Safe spaces are not comfortable spaces

While Spring has officially begun, Winter continues to exert its presence in the form of cold winds. The story in this issue of the Affinity News talks about the paradox of emotional and intellectual ‘safe spaces.’ I would greatly appreciate your input through a brief survey that supplements the essay.

This essay will serve as background for the Mainstreaming on Main Street® (MoMS) Connecters Table on April 21 and the Servant-Leader roundtable on April 28. I hope you will participate in one or both of these conversations, as appropriate.

As always, your feedback and sharing of these posts with others is encouraged.

In this issue:

Story: Safe spaces are not comfortable spaces

As the television series “This is Us” comes to its end, I ponder why I am so attracted to the show. The writers have used the memory loss of the family matriarch as a tool for the characters reflections on their pasts and making meaning through the events of their lives. A consistent theme throughout the run of the show has been the meaning the Pearson clan makes of the events of their lives. What is so striking to me is the fact that, despite their internal (and external) struggles, the characters consistently make time to have important conversations with their loved ones. The show demonstrates the power of conversations that are the building blocks of making meaning from relationships and events.

I use these essays as background for the roundtable conversations I facilitate each month. I have adopted the practice of having one topic for two parallel groups: the Servant-Leader roundtable, and the Mainstreaming on Main Street® (MoMS) Connectors Table. The Servant-Leader roundtable started in 2011. When I started, we were five individuals. Ten years later there are at least five Servant-Leader roundtables in Southeast Wisconsin. The roundtable I facilitate on the fourth Thursday of the month is focused on the intersection of Servant-Leadership and equity. The MoMS Connectors table is a gathering of persons with disabilities (PWD) who participate in professional/skilled settings. Sometimes the conversations are closely parallel, other times, not at all. When the two conversations diverge significantly I become aware of how little understanding is present.

One of the challenges in gathering people together is making a space for people to be themselves. In the 1990’s, my wife and I started facilitating conversations between couples preparing for marriage. The conversations included family traditions, handling money, religious beliefs, and sexual relationships. Part of the work was creating an atmosphere where couples were comfortable exploring (sometimes) uncomfortable topics. Years later the term for the atmosphere we supported would come to be known as a “safe space.”

The term safe space is one that is a recent addition to popular culture. Unfortunately, the phrase, “safe space” has become a culture war code word. A justifiable reason for the controversy is the fact that an intellectual safe space is likely to be disturbing and an emotional safe space avoids intellectual challenge. Safe spaces, like intellect and emotion, are not binary concepts. Individuals engaged in deep conversations in safe spaces are challenged both intellectually and emotionally. One of the most rewarding things a facilitator can hear after a deep, sometimes uncomfortable, conversation is, “I have a new understanding after seeing the topic from a different perspective.”

Lessons learned:

A problem with gathering people to make meaning from the many challenges we face in our culture seems to be fear of going beyond our comfort zone.

When I started the Mainstreaming on Main Street® (MoMS) Connectors Table, I intended it to be a gathering space for persons with disabilities (PWD) in professional settings and persons who value diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). I quickly found it a challenge to connect with people for whom DEI was as closely intertwined with their identity as disability is intertwined with the professional lives of persons with disabilities (PWD). It was more efficient to conduct the Connectors Tables for professionals with disabilities outside of the umbrella of DEI. Similarly, as the topics of the Servant-Leader (S-L) roundtable focus more directly on the intersection of Servant Leadership and equity, I find it more challenging to attract individuals who are open to sitting in this (sometimes) uncomfortable space.

I recently reached out to the Program Directer of the Ziedler Group to do some brainstorming on how we could be both more effective and collaborative in our public conversations. I had attended a Public Conversations Training: in November, 2011 with the founders of what would become the Ziedler Group. I didn’t get a response from Ms. McMurray, but I received a message through the Ziedler Group mailing list that they were suspending operations while they examined how they could be more effective in the community. There is no comfort in knowing others are also finding it challenging to gather people together to have meaningful conversations.

As I have developed my facilitation practice I have found two useful guiding principles:

  1. When we speak for ourselves, from our own experiences it is always a meaningful conversation
  2. The wisdom is in the room

These principles serve to remind participants that speculating on what others think is not useful and that the assembled group represents a unique combination of beliefs and experiences. Click the link for the simple, but comprehensive Operating agreements.

Like the Ziedler Group, I am curious about how I can engage more people in important conversations. I find the principles of Servant Leadership a useful set of guidelines for exploring topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

These things I know are true:

  • Inequity is a real thing
  • Injustice is a real thing
  • The impact of climate change is a real thing
  • The guy at the end of the bar who says, “All’s what you got to do is…” Probably doesn’t have a clear understanding of the whole picture
  • We are, most likely, the leaders we were hoping to find

 

A call for your feedback

I recently read an essay by Arthur C. Brooks called A Gentler, Better Way to Change Minds. Brooks talks about the futility of judging others based on their positions and encourages readers to explore their own values and the values of people we don’t agree with. He points out the research that supports his assertion. I always appreciate a case statement that is supported by verifiable research. The essay was a welcome find as I was developing this piece.

I have the luxury of facilitating the Servant-Leader roundtable and MoMS Connecters Table as passion projects. I have very little overhead expenses and what I learn from engaging with wise people more than makes up for the time I commit to coordinating the conversations. At this point I would like to hear from you about attracts you, and what challenges you, in engaging in deep conversations with people you don’t necessarily know.

Here are a few questions that have raised my curiosity. I believe I would learn a great deal if you would be willing to share your thoughts. You can respond through an anonymous survey, by clicking here.  .

 

  • Is the celebration of the diversity of ideas and people a part of your organizational life?
  • The organizations I am most closely associated with, have diverse leadership teams – Is this true for you?
  • What do you need to feel safe in a conversation?
  • What do you need from a group to be willing to take a risk in what you say?
  • What are people avoiding that they don’t think they’re avoiding?

