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Disability in the Workplace – Information for Parents of Special Needs Children
In this enlightening interview with Dr. Kirk Adams, we delve into the important topic of employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities and how parents can support their children in finding meaningful work. Dr. Adams provides valuable insights and addresses common concerns parents have regarding their disabled children’s employability.
He emphasizes that individuals with disabilities can indeed find employment and have successful careers. The key lies in developing disability-specific skills and creating a strong support network. Dr. Adams encourages parents to connect with organizations and associations dedicated to disability advocacy and support, which can provide guidance and resources in navigating the disability in the workplace landscape.
Dr. Adams highlights that while challenges may exist, there are numerous career opportunities for individuals with disabilities. Employers are increasingly recognizing the value of inclusive workplaces and the unique strengths that disabled workers bring. He stresses the importance of dispelling misconceptions around disability in the workplace, such as the notion that having a disability automatically hinders one’s ability to work effectively.
Throughout the interview, Dr. Adams emphasizes the importance of self-advocacy, resilience, and skill development for individuals with disabilities, highlighting that disability employment is possible with the right support and mindset.
For parents raising children with disabilities, Dr. Adams provides guidance on fostering independence, developing essential skills, and building a strong network of support. He encourages parents to connect with local chapters of disability organizations, seek mentorship opportunities, and leverage available resources to help their children navigate the path to employment.
In summary, this interview with Dr. Kirk Adams sheds light on the possibilities of employment for individuals with disabilities and provides parents with valuable insights and actionable advice. It reinforces the importance of creating inclusive work environments, dispelling misconceptions, and supporting individuals with disabilities in their journey toward meaningful and fulfilling careers.
Connect with Kirk:
Connect with Us: https://linktr.ee/waterprairie
Support this channel: https://www.buymeacoffee.com/waterprairie
Resources mentioned during this episode:
- Disability:IN – https://disabilityin.org/
- Family Connect- https://familyconnect.org/
- National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled – https://www.loc.gov/nls/
- CurbCutOS – https://www.curbcutos.com/
- EyeCBetter – https://eyecbetter.com/
“LazyDay” by Audionautix is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Meet Today’s Guest:
Kirk Adams is a Professional Speaker and the founder of Innovative Impact LLC., focusing on groundbreaking, high-impact projects that accelerate the inclusion of people with disabilities in the workforce and supercharges a company’s bottom line.
Kirk Adams earned his PhD in leadership and change. He is known as a master connector of key decision-makers in government, corporate America, the nonprofit sector, and disability advocates guiding them to create collaborative solutions that have a real impact in increasing the employment of people with disabilities.
Episode #67: Changing the Narrative: Shattering Stereotypes of Disability in the Workplace
Information for Parents of Special Needs Children
(Recorded May 24, 2023)
Full Transcript of Interview:
Tonya: Dr. Kirk Adams is a professional speaker and the founder of Innovative Impact LLC, focusing on groundbreaking high-impact projects that accelerate the inclusion of people with disabilities in the workforce and supercharge a company’s bottom line. Today we’re going to be discussing employment opportunities for our children with disabilities and how we can help our children prepare for their future careers. Kirk, welcome to Water Prairie.
Kirk: Great to be here. Thanks, Tonya.
Thanks, I’m looking forward to our conversation today. This season I’ve been having each of my guests share a few things about themselves and we’re playing the game “Two Truths and a Lie.” So, before we get into the interview, would you be willing to share three pseudo-facts and facts about yourself for us to figure out?
Sure. Two are to be true and one is to be a lie, correct?
Okay. So, these are, I’m a Washington State person. I’m talking to you from my office in Seattle, and so these are all Washington State-centric. So, the first is that I was born in the same hospital in Aberdeen, Washington as Kurt Cobain, the founder of the band Nirvana.
The second is I was an extra in the Pike Place market scene in the movie Sleepless in Seattle.
And the third is I was the first totally blind person to summit Mount Rainier.
Wow. Now, I’m really curious, but if you’re listening, your challenge is to, if you’re watching on YouTube, go to the comment section. If you’re listening to it in another format or reading on the website, go to Instagram or Twitter and find the post about this section and type in your guess. See if, if, if you’re able to guess which is the lie and which of the two truths on this one. And a week after we post this video, we will go back and post the answer to it so that you’ll be able to check your answers.
In our questions today, we’re going to be talking about some employment opportunities, but I want to go back a little bit because I like for all my guests to kind of share how they’re connected with what they’re doing right now. Um, so Kirk, can you share us. Can you share us? Can you share with us your personal journey and how you navigated your own vision loss?
Oh boy. Yeah. Um, first of all, I was born sighted and had 20/20 vision until I was in kindergarten and then both of my retinas detached, there was, um, some congenitally weak blood vessels that hemorrhaged and the pressure from the hemorrhage.
Detached the retinas and uh, not, not quite sure what precipitated the hemorrhage. But, um, yeah, I became totally blind very quickly within a couple days. My parents, I was born when my parents were in college. They were both, had started their teaching careers. So, I guess they were probably 26 years old and had never met a blind person before.
And all of a sudden, they had a blind child. Right. And, um… This was 1966, so the um, local school that I had been attending was very clear and adamant that no, no, Kirk cannot come back to school here. Uh, we are not equipped to teach a blind kid. So, he needs to go to the state school for blind children. So, my parents visited the Washington State School for the Blind in Vancouver, Washington, and were quite dismayed.
By what they saw as far as the academic activity going on there, or lack thereof. It’s an excellent school now, but not then. My retinal surgeon was at the University of Oregon Medical School in Portland, and I was going there very frequently. Had quite a number of painful, ineffective eye surgeries there. But, um,
Were they trying to reattach?
Trying to tack the remnants of the retina down and remove scar tissue. Or the two things. But in any case, someone there mentioned that the Oregon State School was excellent. So, we, we visited there, in Salem. And they were very pleased and impressed. So, um, to their credit, of course I didn’t realize it at the time, what a big deal it was.
They quit their jobs, in here in Washington State. Moved, um, I had a younger brother. Uh, younger sister came later. But moved, moved the family. to Oregon, um, settled in a little town called Silverton, which is about 15 miles from Salem. So, I could go to the school for the blind, but I could be a day student and stay at home rather than in the dorm like so many of the other students from farther away.
