Disability is Difference: What’s next?

Disability is a natural part of the human experience…

–The Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act

Those nine words that begin the preamble of the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act represent a huge paradigm shift in the way we view people with disabilities—and barriers—to self-sufficiency. To parse that phrase even more clearly, one might simply say: everyone is different. Not exactly a revolutionary concept, yet somehow people with disabilities and barriers have had to fight for their rights over centuries-old stigma and misunderstanding. People with disabilities—and barriers—it appears, are seen as more different.

We’ve come a long way since the days of laws like the “Ugly Laws” that were passed in the American colonies in the 1800s and not fully repealed until 1974, when the city of Chicago took the laws off their books. In shocking language, the Chicago Municipal Code Sec. 36034 stated, “no person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed to be an unsightly or disgusting object or improper person to be allowed in or on the public ways or other public places in this city, or shall therein or thereon expose himself to public view…” These laws were echoes of many, many years of prejudice, widely accepted not just in the U.S. but all over the world. We all know there are many horror stories of how people with disabilities were treated—and mistreated—throughout history, which is of course why laws, like the Brown v Board of Education, the Architectural Barriers Act, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and The Americans with Disabilities Act exist today.

Conditions for people still vary from state to state, for example, not all states have embraced full employment for individuals with intellectual/developmental disabilities. Those states that have report story after story of individuals who were once believed unable to work in the competitive workforce  living lives they had not dreamed possible.

What of the future? It is only within the last sixty years that our legal landscape has helped alter how society views those of us with disabilities. Yet the prejudices still linger. People still see individuals with barriers or with disabilities—or differently advantaged—as the “other”—as “them,” not as “us.” There is an inherent prejudice that exists, which I believe is based in fear—fear of the unknown. Unless we are able to place ourselves in another’s skin, we cannot begin to understand what their life is like. What will it take for us to lessen our fear, lessen our “unknowingness,” and ultimately to accept that we are all different, indeed.

I look forward to the day when we just think of ourselves, all, as different. Is there a seismic shift that needs to happen, or do we continue with chipping away at expanding the existing laws? How do we inculcate change in our culture that extends beyond the laws? What is one thing that we can do today to help move our momentum forward at warp speed?

As always, I welcome your thoughts.

Leading as Women—Fedcap’s 13th Solution Series.

Every time we hold one of our Solution Series, I hear—and I learn—something new that enriches and enlivens my work as a leader and as a human being. Last week’s Solution Series was by far no exception.

Our 13th Solution Series—Leading as Women: How Women Are Increasing Productivity and Changing Business—was held last Tuesday, October 11, with a “sold-out” live attendance and nearly 500 people streaming from throughout the country. It was a great event, well hosted by our Chief Strategy Officer, Lorrie Lutz, and featuring a panel of distinguished women leaders who disseminated great insight and advice to local and national business leaders, staff, funders, and political leaders in attendance.

There were several themes that emerged in the idea-packed, hour-long program. Christine Quinn, President and CEO of WIN—Women in Need—and former speaker of the NYC Council (and first woman to hold that post), opened the program fedcap_0006by heralding the Solution Series dialogue as a “radical conversation.”

Why does it matter? When women are in the boardroom or C-suite, businesses are 35% more profitable, and there is a 34% higher return to shareholders. These are huge numbers. So why aren’t there more women in these positions?

Gina Berndt, managing director of Perkins and Will’s Chicago Office, a global innovative architectural and design firm, suggested that a limited pipeline indeed contributes to fewer women in high positions. She also optimistically suggests that the stats are changing but that it will still take time. For example, in 1970, just 9% of business degree graduates were women, compared to 2001, where they comprise 50% of graduating business majors.  She offers hope that the pipeline will continue to grow.

In addition to a pipeline “issue,” entrepreneurial and business women fare less well than their male counterparts when it comes to venture capital investment. Women garner just 7% of venture funds and 5% of bank loans.  Denise Barges, board member of Blue Cross/Blue Shield and Financial Portfolio Manager of the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation, discussed the need for greater investment in women entrepreneurs. Ironically, because there is less access to funding, women leaders tend to be more creative in the “do more with less” approach to business, thereby making them shrewd and savvy business people, well positioned as leaders to initiate and follow through on projects—and less likely to waste time or money as more tends to be at stake in their businesses.

Sarah Carson, founder and CEO of the innovative clothing line Leota, echoed Ms. Barges’ comments by suggesting that when a business is underfunded—for whatever reason—it means that in order to be successful, its leaders must be highly disciplined and highly efficient to succeed. Leota is an example of both discipline andfedcap_0070 efficiency as it was celebrated by Inc  as one of the fastest growing companies in the country.

All of the panelists cited strengths typically and traditionally associated with women as great traits and reasons for successful business leadership. Built into our DNA are things like the ability to focus on several things at once, great problem-solving skills, project management, a tendency toward collaboration and natural networking, the ability to scan the landscape and the ability to impact and influence culture—all attributes that only enhance internal and external business culture and bottom line.

Ana Oliveria, President and CEO of the NY Women’s Fund brought a Foundation’s perspective to the conversation. She challenged the audience with an example from the current transgender movement as a way to re-consider how people are perceived inside and out of business. She discussed examples of those who have transgendered and how there is a decline in credibility for those who transgender from male to female and an increase in credibility for those who transgender from female to male. This was a fascinating perspective as we stay open to new ways of looking at gender and business.

Toward the end of the discussion, Lorrie asked each of the panelists to offer a piece of advice for women leaders going forward. Each was brilliant in her response:

Sarah Carson explained that success is a moving target. She cited two keys to her success: getting help—a lot of it—to set up accountability and structure and she said she, “ruthlessly curates my life. I choose two or three things I am going to do and I do those really well. No suffer no guilt about what I leave behind.”

fedcap_0044Denise Barges emphasized the need to have confidence. She said that a lot of opportunity can be missed because women can be fearful of “stepping out.” Additionally she said, “A lot of success has to do with envisioning yourself at a higher level,” and then setting goals and pulling in help to attain those goals.

Gina Berndt said directly, “Be bold.” She added, “Talent doesn’t know gender, it doesn’t know race.” She emphasized looking for talent everywhere and remembering to accommodate for it by being flexible and realizing that everyone has a unique way of fulfilling that talent.

And finally, Ana Oliveria suggested that a great way to re-think success is to look directly at the systems and processes in place and consider a pivot. We need to ask ourselves: are there practice, systems, or principles that we are living in that can be advanced? This consistent objective approach helps keep businesses alive and thriving. Women tend toward the strengths of analyzing those processes for change.

This was great advice from these remarkable and talented women. So now I invite you: be bold: what are your ideas about how to increase the influence of women in leadership roles? What have you observed or what have you done that has worked? How can you advance diversity in leadership—as mentor, sponsor, or advisor?

Please join me in this fascinating conversation. I welcome your thoughts!