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Accessibility and DEI in the Workplace with Kathy Martinez

August 20, 2021

Welcome to 3Play Media’s Allied Podcast, a show on all things accessibility. This month’s episode features Kathy Martinez and is about the importance of weaving accessibility and disability rights in every organization’s DEI initiatives.

Kathy Martinez is an internationally recognized disability rights leader and the President/CEO of Disability Rights Advocates (DRA).

Martinez speaks and publishes on a wide array of topics related to disability employment, including the emergence of disability as an essential component of workplace diversity and inclusion and the importance of expectation in ensuring youth with disabilities grow up with an assumption of work—a topic on which Martinez, who herself was born blind, offers compelling and personal perspective.

Connect with Kathy on LinkedIn

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Want to get in touch? Email us at [email protected]. We’d love to hear from you.

Episode transcript

ELISA LEWIS: Welcome back to Allied, the podcast for everything you need to know about web and video accessibility. I’m your host Elisa Lewis, and on today’s episode, we’re thrilled to welcome Kathy Martinez onto the podcast to talk about accessibility as a key component of DEI in the workplace. Kathy Martinez is an internationally recognized disability rights leader and is currently the president and CEO of disability rights advocates or DRA. Much of Kathy’s prior work has focused on improving social and economic justice for people with disabilities. Kathy served as the Executive Director of World Institute on disability, as US Assistant Secretary of the Office of Disability employment policy and most recently as senior vise president at Wells Fargo.

We’re excited to have Kathy here on Allied today, so let’s jump right in. Thank you Kathy for joining us on Allied, so to begin I know that you’ve held major accessibility roles at incredible institutions which we’ll get into a bit later on in the episode, but I’d love to learn a little bit about what sparked your passion for this work? So not only accessibility in general, but also in workplace DEI and supporting disabled people to pursue employment.

KATHY MARTINEZ: Well, thank you for having me on the show, it’s really a pleasure. Well I was born blind, I come from a pretty large Latino family and I grew up as a blind person in a sighted world, my experience started quite a while back way before the ADA was passed. I would say that what sparked my interest in civil rights, human rights, disability justice, and justice in general was that my lived experience as somebody who’s Latino and blind and or I should say Latinx and blind. And then later, I came out as a lesbian just the intersectional experience of my own intersectionality of my own lived experience. Spurred me on to become a disability rights and social justice advocate.

So, I would say that in my teens in the 70s, which was quite a while back, I started out by really identifying with my Latinx heritage, my family lived near strawberry fields and orange groves where there were lots of folks, farm workers picking the fruit, and when I would walk by I would hear disputes between the people who weighed the fruit and people who were getting paid at the weigh stations. I became active in the UFW youth movement, so I was really proud of my Latino heritage and proud of my family. Then became a women’s rights activist in the later 70s and early 80s. And then finally I found the disability rights movement. So I think just we all have intersexual identities and I didn’t feel like I wanted to hide any of my identities even though in some situations of course I had to, but bringing just realizing that disability impacts every dimension of diversity and realizing that the experiences of people who have acquired their disabilities is very different than somebody like me who was born with a disability.

I just got involved in the disability rights movement because I knew that it impacted everybody no matter race, religion, creed, class, sexual orientation. And I have been involved for probably the last almost 40 years. My focus has been economic justice really discovering that it’s very hard to survive in a capitalist environment. If you don’t have money which most people with disabilities don’t. So that really has been my focus.

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, thank you for sharing all that. I’m curious you know it sounds like your activism really started pretty early on in your life. Was there anyone that you saw growing up who was an activist or any role models or did it really kind of spark from inside?

KATHY MARTINEZ: You know I had so many role models, my parents were role models. My mom fought very hard for me and I should say I also have a blind sister. We are the two little kids of six children. My mom, both my parents but I would say my mom in particular because my dad had to work. And at the time she was taking care of us, she really was a role model for me in that she really fought for Peggy and I to have access to the best experiences we could as kids. And that included going to mainstream schools, starting from when we were in kindergarten and really having the experience of dealing with kids our age, starting from when we were five years old, so we had age appropriate experiences.