And I went there for first, second, and third grade. And I had an amazing teacher, Mrs. Summers, whenever I’m at a conference and they say Shout out the name of the most influential person in your life, I always say Mrs. Summers. Because she taught me to read braille, um, write, write braille. Um, we had these big heavy, well for me they were heavy because I was six, um, sweepback books she called them.
They were just lines of symbols to practice the correct movement of, of the hands. Started reading the line with the two index fingers together. Reading to the middle. Finishing it with the right hand, while sweeping back and finding the beginning of the next line with the left hand. And she made me practice and practice and practice, and I would say…
Can I learn to read now? And she would say, nope. You got to get the, got to get the sweep back, mastered.
What I’m thinking too, you were at an age where you weren’t reading before this happened, correct?
No, I mean, I knew letters, my parents were teachers, so I remember, you know, we had letter blocks, and I think I knew the shapes probably of the capital letters, but it certainly wasn’t, I certainly wasn’t reading, reading.
But, um, boy, reading was so important to me, and, um, you know, particularly, I spent, you know, ten days at a time in the hospital after an eye surgery, completely immobilized. And, you know, I would have my big stack of, uh, boxes from the Braille library and read, read, read away. And I learned how to travel using a white cane.
Um, as a six-year-old, learned how to travel independently and safely. And, um, learned how to type on a typewriter so I could… The model was, go to the school for the blind, learn your blindness skills so that you can, um, survive in public school and then go to public school. Which I started in fourth grade.
But I think the most important thing, there were like 110, 120 blind kids. And, um, it was run by a bunch of really cool hippies. And they had us, this is the 60s, they had us backpacking. In the Three Sisters Wilderness area, horse, horse riding, um, going into the tide pools at the Oregon coast, going up in the mountains and building igloos, uh, in the winter.
So they were, you know, climbing trees, um, falling down, getting scrapes and bruises and they, they taught us to love. Our bodies as blind people and to be comfortable moving through space and comfortable taking risks and Sometimes I’ll talk to kids of little blind or parents a little blind kids and I’ll say you can measure your success by how many trips to the emergency room you take with your child. That was just a seminal experience for me. You know, strong, whatever your disability, strong, strong disability skills.
In my case, strong blindness skills. You know, that’s a predictor of thriving as a blind adult, so if parents are listening to have a blind child, the more time and emphasis you put on helping them to acquire these awesome, unique, special skills that blind people use to thrive, um, it’ll be time well spent.
We’re going to fast forward to, to a couple of years later, so somewhere along the line, you became an advocate for inclusion and accessibility. How did that happen? How did you feel that that was a calling that you had or something that you wanted to work toward?
Yeah, so my parents didn’t know any blind people. I didn’t know any blind people. I grew up in small towns. Um, in the Northwest, I was always the only blind kid in school. Um, when kids in small towns turn 16, two things happen, they get a driver’s license, and they get a job. And I, I didn’t get either of those, um, right away. But then I, I did get a job. I was really into sports.
My father was a basketball coach at the high school. And I, um, became the sports editor. of the school paper. And in Snohomish, Washington, there was an arrangement where the sports editor of the high school paper got to write a weekly column for the Snohomish Tribune, the little weekly paper. So, I got to write a column on high school sports.
So, I got paid minimum wage and I wrote my articles and filled out my timesheet and got a check. Another early predictor. Um, you know, kids, most, most, blindness is my thing, so I, when I say blindness, it really applies across disability, but, you know, less than a quarter of young blind kids get any kind of paid work by the time they’re 23, something like 70% of non-disabled young people do.
So then, um, another kind of pivotal moment is I was in the college bound group at my high school. And my senior year, first period we all went to math analysis. Second period we all went to physics. Third period we all went to chemistry. And when I walk into chemistry, the chemistry teacher says, no, no, no, you can’t take chemistry.
That’s a safety issue. You’re going to have to go to the office and get assigned to another class. And so, I went home and told my parents and they were educators and they said, well, if Mr. So-and-So says, then that’s, that’s that. So, I didn’t know how to advocate for myself. They didn’t know how to advocate for me.
We didn’t have a network. Um, and now of course, uh, I know blind chemists, uh, Hobie Wedler, blind guy, PhD in chemistry is like a world-renowned wine expert. I know a gentleman, Dan, Dan Berlin, who’s a chemist who grew his own company and sold it for a vast sum. I know blind people who teach chemistry. So, I know, I know that was not true, but I didn’t know it then.
And then my first, uh, kind of experience out of college, I graduated with an econ major. I had a 4. 0. In my field, had a Phi Beta Kappa, cum laude, and started applying for jobs. Applied to a couple of grad schools, got in, decided I wanted to work, and marry my college sweetheart. We’ve been married 37 years now.
Uh, get a house, have kids, and those, those, those things meant thriving to me. And, of course, thriving is defined by the individual. But for me, that’s what I wanted to do in my early 20s. So, I started applying for jobs, um, sending out my cover letter and resume. Um, I knew I needed to live in a city. Uh, so I was applying in Seattle because I needed to live somewhere with public transportation not, not available in my little hometown. And, um, I would get a phone interview. It would go great. I’d be invited in for the in person. I’d walk in with my white cane, my slate and stylus, and my little, you know, folder with some Braille paper to take notes and, you know, the confusion would set in over the room.
And most employers, uh, have not had an experience with a successfully employed blind person. They have no idea what, um, skills we learn, uh, in order to thrive with our disability. They don’t know what kind of tools we use, technology. And I think they often project and think, If I woke up tomorrow and I was blind, there’s no way I could do this financial analyst job this guy is applying for.
So, then I started disclosing in my cover letter that I’m blind, been blind since age 5. Here’s how I’ve done what I’ve done. Here’s how I’ll do the job. And then I wasn’t even getting the phone interview. So, I had that very frustrating experience that so many young people with disabilities have, as only 35% of us working age adults with disabilities are in the workforce.
And that’s about half the general population, where it’s about 70%. And, um, you know, I started casting my net wider and wider, and I finally sent a resume and cover letter to a little family owned… Securities brokerage firm that underwrote tax free bond issues, and the sales manager had gone to my same college, Whitman College in Walla Walla.
He was an econ major. He had some of the same professors I had. He was maybe 12, 15 years before me, so he called some of the professors and so can this Kirk Adams guy sell tax free municipal bonds over the phone? Of course, he can. So, so I, I took that job, and I was in securities sales for 10 years, um, out of college, 50 cold calls a day, every day.
