Episode 2: Sassy Outwater-Wright, executive director of the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (MABVI)
More and more companies are discovering a proven strategy for building a highly-skilled workforce to grow and to thrive: apprenticeship programs. Combining classroom instruction with on-the-job training, apprenticeship programs can help your company bring new and more diverse talent into the workplace.
Intro: [00:00:00.15] Welcome to the Workology Podcast, a podcast for the disruptive workplace leader. Join host Jessica Miller-Merrell, founder of Workology.com, as she sits down and gets to the bottom of trends, tools and case studies for the business leader, HR and recruiting professional who is tired of the status quo. Now, here’s Jessica with this episode of Workology.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:00:25.53] This episode of the Workology podcast is part of a new podcast series powered by the Partnership on Inclusive Apprenticeship or PIA. PIA is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, or ODEP. In November, ODEP launched PIA to ensure all apprenticeship programs are inclusive and accessible to people with disabilities. PIA collaborates with employers and apprenticeship programs to help meet employer talent needs and enable people with disabilities to benefit from apprenticeships that increase their opportunities for lifelong access to high growth and high demand jobs. Today, I’m joined by Sassy Outwater-Wright. She’s the executive director of the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, or MABVI. Sassy lost her eyesight at age three due to retinoblastoma and has had several rounds of cancer since then. She is a passionate digital accessibility advocate, specializes in technology for people with multiple disabilities, and studies how intersectionality, artificial intelligence, and intersecting marginalizing factors affect people. Sassy, welcome back to the Workology podcast.
Sassy Outwater-Wright: [00:01:36.93] Thank you. I’m so glad to be back. This is great.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:01:40.94] We’re back. And I want to first remind people in case they missed the first amazing interview and our conversation. But tell us a little bit about your background and how you got involved in digital accessibility and technology.
Sassy Outwater-Wright: [00:01:55.58] The short answer is tampons. The long answer is realizing that people with disabilities such as myself need access to everyday items, everything from your washing machine to items on store shelves to entertainment.
Sassy Outwater-Wright: [00:02:17.18] We need and deserve access to everything anybody else does. And it was not too long ago where that fight was just limited to print information access for people who are blind or who have low vision. And then that started growing and expanding and now it’s expanding at the speed of light or the speed of digital inclusion, as you will. And so, I got into this in the early 2000s when I realized that people like me needed that access and that technology was going to be the creator of that access and was presenting me with a new frontier to access the things that I wanted in my life. And the second reason I got into it was, like I said, tampons. I wanted to be able to access things off store shelves that were personal and my own choice. And I didn’t want my access of those things governed by somebody else who decided for me what I had access to or did not have access to, and thus was born my desire to research AI, the same thing, bias and filters and how we decide who accesses what in this digital age is really defined by who creates the filters that AI uses. And so, I am always kind of driven to explore those places where people get their own autonomy and self-determination around technology.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:03:43.40] I’m excited to have you on the podcast for so many reasons. I love your honesty and directness. And it’s the first time in the almost seven years that I’ve had this podcast where we’ve talked about tampons.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:03:58.73] So congratulations. Yeah, that’s OK. I love it.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:04:02.87] But it, it’s such a great way to start the conversation because, I mean, it’s a basic, it feels basic, need, and on the surface, you would say, well, of course everybody has access to tampons. But when you describe it the way you do it, it is a right and it is something that everybody should be able to have access to on their terms and how they want and how they need. It absolutely makes sense. So, thank you for kicking us off in uncharted waters.
Sassy Outwater-Wright: I’m known for it!
Jessica Miller-Merrell: That’s OK. But it is like, OK, this is basic. Everybody should have it.
