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Accessibility Matters Panel Discussion

As part of this year’s inaugural Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Accessibility Leadership Forum, the L.A. Times B2B Publishing team staged a panel discussion exploring the trends, updates and issues pertaining to accessibility in today’s workplaces.

The panel was moderated by Mari-Anne Kehler, CDP of GHJ, and featured expert commentary from Sue Chen of NOVA Medical Products; Katherine Pérez of The Coelho Center for Disability Law, Policy and Innovation; Elaine Hall of The Miracle Project; and Marlene Krpata of the U.S. Army, Retired.

2021 Inspirational Women

Mari-Anne Kehler, CDP

Partner and Chief Strategy OfficerGHJ

Mari-Anne Kehler, CDP, leads GHJ’s growth strategy, especially in relation to business development and marketing. She is alsoa strategist for GHJ Foundation, GHJ’s vehicle for purposeful and proactive giving to the community. She has more than 30 years of experience as a high-impact leader who successfully expands business. Passionate about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), Kehler leads DEI strategy at GHJ and was credentialed by the National Diversity Council through Emory University as a Certified Diversity Professional (CDP) in 2020.

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Sue Chen

Founder & CEO NOVA MEDICAL PRODUCTS

As the CEO of NOVA Medical Products, Sue Chen is changing the way people embrace aging and tackle physical challenges with innovative and stylish products. In her book, “Confessions of a Walker Stalker,” Chen chronicles her journey and mission to unleash and ignite human ability.
Combining her passion for ocean conservation and human ability, Sue is the co-founder of Operation Blue Pride, an organization supporting veterans through scuba diving and ocean education.

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Katherine Pérez

Director THE COELHO CENTER FOR DISABILITY LAW, POLICY AND INNOVATION

Katherine Pérez is the inaugural director of the Coelho Center for Disability Law, Policy and Innovation. She is a current doctoral candidate in disability studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she is writing a dissertation on the Burger Supreme Court cases in the criminal legal system and mental disability. Pérez focuses on disability and immigration law and policy. As a queer, disabled woman of color, and granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, her experiences inform her approach to intersectional justice.

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(Caroline White Photography)

Elaine Hall

Founder THE MIRACLE PROJECT

Elaine Hall is the founder and artistic director of The Miracle Project, a fully inclusive film and theater program, profiled in the two-time Emmy-winning HBO film, “Autism: the Musical.” She is considered a pioneer in creating neurodiverse original content for film and theater. As a technical advisor, script consultant, accessibility coordinator and on-set advocate/coach, Hall has worked with TV and film writers, directors, actors, and production companies to help assure their content authentically portrays individuals of all abilities and disabilities.

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Marlene Krpata

U.S. Army Captain, Retired TACTICAL INTELLIGENCE OFFICER

Marlene Krpata isa retired U.S. Army Captain and tactical intelligence officer. Her decorations include Meritorious Service Medal (2x), Army Commendation Medal (2x), National Defense Service Medal with a Bronze Star, Iraq Campaign Medal with a Campaign Star, and Kosovo Campaign Medal with a Bronze Star. In 2006, she was hit with indirect mortar fire that severely damaged her right leg, ultimately resulting in amputation. Today, she works for UBS Financial asa financial intelligence analyst.

SHARED INSIGHTS FROM THE EVENT

CHEN: I define accessibility in the workplace as being in a “work ecosystem” that cultivates your entire person, allowing you to access your ability … physically, intellectually and emotionally. Accessibility matters because it is the most important priority to further your company’s mission. To make that happen, you have to create an eco-system/ environment for your most valuable asset– your employees – to not just survive, but thrive.