Another person, I just had so many but there was one woman when I was in the eighth grade who was I guess we call them hippies then but she was a student teacher in my junior high and was very politically conscious and active. And in those days it was hard to find books about things like farmworkers rights or civil rights, if you were blind most of the books on tape were either classics or religious texts. So, when I was in the eighth grade, she read to me a book on tape called sweatshops in the sun and that was about child labor. She also read seven days that shook the world and she read the jungle. All of those books really did impact me. But, yeah I mean I have been so lucky to have some amazing mentors, both disabled and non disabled, men and women alike. And they have really helped to guide me, but also, there has to be like an inner desire to proceed and move forward and learn and I love learning, I consider myself a lifelong learner and I just I really enjoy solving problems, or making situations better, and I think that’s why we’re all in the fight for justice for everyone.

ELISA LEWIS: Absolutely. So, along those lines of making things more just and fighting to make things more equal and better for individuals, I know that a lot of your work surrounds the idea of disability as an essential component of workplace diversity and inclusion. Can you share a little bit about what’s gained when diversity equity inclusion or DIE in the workplace includes disability as a focus.

KATHY MARTINEZ: Well first of all, I think we have to all acknowledge that most of us, I would say 98% of us have a connection to disability. Whether it’s a family member, a friend, a sibling or whether we’re disabled ourselves. The other thing I think it’s really important to know is that among marginalized or minority communities, the incidence of disability is higher. So due to poor health care, high injury jobs, poverty, we know that poverty and disability are interconnected. Disability is a consequence of poverty and poverty is definitely a consequence of disability. So I think first of all, we have to understand that just that we’re connected to disability, in so many ways and disability crosses all class, gender, sexual orientation lines, right.

It’s the only minority that a person can join and usually and that it’s not by choice. So given all of that, and given that the laws have changed and people with disabilities are more and more a part of our communities, and we can see after 31 years of the ADA that the physical society, the physical aspects of our society are more accessible. So you see ramps, curb ramps you see braille on elevators, you see the crawl on the bottom of your TV screen, if you go to a bar you know the print crawl that tells the news or the sports scores. So all these things are a function of the Americans with disabilities act. Weaving disability into the diversity agenda of any company or any corporation or any nonprofit organization is really extending awareness access and inclusion and belonging to a group of people that have been forced out of society for forever.

We also know that people with disabilities no given technology. So we have the physical aspects of inclusion and access and we have the digital aspects of inclusion and access meaning we want our web content to be accessible, we want digital applications and software to be accessible. And then there’s a cultural aspect of inclusion and you can’t legislate attitudes, right. But I think as we weave disability into our culture and disability awareness into our culture, everybody benefits, right. Everybody benefits from things that are created originally for people with disabilities. Take programs as an example I know that’s kind of an old school example but people definitely use curb ramps even if they’re not in wheelchairs. And I know everybody all of your listeners examples of that.

Things like instant messaging I mean, there’s so many things that were developed for people with disabilities that have become standard operating practice. Weaving the disability community into a corporation’s diversity agenda also means that they’re taking advantage of an untapped workforce, you know Americans with Disabilities Act is 31 years old. So there’s two generations almost that have been raised to assume that they will work, right. They’ve been mainstreamed in public schools and their peers also assume that people with disabilities can and will work. So it’s like there’s an analogy a blueberry muffin analogy you want to bake it in, not bolted on. So when you’re creating a blueberry muffin you know and you’re thinking of access or you’re thinking of inclusion and belonging, you don’t put the blueberries in at the last minute. You don’t put the blueberries in as an afterthought. You bake the blueberries in so that they’re a part of the muffin.

So when it comes to disability inclusion, we want to develop systems that are inclusive, are welcoming, are safe, and where people can thrive no matter if they have a disability or not.

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, I think you made a lot of great points here. I definitely think that you mentioned we’re all connected to disability, and I think that this is particularly true in the cases of individual disabilities or sorry, and invisible disabilities or those a lot of individuals won’t disclose that they have a disability, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they couldn’t benefit or don’t need certain accommodations. So I think that’s a really, really great reminder. I wanted to ask you mentioned kind of getting into this untapped workforce and one thing that I would love to get your thoughts on is accessible hiring practices. A lot of people are really becoming aware of being more inclusive in their hiring, and sometimes it’s in order to accommodate specific needs it’s helpful to know of course what those needs are. But how can we navigate respecting an individual’s privacy while also ensuring that we are meeting their needs, are there any sort of tips or best practices that you’re able to share?

