Working in a factory after high school, Kathy Martinez imagined a much different future for herself. Born blind, she dreamed of one day leaving the factory floor and succeeding in the professional world.
“Those of us with disabilities combat low expectations every day,” says Kathy, who today leads the disability business strategy of Wells Fargo. “But as part of our personal brand, there is a resiliency we develop that gives us an ‘adversity advantage’ — a grit and determination that is a major part of how we get ahead.”
The former assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Labor recently shared her experiences at the 2016 U.S. Business Leadership Network annual conference. Sponsored in part by Wells Fargo, the meeting this year had the theme “Disability Inclusion: The Future Redefined” — focusing on career opportunities for people with disabilities. Held in Orlando, it drew nearly a thousand attendees, including representatives of Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits, and government agencies.
Gains in the workforce
People with disabilities have made positive gains in employment in recent years, although the unemployment rate is still in double digits, according to the network, which advocates for expanding disability inclusion in the workplace. The most recent figures show more than 27 percent of adult Americans with disabilities are currently employed, the highest mark since 2013.* However, the August unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 11.3 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Jill Houghton, the network’s executive director, says the group has worked with major corporations to significantly increase hiring people with disabilities. Three years ago, it joined forces with the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) and created a Disability Equality Index that helps companies build a reputation as an employer of choice. Since the index’s creation, over 80 Fortune 1000-size companies have used the tool to advance their efforts, Jill says.
“The index provides a roadmap for advancing disability inclusion by enabling companies to see both strengths and areas of opportunity that exist across their organization,” she says. “This is only the beginning of what’s to come as companies continue to embrace the index and work hard to take their disability inclusion policies and practices to the next level.”
At the meeting, a panel of representatives from Wells Fargo, Wal-Mart, General Motors, Microsoft, Northrop Grumman, Lowe’s, and JPMorgan Chase discussed how and why to make it happen.
“The bottom line is this,” says Microsoft Chief Accessibility Officer Jenny Lay-Flurrie. “We have an estimated 1 billion people with disabilities in the world, and that is a huge marketplace. Yet the unemployment rate is double that of the non-disability population. So with a marketplace that big, it is not a case of just wanting to include people with disabilities. We need to include people with disabilities.”
Hiring, accommodating, spending
Panelists shared a range of moves they have taken to support people with disabilities, from hiring wounded veterans to town hall meetings about inclusiveness to disability accommodations for customers. Wells Fargo earned a perfect score in the Disability Equality Index last year.
Regina O. Heyward, head of Supplier Diversity for Wells Fargo, says, “We are working to ensure we are advancing disability inclusion from a workplace standpoint, from a marketplace standpoint, and within our supply chain.”
Among other things, the company spent $3 million with certified disability-owned suppliers in 2015; invested in the development of disability-owned and service-disabled veteran-owned businesses by sponsoring eight companies in Dartmouth College’s Tuck Program for minority-owned businesses; and expanded its internal Team Member Diverse Abilities Network to more than 3,700 participants. By 2020, the company also aims to spend at least 15 percent of its procurement budget with diverse suppliers, an increase from its earlier goal of 10 percent, Regina says.
One of the network’s top honors for 2016 went to Wells Fargo’s CaSondra Devine, who was named the Advocate of the Year for her “exceptional support for and commitment to certified disability-owned businesses and disability supplier diversity.”
Focus on support for veterans
Jerry Quinn, head of Wells Fargo’s military affairs program, says, “One of the company’s top priorities is to do more business with companies owned by veterans with disabilities.” Of the $1.2 billion Wells Fargo spent with diverse-owned businesses in 2015, the company spent $45 million with veteran-owned and service-disabled veteran-owned businesses, he says.
“We want to significantly increase that number,” Jerry says. “So if you are sitting here today and you haven’t yet been a supplier to Wells Fargo, we want you to know there is an open avenue for you to do that.”
“Our disability is not the focus of our personal brand.”
Says Kathy Martinez, the disability segment leader: Despite the progress people with disabilities have made in employment, there are still hurdles to overcome, including redefining one’s personal brand. “Our disability is clearly part of who we are, but when we are at work, our brand is something so much more than that,” Kathy says. “We have expertise, capabilities, values, and strengths. We need to keep that in mind, and make sure people know that our disability is not the focus of our personal brand.”
* The Kessler Foundation and University of New Hampshire Institute for Disability.