And I made a fine living and bought the house that I’m sitting in right now. I got married and had our kids and then I turned 30 And got very clear that I did not want to do that the rest of my life. So, I got the What Color is Your Parachute book in Braille out of the Talking Book and Braille library.
And I followed every step and did all the exercises. And um, at the end, uh, got clear I should be, I should pivot to the nonprofit sector. I should be in leadership. And I should work. For nonprofits that create opportunities for other people who are blind. So, I set out to accomplish that. And the next step, they say, is to interview people who are doing what you want to do.
So, I reached out to a handful of nonprofits that I had either donated to or experienced. Um, one of my first ones was with the, uh, CEO of, uh, Planned Parenthood of Western Washington. And I went in and talked to her. And I honestly don’t even remember her name. This was 1993. But she, I told her my little story and she said, well, I was also a securities broker.
And I also decided I need to be in the nonprofit sector. And if I were you, I would enter the sector by becoming a professional fundraiser, because you’ve talked to, for ten years, you’ve talked to wealthy individuals about their financial goals, you’re comfortable with that, and there’s such a need for professional fundraising, that that would be the way I’d get my foot in the door if I were you.
So, I started applying for fundraising jobs, and not getting them because I didn’t have any experience, which was totally fair. But then I got a newsletter from the state talking book and Braille library, uh, the librarian whom I’d known well, cause I’m a huge Braille library user. And she said, our funding, um, has been frozen and we are going to need to raise 200, 000 or close down our evergreen radio reading service.
So, I called her and told her the same little saga and said, How about I come down and volunteer to raise the 200, 000. I’ll come and spend 20 hours a week until I’m done. And then I will job hunt the rest of the time. And that will let me put something on my resume that shows I have experience. And, um, she said, sure.
So, uh, a side note. As I mentioned, early work experience is a heavy predictor of future success in employment as an adult with a disability. And the research shows that volunteer work is just as strong a predictor as paid work. So volunteering is a really great way to go to get some traction and get a foot on the career ladder.
So, she said sure. Uh, I… Got a book on writing grants, recorded on tape for reading for the blind and dyslexic. I listened to it. She assigned me a library volunteer to read through the Washington State Trust Directory, which is as thick as a big city phone book, listing all the foundations in the state.
And I started writing letters of inquiry to those that I thought would be a fit, and I was given the opportunity to apply for some grants, and I had some beginner’s luck. Got a couple of, um, what I know now, what I know now is beginner’s luck. So, I got a couple nice big checks pretty quickly. And, uh, they, uh, offered to create a position for me.
And so, my first nonprofit job was a development officer for the Seattle Public Library Foundation, which was administering the statewide. talking book and braille program. So, I was a development officer, Seattle Public Library Foundation, raising money for the state talking book and braille library. I did that for about three years, got very clear that this was my future.
And went back to school and got a masters in not-for-profit leadership. Um, had a couple other fundraising jobs. Uh, was hired by the Lighthouse for the Blind here in Seattle to start their fundraising program and their foundation. Did that. Um, was asked to take on more and more and more things, um, was given the opportunity to intentionally by, by the Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind to go through a professional development process so that I would be qualified to apply for the CEO role when my predecessor who was sighted retired.
So, I went through about a 15 month professional development process. Uh, they hired a search firm. I put my name forward. I was given the great opportunity, uh, to be the president and CEO of the Lighthouse here. And then, uh, later was asked to join the American Foundation for the Blind board, which I did.
And then had a similar opportunity to step into, uh, American Foundation for the Blind, which was Helen Keller’s organization. Uh, probably the most iconic organization in the blindness field. And so, I, uh, joyfully accepted that sacred trust of leading that organization. And my, uh, wife and I moved to New York City and lived in Brooklyn and worked in Manhattan and then to Arlington, Virginia, and now back home to Seattle. So here we are.
Wow. But it, it sounds from, from your story, you, you know, that personal struggle of trying to, to get your name out there, to get. And when you’re telling the story of, um, early on when you would go through the application process and then get to that face to face, um, I’m picturing a lot of our, um, listeners are probably thinking that same thing, um, for their child or if it’s an individual that’s listening.
Um, they may have already experienced that. And, um, and that’s why I wanted to talk about this today because I think it’s really important that we understand some of those, those pieces that need to be in place so that. Um, you can find success, um, and a lot of it, you, you made the comment, um, that they were projecting their own ideas on if they were to lose their vision today, could they do the job or not, which is unfair.
We know that looking at it. But I think it’s hard for us not to, we try to connect, and we put our personal feelings into that connection, um, not realizing you had had how many years of life to learn how to do that. You made another comment, um, that after that experience that you included, I think, in your letter you said, how you would address the issues.
Yeah. So that’s a question. If you have a visible disability, I obviously do because I’m totally blind and I use a cane. Um, when to disclose? When in the process do you disclose your disability? Um, it’s a kind of a personal choice. I think there’s… There’s some strategy around it, and there’s a lot more opportunity to be strategic now um, that many employers are actively, uh, intentionally seeking to be more inclusive of people with disabilities in their workforce.
Well, I was thinking too, as you were talking, a lot has changed since you were at that stage of life.
Yes, thank goodness.
However, there’s still a lot of room that we need to improve. How well can they, not, not the person who’s disabled, but the able-bodied person that’s coming in and they’re, they’re projecting into that communication part.
Um, but I’ve also interviewed several guests who have had the same thing. Um, Heather is, um, is deaf. She shared; she’s working on her master’s in social work right now. She shared how in an internship she was being talked down to while her classmate that had the same internship was being treated with, with a higher level, level of respect by the same supervisor. And, um, she had to call, um, her supervisor. Call the supervisor out on it that, you know, I’m not, I’m not deficient in my intelligence here.
Right, right, right.
You know, I, I just can’t always hear what you’re saying.
And um, and so those advocacy skills do need to be there from day one. We need to really build those in our children so that they know how to speak up.
Yeah, and one, one really easy, well nothing … relatively easy way is to include your child in the IEP process. So, you know, the individualized education plan that kids with disabilities are entitled to. And there’s a process where you work with the school to outline what they’re going to deliver to your child. And have your, have your kid in those meetings from the beginning. Even if they’re really little.
