November 18, 2011

Living Happily Ever After: Building a Brighter Future

As you know, October was National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM).  In celebration, I wrote two posts - Once Upon a Time: A Tale of Disclosure and After the Honeymoon: Chronic Illness in the Workplace - which are about deciding to diclose my disability and my first months in the workforce.  We've looked at the now let's look to the future ahead, and what we can do to get there from where we are right now!
The event I'm writing about took place on October 19.  Yes, that was last month.  And yes, NDEAM itself was also last month.  This I know.  But what's more fitting than carrying the conversation on into the rest of the year?  (My schedule these days might have just a little something to do with the timing, too...just a titch.....)

Image found here.  Sadly, I didn't get a photo from our actual event.
On a rainy Wednesday in October, half a dozen KPMG professionals gathered in our favorite conference area to participate in our first Disability Mentoring Day, which was part of the firm-wide celebration of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM).  There, they were paired with mentees who are customers of the PA Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR) in our local region (OVR is a government agency which works with people fitting the broad definition of having a disability to develop the skills they'll need to compete and succeed in the workplace).  The mentees spanned diverse backgrounds from recent college graduates in their 20s to experienced men and women looking to apply skills developed over time in new markets.  Each came to the event with different goals for the day, yet all said their expectations were exceeded by their assigned mentors.
The Philadelphia office managing partner (the head honcho in the local office) gave the welcome address, explaining that the Mentoring Day was the next step in our office’s journey toward diversity and inclusion.  The group, which also included OVR representatives and other KPMG volunteers, learned about the history of the AIM (Abilities In Motion) network, firm programs such as schedule flexibility, and the uniform accomdoations process introduced earlier this year.  KPMG mentors spent the next few hours working one-on-one with their mentees.  Throughout the day, the pairs discussed many aspects of professional and operational matters based on the unique interests of each mentee.   
While the event was designed with the needs of the mentees in mind, KPMG participants gained much as well.  One friend of mind, a first year audit manager, used his role as mentor to develop his own leadership skills, noting that “meeting an individual with a disability [helped him] to realize that they really aren’t that different from you or me”.  He found that managing a team including people like his mentee requires the same types of creative problem solving as any other, such as involving those you manage in identifying solutions and being sensitive to individual needs.  His mentee described how my friend used real-world examples to help his mentee better understand the analytical perspective our professionals exercise.  Our manager was successful in his role because he understood his mentee is a person first, with a disability that does not diminish his ability to do the job.

The mentoring day held special meaning for me personally.  To begin with, I was given free rein to take this idea and run as far as I could.  The proposal to participate came down to us from national, along with a rough draft of an agenda and local contact information.  The rest of the logistics & event design were up to me.  And to be honest, I'm pretty derned proud of myself.  I was able to pull together all the information OVR needed, anticipate and address various challenges (such as balancing the goal of providing mentees with a realistic glimpse into our world while maintaining confidentiality of client & firm data), and react to last-minute changes (including fluctuating numbers of each mentors and mentees) to put forth a solid event.  When the program was over, I realized I felt like I had been at a firm event - nay, a GOOD firm event (we had food :D) - and not some amateur attempt.  Anyone attending would see it as a polished product from a major company, not a wing-and-a-prayer presentation by a fledgling staff flunky.  I think the idea here is that I felt accomplished.

I don't usually go off on quite such a tangent about the success of my ventures (partly because they don't always result in such success!), but this event was more than just a "good show" for me.  This event, in a mere 5 hours, impacted at least a couple dozen people in different ways.  Our 6 mentees and 2 OVR guests saw what I've been saying for 2 years - KPMG is a company that walks the walk that matches their talk when it comes to inclusivity and support for employees with disabilities.  They're not perfect, but are doing well and moving steadily in the right direction. 

Some of our top leadership & HR professionals heard first-hand what this population needs AND what it has to offer.  And some of my closer coworkers - managers and staff I've worked with since I began with the firm - learned first-hand things I hadn't been able to convey in that time.  When they introduced themselves to the group, at least half of our mentors said "I don't really know anybody with a disability, but wanted to participate because of X, Y, and Z"...but they know me.  Hardly a day goes by I don't mention something about my "disability".  They work with other people in our office whom I personally know have disabilities.  One gentleman even went on to mention problems he has with his joints that was a textbook description of a disability - but said he didn't know anyone with one. 

This didn't escape the notice of our mentees, either.  As we sat around a table, eating lunch and discussing these observations, we shared a look and an unspoken affirmation - by putting ourselves on the line (for in this way, I was more like my mentees than my coworkers), we had finally reached these people.  They came in thinking they didn't know anyone with a disability, because even people who told them outright then operated under the guise of "being normal" so familiar to all of you reading this.  But there, in a room where the entire focus was on the disabilities, these same people began to get it.  And, they rose to the challenge.

My one friend, who I mentioned above, has been a tough one to get involved.  He didn't answer my invitation emails, didn't respond to my follow-up texts.  Believing he was just too busy to get back to me, I finally cornered him in the office one day.  In my oh-so-delicate way of arm-twisting, I pushed him to at least give me a firm yes or no.  That's when I discovered he was avoiding me not because he couldn't nail down his schedule, but because he was afraid.  He said he didn't have much experience interacting one-on-one with a person with a disability, and was afraid he wouldn't handle it properly.  In that moment, I was reminded that my coworkers are going through a learning process just like me.  I live in this world every day...every minute of every day, really...but my second nature may be foreign to them.  So, I reminded him that in his new role as a manager, he now had a responsibility to learn to handle that situation.  He will inevitably work with someone with a disability in the future.  And this event, with it's controlled environment and predetermined schedule, would be a safe opportunity to dip his toe in the water.  I armed him (and all our mentors) with information on how to discuss the topic of disabilities without violating privacy rights of our mentees, as well as the various programs offered by the firm to deal with issues from flex time to accomdoations requests.  I also later found out our partner, who had declined to participate in the event herself, did so in order that she could do the work that would have tied him up that day so that he could participate.  And my friend did himself proud.  As I said, his mentee raved about his experience, and my friend commented that he learned a person with a disability is like any other employee. 

I think this is a key we need to consider.  Would it perhaps be more appropriate, and effective, to change our language?  What might happen if instead of saying "I AM the same as you despite my disability", we said "I am WORTH the same as you, regardless of my disability"? 

Our disabilities aren't something we can compartmentalize.  We can't leave them at home, or lock them in a drawer for the workday.  Instead of trying to be the same, what if we made them the focus of the conversation, and show that we are not the same but are equal?  By wanting to be seen as the 'same', aren't we really authorizing society to turn a blind eye to disabilities themselves?  Maybe the way to change society instead of just laying a new framework on top of it is by putting the spotlight back on the disabilities.  Take them out of the shadows where they can grow and morph into insurmountable roadblocks and brightly illuminate the role they truly hold.

Lightbeam image found here.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your beautiful account of your Disability Mentoring Day! And THANK YOU for putting so much into creating a successful event. Congratulations!! I look forward to having the privilege of working with you towards greater understanding and awareness of people with disabilities.
    Tracy Katz, MEd
    Business Development Consultant
    Networks for Training and Development


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