KATHY MARTINEZ: Well, first of all, it starts with an accessible website and that means that the website can be accessed by a screen reader for people who are visually impaired. It also may mean that some of the protocols around hiring practices may need to change, for example let’s say you are hiring somebody to be a cashier and there’s a test they have to take for making change, sometimes those tests time out. So if you have any kind of a disability where it takes you longer to type or move your mouse very often those tests time out, and it has nothing to do with the fact that you can’t count change, it has to do with the fact that maybe the time should change on those pre-offer tests. Another thing that’s happening I think we have to keep our eye on is artificial intelligence. How are we programming AI bots to screen in or screen out people?

I think it’s really critical for companies to say if you require an accommodation, please contact X. Now your point about privacy is a really interesting one. Like you said earlier, people with non evident disabilities don’t have to disclose in the same way that somebody with an evident disability like mine does. So, I know that in previous workplaces, we’ve really made an effort to do our best to educate hiring managers about how to accommodate folks who may not interview the same way as us, we created a community of practice for hiring managers so they could ask questions that they might be afraid to ask publicly and that’s a very safe space. I served as a kind of a resource for folks that were interested in asking questions if they didn’t feel comfortable asking publicly as did other people who were disabled.

But, I think applying for jobs I mean, especially now that the pandemic has proven that people can work successfully from home, it’s important to realize that there are people with disabilities out there who are able and willing to work, who are good employees and with an accommodation they can do their jobs. I think it’s also important to realize that we all require accommodations. Our accommodations are just standard operating practice. So, people come in to a meeting assuming there’ll be chairs, they come in assuming there’ll be loud mics and loud speakers, they come in assuming there will be lights, I mean these are accommodations. And when we work people assume they’ll have appropriate chairs to sit in and laptops or computers or cell phones. But for people with disabilities, I think if we view accommodations as productivity tools the kind of negative association with the term accommodations will change.

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah I think that’s a really great point. I mean I’m even thinking now I’m sitting at my desk, and I have a special microphone that I’m using because it’s better quality for a podcast or if you have a I’m on a laptop but I have another monitor. So I think that’s a really great point and we all have these different tools that just make us more efficient or more sort of functional at our jobs and they really are all just different types of accommodations. So, kind of getting past the hiring process, I love to shift gears a little bit and talk about DEI in office culture in general. You know I think that many non-disabled employees want to be caring and compassionate allies in the workplace. But again kind of struggle knowing what’s OK or not OK to ask and these are all topics. When we talk about DEI a lot of the topics are sort of considered historically taboo, but being that companies really want to be more inclusive and do more with accessibility. What advice do you have for them?

KATHY MARTINEZ: Well I think the first thing to remember is that it’s a marathon, not a sprint You know the finish line will move as technology advances and as workplace culture changes. I mean, who would have thought two years ago that we would all work from home, right. And have it be successful for the most part. People with disabilities have been begging companies to allow them or allow us to work from home as an accommodation and most companies have said no we need the in-person connection. Well I do believe that it’s proven that people can work from home successfully. And I also believe that connection is important, and for some people with disabilities isolation is a big issue.

So, I don’t want to say in any way hire people with disabilities and assume that we’ll all work from home. Many people want to be in the office, they want that connection, you know the water cooler, they go out to lunch, they catch people in the hall, connection. So, I think one of the first things that has to happen when any change takes place is that people have to feel safe to make mistakes. I’m somebody who I will admit thus get tired sometimes of constantly educating people, but I also remember that people are asking questions not out of malice or bad intentions, but because they just don’t know. A culture of bringing, having people feel safe, and the way to do that is to have conversations about disability.

And my former employer, we first of all, when they hired me I was very clear that I would not be the disabled token like you know it isn’t about one person. So and I don’t know if they really were going down that road but I made it very clear that my role and my goal was not to just attend conferences and be the token Latino blind person, but my goal was really to build a culture where people with a variety of disabilities could come out, could thrive, could get could advance. So, I think some tips would be, one, create a group of people who represent lots of different types of disability, non evident disabilities evident disabilities who are willing to talk about their experience.