I was going to ask how, how, how, how young would you include them?
As soon as you have one, you know. And, and they don’t need to be actively involved perhaps, but just say, you know. We’re here, we’re going to talk with your teachers, there’s some really cool stuff that you’re going to learn. And we just want to make sure that we’re all set up to teach you, um, these wonderful things.
And, um, we’re a team, we’re working together. And, um, sometimes the actual IEP is not such a team experience, but the IEP is crucial. And I tell parents, if they have six people in the IEP meeting, you have seven. If you need to have it in the gym, have it in the gym, because it’s super, it’s super important and not every school district is as cooperative as others. It’s a little bit of a hit or miss depending on where you happen to live.
I know for my own children, the school, especially when they were, before they were 14, because parents that are listening, when your child hits, I believe it’s 14, they’re required to be invited. to be included. But before that point, you’re the one that’s being invited. The child’s not on that invitation. But, um, they would always schedule during the teacher’s planning period. So, my child would be in class somewhere. And, um, and I never thought until they were older to pull them out.
Yeah, yank them right out. Yank them right out of class. They’ll never learn as much in that class as they will in that hour at the IEP.
Well, and I think it is, it is good. And there were times when I would be at the IEP meeting and I remember at one point pulling out the, my child’s picture and putting it on the table and just telling the team, you know, we need to remember, this is why we’re here. It has nothing to do with budgets or anything else. And if the child’s sitting there.
I would certainly highly, 100% pound the table, say, bring a successful, thriving adult with their, with their child’s same disability to that meeting. You can bring whoever you want. Um, but, uh, for instance, in blindness, there’s the National Federation of the Blind, American Council of the Blind.
Um, they have chapters, they have a network, a structure. If you, if your child is blind, you can, you can contact the federation or the council. Talk to the president of the local chapter and say, I have an IEP coming up, I need a, I need a successful blind adult with me. And they will make that happen. Um, all disabilities have structures and associations and groups and Facebook groups.
And, as I mentioned before, my parents had never met a blind child until I woke up in the hospital as a blind person. And, um, No advocacy, no network, but today with technology and social media and search engines and chat GPT and all the things, um, you know, you can really, I think, I think connecting and building that support system is super important for families and now that it can be done virtually, I wouldn’t hesitate to reach out. Um, 99. 99% of adults with disabilities you reach out to are going to want to be helpful.
It’s, and, and that’s information that I, now I’m looking back, my kids are in college now, so we’re not in that IEP time now, but I went out and found those individuals, but never did it cross my mind to ask them to come with me to the school.
So, I was doing my research outside of school and formulating what my questions were, so I knew what I was asking for when I got there and why I was asking for it, but never even crossed my mind until you just said that. Um, but I did interview another family. She has, she has young children, um, and both of them are, are deaf with cochlear implants, but she was able to find a deaf mentor because like, like your parents, she had never met anyone who was deaf until she met her children. And, um, and so she knows coming into it that she doesn’t know that connection. And that person is working with her to help her understand the deaf community, to help be able to teach her children. And so, the same, same is true with what you’re sharing there. You know, if your child is blind, any level of vision loss, reach out and find an adult who can walk with you with this. I think, I think it’s, it’s great advice.
Yeah, it works and, um, you may get a lot of resistance from the school, and you may have to, um, make yourself uncomfortable to, to do what’s best for your child. Um, they may say, oh no, it just has to be you. And you can say, no, no, no. I can bring whoever I want. So, you might have to be, you might have to be a little tough.
Right, right. And, and you can do that. It’s um, I, I think letting the school know I think is just out of courtesy.
So, they know how to prepare.
So, um, you, through, through your experiences with working with, um, encouraging companies to create an inclusive, um, what are some, um, can you give us like an overview of, of what you’ve done with companies so far to kind of help them create a workplace?
So, what’s exciting is there is a lot of traction and energy around diversity, equity and inclusion that didn’t exist probably 10 years ago. And a lot of companies started out understanding that a diverse, inclusive workforce makes them a better company and a stronger organization. And most started with race and gender. But now, um, you know, so a small percentage of companies are broadening their approach to think about being inclusive of people with disabilities.
And that’s from a business strategy standpoint as, um, there’s a battle for talent in corporate America and people can’t hire enough good folks. And, um, as I mentioned earlier, 35, only 35% of people with significant disabilities are working. Um, probably a third would say they’re underemployed. So, there’s a lot of, there’s a big untapped pool of talent.
And beyond that, the lived experience of disability living every day with a disability gives you opportunities to develop unique strengths in areas that employers say they need. So if you live every day with a disability, you are going to learn persistence, uh, resilience, you’re going to develop grit, which is kind of a buzzword in employment now, you’re going to, um, learn how to solve problems creatively, you’re going to learn how to analyze and manage risk, You’re going to learn how to communicate with all different kinds of people.
You’re going to learn how to put a team together and support a team. So, um, Disability is a creator of strengths, a creator of assets. And so, to have those conversations with those companies who are trying to get a competitive advantage and find those who want to, um, intentional about including people with disabilities.
Those are the types of, of companies I’m looking for and finding, which is super cool. So, I’ll give you two examples, a manufacturer called the United Safety Technology. They are a manufacturer, uh, personal protective equipment. They set up a factory to make respirators right when the pandemic started. The Department of Defense became a customer.
They subsequently got a 100 million grant from the Defense Production Act to stand up domestic production of medical gloves, because the bulk of medical gloves are imported, and we ran into shortages during the first phase of the pandemic, so our first line responders didn’t have what they needed. So strategically, we, um, the government has decided we need domestic sources for all PPE.
So, they got 100 million to stand up medical glove production. They’ve leased Bethlehem, former Bethlehem Steel plant outside of Baltimore. They’re standing up production. They’re going to have 2, 000 employees. The owner has a severe learning disability, which he’s kept hidden his whole life. And someone connected us, and we started talking about disability inclusion.
And he had the notion of, you know, hiring a few people to do some simple tasks. And then I took him to the Walgreens distribution center in Anderson, South Carolina, where 40% of their employees have disabilities. They’re the most productive of Walgreens distribution centers. They have the most efficiency, lowest turnover, lowest absenteeism, best safety record.
It’s all documented, and he and his team came out of there, um, super excited about disability inclusion, and their goal is to have 30% of their workforce, or 600 people with disabilities. So, I’m helping them connect with the right government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and community based organizations, so they can do that.
