A late Friday afternoon telephone call more than 25 years ago forever changed the way I view workplace diversity.
The call came from someone in a large corporation who told me in a young-sounding, panicked voice that she had been asked to create a program to hire people with disabilities. I mirrored her panic, as it was the last day of my first week of my first real job after graduate school: managing a federally-funded grant aimed at improving the way employers recruited disabled college students.
But inspiration struck; I took a deep breath.
“Does your organization have a diversity program?” I asked.
“Yes,” she told me.
I encouraged her to talk about some of the successes of the program, and she excitedly described how their efforts were encouraging African Americans to join their company.
“Sounds great,” I said. “What is your organization doing to make this happen?”
She described their outreach efforts on college campuses.
“That’s terrific,” I told her. “Just keep on doing what you’re doing.”
“That’s it?” she asked in a startled voice.
“Well, yes,” I said. “You might have to tinker with the program to adapt it to students with disabilities and those that support them. But there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel.”
“Oh,” she said. “Well, thanks. Have a great weekend.”
I have thought about this exchange often as I straddled the gap between diversity, disability, and leadership. Over the years, I have heard countless diversity managers say some version of:
“Look, we’re focusing our diversity program on (fill in the blank(s). We know disability is important, but—.”
This thinking is self-defeating, as people with disabilities appear in all groups. More importantly, viewing each underrepresented group separately masks similar challenges members of each group face: less ability to control our visibility, an underappreciation of our skills, the tendency to be treated as the spokesperson of the underrepresented group(s) to which we belong, and the sense that we are round pegs in square holes. Viewing each group separately also suggests that a separate skill set is required to support members of each separate group to succeed, making the diversity journey much harder than it needs to be.
Consider the following training activity I have used over the years:
I ask participants to think of an example when they successfully interacted with someone they perceived to be significantly “different,” and what made the interaction successful?
While the differences exercise participants described were vast, the skills used to bridge these differences were surprisingly similar, with empathy, active listening, reaching for similarities, and managing conflicts the most commonly noted.
I suggest the following strategies for those interested in creating common ground among groups, with a focus on people with disabilities.
Stress similarities whenever possible. When I discuss the Americans with Disabilities Act-related “reasonable accommodations” concept, I point out that each of us subtly accommodate to the quirks of others; that’s what inclusion is all about.
Use intersectionality to your advantage. Intersectionality, when stripped of the controversy the term has caused, simply means that each of us belong to separate but related groups, and that exploring these cross-currents can lead to empathy and joint action.
Differences are far less important when each member of the group is truly committed to a common, challenging goal.
Explore the connection between managing diversity and managing conflict.
Incorporate diversity concepts into existing leadership and management training, stressing that the skills learned, while more useful when working with people from underrepresented groups, work for everyone.
Adapt strategies you used to connect with one group as you reach out to other groups; no need to reinvent the wheel.
Consider the possibility that the thread binding diversity, disability, leadership, and management is inclusion.