Sassy Outwater-Wright: [00:04:45.95] And that’s the thing with disability rights, that we’re still at that basic level. We’d love to think that we’re far beyond tampons and basic human rights, we’re not. If you want evidence of that, it’s very easy. Walk into a grocery store, obviously be safe and Covid precautions and such. But walk into a grocery store, shut your eyes and find the tampons. Let me know if you figure out a way to do that, because I’ve been blind for a long time and I haven’t without asking for help, without asking a store clerk or somebody with me or a stranger, can you direct me to…and then having to disclose that I need something as personal as a tampon or something more personal. And, you know, OK, we don’t necessarily think of an apple as a personal private choice, but it is.
Sassy Outwater-Wright: [00:05:31.31] And this rings true whether you’re talking about access to your medical information and your health information on a patient portal, your work information such as your payroll status at work or your tampons or anything else. That’s still where we sit in terms of disability rights, whether it’s somebody trying to access a restaurant using a wheelchair or somebody trying to access a press coverage, a press briefing, using sign language, or myself trying to access a store to buy tampons. We’re still at that point where these things do present legitimate challenges. And going online and ordering is not always a doable thing. So that’s an excuse. We are not at the point where excuses fly anymore.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:06:15.86] I wanted to talk to you about your role at MABVI and your organization’s mission. Talk to us about that.
Sassy Outwater-Wright: [00:06:24.54] MABVI was started by Helen Keller and a group of her cohorts in 1903, and it was really aimed at saying to the government that people with disabilities didn’t want to be held back by somebody else deciding for them what was right for them, kind of that old disability adage of “nothing about us without us.” They got sick of being told because you are disabled, you can’t live a meaningful contributory life. So therefore, we’re putting you in a home for the impoverished or, at that time, mental asylums, things like that. They didn’t want to be wards of the state just because they were blind, and they got sick of the government taking away their autonomy. And so, they said, we want some, we want some sovereignty too, and we have the right to have that. And they started MABVI. Back then it was known by a different name. It was the Agency for the Interests of the Adult Blind. But it did the same thing that we do today, which is social services for people who are blind or who have low vision, giving them the right to, to choose for themselves what works for them. My kind of running definition of our mission at MABVI is there is no one right way to do loss of eyesight. There’s your way. And we’re here to support figuring out what that looks like for you and helping you achieve it. And so, we combine medical support, social support and technology in everything that we do across all of our programs and systems to help people figure out, as they lose their eyesight, what their life is going to look like going forward and how they’re going to deal with activities that they want to engage in.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:08:04.56] Accessibility, as we started the conversation here is no longer a nice to have. It is a necessity.
Sassy Outwater-Wright: [00:08:10.95] Yeah.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:08:11.76] Can you talk about employer perceptions of accessibility and accommodation for people with disabilities and how that has changed or not over the last several years?
Sassy Outwater-Wright: [00:08:23.22] It has changed a lot for the better, but there’s still so much work to be done. And I think one of the things, especially focusing on the digital side of accessibility, that’s kind of where I specialize. So, I’m not going to get into too much into the physical side, but the digital side of accessibility, there is a lot more that is accessible and is doable for persons with disabilities right now. But for employers, they’re still beholden to, we all need outside systems to do our jobs, whether it be an application, a platform, a website, a software product. Employers still procure these software products and then find out after the fact that they’re not accessible. And then when an employee points out that this software product that manages their payroll or this software product that they use to accomplish this task or this workflow is not accessible, the employer may or may not change it based on the fact of they don’t know what to do or they don’t want to do. And when they do change it, sometimes some of the larger employers right now are patting themselves on the back and very publicly saying, look at us. We became accessible for people with disabilities.
Sassy Outwater-Wright: [00:09:37.38] In my mind, accessibility of a workplace is not headline news. It’s what we should be expecting at the very minimum. And if an employer is not accessible and not regularly checking all of their systems to see if they are accessible, there’s a problem. And we need to be treating digital accessibility just like we would be treating an issue of workplace safety, such as checking to make sure the ramps are clear or that the fire exits are usable. Digital accessibility is that important and we’re, we’re working our way toward that.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:10:07.14] Now that everybody, a large population of the world, is working remotely, digital accessibility is more important than it ever has been.