Uh, another is a company called NovaCoast, which is a cyber security company. Um, challenged in hiring enough qualified entry level, um, cybersecurity analysts, so struck upon the notion of, uh, tapping into the blindness community. So, we’ve created a 10 week virtual program, uh, to train blind people to be cybersecurity analysts and to sit for the first two industry certifications that are typically required when you apply for those types of jobs.
It’s called the Apex Program, so people can find it at theapexprogram.com. And we’re just launching with our first students. Uh, we have, um, I’ve had the opportunity to go to two cyber security conferences that NovaCoast puts on. And I’ve talked to probably 90 chief information security officers from Blue Cross Blue Shield, Kaiser Permanente, Chase, AT& T.
Um, big, big companies, they all face the same challenges, they can’t find enough cyber security people to hire them. They’re all very, very eager to interview any blind person who goes through this program and gets those two certifications. So those are two examples.
The um, so the cyber security. So, it’s a 10 week program, but do they need like a college degree before that 10-week program?
No, and I’m learning a lot about cyber. Degrees don’t matter. Certifications matter. So, this is 200 hours of training, 20 hours a week. You can get, you have to do 20 hours each week for 10 weeks. You can do the 20 hours whenever you want. But um, then there’s a one week of hands on with a mentor where you’re actually doing cyber security analyst work. And then you sit for the two certifications. They’re administered by Pearson. I’ve worked with them. So, the, the, the tests are accessible with screen readers. And people can do the tests from home using their own equipment. And the software they’re used to. So, I think, I think it’s going to be a winner, Tonya.
Oh, it sounds like it because then you’re not, so you’re able to work from home.
Yeah. There are some remote and there are some that require being on site just depends on the customer on the contract. But I will say this back to disclosing whether you disclose your disability, it’s really now you can decide based on is it going to be helpful to me to let them know I’m disabled or maybe not. So, if you look at companies, there’s an organization called Disability: In which you can go to their website
It’s 400 plus companies who’ve all made commitments to including people with disabilities in their workforce, in their product and service design and marketing and in their supply chain. So, to do business with disability owned business, but all of those companies have a specific target and commitment and mission to employ people with disabilities.
So in that case, it’s good that they know you have a disability. Um, another thing people can do if you’re thinking about working for a larger company is take a look at their website and just look for a couple things. I look at their diversity, equity, and inclusion statement. And does it specifically say disabilities in their official statement as the CEO or the board chair, um, made that statement?
Um, do they have. An Employee Resource Group, an ERG that’s focused on disability. And when you look at their, um, recruiting and hiring page, do they ask if you need any accommodations as a person for your disability? If, if it’s yes to all those things, then that is a company that has a predisposition to hiring people with disabilities. Um, I would move them up higher on my list.
So, one of the questions that always comes up and, um, and this goes back to, when, when Steve and I wanted to start our family, um, we were, we, we had years of fertility issues that we were working through. And so, we started looking into adoption. Um, I have multiple sclerosis.
On sight, you don’t know that I have it, but on MRIs, we know that I have it. And so, we were disclosing that. Um, but we were actually turned down by even the foster care system because in their mind I wasn’t healthy enough to raise a child. And so now this was, well, my, my daughter’s 22. So, this was probably about 25 years ago.
Um, at the same time I was running international programs in New England, student programs. And one of the families that I had hosting for me, the husband had MS. He disclosed it to me because he wanted to be fair to the child coming to live in the home because he knew there would be times when he would need, possibly need some type of medical treatment.
He wanted that to be open, but he wanted it to be clear that I could not say anything to anyone else because his job would be in jeopardy if they knew that he had MS. So, things have changed in 25 years. But I think you still have that.
They’ve changed some. There have been cases where a state agency has wanted to remove a child from two blind parents. And I… There are terrible, terrible stories.
It’s, you know, and to you and me because of our personal experience that makes no sense to us.
And, um, and so, so what I’m thinking now is, right, so I have two, two children who will be in the workforce soon. They’ll be through school and in the fairly near future, my, my pocketbook is hoping it’ll be sooner rather than later.
I’ve been there. I had two back-to-back myself.
But the, um, but both of them have disabilities that they’re going to have to decide, do I disclose this or do I not? And both of them are going to need accommodations. So, the question that’s coming to mind for me is, if you disclose it up front, you take the risk that you may not even get the interview, because they know about it. If you don’t disclose it up front, can you now still require that they provide accommodations for you?
So, um, so you don’t have to disclose it until after you’ve gotten the job, if you don’t want to.
No, they can’t ask you either. But if you’re in a wheelchair or you have a long cane in your hand, you might as well just cut to the chase and say, say, you may be wondering how I’m going to successfully perform this job. And here’s how, because you want to be a problem solver, not a problem creator.
Right. And accommodations. I mean, ADA does provide protection that wasn’t there years ago.
Um, but getting past the point of them finding another reason not to hire you is kind of the challenge, I think. So, um, and that, I know what protections are there. I meet successful people all the time who are disabled. But my mind still says there has to be a certain percentage. of unfair situations that are still out there.
Oh, of course there are. Of course. I mean, you talk to the average, you know, employed blind person they’ve had to do, send out 20 times more resumes, and go on 10 times more interviews than, you know, the sighted people who have the same basic, you know, education experience.
And how many are taking another job because that’s the one they could get and not the one where they’re…
Yeah. So, um, I just want to mention the reality that to thrive as a person with a disability you have to do more stuff, uh, than your neighbor next door who doesn’t have a disability. You need to learn more, you need to develop, um, more patience and forgiveness and, um, resilience than the person next door.
So, in school… When I was at the American Foundation for the Blind, quite some years ago, they developed a concept called the Expanded Core Curriculum for Blind Kids. And it basically said, as a blind kid, you have to learn everything the sighted kids do, and these nine extra things that they don’t.
So that’s using assistive technology, traveling independently with a mobility device, um, advocacy is on the list. So that doesn’t end when school ends. Um, as an adult and in transition, um, it’s just the reality that you have to probably work harder and focus more and pay more attention and the flip side is, like I said earlier, that allows you to develop some really great strengths and skills.