HALL: In my experience “accessibility in the workplace” means that everyone, no matter what their ability or disability, may openly disclose their specific needs to a trusted co-worker and supervisor without bias and concern. Accessibility is a state of mind – an attitude – not limited to building ramps, or removing physical obstacles (although this is a start) – but creating a social/emotional as well as a physical environ- ment that truly supports individual differences and needs. An accessible workplace is a space where those who experience the world differently are not just “included” but provided with the resources so that they can do their best work. One person’s strength is another’s challenge. Acces- sibility encourages true teamwork where everyone can shine. Accessibility allows each worker to bring their talents and assets into the workplace, creating an atmosphere where everyone is not just included but where everyone belongs.

KEHLER: Employees not only want to be included, but they also want to belong. Employers need to build an environment where their greatest asset, employees, not only survive but thrive. Having a workplace that is accessible to everyone creates a culture of empathy, empowerment and strength. Providing equal access fosters a culture where all employees feel accepted and supported to succeed.

KRPATA: Having an employer that is focused on accessibility is very important and fosters unity and signals that everyone on staff is important to that employer. That’s what people with disabilities need to help bring out the best in them as employees. Accessibility signals that people with disabilities are needed and welcome – regardless of what point they are on in their disability journey.

PÉREZ: Providing access means you are viewing your employees as individuals with different strengths and needs. Providing access means you presume capacity and focus on changes to the work environment. When you are inclusive to disabled employees, you create a culture that is inclusive of everyone. Employers open up the talent pipeline. They increase innovation, especially since disabled folks are innovators by necessity in an ableist world. Hiring employees with disabilities helps employers reach their diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) goals. People, especially younger generations, want to work in diverse settings and consumers want to support businesses that are representative of the world we live in.

CHEN: When you createa workplace eco-system of accessibility, you create shared empathy and shared empathy is shared strength. Empathy is not sympathy. You express sympathy, but you share empathy. A culture of empathy is a culture of active and dynamic caring and connection. Empathy is the most powerful connector that bridges and aligns people and transforms them into comrades. Createa culture that empowers. One that celebrates and commends people to be their entire amazing selves. Accessibility is the greatest form of empowerment. That empowerment and empathy inspired NOVA to completely change our attitude about our products and the medical equipment industry – from one of disability to one of bad-ass ability.

HALL: The pandemic and new hybrid work environments have had some positive impacts on workplace accessibility. In many ways, working virtually has become a great ‘equalizer.’ Those who prefer less stimulating, quieter workplaces can thrive in the sanctity of their own home, being able to do their work without ‘chatter,’ interruptions, and having to feign social grace. By being able to work in our own homes, barriers of accessibility are a non-issue, and we can create the optimal physical space that is needed. At The Miracle Project, a neurodiverse theater and film program for individuals with and without disabilities, we have created two original musical films virtually during the global pandemic. When audiences view the final product (original musical films) – no one knows who does or does not have a disability. Together we are a troupe of creative individuals sharing our strengths and challenges, expressing our voice, and changing the way the world perceives ability.

KEHLER: The pandemic threatened accessibility for everyone. It created an interesting dynamic where the interests of the majority now aligned with those with disabilities, who have been asking for virtual or hybrid options for years.

This sparked innovative solutions with the development of new remote working technology and proved that we could really flourish in a hybrid environment.

KRPATA: As businesses go back to work, post-COVID or move to hybrid models, it’s important that companies continue to pay attention to the specific needs of their disabled employees. Self-advocacy can play an important role here, as those who need special accommodations or access remind HR and management what is needed during the going-back-to-work phase.

PÉREZ: Disabled people have been asking to work from home and virtually for a long time. It took a pandemic in which the non-disabled world was threatened for businesses to acquiesce. Eventually, we proved that homework, virtual work, and hybrid work are not only possible but do not have negative effects. In fact, in many ways, it boosts productivity. Virtual work broke down barriers for many disabled people though not all (since access is not a onesize-fits-all thing). What I hope the pandemic has demonstrated is that we have existing technology or at least the means to develop technology to create so much access for people with disabilities. We just have to be willing to think outside the box and make it happen!


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