What legal and policy trends do you see that organizations need to be prepared for, looking forward?

The trend line is clear, it’s marching towards competitive, integrated employment – and that change is occurring on multiple levels that have implications for organizations and businesses in the future.

First, in terms of policy, federal law has undergone a decisive shift away from segregated, exploitive employment and towards competitive, integrated employment. That’s on paper. Now the country needs to catch up, and states need to implement that policy mandate on the ground.

The second, but more important and profound shift, is that people’s expectations are changing. People with disabilities and their families are not going to accept surviving on charity and being shut away from the rest of society. They’ve been integrated in their schools, they know people without disabilities, and they’re going to insist on that going forward into their lives. They know they can contribute, so they’re not going to put up with being left out.

You’re also going to see a shift among young people without disabilities who are now used to having people with disabilities around them. To date, workers without disabilities haven’t noticed when their colleagues with disabilities just disappeared and weren’t in the workplace. But that’s going to change. And the federal government and disability advocacy groups and even businesses have aligned with the understanding that people with disabilities can work.

There’s now a growing consensus that the people we thought couldn’t work, in fact always could. And now because of emerging technologies and the new ways we do things – working remotely and working on whatever device works for you — even more people with disabilities than ever are able to do those jobs. It is more and more clear, that the only thing that’s preventing people with disabilities from working is the assumption that people can’t work. And so businesses have to get over that assumption.

How does your experience affect your approach, and how is it different?

We have very often worked in partnership with local governments, employers, service providers and with people with disabilities – so we’ve really explored these issues from a variety of angles. Not just from a lawyers-writing-a-policy-angle. That really informs our work – we’ve seen what works and what doesn’t work.

For example, we have looked at disability employment from a procurement angle because federal and state governments are customers of the goods and services of people with disabilities. We talked to parents and families, developmental disability councils/VR and special education teachers and service providers.

Our consulting is not meant to keep us perpetually in business. One of the mistakes that companies make is that they put a policy in place, and forget about it – and then expect their consultant to come back and fix it if I have problems going forward. Our job is to hardwire the inclusion and the culture and the accessibility into the organization – so that businesses and government agencies can do it themselves, and don’t have to keep coming back for consulting advice. You don’t need consultants all the time, you just need to understand how to think about these issues. We’re in the capacity building business.