 

References

Brooks, Arthur C. (APRIL 7, 2022). A Gentler, Better Way to Change Minds. The Atlantic. Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2022/04/arguing-with-someone-different-values/629495/

 

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Is this the mountain you want to die on?

March is a time of renewal. My ski equipment is ready for storage and Spring is around the corner. This month’s story, “The mountain you want to die on?” is about planting a stake and standing by it. The story lays the foundation for this month’s Mainstreaming on Main Street® (MoMS) Connecters Table and Servant-Leader roundtable conversations.

The story is a quick read, with a little food for thought. Comments and sharing are always welcome.

In this post:

 

Story: The mountain you want to die on?

The story of Professor Elizabeth Bearden is about the University of Wisconsin Madison digging their heels in based on questionable motives. Dr. Bearden has requested to teach on-line courses during the Covid-19 pandemic because she does not see and does not feel she can take responsibility for her own health safety while teaching in-person classes. The university administration has determined that allowing Prof. Bearden to be one of many professors to teach an on-line course during the pandemic would be an undue hardship on the university. The case raises the question, “When is it time to dig in our heels and stand up for ourselves?”

The information on this situation comes from an article by Devi Shastri, published in the Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel on December 20, 2021. According to the article, the Chair of Bearden’s (English) department is supportive of her request. The UW-Madison administration bases the undue hardship claim on their decision that classes that had been taught in person in the past should be taught in person starting in September 2021.

The article provides a variety of perspectives on the case. The situation has moved from being a reasonable request made of a (presumably) reasonable administration into a case to be adjudicated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Members of the UW-Madison administration chose not to respond to questions related to an on-going case.

The English department, like much of the university, is offering both on-line and in-person classes. The University Administration has suggested that Bearden could teach other on-line classes, as an alternative to those most closely aligned with her academic interests/experience. I am reminded of the old saying, “Is this the mountain you want to die on?” The article suggests that question was posed and met with an enthusiastic, “Hell yes” by the UW–Madison administration..

Lessons learned:

The UW-Madison administration’s justification, “Classes taught in person in the past should be taught in person” is logically equivalent to a parent’s, “Because I said so.” The fact that the EEOC case is unresolved does not eliminate it from having consequence. In this case, there are consequences to the administration’s actions that suggest clear messages even if the intent is unclear. Among the inferences available through Shastri’s article:

  • The University Administration appears to be comfortable with their position, even though it may appear arbitrary and irrational
  • Over-ruling the judgement of the department Chair makes a clear statement that her authority is advisory, at best
  • Suggesting Bearden could just teach another (on-line) course, sends the message academic excellence is not the highest priority of the UW-Madison Administration
  • The university’s statement, “Our goals: To promote shared values of diversity and inclusion, to engage campus leadership in this endeavor, and to improve institutional access and success through effective retention policies.” (Regents, 2022) appears to not be the case

Full disclosure: 1) as a person who is blind, I share Professor Bearden’s concerns; and 2) I am currently taking a course at UW-Milwaukee. I have no idea why the course is only offered on-line. I took it because I was interested in the subject first and delivery method second.

Applying the lessons

The UW-Madison administration has argued that allowing additional on-line courses would pose an undue hardship. Rather than to compromise the position it has taken; it is willing to appear arbitrary, controlling, soft on academic excellence, and indifferent to its stated values. Professor Bearden has taken the position that her personal safety is important enough to take her case to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The stakes are high for both parties.

The university administration appears to have started with a position with little regard for the consequences of that position. For those who identify as Servant-Leaders, this approach may not be optimal. The UW-Madison administration could have explored other options before planting their stake on the mountainside. Some ideas:

  • Walk-through likely scenarios. In this case, it wasn’t hard to foresee the path from denial of accommodation to litigation and news coverage.
  • Examine the organizational principles/values supporting the position. In this case, the university holds values in support of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Their position, not so much.
  • Ask, “How does this decision build community and how does the decision demonstrate stewardship of that community?”
  • Ask, “Is the undue hardship claim an excuse to avoid dealing with an uncomfortable/’slippery slope’ situation?”

As a person who regularly encounters functional/environmental barriers, I have had to advocate for myself as well as speaking on behalf of persons with disabilities (PWD). This experience has allowed me to examine my own motivations, as well as those of the people I have represented and those of the people/organizations I engage with. Some of the skills I find useful:

  • Start with the premise: I am a whole person, even if I am not like someone else.
  • Begin with the end in mind: In this case, Professor Bearden sought to ensure her personal safety considering a visual disability.
  • Collaborate with allies: Enlisting the support of peers/allies serves to validate reasonable requests and illuminate weaknesses in unjustified requests.
  • Ask: “Is this the mountain I want to die on?” If yes, let your principles/values be your guide.

 

References

 

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Beyond the price of beer and equity

When I was drafting this post, I wasn’t thinking of how much beer is consumed around the Super Bowl, nor did I realize the bright light the NFL would shine on the topic of equity. And yet, here we are. The story is about going beyond the top-line of the price of beer and of equity. Making space for equity is also the topic in February for both the Mainstreaming on Main Street® (MoMS) Connecters Table and Servant-Leader roundtable. Learn how to be a part of the conversation below.

Comments and sharing are always welcome.

In this post:

 

Story: Going beyond the top-line

I have been drinking nonalcoholic (NA) beers for almost 18 years. Since then, the market has changed and so have the offerings. My current beer of choice is Riverwest Stein NA, after drinking Heineken Zero for a while. Heineken is a company based in Amsterdam, with operations around the world. Riverwest Stein NA is brewed by Lakefront Brewery, located within walking distance of my home.

