Episode 9: Dr. James McNeil, vocational rehabilitation, disability management, and HR compliance expert

Dr. James McNeilDr. James McNeil, a recognized expert in vocational rehabilitation, disability management, and HR compliance discusses the positive effect of disability inclusion training for employers and how appropriate accommodations are allowing employers to grow a dedicated and skilled workforce while addressing intersectionality and its impact on their DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility) goals.


Intro: [00:00:01.02] 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: [00:00:27.58] More and more companies are discovering a proven strategy for building a highly skilled workforce, supporting the growth and success of their business, and that is apprenticeship programs. This combines classroom instruction with on-the-job training, and apprenticeship programs can help your company bring experienced and diverse talent into your workplace. I love this topic. Apprenticeship programs are one of my favorite subjects. The Workology Podcast is sponsored by Upskill HR and Ace the HR Exam. This episode of the Workology Podcast is part of a 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 of 2020, 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, we’re joined by Dr. James F. McNeil. He’s the founder and CEO of Dr. James F. McNeil Vocational Consulting Services. James has extensive experience in vocational rehabilitation, disability management and HR compliance. He has worked with colleges and universities, Fortune 500 companies, non-profit organizations and state vocational rehabilitation VR agencies. Dr. James, welcome to the Workology Podcast.

Dr. James F. McNeil: [00:02:06.78] Hi, Jessica. Thank you for inviting me, I’m certainly happy to be here.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:02:11.85] Let’s talk a little bit about your background and how you began working in vocational rehabilitation and disability management. Walk us through that.

Dr. James F. McNeil: [00:02:19.80] Yeah, sure, I can do that. So, if you, if you do a quick internet search, vocational rehabilitation is defined as a federal or state program that helps people with disabilities find or keep a job. But I describe it as, as a program that does much more than that. For example, I think it’s a program that also provides peer support, independent living skills and advocacy. And I learned about all of this in my master’s program at the University of Buffalo. I majored in rehabilitation counseling and my first internship was at the Goodwill Industries of western New York. My second internship was at the New York State Commission for the Blind in New York City. Following that, I worked for the Pennsylvania Office of
Vocational Rehabilitation and the South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation Department. So, I did that for a while, and then I decided to transition over into the private sector and work in the HR department of several Fortune 500 companies, including Lowes and Amazon. I helped a lot of people with different types of disabilities to increase their independence, find gainful employment and to return to work. And so, I guess you could say that working with people with disabilities have been my, has been my life’s work.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:03:43.26] Amazing. Well, today’s topic is disability inclusion training for employers. And you talked a little bit about this, but you launched your own consulting firm last year for disability inclusion training. I want you to walk us through the story behind that and then how that works for employers.

Dr. James F. McNeil: [00:04:03.09] Yes, yes. So, I really like this question. Thank you for asking it. You are correct. I launched my own consulting firm on July 31st of 2020, and our mission is very simple. We provide businesses with access to disability inclusion training and materials. So, what does that look like? Well, I would say we meet with employers to discuss real cases, talk about their responsibilities and show them available resources right in their area. We talk about, for example, disability discrimination, disability etiquette, job accommodations and ADA compliance. In addition to that, we show animated videos that teach you how to manage complex disabilities in the workplace. My friends over at the EEOC tell me that employers are always asking for examples. So, I thought I’ll help them out by creating these animated videos. Now, how I got involved in this line of work is also very simple. I found myself working a lot on big cases for employers. And one day I thought to myself, why not make what I’m doing available to all employers? So, I thought it was a good idea. My wife thought it was a good idea and that was enough for me, and the rest is history.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:05:21.93] I love that. And you’re right, employers do have a lot of questions around this and they need help and training and support. And it’s not just HR, but it’s also the managers in the front lines when they’re getting employee questions or they aren’t sure what to do next. Our listeners have expressed interest in learning more about DEIA. That’s diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as accessibility, and how it connects to intersectionality. Can you kind of help walk us through the relationship here?