People learn so much from stories. I think people are very interested in the how of disability. So how do you do that? How do you respond to 200 emails a day. I think when I first came to when I was a first in a corporate setting, people were nervous they were afraid to do the wrong, thing they were afraid to ask the wrong question, so they were a little shy. But when they got to know me, they relaxed. I think humor is a good and I really like being on a team working with people with different opinions, different strengths. So I seek that out in my work life. So having people discuss or having people with a variety of disabilities being willing to tell their stories, having opportunities for the staff of the organization to listen to those stories and ask questions. I also think that creating a space for hiring managers to ask questions we created a community of practice.

Where people could ask questions, where we had speakers, and I think the hiring managers learned a lot. I think one thing not to do is just talk about disability during disability Employment Awareness Month. Remember that disability is a part of every other culture in the world. So weaving disability in stories around being like latinx or around being African-American or acknowledging that we have people with disabilities in our midst in different cultures is really important. I think one thing effeminate affinity groups are critical because people can share information during off hours or kind of in unstructured ways.

So having people with disabilities, having people who are connected to disabilities, parents, siblings, companions, and people who are allies who really want to be allies and support the idea that disability is a natural part of the human condition, it should be woven into our awareness and accessibility should be woven into the workplace, they play a very important role in advancing disability inclusion.

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense. You touched on a few really great points that I just want to reiterate. I think one really being the exhaustion that comes with educating others on your own situation whether that be about disability or race or gender identity, and a lot of people want to learn, but what can we do to really learn in a way where we’re not placing the burden back on the individual to educate us I think that’s something that a lot of people struggle with, and there really is a balance that needs to that needs to be struck. I think the other thing is it is you made the point that with DEI, it’s a marathon not a sprint. But, because of that, it really does as you’re kind of ramping up, people can definitely feel like they’re being tokenized kind of along that curve.

And I think that it’s great that people are starting somewhere. But it’s definitely a little bit of a rocky road to kind of get to the point where it’s really ingrained in the organization, and the people of the organization. I think that’s something that I’ve heard a lot of organizations really struggling with particularly over the last year, year and a half when it’s become a much bigger focus again.

KATHY MARTINEZ: Yeah, I think the people also say what’s the best training regarding hiring people with disabilities, and my answer is hire people with disabilities. And it’s important to understand that when you hire people with disabilities, you don’t need to hire people just at the entry level position. It’s often thought that people with disabilities are only capable of entry level work, and that just isn’t true. No one in my former employer Wells Fargo I was hired as a senior vice president, I did not know any other senior vise presidents when I went in to the bank, but as I got to know people I realized that people did have known some people had evident disabilities, some people had non evident disabilities. And the way that people came out and there was quite an increase in the number of people who identified as having a disability in the six years that I was there.

And the reason is because we made people feel comfortable, safe, and the different levels of the bank were part and parcel of the cultural change, right. Like, we can’t legislate attitude even though sometimes I know we’d like to. But I think for me, I always say that attitude is caught not taught. So, when I was a young kid and my siblings used to bring their friends home, their friends had never seen a blind person before, so they didn’t really know what to do and they didn’t want to ask the wrong questions. So very often they would watch how my siblings treated me and Peggy my sister and they would just follow along. So I came like I said, from a large Latino family, we got teased much as anybody else did. We gave it back just as hard as anybody else did, and my siblings, friends saw this.

So they copied how my siblings treated us, and I always thought that’s how attitudes change. You see somebody working alongside you that might have a disability, they’re contributing what they contribute, you contribute what you can contribute. Very often I would help my colleagues in things they weren’t good at or didn’t want to do and very often they’d help me. So, I think there’s kind of a stigma about people with disabilities in the workplace. And I think it’s changing, but I think it’s still exists, we’re kind of what do they say, takers, fakers. And I think it is changing. But I think there’s still some people who have not seen a person with a disability contribute and participate and really bring a perspective that is valuable.

