Meg O'Connell, CEO & Founder, Global Disability Inclusion
There's a lot of opportunity here.
Meg's company helps businesses understand the power and opportunity of disability inclusion.
Interview with Meg O'Connell, CEO & Founder, Global Disability Inclusion
Transcript for Interview with Meg O'Connell, CEO & Founder, Global Disability Inclusion
Webcast interview hosted by John Griffin, Publisher of Accessibility.com, featuring Meg O'Connell, CEO and Founder of Global Disability Inclusion. John and Meg are in separate locations and the interview was conducted over video conferencing. The speaker is on screen at any given time.
[Introductory chime accompanies 'Accessibility MattersTM' animation on screen, briefly. Music accompanies 'Accessibility Matters, Episode 1' on screen, briefly]
I'm John Griffin, the publisher of Accessibility.com. Today we launch a series of webcasts called Accessibility Matters. And we chose the words Accessibility Matters with great purpose. That's because 1 in every 5 persons, that has a disability today, lives in an inaccessible world.
The people we bring to these discussions are the leaders that proactively work tirelessly to change that fact. Their work is targeted at tearing down the barriers of exclusion and inequality that separates the physical and digital worlds.
Our first guest will be Meg O'Connell, who is the founder and CEO of Global Disability Inclusion. Good to see you again, Megan. Congratulations on the research. We'll talk a little bit about that when we get further along. Let's talk first about Global Disability Inclusion.
First of all, let me thank you for having me. This is a great opportunity to sit and chat and opine about all things inclusion and accessibility, which you know I love.
So, yeah, I started early on in my career, I was a bank teller at a small regional bank in Richmond, Virginia, called Crestar Bank, which later became SunTrust Bank, and just currently became Truist. But, as I was new to the area, I was looking for opportunities to meet people, get out and about, and I started taking sign language classes in the evenings just for something to do.
I live in St. Augustine, Florida now. I grew up spending my summers here. And the school for the deaf and blind is here. So I was very aware of the deaf and hard of hearing community and the access and inclusion that was happening in St. Augustine, but didn't really see that elsewhere, so sign language had always been of interest to me.
So I started taking classes in the evenings and one of the activities that we were required to do was go to what they called silent dinners. And they were usually held at a food court at the local mall where the Deaf community would get together on Friday nights and they would welcome sign language students to come and practice their sign language skills.
Lots of funny stories from that, but that's another whole episode, in learning sign language and making fatal mistakes as you learn. But, word started getting out that there was a teller that could sign. So, I started having a following of deaf customers come to my teller window. People were driving 20, 30, 40 miles just to make a deposit so they had somebody to talk to and ask questions.
And, of course I was still just learning so I wasn't that good, and I started asking questions around the bank.
What are we doing for customers with disabilities, particularly those who are deaf and hard of hearing? And the answer was nothing. And this was the mid-90s at the time, and everyone was focused on the ADA, but architectural barriers and how to get people into buildings, and less about customer service and the employment of people with disabilities.
So, I did some research and like any 20-something year old I sent a note to the CEO 'cause I had heard him speak at an event and he assured everyone he had an open-door policy. So I took him up on it and, you know, he invited me to come and sit down with him and, because we were in such close proximity to Gallaudet University we actually had one of the -- the second largest concentration of deaf and hard of hearing people in the country. So such a great customer base for the footprint that we were in at that time, which was Virginia, Maryland, and D.C.
And, he liked the idea and, you know, I quickly got moved to the Retail Strategic Marketing Department. And we started building out our customer service program for people with disabilities.
We started with the deaf and hard of hearing community and we created a video tape series. Yes, I know, for all Gen Zs I'm aging myself tremendously by saying video tape (laughter). That was on banking basics. Checking, savings, money market accounts, how to apply for a mortgage, basics of investing and saving for the future. And it was all done in American Sign Language by people from the Deaf community. And also had open captioning on it. So that was our first step and still today is the only product like that in its existence, which is amazing so many years later.
And then we moved onto blind customers. I was taking statements home and recording them on my cassette tape in my apartment at night, reading their statements to them.
And we would get calls from customers saying, "It's so nice that I have a little privacy now, I don't have to have my mother, or my father, or my brother, or sister read me my bank statements, and then ask me questions about what I was spending my money on."
So, after kind of the very grass-roots efforts, we really developed a program to provide customer service and we began hiring people with disabilities because we knew the power of someone like you being able to communicate in your style, in your fashion, was so much more powerful than me, a sign language student that didn't really -- that had a limited vocabulary at that point. So, that really fueled my passion in understanding the challenges that people with disabilities faced in, just, basic customer service.