Sassy Outwater-Wright: [00:10:19.12] Yeah.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:10:19.93] I want to ask you about HR leaders. How can they motivate their employers and inspire others to be an advocate for accessibility that creates opportunities and access for people with disabilities?
Sassy Outwater-Wright: [00:10:34.72] I think you have to say the word. I think a lot of times we’re hesitant to, to engage in this topic. For whatever reason, in the diversity and inclusion model that we’re all kind of walking toward now because of events in recent months and years, we’re all willing to talk about many communities, but somehow disability, which cuts across all of those communities, like age is not something we’re willing to openly talk about. And when we are willing to talk about it, we’re willing only to talk about it as its own community. Like disabled people are, don’t happen to intersect with any other groups, which is not true, and so I think that we need to get past that hesitancy to, to openly and honestly talk about disability and age. And we need to talk out loud and proud and say that word disability or people with disabilities. And we need to talk about what it would be like to have a workplace where people with disabilities are your colleagues, supervisors, CEOs even. What if, you know, your C-suite was composed of all people with disabilities? And you didn’t even know it because the technology was so good that you didn’t need to know it. We’re working in a digital climate right now where that’s absolutely possible. But nobody’s really digging into that, tapping into that, wondering the “what ifs,” because we’ve always thought of disability and age as awkward things because either they’re fraught with lawsuits or we don’t know enough. If you don’t know enough, go learn. It’s not a, it’s not a thing where we have the luxury of continuing to look away from it, because if we continue to look away from it, that’s perpetuating bias. And we’re kind of all about not doing that anymore, which is a good thing.
Break: [00:12:22.37] Let’s take a reset. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell and you’re listening to the Workology podcast. Today we’re talking with Sassy Outwater-Wright, about accessibility for people with disabilities. This podcast is sponsored by Workology and is part of a new podcast series powered by the Partnership on Inclusive Apprenticeship, or PIA.
Break: [00:12:41.57] This episode of the Workology podcast is part of a new podcast series powered by the Partnership on Inclusive Apprenticeship, or PIA. PIA is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, ODEP. In November, ODEP launched PIA to ensure all apprenticeship programs are inclusive and accessible to people with disabilities. PIA collaborates with employers and apprenticeship programs to help meet employer talent needs and enable people with disabilities to benefit from apprenticeships that increase their opportunities for lifelong access to high-growth, high-demand jobs.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:13:18.98] I want to spotlight a couple of pieces of research that we’re going to have available on the show notes of this podcast. We have an Accenture report that provides a business case for hiring people with disabilities, which is an amazing piece of research. It’s one that we reference a lot on the podcast. The other one I hadn’t heard of until we started working on this second interview together is the CDC report on adults with disabilities when it comes to ethnicity and race. Your point of: we’re focused on other areas of D&I, which I’m excited that we’re focused on D&I.
Sassy Outwater-Wright: [00:14:02.09] Absolutely.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:14:03.02] But that, as you’re stating, oftentimes people with disabilities is put on the backburner or overlooked altogether in favor of other types of diversity or inclusion.
Sassy Outwater-Wright: [00:14:16.55] Mm hmm.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:14:17.30] When, in fact, you can hire someone who is diverse, like American Indian or Black, and those individuals have a higher percentage or likelihood that they are someone who is an adult with a disability than others.
Sassy Outwater-Wright: [00:14:38.03] Yep. And I think that’s, I get a lot of pushback in my work. I’ve been continuing to advocate for disability justice during the time that we’ve been really focusing on other groups and their civil rights. Absolutely, we need to highlight what has happened to indigenous people, black people, latine, all of these groups need their moment. All of these groups have damage that has been done. I am not in any way detracting from any of that. What I am saying is that all of those groups have disabled people in them. All of those groups need employment opportunities. They are not employed enough. And all of those groups have disabled people and they’re not employed enough either.