I recently compared the prices of the two brands. I had known that the Riverwest Stein was more expensive than Heineken, but I had not known by how much. It turned out that a six-pack of Riverwest cost $8.99, compared to $7.99 for the Heineken. That’s a difference of $1.00 or 12.5%. For an old guy who remembers when a gallon of gas cost $0.21, that seems a dramatic difference. In reality: 1) I can afford to pay an extra $1.00 for my preferred brand of beer, and 2) there is more to my choice of beer than the price.

The top-line difference between the two beers seems significant but that is not necessarily true. In economics textbooks most problems are premised with the statement, “Assume perfect information.” All I know is that the price of Riverwest is more than the Heineken. The costs of producing the beer and putting it on the grocery shelf are not known. You can see Heineken Zero advertised at many of the Formula One races broadcast around the world. Lakefront Brewery has a more homespun approach to marketing. I suspect the advertising budget of Heineken Zero is comparable to the total value of Lakefront Brewery. The lower price of Heineken Zero may yield a higher profit margin than Lakefront Brewery is able to achieve. If this were the case, Lakefront Brewery puts a higher percent of my purchase into putting the product on the grocery shelf. Since I care where my money goes when it leaves my hand, this is important to me.

One of the down sides of having an MBA and engaging with diverse people, is an innate discomfort with simply looking at the top-line differences between two choices. Where I grew up there was a sense that the simplest way of looking at things was the best way. I characterize this perspective as, “All’s what you have to do is…” If the question is what is the cheapest beer I’m willing to drink, Heineken might be my choice. If the question is, “What is the best use of my money when buying beer?” I’ll take the Riverwest Stein, thank you. Full disclosure: I think Riverwest Stein NA is a good tasting beer and I’m happy to pay the extra $0.17/can to drink it.

The seeds for this piece were grounded in the December 2021 Servant-Leader Roundtable. Our conversation centered on building community in the midst of inequity. The conversation focused on the challenge of community rather than a definition of equity. As the roundtable progressed, I found myself drawn to the relationship between community and equity. I recognized my concept of equity is interdependent with community. By the time the roundtable closed I had the seeds of my own understanding of equity and its relationship to community.

Diving deeper brought me to more meaningful definitions. Most of the statements I found approached equity through an institutional lens. A useful definition of equity comes by way of the Stanford Social Innovation Review: “Equity is fairness and justice achieved through systematically assessing disparities in opportunities, outcomes, and representation and redressing [those] disparities through targeted actions.” Urban Strategies Council (Kania, et. al., 2021).

This definition includes an explanation of what equity is (fairness and justice) and it addresses a path to the achievement of equity. I like it but wanted to go beyond the top-line definition.

In my experience developing and facilitating topics of race, relationships, and inclusion; the most effective programs have planted seeds and focused on understanding the small steps that have a big impact in the long-term. This definition was informative but did not lend itself to the cultivation of seeds that sprout the growth of equity. My thoughts went back to my choice of beers. Yes, sooner or later it always comes back to beer.

My role as a Barrier Knocker Downer calls on me to go beyond the top-line to get to the heart of issues. In this case, to where the action takes place. For me, a working definition of equity is: Equity is the ability to engage as an equal participant with those holding authority and power in addressing barriers to resources and outcomes . (Lococo, 2022).

Both statements are definitions, not solutions. Both statements plant seeds: one for policy guidance and one for engagement. Neither are prescriptive in how, when, and where those seeds are likely to sprout and grow.

Join the conversation

I facilitate two gatherings each month for change makers. The topic for February, 2022 is “Making space for equity.” The Mainstreaming on Main Street® (MoMS) Connecters Table will take place on Thursday, February 17 from 4:00 pm – 5:00 pm (CST). The Servant-Leader roundtable will take place on Thursday, February 24 from 8:00 am to 9:15 am (CST). The roundtables are first-person conversations driven by the wisdom of the people in the room.

For more information:

  • TheMainstreaming on Main Street® (MoMS) Connecters Table is a community of practice by/and for persons with disabilities (PWD) who engage in professional/skilled settings. The MoMS Connectors Table is a forum for PWD to explore topics related to the dance of being a professional and having a disability.
  • The Servant-Leader roundtable taking place on the fourth Thursday of the month is an opportunity for diverse people to gather to explore the intersection of Servant Leadership and systemic disenfranchisement. These roundtables are founded in the Servant Leadership principles articulated by Robert K. Greenleaf.

To join the MoMS Connecters Table, contact me directly. To receive notices and links to the Servant-Leader roundtables, click here to join the mailing list.

References

 

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It’s all about those systems

Seeing the remake of “West Side Story” proved to be much harder than expected. I thought the focus of this post was going to be about excluding persons with disabilities (PWD). Instead, it turned out to be a story of the impact of lackadaisical business processes on everyone, including PWD. We finally saw the movie (it was very good) but not until after frustrating the patrons in the theater, the staff, the General Manager of the theater, and me. The worst thing – the problem had been thoroughly addressed years ago.

I hope you enjoy the read. Please reach out with questions/comments.
In this post:

Story: All about those processes

We had been anticipating the re-make of the movie, “West Side Story” since learning about it in September 2019. The movie was being shown at the AMC Theater complex near our home. I only go to movie theaters that provide Descriptive Video Service (DVS). DVS provides a narrative description of the action taking place on the screen. It allows persons who don’t see the ability to follow non-verbal action without disturbing other patrons in a movie theater. We have found the DVS at this theater unreliable in the past but decided to pay our money and take our chances.

I requested a headset for accessing the Descriptive Video Service (DVS) as soon as we entered the theater. It took a few tries to persuade the Assistant Manager that DVS is different from what AMC calls “Assistive Listening” for persons with hearing difficulties. The Assistant Manager mentioned to one of his co-workers that he had only been shown once how-to setup the accessibility service. We received a set up headphones and a receiver and were told we were all set to enjoy the movie.