Dr. James F. McNeil: [00:05:54.15] So, yeah, I’ll try. It’s a really big question, and it’ll take some time to answer. But for the sake of time, I’ll just say this. So first, you must understand the concept of intersectionality, which I believe was first introduced 1980s, early 1990s, and it was centered around the dimensions of race and gender and how those two constructs created overlapping systems of, of discrimination. And it wasn’t until recent where people started to investigate the intersection of race and disability and how that creates overlapping systems of discrimination. So, as it pertains to employment, I guess I can put it this way, the relationship that is. Let’s say that there’s a black person with a disability applying for a job. Long story short, he doesn’t get the job due to discrimination. We find out later that the discrimination was not solely based on his race because there are other black people working for that company. We also find out later that the discrimination was not solely based on his disability because there are other people with disabilities working for that company. However, since this person has a combination of both, which is, which again involves race and disability, we find out that the employer didn’t like that at all. And as a result, they turned him away. And so that’s how I would explain the relationship there. And I hope that makes sense.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:07:34.92] It does. It’s just incredibly complex. So, I hope our listeners are familiar with intersectionality, but I think that you, I mean, I am trying to learn more about this particular topic myself, and I think that you’ve given me, and hopefully others, some really good food for thought in this area.

Dr. James F. McNeil: [00:07:55.17] Great.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:07:56.16] One of your areas of specialty is workplace accommodations. How do you think accommodations play a role in apprenticeship programs?

Dr. James F. McNeil: [00:08:06.63] Yes, yes. So, thank you for asking that question. So, workplace accommodations are my thing. I really get excited about it, and that’s because I think it plays a role in just about everything, including apprenticeship programs. And for those who don’t know about these programs, an apprenticeship program is basically a combination of classroom instruction and on the job training. So, if you’re in a classroom setting and have, let’s say, problems seeing the board or using the computer, you should probably ask for an accommodation. For example, you can ask for a different seating arrangement or if the instructor is using PowerPoint, you can ask for the PowerPoint to be sent to you through email ahead of class. Or you can ask for a screen magnification, a note taker, and so on and so forth. Now you’re on the job and you’re trying to do what you just learned in the classroom. But again, you have a problem seeing, let’s say, seeing or reading labels because the print is too small. This would be another situation where you could ask for an accommodation. For example, you could ask for a low vision electronic magnifier, larger labels, or you could ask to use your own personal phone that has text to speech software or, let’s say, a text to speech app on it. Basically, the same rules that apply to academia and employers also apply to apprenticeship programs.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:09:39.48] So for maybe those individuals who are maybe new to the subject of accommodations, gosh, I hope that we aren’t. But I do think that there are a lot of new people coming into organizations and new managers and new HR leaders. This might be unfamiliar territory. How did, how do you stay on top of legislation around the ADA and any changes or enhancements?

Dr. James F. McNeil: [00:10:05.85] Yeah. So, so if we’re talking about rules, then you’re right. We’re talking about the ADA. A few ways you can stay on top of legislation around the ADA, I would say is by signing up for newsletters, monitoring government websites such as the EEOC and the Department of Labor, or you can take annual trainings on the ADA.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:10:31.17] Perfect. I feel like some of us don’t think about newsletters as, as a great option, but we’ll make sure to include some resources in the show notes so people can go and subscribe to some different areas like you were talking about to stay up to date on those. So, I appreciate that.

Break: [00:10:48.35] Let’s take a reset. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell. You are listening to the Workology Podcast sponsored by Upskill HR and Ace the HR Exam. Today we’re talking about disability inclusion training for employers with Dr. James F. McNeil. He’s the founder and CEO of Dr. James F. McNeil Vocational Consulting Services. This podcast is part of a series powered by the Partnership on Inclusive Apprenticeship, or PIA.

Break: [00:11:16.76] 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: [00:11:54.85] The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, recommends that employers use the interactive process when determining an appropriate accommodation. Can you talk us through how this interactive process is supposed to work?