Sassy Outwater-Wright: [00:15:33.05] And so when you start looking at diversity, equity and inclusion, why isn’t the word access added on to that? Why isn’t it diversity, equity, inclusion and access? Theoretically, access should be part of equity. We’re not there yet. So, as you build a business case, you can’t lump access into equity unless you know how to do access. I always joke that we’re the expensive minority. We’re the minority that comes along with a lot of changes that have to happen in workplace culture, in business cases. Learning how to do that is, is an effort. There is work here to be done, but there’s work to include every minority group. And we need to just honestly say, that as we do the work to include other minority groups, we’re not necessarily taking on the work of including people with disabilities because our needs are so specific, and we need to make space for that work and acknowledge that it intersects with every other type of “ism” removal that we’re doing.
Sassy Outwater-Wright: [00:16:40.22] Disability rights intersects with racism. It’s not a separate thing. Disability rights intersects with LGBTQ or with religious differences or socioeconomic differences because disability runs through all of those groups of people.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:16:56.51] What is the most important thing companies can do to support people with disabilities, especially new college graduates, or those moving into a field that are looking to gain experience?
Sassy Outwater-Wright: [00:17:07.37] This one I struggle with because I have two answers. One is, employ us, give us a chance. The kind of entry-only positions that you would normally assume a college student has to get resumé experience oftentimes are not things that are accessible to us, or we come out of schooling or any kind of situation where we’re entering into the workforce with a lack of work experience on our resume. And few people are willing to, to take an entry level chance on us. Give those entry level chances, give those opportunities, because that’s how we get credentialed. That’s how we move into and up through the workplace culture and into a position where then we have a resume. This helps your workforce because you’re training from the ground up, you’re building loyalty. You’re building someone who is probably going to stay with your company for a longer period of time and that saves money and that is a better use of your resources. We make it better for your bottom line to hire us. And my other answer to this question is a little more simple and straightforward. We are talent. We are leaders. My disability means that I am using skills that employers desire and can’t find. I am an amazing diplomat. I am good at coming up with innovative solutions and creativity. I am really good at crisis management. I’m an excellent organizer and communicator. All of these things are buzzwords on a resume, but that’s just what I need to be able to go out of my house, go to the store and pick up a bag of apples or a box of tampons. They’re just the basic skills I need to get around and live my life as a person with a disability on a day-to-day basis. So, if we could put all of those audacious work skills to use for an employer, how far could you go? That’s an amazing possibility to look into.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:19:20.70] It’s really untapping and harnessing that potential of an amazing group, a community of people who are ready and willing and able to put their skills to use right away.
Sassy Outwater-Wright: [00:19:36.33] I think we always think of disability as: Well, I’m going to be taking on the burden of having somebody disabled working for me and I have to accommodate them. And I’m like, I’m not a set of accommodations, I’m not a burden. I am something that can open up a world of possibility to you. But I need to lead you there. So, I always walk into a potential workplace with the idea that I’m, and we talked about this in the last interview that I did with Workology, I walk in as if I’m the leader, I’m the boss. Because I’m the expert in my own body and how this disabled body functions in the world. And I immediately have to educate the potential employer on what that looks like. And so, I walk in from a position of leadership from the word go. And I think that an employer who’s willing to embrace this idea that they want to learn a whole new perspective and learn about more ways of existence than just one is a prime place for a person with a disability to find a home in a work setting.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:20:40.00] We touched on this a little bit and we talked about training programs and helping or formal programs that are going to help hone the skills of this untapped talent pool. Can you talk a little bit more about some options that employers should think about in order to accomplish that?
Sassy Outwater-Wright: [00:21:01.18] Step one, thing one is, is your company accessible? And yes, that can be for the entire spectrum of people with disabilities. It will look different for each disability group and each person with a disability. But asking that question at the highest levels of your company from HR managers to C-suite, asking is my workplace accessible?