You know, they need bank accounts. They need checking accounts. They want to buy houses. And you know, what were we doing as an organization to help this community?
What did the bank discover as a result of that? What did they get for their money? I mean, you know, our understanding of it, you know, from our tribal association with it, tends to educate us to the fact that persons of disability by their very circumstance have to become early adopters. They have to understand technology quickly. They have to problem solve. They have to be self-reliant, and so on and so forth.
How did that come out in the workplace as you -- as you witnessed it?
It was like a bunch of little light bulbs going off, right, for people [JOHN: That's amazing. (laughter)] because the majority of people, I think don't even consider somebody with a disability.
And, historically, we haven't been particularly nice to people with disabilities. We've put them in institutions. We pay them subminimum wage. So we've created this narrative of people with disabilities not being able to contribute.
"Oh, do they really have a bank account? Can they work? Do they need our services?"
So there were lots of those questions early on that, you know, is about the cultural shift or the mind shift that we have to have as business people, that, Yes, people with disabilities do work. They do drive cars. They do save money. They purchase houses and cars and toothpaste and clothing, and all of those things, so, it was an eye-opener for a lot of our executives to be thinking about the disability community and the power that -- that it brought and it could leverage.
And, we certainly had new -- new customers, new clients, you know, started hiring people with disabilities. We we part of an assistive technology loan fund program that still exists today, so if you were in an accident and needed to, you know, retrofit your home, the bank would give you discounted loan rates so you could retrofit your home at a reasonable cost and expense. It essentially was a loss leader for the bank, but it brought in so many other customers for the day-to-day banking needs that it was seen as really valuable.
How did you come down to St. Augustine -- go back home, and decide to -- what was the inspiration behind Global Disability Inclusion?
Well, I had spent, you know, most of my career in the corporate world. I'm an HR person by function and profession, and I worked for Booz Allen Hamilton for 10 years. So very much in the world of consulting and people strategy and engagement, and those types of activities. And, you know, loved my time there, but as I was hitting that 10-year mark, I started getting the itch again to really focus exclusively on disability.
And I was always involved while I was at Booz. I ran the employee resource group for people with disabilities for 4 years. I was on some projects that, you know, had a little bit of disability to them, but not every project did.
And I just got to the point that I really needed to fuel that passion again in the same way I had earlier in my career.
So, I -- I left Booz Allen and I went to work for a non-profit for 3 years and loved that experience, too. Had not been in the non-profit world. And, you know, after that, I really wanted to send the message or continue to convey the message that, companies need to invest in disability inclusion in the same way they do other diversity initiatives. And, most of those diversity initiatives mean hard, big expenses, and unfortunately disability kind of get categorized into this philanthropic bucket.
So, companies typically would write a check to a non-profit organization, which is great 'cause they're helping to contribute, but they still weren't viewing people with disabilities as a talent solution and part of the workforce that they wanted to include in customer service.
And so, you know, I just really felt the time for me was for me to put a stake in the ground and messaging disability inclusion is part of a global diversity initiative, and we need to treat it in that same way. And so that was really the impetus of setting up the company.
We've been really fortunate. We've had a lot of great clients in our 8 years. I've got about 10 consultants I work with around the country that I pull into other projects, and we do mostly large companies, like, you know, Starbucks, Cummins, Procter & Gamble, Michaels, several others. So we've been really fortunate that we've got a lot of great clients that get it, and we don't have to convince them.
So yeah, it's been a really great journey and it's nice when your passion is also your profession.
That brings up an interesting question. So, you mentioned some brand names that people recognize. How do they -- they can sit and make a decision. The decision has to become a responsibility some place of someone or some people. That then has to go out and say, "Okay, we want -- we've incorporated this policy, we want to bring this to bear. How can you help us? We don't know where to go from here. Where do we start?"
You know, the most important step in anything, whether it's disability inclusion or ramping up your workouts, right, is to really understand where you are. And to assess where you are and begin to create a vision of where you want to go.
So, you know, typically what we do with companies is we look at their organization holistically.
What are you doing across all of your lines of business when it comes to people with disabilities How are you making sure that they are included? Are you making sure that they're included? Many organizations aren't. We look at policies, programs, procedures, we talk to employees. We really try to get a clear, you know, current state of what's happening.
And then, you know, do old-fashioned strategic planning. You know, let's talk about where you want to go. Where are the opportunities? What are your competitors doing? You know, where do you want to head? What can be your differentiator? And, you know, map out where we should go. So, you know, good old-fashioned project management.
You know, the barriers -- those are the hardest ones, right, and the most significant one is the attitudinal barriers. You know, I talked about that a few minutes ago. I still, every meeting I have, see light bulbs go off where someone -- I had no idea.