For so long, our lives have not been valued, whether we work or not. And I’m not saying the only people that work have value, I don’t believe that at all. I mean given that we’re talking about the workplace, I think when people see that we are able to contribute, we show up whether it’s online or in person. We produce and we can be a part of a team. And I think that’s when attitudes change.

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, I think that’s a great point. And I think I was going to ask kind of if you had any tips for smaller companies that maybe don’t have their resources in establishing hiring programs but I think you kind of already mentioned that the biggest thing you would suggest is start hiring people with disabilities. And that’s a great point.

KATHY MARTINEZ: I think there’s a lot of things on the internet. There’s definitely resources for people like the Job accommodation Network, I don’t usually plug companies but they’re a great resource if you want to find out how to accommodate a wide variety of disabilities. There’s been a lot of conversation now about mental disabilities and how to accommodate them. Mostly people with mental disabilities require schedule change modifications to their schedule. My disability is accommodated by a screen reader by and I might need a mobility lesson, I might need help, if I’m in a meeting with my team I know that my former team members would always help me with buffets because buffets suck for blind people. But what if you have a non evident disability? You know especially people don’t know what you need, the company won’t be able to accommodate you and you know it’s one thing that the LGBTQ community and the disability community have in common is if you have a non evident disability you don’t necessarily have to come out and nobody will know.

The other thing I think it’s important to say is very often people with disabilities are the only people with a disability in their families. So again, like the LGBTQ community they are of a culture is not transferred through their families. So there is a thriving and viable disability culture just like there’s a thriving and viable gay culture, but very often people have to go outside their families to find it. And I think one of the things that I saw happening is that when people would identify as having let’s just say a non evident disability, then other people with non evident disabilities would feel more comfortable coming out or at least identifying as even having a disability. So, it’s like success begets success, right.

The more comfortable people feel, the more they can bring their whole selves to work.

ELISA LEWIS: Absolutely. I’m curious if you know of any statistics or even anecdotes about the cost of accommodations for an organization versus the cost of losing out on unqualified employees when there’s a lack of hiring in the disability community?

KATHY MARTINEZ: Well, I mean there’s a pretty old statistic that says most accommodations cost under $500. I know that I’m one of the people whose accommodations cost more than that I use a screen reading program and that’s about $1,000 but I mean, I think if you look at it this way, just think of the fact that if you’re fortunate to work and you’re able to get off benefits, you’re saving the you’re contributing to the economy by if you’re able to get off benefits, you’re not taking money from the government. But also, you’re paying taxes. So what’s the return I mean the ROI in my mind is huge. I also believe that because the world is not built for us, we bring a lot of gifts to a company, so we’re very strategic, we’re used to solving problems because we’ve had to our whole lives.

And so, I think those things are immeasurable, how do you measure that? But just getting somebody on the payroll, sometimes I’ve heard people say the disability community is the only community that wants to pay taxes. I don’t know if that’s true, but you know definitely when we’re working, we’re contributing not just to our workplaces but the economy of a whole.

ELISA LEWIS: Absolutely. I’m curious if you could share more about your current work with Disability Rights Advocates, you know they’re an incredible organization doing really high impact litigation. It’s pretty different from your previous work at Wells Fargo or the Office of Disability employment policy at US department of labor. So how are you continuing to push for disabled employment at the DRA and are there any initiatives there that you can share with us that you’re working on?

KATHY MARTINEZ: Sure, so Disability Rights Advocates as you said is a high impact disability nonprofit law firm, the DRA has been around for 28 years, we litigate, systems change, work, we don’t typically take individual cases, we don’t sue for damages or rarely sue for damages. And we don’t charge our clients. So, for the last 28 years DRA has put the meat on the bones of the ADA through case law, to improve access for people with disabilities and health care and physical access, internet access, emergency preparedness, education, we’re working with co-council in a variety of cases against prisons who charge their inmates for their prosthesis. And we also won a case against the Immigration and customs and enforcement, where we were able to get some folks who were in the detention centers either released or sent to less crowded places because of COVID.