Um, it also costs It costs more to be a person with a disability to have the tools and the assistive technology. And the flip side of that is, those tools and technologies exist, and they didn’t in the past. When I went to college, which was 1979, I took notes in class with a slate and stylus, which is a hand punch method of creating braille.
And I’d go back to my dorm at night and I’d recopy my notes. On a Perkins Brallier, which is another manual machine. I got one right here. And, um, you know, I just, I had to type, type my tests. Um, when I took my graduate record exam, my GREs, it wasn’t accessible. I had to have someone read me my test and record the answers.
They were not an econ person. So, it was very challenging having them try to describe graphs. I’m just, I’m just saying to you, there’s every opportunity in the world for you or your child to thrive and live a wonderful, wonderful life. But it, it doesn’t just happen. Um, it, it takes attention and work and focus and um, which is tiring.
And you need to build in self-care and build that network. And find some parents who have, who have kids with the same disability who may be a bit older than yours, so they’ve gone through some of this stuff. And, and again, I think it’s, um, relatively easy to find people to connect with now.
When I think, I don’t want to paint this rosy picture. I think this is important that we are talking about this part of it too. Because it is a reality. But parents who are at this stage where their children are getting older, they’ve already experienced this because school is the same type of, of challenge where their child has had to work harder. They’ve had to be creative in finding ways to overcome those. But as you pointed out, that’s creating skills that they’re going to be able to use. in their favor as they get older.
Yeah, so when I was 18 and went to college, uh, I had, I had mostly, I had my textbooks in braille through high school. Um, sometimes it would, you know, be the fifth, the third edition of the Spanish textbook while the other kids had the fifth, things like that.
Oh, right. But I, but I mostly got them. And then when I went to college, I got none. Um, just because, you know, the professors would put the syllabus together, you know, a couple weeks before the semester, whatever. So, I, I, I got, I got some of the books on cassette tape from Recording for the Blind. But I had a lot of books that I had to have read to me, so the State Department of Services for the Blind provided me with funds to hire readers as an accommodation they provided.
So, um. And, you know, I’d find another econ major who had to read the same book and say, would you like to make minimum wage and read that out loud? And, um, so as an 18-year-old, you know, I was interviewing people, uh, hiring people, scheduling, invoicing, um, firing people. So, you know, it was an experience my other classmates, freshmen in college, they weren’t having that experience. So that’s, that’s. There’s a silver lining to all of this. There’s some silver linings to all of this.
But they, I think most of our parents, unless their child is very young, um, they should have learned by now that thinking outside the boxes is a way of life and, um, and you can come up with some great, great way of ways of doing things that will help others around you that haven’t thought of that.
So, um, so I encourage everyone to, to get a little, little creative. There’s not always a. Direct path from A to B, but, um, but it can be a fun way of trying to find the challenge. I mean, your child can be involved with this too. And, um, and learning some ways to kind of navigate a little bit differently. And, um, and getting what they need. Um, like you’re saying with hiring your, your classmate in your, in your class. It was, it was a win-win as long as they were able to read it where you could understand what they were reading.
That’s I will recommend a website for families with blind kids. Um, American Foundation for the Blind developed it, it’s now housed at the American Printing House for the blind, but it’s, it’s called Family Connect and it’s for families with younger, with kids.
It’s for families with, with blind kids. So, there’s a lot of good resources there. I’m sure other disabilities have some, is it Family Connect? I think it’s Family connect.org. But it’s one word with a capital F and a capital C. If you put Family Connect in a search engine, it should come up.
We’ll double check all of that and put those in the show notes. From your experience, what are some effective ways for employees to communicate their accommodation needs to their employer or the HR department?
I think it has to be a team process. They are there to have successful employees. They want you to be able to be efficient and effective. I think to involve the Vocational Rehabilitation Agency in your state is a great idea. If it’s a, if you are not employed and you are becoming employed, um, The Voc Rehab System has resources that you are entitled to.
So that’s funded through the Department of Education. Um, each state has one or two Vocational Rehabilitation Agencies to get them involved. And, um, to be very collaborative and cooperative and approach it, um, from a learning standpoint for everybody. And also, not to suppose that you know… everything that you need because there’s lots of new stuff out there.
Um, when I was running the Lighthouse for the Blind, I can’t remember how many people we hired and we asked them what they wanted for accommodation and they would, they would mention a model and make of a CCTV, closed circuit television, from the 80s. And we’d say, there’s something 10 times better. 10 times cheaper and 10 times smaller.
So that’s what you’re, that’s what we’re going to give you. And we’ll, we’ll train you on it. So, I think to go into it from that collaborative team approach. With the understanding that everybody needs tools for their jobs. Um, standing desks are a thing. So, some people want a standing desk. These are people without disabilities. Some people want to sit on an exercise ball at their desk.
Some, some people say I need to get my child to daycare so I’m going to need to come in at 9:15 instead of 8:45. So, employers who want good employees and happy employees, they make all kinds of arrangements for people. And people with disabilities just have a unique set of arrangements that need to be made. And, um, I. I’d go, go about it with that attitude.
Yeah, because you’re not, you’re not saying that you can’t do the job. You’re saying I can do the job. This is how I’m going to do it.
Well, yeah. I mean, people need pencils and pens and staplers and, uh, computers and monitors. And some people want two monitors, and some people want three. And like I say, every, uh, good, good employers will provide their employees with the tools and the training they need to be successful in their job.
I’m always curious. What are some common misconceptions or myths around hiring individuals with disabilities? We’ve mentioned a couple as we’ve talked. But are there some others?
I can tell you exactly what they are. Um, based on no data, employers are concerned about safety. Will this person cause safety incidents, safety hazards? Uh, there’s excellent research that shows organizations that intentionally include people with disabilities have better safety records primarily because people actually follow the safety policies and procedures that everyone should be following.
Another is around, um, legal stuff. Um, will I get sued if I fire this person with a disability? And the answer, again, is data shows that if you follow HR procedures and protocols, just like you do with everyone else, there’s no greater level of litigation around that.
And then the next one is about perceptions. Will fellow employees, will it, will it have adverse effects on their fellow employees and colleagues? And that answer is, employee satisfaction goes up in an inclusive environment, an environment that includes people with disabilities, that changes the culture to more of a team-oriented culture, a more highly communicative culture.
And then will customers be turned off if they see people with disabilities in my place of business? And again, the research shows that the opposite is true. That, um, customers, if they have a choice, tend to want to do business with the inclusive organization.