You know, make a comment and someone will say, "Oh, I didn't know deaf people drive cars." You know, I mean just basic information that folks don't know, so they have these beliefs or understanding or what they think they understand about people with disabilities, and they bring that to the workplace. And then, so it's, you know, the unconscious bias or the blatant bias around people with disabilities because they haven't seen a lot of it in their workspace.
The beautiful thing that we have happening right now is we have the millennials and the Gen Zs who grew up with the ADA. And so their expectations are very different than, say, someone who is in their 50s and ADA happened during their lifetime, and it was the fight to get it -- equal, and get equal access.
Well you have this whole generation that's growing up, and by no means is it perfect, there's still lots of things we can do to increase access and inclusion, but this generation has very different expectations and really owns their disability status and is prideful of it.
And, it's very different from when I was coming up at that age. It was very much don't ask, don't tell. If you didn't -- if people couldn't see your disability, if you had an invisible disability, don't ever tell them under any circumstances unless you absolutely have to. And that's shifted completely.
We've got people saying, "You don't have to say persons with disabilities anymore. I'm disabled and I'm proud of it."
So, the attitudinal shifts are gonna continue to happen because you've got the younger generation setting the new standard of what disability inclusion should look like.
There seems to be a growing voice, now, I don't know whether the trigger mechanism of the millennials is responsible for it. I don't know whether the trigger mechanism was the Covid reality that, it didn't just strike home with one segment of the global population. It struck home in every single zip code across the world.
I think that the pulse is changing. But, we don't win in every game. And, when you have -- we've talked about why you win when you win. Why do you lose when you lose?
So, couple of things.
First, I think you're so right with this past year. Every, almost every diversity group has had their moment, for good reasons, for a lot of bad reasons unfortunately. But it's made the world stop and take notice.
And the, you know, blessing of Covid for people with disabilities has been everyone had to get smart on accessibility with, you know, working from home, working remotely, making sure that everybody had the same type of access and inclusion. You know, using online platforms for meetings like this and making sure captioning is enabled so that people can, you know, follow along, whether they're hard of hearing or English is their second language. So there were so many things that Covid brought us from an inclusion standpoint that has heightened that voice that you talk about.
The things that make us still fail are the things that made us fail 30 years ago when I started this. And it's the -- the limited thinking, the belief that people with disabilities can't contribute.
And a lot of times what fails within companies, and I think we were talking a little about this before we started recording, is that a lot of companies will start a disability and inclusion effort, very similar to how I started.
You've got somebody with a passion, somebody with a connection to the disability community, whether they're a parent or a sibling or a spouse, and they bring it to the workplace and someone in leadership says, "Yes, we're gonna do this, it's a good idea."
And the program gets off and running, and then they have a career change. They go to work at another company. They move to another area within the organization, or whatever. And the person with the passion is no longer driving that and no one's picking it up.
And that's where the programs fail.
So that's why that holistic approach is so important and really embedding disability inclusion into your basic operations is what's gonna make it successful.
So thinking about, as an HR person I'll use this example, the employment lifecycle.
And that's all of the points within an employee's lifecycle with the company that they get touched. You know, sourcing, recruiting, onboarding, including onboarding paperwork, to engagement surveys, to development, performance management. Now you're gonna enter into alumni status.
All of those are points at which the company touches the employee in usually a pretty robust and meaningful way. So how are we embedding disability into those stages so that people truly understand, "Yes I'm included and I'm welcome. I'm not an afterthought or somebody going, 'Oh god, we didn't know we needed to do that. We have a person with a disability here. No one told us.'" Which unfortunately happens more often than not.
You know, recruiters are surprised when an accommodation is requested and they don't know where to go to get it, because it's somewhere in their HR department and they maybe get two requests a year and they can't remember.
So that person's resume unfortunately goes to the bottom of the list while they figure out, you know, who else they can bring forward. So it really has to be embedded in the organization and in the processes of the organization.
These accommodations can be things that you ordinarily -- there is no chance that you ever thought about it ahead of time.
I can't tell you how many times I'll -- I have gone to a client's site, and that's one of the first things I do. I pull up. I'm looking at what's around and I get to the door and I press the automatic manual door that's supposed to open up and it's not working. You know, and so I'm like, first fail (chuckles), you know, you gotta make sure basic access is working.
So, all of those pieces are so important.
You are encouraged that democratization is possible in our time as far as employment is concerned for the disabled. Yet, you just recently, yesterday, released a study that shows that there is a long way to go to cross that chasm.
We did a research study with Mercer, and in particular Dr. Pete Rutigliano, who I've known for a number of years back from my time at Booz Allen, and we started analyzing disability inclusion data in engagement surveys.