After an endless stream of previews, which did not include Descriptive Video Service, the movie finally started. It quickly became clear that the receiver I was given did not support DVS. My wife, Helen, left the theater to find someone who could provide the proper equipment. After a long while, Helen returned with a staff member who offered another device for assisted listening. We confirmed that a device for persons with hearing difficulties does not provide DVS. After disappearing for a while two staff members returned, one carrying a device that displayed closed captioning for persons who are hearing impaired. Helen pointed out that this was not of value to someone who does not see. The staff member then suggested the assistive listening receiver as a solution. I finally asked the staff member to put on the headphones while facing me and tell me what was happening on the movie screen. When we confirmed that the staff member was not able to tell me what was happening, a point of clarity was achieved. After another trip out to the lobby a staff member returned with a device that provided DVS. At this point I was ready to start watching the movie and my fellow audience members could be done with the parade of staff members running through the theater.

We spoke to a manager about our experience after the movie. I let the manager know I found it unacceptable to miss part of the movie while the staff scrambled around to figure out how to deliver the Descriptive Video Service (DVS). I noted the problem was not a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the staff. The manager told us about having many customers and few staff members. He offered us a set of complimentary tickets as a consolation for missing the start of the movie. When I suggested this is a problem that should be addressed at a level beyond the front-line staff, the manager identified himself as the General Manager and said there was no-one else to talk to. I did not bring up the fact that this is not the first time we’ve been through this drama. I accepted the comp tickets.

Lessons learned

The General Manager’s response prompted me to want to contact someone at the corporate offices. I thought I would write a persuasive statement making the business case for persons with disabilities (PWD) as members of the movie-going public. It was ironic that one of the first things I found when I did an internet search using the phrase, “AMC descriptive video service for patrons” was a court case against AMC Theaters that was settled in April of 2017. In the settlement, AMC agreed to do all the things I would have suggested in a letter to the company. AMC has already been down this road and apparently ignored the terms of the court settlement, and now what?

Denying access to persons with disabilities (PWD) to the movie-going experience is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A side consequence of the GM’s apparent inability to support the descriptive video service on a timely basis is that having staff members scrambling to figure out how to do their jobs is just not an efficient use of staff time. In this case, a 30 second transaction turned into a half-hour circus of three staff members running around to provide a well-advertised service to one patron. The GM’s claim of being short-staffed does not seem to be well supported here. There seems to be great opportunity for increasing customer service, employee satisfaction and overall profitability of the theater. The problem itself is one of organizational development: business processes, contingency planning, and staff education.

Applying the lessons

On its face this is a story about disability accommodations in a specific setting. While the connection to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) is clear, the solution to the problem can be most directly addressed through tools found in organizational development and business systems analysis. Among the take-aways from the experience:

  • The theater does not appear to have a process to verify they can deliver on advertised features (such as Descriptive Video Service)
  • Staff was trained but did not have confidence in their ability to provide the DVS service. At a time when good employees are hard to find and retain, hoping employees will remember the details of a one-time training in a high-stress situation seems an invitation for frustration and job dissatisfaction
  • The cost of failure was high -three staff members over a half hour
  • There was no process for testing the equipment: by the time a problem was detected, it was urgent. Note: this was addressed in the Court settlement AMC entered into in 2017
  • The lack of proper prior preparation supports the notion that a person with a disability caused a disruption of the theater viewing experience for other patrons
  • The General Manager expressed helplessness to address the problem. As a nation-wide corporation, AMC could provide each movie center with a standard set of procedures that would provide a consistent customer experience. This does not appear to be the case

    Alternatively, overturning the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 would allow the organization to exclude persons with disabilities from the meaning of “open to the public.” The problem disappears, but it doesn’t.

Be a part of the conversation

I facilitate two roundtable conversations through two social media channels:

  • Mainstreaming on Main Street® (MoMS) is focused on the intersection of persons with disabilities (PWD) and professional/skilled settings
  • Servant-Leader engages people at the intersection of Servant Leadership and institutional disenfranchisement

References

 

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Dan Lococo, PhD
Barrier Knocker Downer
Twitter: @danlococo
LinkedIn profile

Mainstreaming on Main Street
Supporting organizational environments inclusive of persons with disabilities in professional/skilled settings

Copyright 2022, Dan Lococo, All rights reserved

The border of disability employment awareness

I recently had a conversation with a group of college students who also are affected by a variety of disabling conditions. This lead me to consider what is intended when we celebrate “National Disability Employment Awareness Month” each year. Comments and sharing are always welcome.

In this post:

 

Story: The border of disability employment awareness

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). As someone who works in the area of organizational development with a focus on the inclusion of persons with disabilities (PWD) in professional settings, I am aware of NDEAM . As someone who has lived and worked with a visual disability for many years, I am not exactly sure what it means to have disability employment awareness.

I was a few years into a job as a materials manager when I was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease (retinitis pigmentosa). Even though I worked for a national company, they had no idea how to support an employee with a disability. I left that job and enrolled in a business data processing program at the Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC). The goal was to learn skills that would allow me to be productive as my vision diminished. After becoming a member of the Student Senate, I learned that the school had dedicated programs to support persons with hearing and visual impairments but did not have a general dedication to the inclusion of persons with disabilities (PWD).

I was able to facilitate the organizational infrastructure necessary to support students with personal care attendants in accessing the educational experience. This involved many meetings, lots of negotiations, and a whole bunch of good people who just didn’t know how they could make a difference from their corner of the world. Among the major activities:

  • Ensuring liability protection for all parties involved
  • Finding/making accessible restroom spaces
  • Connecting those who aspire to be care providers with those who would benefit from personal care support

    Connecting the people, processes, and systems to create a network that had not been previously imagined was not especially hard. The challenges came in the form of ‘why’ rather than ‘what.’ Once people understood how they could have an impact on making education more accessible to more people they were generally supportive of getting involved. I also learned that it was in my best interest to know how to manage the processes and relationships necessary to ensure I could be productive as a person with a visual impairment.