And I’ll throw in that there’s a fear of the expensive accommodations and, um, most accommodations are either no cost or under $500. It’s very exceptional to have a more expensive one. So those are the main fears, and they’re all unfounded, and they’re all actually opposite of the truth.
So, if it’s, so if it were a situation where, and I don’t know if you’re equipped to answer this question or not, but I’m going to throw it out there anyway. Um, if it were a situation where, um, I mean like you had mentioned a standing desk, someone wants it, you may have someone who actually needs it. Um, those aren’t, aren’t cheap. If that’s there, does that fall on the employer to have to fund?
Yes, um, well, yes and no. If, if it’s a, if it’s a new work situation, if the person was not employed and they’re being hired by a company, so they are, their status is changing from unemployed to employed, then the vocational rehabilitation system should be involved and they are obligated to purchase the equipment and make the accommodations that are needed for that employment situation.
The ADA does allow for small employers of a certain size to not be required to provide accommodations should it, um, create an unusual financial hardship. But, um, I’m, I’m pretty sold on corporate America and finding those companies that are embracing disability inclusion. They have budgets for that. They have accommodations processes.
They have a centralized budget for accommodations. So… You know, the expense doesn’t fall on individual departments. So again, um, you know, those kinds of those signs we talked about. Do they have disability inclusion in their DEI statement? Um, do they have an employee resource group devoted to disabilities?
Do they ask if you need accommodations in their hiring and recruiting page? So those, those, those types of organizations are, are not going to have any Difficulties or friction or tension around accommodations.
Okay. So, yeah, because I had wondered if, if, uh, Voc Rehab would be part of that if you’re, so if you’re starting out, they may be, depending on the situation.
Yeah, now if I’m working for company X and I get hired by company Y, Voc Rehab isn’t involved because I’m maintaining employment. Um, also if you are in the workforce and you are, um, becoming disabled if you have a degenerative condition and you get to the point where you are disabled. Uh, Voc Rehab can also be called to come in to help you retain and maintain your employment.
Okay. Okay, good. The um, and parents, we’ve, we’ve mentioned Voc Rehab before, but if you haven’t heard those, um, at, I’m assuming this is the same in all states. At age 14, you can refer your child, um, for a consultation with them, or they can self-refer themselves or a teacher can refer them. They’re, pretty much anyone can, can refer the child from starting at age 14.
And I would highly recommend that you get involved with them at that point to start talking about their education beyond high school. They can help you with IEP meetings. They may have some resources.
Yeah, many Voc Rehab agencies have summer work experience programs for older high school kids. Um, they, they have a lot of resources that are underutilized.
Yeah. And unless your school has mentioned it to you, you may not be familiar with that. So, um, so that’s any, any, anytime we can mention these that pretty much every state’s going to have everyone who’s listening, who’s in the U S at least can, can, can, can look, look for this.
The other thing for blind parents, since we’re parents of blind children or blind parents, uh, National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled is a great resource. To, to, uh, borrow braille books. They have print braille books that have both print and braille for the little ones.
I mean, I read them too, since I’m blind, I read those to my kids, uh, when they were little. Um, lots of books on disability. Lots of books on parenting kids with disabilities. So, National Library Service, NLS. gov. Great resource available in every state.
Do you have any strategies or programs that you would recommend for companies to use that would raise awareness or promote a better understanding of disabilities with their workers?
Yeah, I think, uh, Disability In, uh, has a tool called the Disability Equality Index and it’s on their website, disabilityin.org, but it’s a self-assessment tool that companies can use. It’s very thorough and it covers every aspect of a company. A ask asks questions that will give you an indication of areas where you may need to, um, focus to be, become better as far as disability inclusion goes.
Um, so that, so that, that’s one. Um, it really depends. I think partnering with nonprofits is a great way in every community there’s. of any size. There are community based nonprofits that have a mission of, um, supporting people with disabilities in employment. And so, to do two things. One, if a company is interested in hiring people with disabilities, connect with your state vocational rehabilitation agency.
There’s a research study that shows out of those companies who say they, uh, want to hire more people, people with disabilities, less than 10% are connected with vocational rehabilitation system. And they, uh, an example in California, there’s 8, 000 blind people with open cases with their blindness VR agency right now.
So, there’s 8, 000 people, um, they each have a vocational rehabilitation counselor. They have a resume. They have an individual, individualized plan for employment. So, in Washington state where I live, there’s probably about 1400 blind people with open cases with the Department of Services for the Blind. So yeah, connect, um, just do a little search engine work and find out the nonprofits in your community that have that mission and connect with.
Vocational Rehabilitation Agency. First off, after they fall off their chair, um, with joy that an employer has reached out to them and wants to hire people, uh, they, they’ll give you lots of help.
Is there anything that you want to add to what we’ve discussed on that?
Uh, to be successful in any major endeavor, you have to align all the stakeholders. So, there, there’s silos out here, but there are organizations and agencies that have a common goal, and that’s to get more people with disabilities in the workforce. So, really it takes government, corporations, nonprofits, and the community working together.
So what I do in my consulting practice is basically find the right people from each of those groups and bring them together around a table, uh, virtual or real, and, say, define our common goal, and then look at roles and processes, who, who, who has what programs, who has what assets, how can we fit all these together to create pathways for people with disabilities and into careers.
So, um. Yeah, if you’re a company, reach out to the nonprofits and the Voc Rehab. If you’re a Voc Rehab person, reach out to your companies and nonprofits and around, around, around the circle.
We, we’ve talked in past episodes about, um, um, some of the, like the, between SSI, SSDI, um, as parents are looking for future planning for the child, things like that. Um, but what we’re talking about today would actually eliminate the need for that. If we can get a young adult into a career that would support them.
Yeah. Yes. Those things are, are resources and they, they need to be considered and, um. A couple things. Many, many people don’t use those assets to their fullest as far as the, for instance, gainful employment, the types of expenses that you can put up against the gainful employment limit.
So, each, each area in the country has an ombudsman that is paid for by the Social Security Administration. That’s to help you with your benefits planning. To understand it all, to take full advantage. They’re usually a, a, a nonprofit that’s contracted by SSA. But, um, to find your Social Security Ombudsman is a really smart, good thing to do.
