As part of this year’s first Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility Leadership Forum, the LA Times B2B Publishing team hosted a panel discussion exploring trends, updates and accessibility issues in today’s workplaces.
The panel was moderated by Mari-Anne Kehler, CDP of GHJ, and featured expert commentary from Sue Chen of NOVA Medical Products; Katherine Pérez of the Coelho Center for Disability Law, Policy and Innovation; Elaine Hall of The Miracle Project; and Marlene Krpata of the United States Army, retired.
Mari-Anne Kehler, CDP
Partner and Strategy DirectorGHJ
Mari-Anne Kehler, CDP, leads GHJ’s growth strategy, particularly in business development and marketing. She is also a strategist for the GHJ Foundation, GHJ’s vehicle for targeted and proactive donations to the community. She has over 30 years of experience as a high impact leader who successfully builds business. Passionate about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DCI), Kehler leads DCI strategy at GHJ and was accredited by the National Diversity Council through Emory University as a Certified Diversity Professional (CDP) in 2020.
Founder & CEO NOVA MEDICAL PRODUCTS
As CEO of NOVA Medical Products, Sue Chen is changing the way people embrace aging and address physical challenges with innovative and stylish products. In his book “Confessions of a Walker Stalker”, Chen recounts his journey and his mission to unleash and ignite human capacities.
Combining her passion for ocean conservation with human capacities, Sue is the co-founder of Operation Blue Pride, an organization that supports veterans through scuba diving and ocean education.
Director THE COELHO CENTER FOR DISABILITY LAW, POLICY AND INNOVATION
Katherine Pérez is the Senior Director of the Coelho Center for Disability Law, Policy and Innovation. She is currently a PhD candidate in Disability Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she is writing a dissertation on Supreme Court Burger cases in the criminal justice system and mental disability. Pérez focuses on disability and immigration law and policy. As a queer woman of color, disabled, and the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, her experiences inform her approach to intersectional justice.
Founder THE MIRACLE PROJECT
Elaine Hall is the Founder and Artistic Director of The Miracle Project, a fully inclusive film and theater program featured in the two-time Emmy Award-winning HBO film, “Autism: the Musical.” She is considered a pioneer in the creation of original neurodiverse content for cinema and theater. As a technical advisor, screenplay consultant, accessibility coordinator, and on-set advocate / coach, Hall has worked with screenwriters, directors, actors, and TV and film production companies to ensure that their content authentically portrays individuals of all abilities and disabilities.
U.S. Army Captain, Retired TACTICAL INTELLIGENCE OFFICER
Marlene Krpata is a retired United States Army captain and tactical intelligence officer. His decorations include the Meritorious Service Medal (2x), the Army Commendation Medal (2x), the National Defense Service Medal with a Bronze Star, the Iraq Campaign Medal with a Star campaign and the Kosovo Campaign Medal with a Bronze Star. In 2006, she was struck by indirect mortar fire which severely damaged her right leg, ultimately resulting in an amputation. Today, she works for UBS Financial as a Financial Intelligence Analyst.
SHARED EVENT PREVIEW
CHEN: I define accessibility at work as being in a “work ecosystem” that cultivates your whole person, allowing you to access your capacities… physically, intellectually and emotionally. Accessibility is important because it is the most important priority to advance the mission of your business. To achieve this, you need to create an ecosystem / environment for your most valuable asset – your employees – not only to survive, but to thrive.
ROOM: In my experience, ‘accessibility in the workplace’ means that everyone, regardless of ability or disability, can openly disclose their specific needs to a colleague and trusted supervisor, without bias or concern. . Accessibility is a state of mind – an attitude – which is not limited to building ramps or removing physical barriers (although that is a start) – but creating a social / emotional environment as well as an environment physique that actually supports individual differences and needs. An accessible workplace is a space where those who experience the world differently are not only “included” but have the resources to do their best job. The strength of one person is the challenge of another. Accessibility encourages real teamwork where everyone can shine. Accessibility allows every worker to bring their talents and strengths to the workplace, creating an atmosphere where everyone is not only included but where everyone belongs.
KEHLER: Employees not only want to be included, they also want to belong. Employers need to create an environment where their greatest asset, employees, not only survive, but thrive. Having a workplace accessible to all creates a culture of empathy, empowerment and strength. Providing equal access fosters a culture where all employees feel accepted and supported to succeed.
KRPATA: Having an employer who focuses on accessibility is very important and promotes unity and signals that all staff are important to that employer. It’s what people with disabilities need to help them get the best of themselves as employees. Accessibility signals that people with disabilities are needed and welcome, no matter what stage they are at in their disability journey.
FATHER: Providing access means you see your employees as individuals with different strengths and needs. Providing access means assuming capacity and focusing on changes in the work environment. When you are inclusive of employees with disabilities, you create a culture that includes everyone. Employers open up the talent pool. They increase innovation, especially since people with disabilities are innovators out of necessity in a capable world. Hiring employees with disabilities helps employers meet their Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) goals. People, especially the younger generations, want to work in diverse environments and consumers want to support businesses that are representative of the world we live in.
CHEN: When you create an ecosystem of accessibility in the workplace, you create shared empathy and shared empathy is a shared strength. Empathy is not sympathy. You express sympathy, but you share empathy. A culture of empathy is a culture of active and dynamic caring and connection. Empathy is the most powerful connector that connects and aligns people and turns them into comrades. Create a culture that empowers. The one who celebrates and praises people for being amazing themselves. Accessibility is the greatest form of empowerment. This empowerment and empathy inspired NOVA to completely change our attitude towards our products and the medical equipment industry – from one of disability to one of poor ability.
ROOM: The pandemic and the new hybrid work environments have had positive impacts on the accessibility of workplaces. In many ways, working virtually has become a great “equalizer”. Those who prefer less stimulating and quieter workplaces can thrive in the sanctity of their own home, being able to do their jobs without “chatter”, without interruption, and having to feign social grace. By being able to work in our own homes, accessibility barriers are no longer a problem and we can create the optimal physical space we need. At The Miracle Project, a neurodiverse theater and cinema program for people with and without disabilities, we’ve created two original musical films virtually during the global pandemic. When the audience watches the final product (original musical films), no one knows who has or does not have a disability. Together we are a troop of creative individuals sharing our strengths and challenges, expressing our voice and changing the way the world views ability.
KEHLER: The pandemic threatened accessibility for all. This has created an interesting dynamic where the interests of the majority are now aligned with those of people with disabilities, who for years have been asking for virtual or hybrid options.
This sparked innovative solutions with the development of new remote working technologies and proved that we can truly thrive in a hybrid environment.
KRPATA: As businesses return to work, post-COVID, or transition to hybrid models, it’s important that businesses continue to be mindful of the specific needs of their employees with disabilities. Self-advocacy can play an important role here, as those who need special accommodations or access remind HR and management of what they need during the return-to-work phase.
FATHER: People with disabilities have long demanded to work from home and practically. It took a pandemic in which the world of the non-disabled was threatened for companies to nod. Finally, we have proven that homework, virtual work and hybrid work are not only possible but have no negative effects. In fact, in many ways, it increases productivity. Virtual work has broken down barriers for many people with disabilities, but not all (since access is not a universal thing). What I hope the pandemic has demonstrated is that we have existing technology or at least the means to develop technology to create so much access for people with disabilities. We just have to be prepared to think outside the box and make it happen!