    Note: My time at MATC was prior to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The civil rights of persons with disabilities (PWD) had not yet been defined as a national standard.

    Another take away from my time at MATC was the concept of an interface. In data processing, an interface is a bridge between two systems. If the format and data elements to be included in the interface are agreed upon there is no need to know what happens on the other side of the interface. My work with Mainstreaming on Main Street® (MoMS) recognizes the paradox of assumptions that persons with disabilities (PWD) lack qualifications and the high percentage of employers who reach out for assistance in retaining valued employees after the onset of a disabling condition. My own research has been consistent with this paradox.

    My Doctoral dissertation focused on the relationship of persons with disabilities (PWD) with their employer in professional settings. The major portion of my research came from PWD and managers at the border of inclusion. This border is the interface where PWD and managers engage in the process of inclusion.

    One of my research subjects (I’ll call him Mark) had the support of the company CEO as he dealt with a disease of the central nervous system. The CEO assured Mark that the company would support him in any way they could. Mark found the CEO to be a strong ally in his continued employment. The accommodations Mark received included such things as a preferred parking place, flexible work schedule, and work from home options.

    On the other hand, a research subject (I’ll call David), with a hidden disability, found it challenging to negotiate ways to be effective in his role. His supervisor was not open to David’s suggestions regarding ways he could be more productive. David reported that the supervisor did not provide alternate solutions or seek further resources within the organization. In this case, the border of inclusion presented itself as a wall rather than an interface.

    Mark and David represent two extremes of inclusion. Disability employment awareness appears to be an important factor in the experiences of both Mark and David. In Mark’s case, Mark and the CEO had an open conversation regarding Mark’s disability. The CEO valued Mark as a part of the company and had authority (control) over the resources to ensure Mark’s continued contribution to the work of the company. David’s supervisor took a more transactional approach to inclusion. David’s role with the organization was not indefinite and that may have been a factor in his supervisor’s response to the situation. An exploration of options and alternatives did not appear to be a consideration in conversations between David and his supervisor or between/among David, his supervisor, and other organizational resources. As a result, David struggled to be effective in his work. He has since moved on and is using his skills in a similar (but different) setting.

    Note: Both organizations employ more than 1,000 persons. David’s employer is considerably larger than Mark’s.

The interface between employers and employees

The experiences of Mark and David were illustrative of my doctoral research. Mark’s relationship with the CEO was key to his continued success at the organization. The accommodations Mark benefited from were easily defined and within the CEO’s authority to provide. The accommodations David requested raised policy questions outside the scope of the supervisor’s control. David’s supervisor may have been uncooperative due to bias or may simply not have known what resources/ options were available (including those defined under the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act).

The interface between PWD in professional settings and organizations rarely presents itself like the clearly defined parameters of a data interface. As a PWD, it is necessary to understand this borderland and to be proactive in navigating the space. As a hiring authority, it is important to know how to navigate the organizational infrastructure necessary to be an inclusive employer. Along this border lies the challenges of:

  • Disability shame
  • Ablism
  • Inadequate infrastructure design
  • Inadequate knowledge of organizational infrastructure
  • Institutional disenfranchisement
  • A system that is not designed to end institutional disenfranchisement

    As I look at this borderland, I am aware of the challenges persons with disabilities (PWD) face in negotiating the space. As an organizational development practitioner, I am aware that the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act require the support of organizational infrastructure. If the interfaces between hiring authorities and that infrastructure have not been defined or hiring authorities do not know how to access those resources; qualified individuals, with disabilities, will likely be excluded from consideration for employment.

    Disability employment awareness is a borderland to be recognized by both persons with disabilities (PWD) and employers.

References

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2021 LGBTQ+ Coming out day

October 11 is National LGBTQ Coming Out Day. As someone who has identified as a member of the LGBTQ community for many years, it is a day to remind others that we exist. We are your peers, your customers, your employers, your family members, etc. I also find October 11 to be a day to look back and to look forward. I look back to those queer people I knew and knew of who were so brave to live their whole lives when being who they were was against the law. In the 1970’s I identified as bisexual because that was the tag that described who I was. As I look to the lovely young people who are coming up I realize they do not have direct knowledge of where we have come from, nor do they have as many limiting expectations of how they fit in the world. As I look to these young people I realize the tag ‘bisexual’ evokes a binary image that is quite constraining. I am less binary than I once thought. The young LGBTQ persons who I call friends have shown me that’s OK. So, here I am, an aging queer person who has benefited from those who have come before me and who is inspired by those who are the leaders of the future.

 

Happy LGBTQ Coming out Day

They them, just not they/them

It is becoming more common (and sometimes much simpler) to ask people what their preferred pronouns are, rather than just guessing. The fact that some of my peers prefer to go by they/them got me thinking of of the paradox of they/them. As a personal pronoun, they/them is troubling because they and them are plural references. In my work with disenfranchised groups, I have regularly encounter whole groups of individuals covered by the blanket reference “they/them.” This post talks about the challenges of throwing a big blanket over the diverse community of persons with disabilities (PWD). It is a bit more serious than some of my stuff but I tried not to get too deep in the weeds. I hope you find it a thoughtful read. Comments and sharing are always welcome.

In this post:

Story: They/them, just not they/them

I recently mis-gendered one of my peers during a conversation. I was embarrassed over my mistake. I try to be respectful of the pronouns people choose for themselves because, why not? I felt compelled to put some context on my error. The example I gave was: I have known my oldest daughter Jessica for more than 30 years. Occasionally I’ll call her by her younger sister’s name, Rachel. I feel bad when I do this but assure her that it is not intentional.