They don’t, it doesn’t cost you anything, but you can really understand it and use it to full advantage. And then it’s, you know, career planning and benefits planning as your, your child gets to school to work transition. To take that into account, to understand. What, what kind of, uh, wages they would need, um, to move, um, beyond that resource. So, it, it’s, it’s important to use it, but it’s also important not to get stuck by it. So…
Well, that’s what I’m thinking, because there are so many financial limitations if they are relying on that.
And I know many, many families are reluctant to, um, separate from that, um, source of income. But there, there are trial periods and ramp up periods. Um, so really incumbent upon you as a parent of a child with a disability to understand it. And again, there are people who are paid to help you understand. And, uh, so find your Social Security Ombudsman.
So, how are you spelling that?
Ombudsman. O M B U D S M A N. And I think it’s a formal designation. They’re all called that, so. If you just, uh, if you live in Pittsburgh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, just, you know, if you live in Pittsburgh, search Pittsburgh social security ombudsman and, uh, something will come up.
Yeah. I’ve never heard of that before. So that, that’s, uh, another.
We used it a lot when we were running the Lighthouse for the Blind here in Seattle, we had, you know, 250 people were blind and deaf, blind, many who were on SSDI. And our mission was to get as many people beyond that resource into self-sufficiency. Right. So, we, we had individual benefits counseling done, um, for many, many, many people.
So that, and that, it’s a question that I had not asked anyone before, but to me, to me that the potential of earning increases dramatically if we can get someone into a career.
Yes, absolutely. And then, again, we’ve, I’ve had experiences where people would not want to be promoted, or would not want to take extra training, uh, or would not want to work full time, um, in fear of losing that check. So, it, it, it’s a thing, and, uh, it needs to be, um, considered and it needs to be utilized to the fullest. If your child has a disability, they’re entitled to that resource, but they shouldn’t be constrained by that.
Right. So, to dig into it and there are children who are going to need it. Mm hmm. Yeah. Sure. Yeah. It is there for a reason. Right. Um, but I don’t want that to be the automatic fail safe that every parent is going to go to. If there’s other options for their child, too. Because you’re talking about your first job. You realized that that was not your career path that it should be. Let’s help them find a fulfilling future path for themselves, for each of these children.
Yeah, and, you know, kids with developmental disabilities, multiple disabilities, the leading cause of blindness in infants now is cortical visual impairment. So, it’s not the eye function, it’s how the brain processes information. So, most of those kids have additional developmental disabilities. Um, there are so many different, um, supports and networks to help your child thrive and thrive. Um, you know, live as fully as possible. So, I’ve worked with hundreds of nonprofits who support people in employment with severe and multiple disabilities. So, there’s job carving, and job sharing, and job coaches, and uh, all sorts of resources. So, you just need to um, you know, reach out and connect with those resources.
So, Kirk, how we we’ve talked about a lot of different things here. How can our listeners get in touch with you?
Yeah, I use LinkedIn a lot. So, Kirk Adams, if you just put in Kirk Adams, Seattle, I should come up. My consulting firm is called Innovative Impact LLC. The website is under construction. Or you can just email me and it’s my first name and last name followed by three zeros at Gmail. So firstname.lastname@example.org. And I’d love to talk with anyone who’s listening that I can be helpful to so please don’t hesitate to reach out by email or on LinkedIn.
So, parents that are listening can contact you. Would you, um, also, um, be open to businesses if someone’s, um, working with a business that may want to know more about inclusion?
Oh, absolutely. Yes.
Excellent. So, what other projects do you have going on? Anything else you want to share with us?
Oh, boy. Um. I’m, I’m, uh, involved in a couple of startups. I’m learning how to do crowdfunding. So, I’m raising some funds for a company called Curb Cut OS for curb cut operating system that helps companies make sure all of their apps and websites and things are accessible and a very small part owner of that.
And then I’m. Also involved in a startup called EYE C Better, E Y E, letter C, Better. And it is a platform to support, um, people in managing their glaucoma. And, uh, my excitement is their business plan calls for hiring, uh, several hundred patient care coordinators. And they’re eager to have, um, qualified blind and visually impaired applicants for those jobs.
So, that, that’s, that’s, employment is my thing, so. Company says their business plan calls for employing people who are blind. I’m, I’m all, I’m all over it. Those are a couple more things.
And then, um, for your, for your main company, um, how, so how business is coming to you, are you going out and finding them, how are you connecting?
Um, mostly it’s been people I’ve known. I’ve been in this disability employment space for about 30 years. And when I decided to make a change and, uh, the American Foundation for the Blind announced, uh, last spring that I was, um, exiting, I was contacted by four or five, um, companies and individuals I’d, I’d developed relationships with to ask if I was available, um, you know, to, to work on some projects as a consultant, and then people just refer folks.
I, I just, uh, signed an engagement today, a really interesting one. There’s a non profit here in Seattle called Seattle Theatre Group. They manage three historic, iconic theaters that are event spaces and concert spaces. And they’ve got about 500 volunteers and 100 staff. And they want to be… more inclusive of people with disabilities throughout their organization.
And, um, so I’m going to do a discovery process with them, just interview their leadership, find out what they mean by disability inclusion, find out where they’re at so far, find out what they’ve done, find out who they’re partnering with, and then I’ll be able to come back to them with some recommendations of how to accelerate, um, progress toward that goal of being disability inclusive.
Nice. It’s an exciting thing that you’re doing, it’s um, I mean, it, it’s gotta be, it’s gotta be hard in trying to get all the connections and the training and all, but so fulfilling whenever you see the end of that project.
Oh, I’m having fun.
And how many staff are now being included that would not have been looked at before.
My goal is to get a thousand people with disabilities employed this calendar year through my efforts. So I think, I gotta hustle. To get there. But I can. It’s doable.
So we’re, we’re in May, so how far are you now?
Uh, probably 150, 175.
Okay, so that’s a start.
Well, I can picture it snowballing too though once you get going.
Yeah, it’ll be a bigger goal next year.
We’ll start with, we’ll bite off a thousand here for this year.
Well, Kirk, thank you for spending some time with me today and talking through all these questions that I had. I think the information you’ve shared has been wonderful. Thank you for spending this time.
Absolutely. It was a pleasure. And again, anyone who wants to get in touch, feel free. Don’t hesitate. Don’t be shy. Just email me, kirkadams000 at Gmail. com. Looking forward to talking to you.