Sassy Outwater-Wright: [00:21:24.40] And looking at that business case, like the Accenture report talks about. And there’s a ton of resources available online that I know we’ll, we’ll link to for that. But making that business case for accessibility is the backbone. Having people with disabilities who can then use that and thrive in that environment. I wrote an article last year and I kind of said the idea that we’re accommodating people with disabilities is outdated. You want to create a culture that isn’t just inclusive, but that goes out of its way to look at what does a disabled person really want in a thriving workplace culture that includes them. Apprenticeships are a critical piece. There have not been enough ways in which people with disabilities have been traditionally included in resume building entry-level positions, credentialing processes and education. People with disabilities are struggling to access a good higher education experience right now. Our college and university systems are not set up for that. They’re not succeeding at that. In large part, apprenticeships offer people access to credentialing and to job opportunities that they would not otherwise have at all. And so, as companies create apprenticeship opportunities, they create long-term employment opportunities. They create a lifetime of employment opportunities for that person. They build a resume. And a resume is key to getting employment in today’s day and age. It has to happen. And it’s one step through the hoops that a person with disabilities has to jump through to get educated and credentialed and licensed to work in the field of their choosing. In this case, high tech. And it’s just an unprecedented opportunity. There has not been anything like this before in our history where people are able to access potential, higher-paying, long-term job career fields that could benefit them in huge ways.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:23:39.49] I’m so happy that you brought up apprenticeship programs and the Partnership on Inclusive Apprenticeship or PIA, they just launched to help employers collaborate with organizations that help them build a pipeline of candidates who are persons with disabilities and putting them into these high-tech positions, providing them training, resources, and support, and changing their lives in some really awesome ways.
Sassy Outwater-Wright: [00:24:09.46] I also want to highlight the last piece of bringing people with disabilities into the high-tech sector more has one game-changing piece that affects the entire technology industry and that is touching back on an earlier point that I had, that oftentimes third-party software end product is not accessible for people with disabilities, that employers buy it and then realize it’s not accessible.
Sassy Outwater-Wright: [00:24:37.80] The more people with disabilities that we have working in high tech, the more digital accessibility will become baked into every product that is on the market. The more people will not stand for things being released that are not accessible. The more people with disabilities are actually in charge of coding those things, producing those things, checking those things, the more that accessibility won’t just be a nice to have, it will be a must-have. It will go from headline news when it is done to just standard operating procedure. And that’s the change that we need to make. It’s not headline news that a company is accessible. It’s headline news when a company goes above and beyond accessibility. Accessibility is the baseline. And as we hire people with disabilities, they will change that industry.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:25:30.45] Another question I wanted to ask you, and this is advice for the HR audience, is framing the business case for companies to support inclusion and accessibility. How do we get past these unconscious and conscious biases that leadership and people in the organization might have?
Sassy Outwater-Wright: [00:25:50.10] The really simple answer is talk to us. Talk to people with disabilities, reach out to us. Oftentimes you see diversity and inclusion companies coming in to train people, and not once do they have something on their slides about disabilities, or I cannot tell you how many times I’ve sat through a diversity, equity and inclusion slide presentation where none of the slides were accessible, even though the person was claiming they themselves were disabled. Talk to people with disabilities. And by that, I mean go to the reputable big disability advocates, the big organizations, not that are run by people for people with disabilities, but that are run by people with disabilities themselves. And that out loud and proud say that top of the headline news: I am disabled. Talk to us. Get us to lead you.
Sassy Outwater-Wright: [00:26:40.05] Get our expertise on your team. We’re not there to shake it up and point out everything you did wrong. We’re there to come to the table and work with you to create a more equitable, accessible, culturally inclusive environment for us. So just ask us. That is the quickest and easiest way you have to solve this problem. Invite us into your solution and allow us to shake you up just a little bit, such as saying those tampons over there on that shelf are not accessible. How are you going to fix that? And then we propose solutions. We can’t help you if we’re not invited. And if you create an environment that you think is the right environment for us, but you haven’t checked in with us, I guarantee you I’m going to walk in the first day and be like: That braille’s upside down. Yes, I’ve had that happen to me. So, include us from thing one and you’re going to be OK.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:27:32.52] What do you wish the general public understood about inclusivity, accessibility, disability and advocacy?