And the reason why it sparked my interest, you know, was because I knew companies weren't asking the disability demographic question.
So, when you fill out your survey and you get to the end, "Are you, you know, what's your gender? Are you married? What level are you in the organization? You know, what's your race, ethnicity," all of that.
Disability, it's hardly ever on that question. So Pete and I set out to, of course they have this massive global database because they do a lot of employee surveys, to really analyze.
And when we looked through over 12 million data sets, only four-and-a-half percent of companies even asked the disability question. So, as we analyzed those four-and-a-half percent that asked the question and looked at the differences between people with disabilities and those without disabilities, the gaps were a mess.
So putting it in perspective, you know, in some cases the gaps are 12 or 13 or 14 percentage points difference. But a call to action is typically a 5 percentage point difference. So we know companies are investing tens of hundreds of thousands of dollars if there's a disparity between two groups.
So if you have males that scored 90 percent engagement and females were at 85, which are still both really great scores, a lot of time and energy and resources are invested in, What's causing these disparities? What programs can we put in place to help narrow that disparity so that there's more equity between those two groups?
So when you have gaps that are 12, 13, 14 percentage points, no one's really looking at that data and what we found is the numbers were so small within those companies that many times companies would say, Well only two percent of the population are people with disabilities so we're even gonna bother kinda analyzing what the difference is and why. Which from, you know, if you look at straight numbers in that sense, it makes sense.
But if you look at it from, so, this is a little good news, bad news story, right?
So that's the bad news. Companies aren't really paying attention to the data, but where their opportunity is here is that if we start paying attention to people with disabilities and asking questions of our employees with disabilities that we can assume the -- your employee population represents what's in the community, which means 15 to 20 percent of your employee population are people with disabilities.
So as you start to investigate this population, you have the opportunity to potentially influence in a very positive and real way, up to 20 percent of your employee population.
No other group has that ability to do that. So if we get companies to just really pay attention, there's a lot of opportunity here.
Disability doesn't need -- it's not about pity, it's about paychecks.
These are very competent people and maybe a threat to some companies that more have more dead wood than they think they do.
Well, and it's such a good point, and there's a phrase we use a lot an it's called Designing for Disability.
People often think about disability as an after -- afterthought. Whether it's software, digital accessibility, designing homes, people aren't thinking about designing for disability on the front end. And as we know with anything, to retrofit, it's a lot more expensive than it is if you create with disability in mind.
Because what we've found, and the most widely used example are curb cuts, right? So, those were designed so people with disabilities can go from sidewalk to sidewalk, city into city, as they move about. Everyone uses them. Moms with strollers. People with shopping carts. People with luggage. That was one of those things that was like, it was designed for disability, but it's actually great for everybody. Everybody uses them.
Same with the automatic manual doors. How many times have you had your arms full and can't get the door and you throw your hip into the (chucking) automatic door so it opens up for you and you can get in.
You know, if we start thinking about our design components, whether it's customer service, product development, hiring talent, and we do it with the disability lens on, we will do it better for everybody.
That's exactly the point of all of this.
You know, I say it all the time and I use it in my presentations with companies all the time, that you know, disability is diversity. And when you pull up all the other disability -- all the other diversity demographics and the percentages, people with disabilities are the largest minority group in the world.
But the beauty of disability inclusion is that if you're doing disability you're also doing diversity, because disability is not a white issue or a black issue or a male issue or a female issue or an Asian issue, it is a human issue. And, the chances of us aging into some type of disability are almost guaranteed (laughter).
So we must start creating better environments so that as we think about our futures and where we wanna go and the children that we'll have that disabilities, what kind of world do we want to live in? My vote is it's one that's designed so it works for everybody.
And that's why accessibility matters. I hope that the receivers of this find comfort and encouragement. And people who open their heads, their hearts, their businesses to welcome the disabled are -- are generally speaking much, much better off for having done so.
So Megan thank you so much for sharing this time and your -- and your insight and depth of knowledge into this.
Well thank you John. I enjoyed it. We'll talk soon.
Good to see you.
So what did Meg do that changed the accessibility world? Pretty simple. She looked at something that didn't look right, and then she went out and she changed it. And it's been her life's work ever since. And many, many people are better off because of it.
That concludes this first session of Accessibility Matters. We hope to see you again some time soon.
[On screen, scrolling: Accessibility Matters, Host: John M Griffin, Guest: Meg O'Connell, Founder & CEO, Global Disability Inclusion. Closing chimes accompany 'Accessibility MattersTM' animation on screen, briefly, followed by Accessibility.com logo with text: Accessibility Starts Here®.]