So, our work spans a wide variety of issues, the goal really is to create a more accessible society for people with disabilities. In terms of employment, we’re a pretty small shop but, we definitely are very aware of our responsibility to call walk the walk or roll the roll or however you want to put it. To provide accommodations, to provide a welcoming environment for people with all types of disabilities. And we learn every day, again the finish line moves, right. And we learn every day how to get better. I don’t think we’ll ever be perfect, but we’re struggling with how to launch our hybrid model to be more inclusive of all types of disabilities, and how people working at home but then have folks come in to have some in-person time. So we’re very mindful of the fact that we have lots of different needs. And we feel confident that we’ll be able to accommodate folks to do the best work they can do so they can bring their whole selves to work, and be as productive as possible.

ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, I think the sort of movement to hybrid is going to be a challenge that we’re all in together, I think at this point like we talked about earlier we’ve kind of over a lot the last year and a half out of necessity really learned a lot and adapted a lot for being fully remote and now it’s something that we’ve seen as well on our end of like really trying to navigate what it looks like when you have some people together in a room and some people remote, there’s a whole slew of new challenges but I think that everyone’s kind of motivated at this point to figure out what works, that’s a pretty exciting place to be at. I’m curious what have been some of the most significant changes in workplace DEI that you’ve seen over the years, and how do you see disability as part of the workplace DEI initiatives growing maybe in the next 10 years or so?

KATHY MARTINEZ: So, not until relatively recently was disability sort of as a DEI issue. Typically, if we go back to the 30s when Roosevelt signed the employment for handicapped legislation. Roosevelt the government realized that people with disabilities could work and it was OK to pay a subminimum wage. We hopefully are moving out of that era, there’s still people with disabilities that are earning subminimum wage, and that comes from valuing people with disabilities less, right, or devaluing us. Then, I think the pendulum moved slightly to a place where hiring a person with disability was the right thing to do, right. But it was typically led by one person in the company who probably had a disabled kid or a connection to disability. So they would create all these amazing programs or I should say they would create programs but then when they left, the program would fall apart.

So, essentially disability was special and I always say that you cannot put disability on the special shelf or when budgets get cut, the special shelf falls down and anything special goes away. So we are now in a place where companies and the disability rights movement is saying disability should be a part of the diversity agenda, because disability crosses all lines of diversity dimension. And that means that we have to take into account physical, digital, and cultural accessibility. We have to take into account that disability can happen at any life stage, and the largest age group of people with disabilities, are folks over 50. So baby boomers are turning 65 at the rate of 10,000 every day, in that population. And many of us are still in the workforce, and many of us will acquire a disability.

So, disability is a natural part of the human condition, it is something that I think it’s a dimension of diversity that cannot be put on a special shelf or treated as something special. It’s a dimension of diversity that needs to be woven in to the company’s DNA. And I think in the next 10 years, what we’re seeing outside of corporations is that the disability rights movement and social justice movements are beginning to talk to each other for so long. You know I would go to a Latinx event and there would be no accessibility, and I would go as a disability rights leader, I was one of the few non-white leaders for a long time. So, I would say the last 5 to 10 years the two disability rights and social justice movements are beginning to talk to each other. For example, the Ford Foundation has done some really amazing work. And disability organizations in general and social justice organizations in general, have been identifying the building bridges between the two communities as a priority. We’re seeing philanthropy get more involved in disability whereas even 10 years ago.

So many of the large foundations said we don’t do disability. So it wasn’t seen as a civil rights or a human rights issue. It was seen as a charity issue or a special issue that somebody would take on as a personal project. But now, we’re seeing the social model of disability take hold. The social model essentially says that access is the responsibility of society. So providing access is the responsibility of a society that values the participation of its disabled citizens.

ELISA LEWIS: Thank you for sharing. It’s been really great having you on the podcast today, and before we wrap up, I would love if you could let our listeners know where they can find you and connect with you online.

KATHY MARTINEZ: Oh, it’d be my pleasure to hear from your listeners. So, you can reach me at [email protected], and I’m very happy to be in touch with folks.

ELISA LEWIS: Awesome, thank you. Well thanks again like I said it was really great having you on the podcast, it was a pleasure to learn from you today and chat with you, super excited about it and hope to connect again in the future.

KATHY MARTINEZ: Thank you so much for the opportunity, it was really fun.


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Thanks again and I’ll see you next time.

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