Sassy Outwater-Wright: [00:27:40.56] That’s a huge question. Um, I wish the world understood that my disability is not the barrier to me having an incredible life. Society’s estimation of me because of my disability is what holds me back, so stop underestimating me and give me a chance to, you know, set the bar as high as I want. My disability does not define my capability. My disability defines the fact that my eyeballs don’t work. That’s it. Your expectations and biases of what that disability does to me is what holds me back. So, if in doubt, just ask me. And that goes for any person with any disability or better yet, rather than just asking me, give me a chance to prove it.
Sassy Outwater-Wright: [00:28:28.67] Apprentice. Take on apprentices with disabilities. Learn what makes an accessible culture at a workplace. Learn how to not just be afraid of litigation and reasonable accommodations. Learn what makes something above and beyond a reasonable accommodation and makes a workplace an incredibly welcoming, happy place for a person with a disability to thrive in their career. And then court us like you, would the top people in your industry. You know, you see these big tech companies making all of these fancy video game consoles and lunchrooms and things like that where we could gather before Covid to court people to come and work for them. What would that look like for people with disabilities? What would an accessible disability courting culture for company productivity look like? What is the business case for cultural inclusion at your company? And then once you’ve taken all that information, up your game and help us be included at every level of diversity, equity and inclusion discussions. We need a seat at that table, too.
Sassy Outwater-Wright: [00:29:41.21] And we aren’t taking away from anybody else’s conversation. We’re not taking away from racism. We’re not taking away from any other conversation about discrimination by asking to be included. Ableism runs through racism. Ableism runs through any of the other “isms” that are out there and phobias that are out there. And we need to be sitting at the table so we can stop that and change it.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:30:09.14] Sassy, again, as always, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today and being part of the Workology podcast. I wanted to ask you where people can go to learn more about you and the work that you do?
Sassy Outwater-Wright: [00:30:20.75] So our website is www.MABVI.org. Again that’s www.M, as in Massachusetts, ABVI.org. And then I personally can be found on Facebook and on Twitter. If you look up Sassy Outwater, pawsitivelysassy is my Facebook title, and then I’m on Twitter @Sassy Outwater, and I tweet a lot about, or Facebook a lot about disability rights, cancer rights, things like that so you can find us there and at MABVI. And if you have somebody who needs the services of MABVI, please feel free to drop us an email or reach out to us. We’re happy to help. Even if you’re not in Massachusetts, we can give you guidance on where to go in your area.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:31:08.03] Thank you again for your time and sharing your story and being honest and candid and hopefully educating not just HR professionals, but all workplace leaders and opening their eyes and having them move forward in being more inclusive for everyone, including people with disabilities.
Sassy Outwater-Wright: [00:31:29.66] If you don’t open your eyes, I got a guide dog who can help.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:31:34.40] What a bad pun.
Sassy Outwater-Wright: [00:31:36.76] Had to. I’m sorry. It was just there. I had to take it.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:31:41.36] That’s alright. Thank you again.
Sassy Outwater-Wright: [00:31:42.80] You’re welcome. Thank you.
Closing: [00:31:44.54] I really appreciate Sassy’s insights on this special podcast episode. Disability is an important dimension of workforce diversity and people with disabilities are an untapped talent pool. I love her point of view, her unabashed honesty, and her willingness to share from her point of view, because as employers and HR leaders and business owners or business executives understanding and including and working towards creating an environment where we all feel welcome is so important. And podcast interviews like this one with Sassy are an important next step to becoming really a diverse and inclusive workplace and workforce. This podcast is part of our Workology Podcast series, and it’s a special series that is in partnership with the Partnership on Inclusive Apprenticeship or PIA, and I am so excited for them to be working with us and sharing these resources and interviews like you heard with Sassy today.