The use of they/them pronouns seems to be confounding to many people. I get that. A contrasting use of the pronouns they/them comes into play regarding disenfranchised groups. A challenge I have in exploring the inclusion of persons with disabilities (PWD) in professional settings is the use of they/them in reference to PWD. Unlike misgendering my peer, they/them is regularly used to describe the wide variety of persons who are included under the umbrella term “the disabled.”

The work of Mainstreaming on Main Street® (MoMS) takes place in the organizational development (OD) space. While reviewing an academic data base recently I found a 2020 article entitled “Disability Inclusion: Catalyst to Adaptive Organizations” (Moore, 2020), in the Organization Development Journal. This sounded like an article worth reading, it was. Unfortunately, it proved to be an example of disability stereotyping.

The article described Walgreens’ TWG: Transitional Work Group (Supply Chain) program. The catalyst for the program was the experience of a Walgreens’ executive with a child who is affected by autism. The TWG provides an opportunity for individuals with disabilities, in supported employment programs, to receive training and employment opportunities within Walgreens’ warehouse operations. The work Walgreens’ is doing is commendable. The authors describe how the managerial environment has adapted to support the program.

Where the article gets sketchy is in the author’s depiction of persons with disabilities (PWD). Participants in the TWG program are alternately characterized as workers with “limited skills” and as PWD. The characterization of the program participants as having limited skills, while clumsy, is more accurate than generalizing PWD as persons with limited skills. The use of “limited skills” and “disability” interchangeably implies an equivalence between disability and skill limitation. Some persons have limited skills. Some persons have disabilities. The Moore study only talks about a group of individuals who fall into both groups.

The generalization of persons with disabilities (PWD) as a homogenous group (the disabled/them) led me to my doctoral dissertation topic, “An exploration of the organizational environment supporting persons with disabilities in professional/skilled settings” (Lococo, 2018).” My plan was to use a research design similar to Moore’s study. A major challenge was finding organizations willing to be studied with the rigor required of a doctoral program. After having many doors slammed in my face, I changed the design to include subjects with disabling conditions working in professional settings. Two studies that were foundational to my dissertation topic illustrate the paradox of persons with disabilities (PWD) representation.

A survey of 3,797 employers on perceptions of PWD in the workplace (Domzal, 2008). The study categorized employers by size and industry. It also Identified those employers who did/did not employ PWD and those who actively recruited PWD. The survey instrument collected information regarding the experiences of employers as well as what they thought would help them to me more inclusive of PWD. The study included the finding that 72.6% of the respondents felt that the nature of the work of their organization was a barrier to the inclusion of PWD. What the study did not do is differentiate PWD. As a result, it is unclear if the survey responses were based on an image of Stephen Hawking (the late astrophysicist) or an individual with cognitive disabilities who might find satisfaction in the challenge of simple tasks.

In contrast, a study of why organizations reach out for assistance in providing inclusive support to employees with disabilities, paints a different picture. The primary reason 82% of employers contacted the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) was to retain/promote existing employees. On average, these employees had been with the company just under seven years, earned more than $60,000/year and 58% had a college degree or higher (DOL, 2020).

Applying the lessons

The work of Mainstreaming on Main Street® (MoMS) focuses on the organizational infrastructure supporting the inclusion of persons with disabilities (PWD) in professional/skilled settings. This is the work of organizational development (OD). The intersection of disenfranchised groups and Main Street is also the work of organizational development.

The Moore study examined the intersection of PWD and workers with limited skills. My dissertation examined the intersection of PWD and persons in professional settings. Moore’s characterization of PWD as being synonymous with persons with limited skills, reduces the opportunities for both generalization of findings and further analysis of those findings.

Food for thought

  • What assumptions are held regarding persons with disabilities (PWD)?
  • How do these assumptions compare to assumptions of other disenfranchised groups?
  • What power dynamics are implicit in the held assumptions?
  • How/where do assumptions get validated/challenged?
  • As an organization, what is being left on the table (money, talent, opportunity) due to unquestioned assumptions?

References

  • Domzal, C., Houtenville, A., and Sharma, R. (2008). “Survey of Employer Perspectives on the Employment of People with Disabilities
  • ” Prepared under contract to the Office of Disability and Employment Policy, U.S. Department of Labor.
  • Lococo, D. (2018). An exploration of the organizational environment supporting persons with disabilities in professional/skilled settings. Cardinal Stritch University.
  • Moore, J. R., Hanson, W. R., & Maxey, E. C. (2020). Disability Inclusion: Catalyst to Adaptive Organizations. Organization Development Journal, 38(1).
  • U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), Office of Disability Employment Policy. (2020). Workplace Accommodations: Low Cost, High Impact. Retrieved from: https://askjan.org/publications/Topic-Downloads.cfm?pubid=962628
  • Walgreens Co. (2021). Disability inclusion. retrieved from: https://www.walgreens.com/topic/sr/sr_disability-inclusion.jsp

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Dan Lococo, PhD
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Mainstreaming on Main Street
Supporting organizational environments inclusive of persons with disabilities in professional/skilled settings

Copyright 2021, Dan Lococo, All rights reserved

Disability Pride, yes it’s a thing

This week Simone Biles made the choice to care for herself while many would have preferred she did not. Her decision has given us the opportunity to see what it means to be true to one’s self in light of (sometimes unreasonable) expectations by others. Biles’ courage to live her truth and my reflections on Disability Pride Month are purely coincidental. The piece is a brief glimpse into some of the experiences that shape my truth as a person with a disability (PWD). I hope you find it a refreshing read. Your comments are always welcome.

