Every year on December 3rd, the United Nations (UN) celebrates International Day of Persons with Disabilities by holding an event at its headquarters in Manhattan, NY. Since I started working in accessibility three years ago, this is something that I’ve hoped I would have the opportunity to attend. Luckily for me, I was invited by Diversability to attend this year’s festivities.
International Day of Persons with Disabilities was established by the UN in 1992 to shine a spotlight on disability within broader diversity and inclusion efforts. It’s meant to empower disabled people by showcasing our achievements and accomplishments and by doing that, alter the perceptions and assumptions members of society may have about disability and what it means and looks like to live with one. This year’s theme was ‘Promoting the participation of persons with disabilities and their leadership: taking action on the 2030 Development Agenda’, which is meant to emphasize the importance of people with disabilities in establishing a truly inclusive, equitable, and sustainable future.
I was invited to attend the event “This is My Workplace” Celebrating the Abilities of Professionals Around the World Empowered Through Employment, which consisted of two panel discussions and two featured speakers. After the welcome and introductions, the first panel focused on creating disability-inclusive workplaces. During this conversation, Emily Ladau, Disability Activist and Blogger, and Julie Sowash, Executive Director of Disability Solutions, emphasized that the results of being more inclusive of disabilities shouldn’t and can’t always be measured in the form of quantifiable numbers, such as X organization hired Y number of employees with disabilities. Importantly, before we get to that point, attitudes have to be shifted and assumptions have to be challenged. Beyond the fact that employers shouldn’t aim to be inclusive just to meet a quota, they must engage people with disabilities in order to learn directly from us how to reduce unconscious bias and soft bigotry because those of us with disabilities are the true experts on this. Being disabled is, in fact, an asset for companies that want to be forward-thinking and innovative because, as Julie says, “We bring a broad breadth of experience, education, and skills and talents that are very unique to who we are.” When asked about representation in positions of leadership, Emily pointed out that we aren’t adequately represented because, “people with disabilities are not seeing ourselves being reflected back at ourselves out there in the world being in positions of leadership.” What’s portrayed in the media is, “this very rigid set of assumptions about disability, what it looks like, who is disabled,” according to Emily. “We teach by telling our stories. By seeing ourselves reflected back at us, and then by telling our own stories, that’s how we’re going to create change and that’s how we’re going to create leaders.” Julie added,
“What we need is more leaders in the Fortune 1000 and Fortune 500 saying ‘I am a person with a disability, I have a mental illness, I’m struggling with this disability or that disability’ because that is actually going to create the culture where people can start to adjust their leadership styles, the way that we work and engage with each other and the way that we empathize with each other, in such a unique way that it will be a driver that changes profit margins and the way that people stay at and engage with places of employment.”
Next, Kyle Maynard spoke about the adversity he overcame being born a congenital amputee to become the first quadruple amputee to summit Mount Kilimanjaro without prosthetics. He described how, when thinking about how he was going to accomplish that goal, his initial reaction was “I don’t know,” but that this phrase has repeatedly presented him with opportunities throughout his life rather than creating setbacks. When it comes down to it, this idea is a matter of perspective and how you frame the message. As Kyle says, “Where our attention goes, the energy flows.” So, if you choose to look at a situation optimistically as a problem that needs to be solved, a solution can be found.
The second panel centered on the future of inclusive employment. This discussion echoed and built on sentiments expressed during the first panel. In order to foster a more inclusive workplace and workforce, employers must work directly with disabled people to challenge stereotypes and reduce stigma, because we are the experts in this and in doing so, those of us with disabilities have the opportunity to model leadership for other people with disabilities. Once non-disabled and disabled people see someone with a disability in a leadership position, people with disabilities will more easily embrace and even pursue these opportunities, and non-disabled people will more readily see the underutilized potential people with disabilities have as both experts and leaders. A lot of the skills and problem-solving that we learn as individuals with disabilities living in a world largely designed for non-disabled people are skills that make us great leaders.
As Korean Ambassador to the UN Chull-Joo Park said, “Even if the laws and regulations are in place to promote the right to work for persons with disabilities, an accessible workplace can never be complete if open and inclusive working environments are not guaranteed.” Creating a more open and inclusive workplace culture goes “beyond what laws and regulations can bring to us.” Sara Minkara, Founder & CEO of Empowerment Through Integration (ETI) added, “Accessibility is the first step. If I can access a room, I am here, but if I don’t feel like I belong or I am valued, it’s not going to make a difference.” ETI holds workshops across the globe with the aim of reducing stigma and unconscious bias surrounding disability. When asked by panel moderator Rodger DeRose what differences she’s seen between different countries and cultures around how each understands disability, she replied that the narrative around disability is very common regardless of country and culture. The important question to ask is, “How do you create an environment where the person feels like they belong? That’s the key.” She continued, “That’s the common thread, across every single space that we enter. It’s that mindset shift, both from the societal level from those spaces, infrastructures, procedures, programs, products, everything with that mindset, but then also from the individual with disability working with each individual saying ‘you exist and you belong and you should embrace your disability in a beautiful, positive way.’ It goes both ways, you either create an empowering cycle or a disempowering vicious cycle. Whether it’s the US or Lebanon, or anywhere else in the world, I think that’s the common narrative and the common thread.”
The second and final featured speaker was Paralympic gold medalist Mallory Weggemann, who acquired her disability after a routine epidural injection, meant to treat back pain, caused permanent paralysis two months before her 19th birthday. Mallory’s story deeply resonated with me, particularly when she stated, “I didn’t know how to relate to my physical disability.” Although our disabilities are completely different and I was born with cerebral palsy while she acquired a permanent injury, I grew up receiving conflicting messages about disability from family members. As a child, my family always told me that they didn’t see me as disabled, but I simultaneously required assistance with basic daily living tasks and was pulled out of my classes at school multiple times per week for physical and occupational therapies. While my family was well-intentioned, I wasn’t able to even start forming a realistic understanding of what being disabled meant for me until I moved out of my parents’ house. Hearing Mallory tell her story made me feel seen and validated. She was doing exactly what the panelists spoke about: setting a positive example of what it means to be a leader with a disability. As someone with a physical disability who is ambulatory, I represent a segment of the disabled population that is misunderstood by disabled and non-disabled people alike. I am always learning new things about my disability, the experiences other people have with other types and levels of disabilities, as well as the challenges they face. Disability has become a core part of my identity and I hope that this allows me to help the disability community broaden the spectrum of what disability means so that together, we can subvert society’s stereotypes, assumptions, and misconceptions. As Mallory said,
“The disability community is not just made of one walk of life. We within our own community are an incredibly diverse community and not all disabilities look the same.”
Attending this UN event in celebration of International Day of Persons with Disabilities was powerful. In the time that I’ve been working as an Accessibility Consultant, I’ve become increasingly aware of how frequently disability is left out of diversity and inclusion conversations and efforts. For an institution as renowned as the United Nations to give disability inclusion the platform that it does is profound. To have seen how seriously it’s treated and that the organization is not only incorporating but showcasing actual people who live with disabilities, our stories, and that officials are not fixated on laws and regulations alone, shows me that culture is, in fact, shifting.