In this post:

Story: Disability Pride Month

Early in July I saw a reference to “Disability Pride Month.” It took me a second to make the connection between Disability Pride and the 31st anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on July 26, 1990. I had never heard of disability pride Month referenced before, but it seemed logical after celebrating LGBTQ pride in June. The reference drew me to consider what disability pride might look like.

The ADA is an “equal opportunity’ law for persons with disabilities (PWD). It is modeled on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The ADA serves as a reminder that we are all whole persons with many things that make us unique while sharing a common set of rights to participate in public life.

In 1984, after being diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease (retinitis pigmentosa), I enrolled at the Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC). I had already earned a degree in finance from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee but needed to develop skills I could use after losing my vision. I was asked to represent students with disabilities on the MATC Student Senate. I soon found myself representing a group of individuals who found the college inaccessible due to a lack of services and usable facilities. Among the barriers: no place where a person and their personal attendant could use the toilet, no infrastructure to support special needs in the (occasional) absence of personal attendant services, questions of insurance liability for the college and volunteer assistants, etc. I quickly learned of the many ways physical and organizational infrastructure are barriers to access for persons with disabilities. One by one the barriers fell, but only after many meetings with many Deans, Directors, Facilities Managers, Student Association leaders, and the students themselves. The experience was a great way for me to learn about the way barriers to access are often just a tall stack of questions that have never been answered. I suspect the work we did simplified the college’s ability to meet the future standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

As a researcher, my interests focus on how persons with disabilities engage in professional settings. This work has exposed me to topics such as: models of disability, disability archetypes, microaggressions, disability shame, etc. Even in the most inclusive organizations PWD are regularly required to negotiate environments for which they were an after-thought. This negotiation can be exhausting. We are often challenged with the question, “Is this the mountain I want to die on?” Among the questions/situations faced by PWD on a regular basis:

  • Being asked, “What’s wrong with you?”
  • Finding that an event/activity is in a place that cannot be readily accessed
  • Being asked to discuss and make decisions based on documents that contain no accessible content
  • Living in fear that circumstances will require that a previously hidden disability will need to be disclosed

 

What is Disability Pride?

At the funeral of our cousin Stuart, I overheard someone speculating that Stuart was in heaven and no longer affected by Downs Syndrome. The Stuart we loved had Downs Syndrome. That was a part of what made him Stuart. We found no comfort in the thought that the Stuart we loved would spend eternity living as someone else. I don’t think of disability pride as people celebrating the fact that they are seen as having a disabling condition. For me, the statement, “We are all whole persons” describes disability pride.

Some statements of disability pride:

  • I am a member of the public, rather than a member of a fringe group
  • The way I engage with the world (through touch, sound ) is as valid as those who use light to process their surroundings
  • If a place is described as “open to the public” I expect it is open to persons with disabilities

Several years ago, the controls at a busy intersection near my house were changed to respond to traffic levels rather than pedestrian right of way. I had no reason to expect the on-coming traffic flow would receive multiple left turn arrows within a single traffic cycle. As I crossed the street: a car ran over my cane, ripping it from my hand. I had the presence of mind to know that crawling on the ground to retrieve my cane would likely make me invisible to the traffic and take me out of the pedestrian crosswalk. Instead, I threw my hands in the air and screamed, “Help” as loud as I could. A woman who had seen the crisis unfolding got out of her car and rescued me. The situation could have easily been anticipated by the designers of the traffic controls. It either wasn’t or wasn’t taken seriously. Once I was safely out of the roadway, I was able to thank the person who rescued me. She may very likely have saved my life and I told her so. In fact, I was thanking my rescuer for accepting responsibility for a poorly designed traffic control system and for a driver who, apparently, knew nothing about either pedestrian right-of-way or white cane laws.

I don’t see disability pride as a substitute for gratitude. I regularly receive assistance and support from individuals who make my life easier and, sometimes, help me out of potentially dangerous situations. I have made it a habit of carrying good chocolates in my travel bag to share with the kind souls who appear out of nowhere on a regular basis.

A simple disability pride quiz: (Answers below)

  1. What do you call a building that cannot be entered?
  2. What do you call a document/screen that has no accessible content?
  3. What do you call someone who refuses to consider first person experiences as evidence of a problem?
  4. What do you call someone who is being paid to make things better but makes things harder to use?
  5. What do you call someone who doesn’t let you finish your thought before interrupting?

Answers:

  1. Closed
  2. Blank
  3. A fool
  4. Incompetent
  5. Rude

    LGBT pride is a way of saying “I’m here, I’m queer, so there.” Disability pride has a similar, and yet different, flavor. Like LGBT pride, you should know I’m here, I don’t see, and that is just a part of who I am. Civil rights are human rights. Open to the public includes people who are like me and people who are not like me. Liberty and justice for all includes the people who are like me and all the people who are not like me.

References

The United States Justice Department provides a wide variety of standards and guidelines for supporting the opportunities of PWD. Being familiar with the ADA Home page is a great way to become familiar with those guidelines and standards.

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Dan Lococo, PhD
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414.333.5846
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Mainstreaming on Main Street
Supporting organizational environments inclusive of persons with disabilities in professional/skilled settings

Copyright 2021, Dan Lococo, All rights reserved

My hippy haircut

I’m sharing a personal reflection as we end this month. I thought it would be a bold statement in honor of Pride month. It turned out to be a fairly pedestrian reflection on personal style. Comments and sharing are always welcome.

In this post:

Story: My new hair style

When I was younger, I enjoyed wearing my hair long. After graduating college, I felt a need to cut my hair to reflect what a professional male in their early career would look like. As time passed styles changed and I let my hair grow out a bit. I realized the thickness I was so proud of as a teenager was part of my past.

For much of my life I’ve relied on my barber to decide how to cut my hair. Beyond an occasional conversation my hair style has been a repetition of, “the usual.” This has been efficient but not too creative.

I realized, about 10 years ago, that I was not going to have the long, thick, hair of my youth but that I also had no real idea of how men of my age were wearing their hair. I could have done direct research by asking to feel the heads of a random sample of men, but that seemed awkward. I opted to just trust my barber and told her to cut my hair to reflect the current style for men of my age. I walked away from a pile of hair with a buzz cut.

I don’t consider haircuts a part of essential activities requiring me to compromise my health in the middle of a global pandemic. The haircut I received on March 4, 2020, grew out to a shoulder length shag. I was pleasantly surprised to find my hair is not quite as thin as I had thought it was when my barber buzzed it for me almost 10 years ago.

Those of us who have been vaccinated are in a place where it is possible to coexist with the Covid-19 virus. The impact of the pandemic has led me to question why I would want to “go back to the way things were.” The fact is there is no “normal” to go back to. It would seem a shame to just cut all my hair off without considering the opportunity to do something different. I have decided to let my hair grow out and to see how I like it long.

The easing of pandemic restrictions has coincided with the number of people who comment on the length of my hair. I’m aware that the phrase “Covid hair” has a limited shelf life. I anticipate that I will encounter individuals who feel entitled to judge me based on the way I wear my hair. That’s OK, within limits.

The thinning of my hair and losing most of my usable vision were unrelated, but parallel, Coincidences. The fact that I don’t see is an element in considering a post-pandemic hair style. I am very aware that I do not have visual cues from peers or social media outlets to guide my thought processes. I have decided my own best judgment is the most reliable reference point for how I want to present myself in the world.

Lessons learned:

I have learned through this exercise that I have expectations of both how I see myself in the world and how I perceive others see me in the world. I realize how much my expectations are shaped by my background. Even though I was aware of queer people in my life at an early age, my perceptions have been shaped by the heteronormative beliefs that there are two binary genders that (most often) correspond to a person’s reproductive organs. These beliefs have led me to associate long hair with females and short hair with males.

So, I have decided to grow my hair out. I am not sure how much of a statement I am making in my choice. I know heteronormative beliefs are still held by many people. I know that neither my sexuality nor my gender are aligned to a strict gender binary. What I do not know is how many people feel entitled to be judgmental of my personal choices.

The only things I know for sure are:

  • Some people will like my hair style based on how it looks on me
  • Some people will not like the way my hair looks, for a variety of reasons
  • Some people will think I am making a statement about queer identity: some will be supportive, others not
  • As a person who identifies as queer, I feel a responsibility to show up as a whole person, knowing there are others who do not have a safe space to do the same
  • Most people will just go on with their lives

My take a ways:

When I first thought of this piece, I envisioned some sort of bold statement about lifestyle choices and queer representation. In the end, we are just talking about how I concluded to let my hair grow out. Here are a few questions that crossed my mind in the writing process:

  • How do I distinguish between the values I hold and my beliefs?
  • How do I distinguish between my own beliefs and the beliefs of others?
  • How do I distinguish between constructive criticism and uninvited opinions?
  • Who/what are my reference points for shaping my personal style?
  • What are my expectations that those I think of as wise are also qualified to advise me on questions of personal style?
  • What are my expectations that those who provide unsolicited opinions are also qualified to advise me on questions of personal style?

 

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Dan Lococo, PhD
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414.333.5846
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Mainstreaming on Main Street
Supporting organizational environments inclusive of persons with disabilities in professional/skilled settings

Copyright 2021, Dan Lococo, All rights reserved

Bubba, the noose, and a Servant-Leader response blog post

This is a reflection on a deep conversation at a recent Servant-Leader gathering held in Milwaukee. The reflection is intended to capture the essence of the roundtable conversation. There is no substitute for engaging directly with others. Comments and sharing are always welcome.

In this post:

A Servant-Leader response to Bubba and the noose

In June of 2020 a noose was found hanging in the garage of NASCAR’s only black driver. Oficials acted swiftly and the apparent threat turned out to be a coincidence. If things were different…

Roundtable recap

The principles of Servant Leadership call on us to recognize and acknowledge the troubling nature of such things as a noose. In this case, there was every reason to believe the noose was intended to conjure images of the lynching of black people. There was no way to know at the time the noose was found that its placement in the garage of the only black driver in NASCAR would prove to be a coincidence.

As Servant-Leaders, we are challenged to be aware of the power of traumatizing images. We judge from our own experiences, which may be incomplete. It is important to acknowledge the difference in responses among individuals. The situation begs the question, “What does this mean to you?”

A challenge in dealing with a situation with such deep racial overtones is the disconnect between much of U.S. history and the humanity of black people. In situations where tangible damage, natural disaster, loss of property, etc., responding with charity often seems appropriate. Real/perceived threats to the humanity of individuals can be far more sensitive. This response is more challenging because we may not know what beliefs are held by others. In such cases, it is easy to oversimplify the most traumatic aspects of a situation.

The wisdom in the room

As Servant-Leaders we are called to make meaning through leadership by example. Here is some of the wisdom shared by the roundtable participants:

  • Consult with those most likely to be affected by a traumatizing situation prior to taking any action on behalf of those individuals
  • Start by listening
  • Avoid loaded questions
  • Share yourself in your conversation to model the behavior you wish to support
  • Very carefully, invite the pain into the open
  • Do not expect any individual to speak on behalf of, or defend, an entire group
  • Lead with your heart
  • be open to intuition/revelation
  • Do not expect feedback
  • What is the follow up action?

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Dan Lococo, PhD
Barrier Knocker Downer
dan.lococo@gmail.com
414.333.5846
Twitter: @danlococo
LinkedIn profile

Mainstreaming on Main Street
Supporting organizational environments inclusive of persons with disabilities in professional/skilled settings

Copyright 2021, Dan Lococo, All rights reserved

I engage groups and individuals to recognize and leverage their untapped potential