Dr. James F. McNeil: [00:12:09.91] Sure. So, the interactive process occurs when an employer and an employee with a disability work together to come up with an effective solution or an appropriate accommodation. This is important for many reasons, but I would say the greatest reason is that it allows employees to be a part of the process from the very beginning. The Job Accommodation Network, or JAN, outlines six basic steps in the interactive process. The first step is recognizing the accommodation request. The second step is gathering information. The third step is, is exploring accommodation options. The fourth step is choosing an accommodation. The fifth step is implementing the accommodation, and the final step is monitoring the accommodation. I think the step that is overlooked the most is step three, exploring accommodation options. At this point in the process, the employer is trying to figure out what might work. I think one of the best ways to do that is by engaging in a conversation with the employee. I’ll say that again, I think one of the best ways to do that is by engaging in a conversation with the employee, speaking to a health care provider or an IT specialist can wait. Start with the employee. Ask the employee for a suggestion. If they don’t have a suggestion, encourage them to speak to their health care provider or ask around. And I say ask around because they might have access to an organization that can assist them, like the National Federation for the Blind, or maybe they’re a part of an, an employee resource group. Employee resource groups are also known as ERGs, which are great resources that I don’t think are talked about enough.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:14:17.04] I love that you focus on the step of talking to the employee because I do think that this gets lost. We immediately go to maybe something that we’ve done before or having a meeting
with managers, leadership to talk about the accommodation, but we don’t take the time to talk through with that individual what it is exactly that they’re needing and if they have any ideas of what that might look like for them. I mean, they’re the ones who are going to be, they’re the ones who are doing the job, and they can probably guide us in the right direction.

Dr. James F. McNeil: [00:14:55.92] Exactly. I agree. 100 percent.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:14:59.25] I also wanted to ask you about your work with state agencies. Talk a little bit about that because I think that sometimes, as HR leaders, we forget the state agency. So, walk us through what your work with looks like with them.

Dr. James F. McNeil: [00:15:13.47] Yeah. So, I’m so glad you asked this question. I’m excited about this because I wanted to share with you that we’ve just launched a new program that provides training for vocational rehabilitation counselors and business service representatives. Both professionals work for state VR agencies. The training that we offer provides them with insight into the corporate world. We teach them how to meet the needs of both the employer and the individual with a disability. And our reason for doing so is very simple. We want to build bridges between employers and individuals with disabilities. So, this program is led by yours truly and a gentleman by the name of David DeNotaris. David is a friend, a national known speaker, a thought leader, author, a business consultant, and has over 25 years of experience. I first met David when we were both working for the Pennsylvania Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services. He was the director and I was a counselor at the time, and so we are really excited about this new program, and, yeah, just recently we sent out our first round of flyers to different state VR agencies.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:16:35.57] I love this because I do find, as an HR leader, I’m maybe not always excited to partner with, with the state agencies because there is a disconnect oftentimes. And so you’re providing a solution to kind of, like you said, reconnect and help us be able, to all better serve our employees and work with one another. So, I love that this is the approach you’re taking because I feel like a lot of employers or a lot of individuals might go the other route, just employee specific or employer specific. So, it’s great.

Dr. James F. McNeil: [00:17:11.42] Thank you. Yeah, appreciate that.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:17:13.16] What can employers who are interested in creating inclusive apprenticeship programs learn from creating more diverse and inclusive workplaces more broadly?

Dr. James F. McNeil: [00:17:23.94] Yeah. So look, I pretty much wrote an entire dissertation around this question, so thank you for asking it. I won’t put you to sleep by going into too much detail, but I will say that encouraging individuals to be a part of a peer support system and complying with disability laws are essential. Peer support systems are voluntary and employee led. They are all about creating an inclusive workplace that is aligned with the company’s mission, vision and goals. As for complying with disability laws, I think that, I think that’s self-explanatory. However, I will say that this is not just limited to the ADA. It also includes complying with state and local laws, which can go beyond the ADA. Come to think of it, I think, I think PEAT, yeah, PEAT is a great resource to learn more about this. PEAT has a page on their website dedicated to this. It’s called Inclusive Apprenticeship Programs, and they also have resources that, that I find to be very useful. So if, you know, you’re HR, HR professional, just go to PEATWorks.org, that’s PEATWorks.org, and you could just find a plethora of information available to you.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:18:44.84] I’m so excited that we’re, we’re talking about apprenticeships because I do think that this, in terms of building talent funnels and pools of people and helping to upskill and uplevel individuals is important. And we do need to think about inclusion for everyone, including people with disabilities in these programs and maybe your organization, talk to our listeners, they might be struggling with inclusion at their company. So don’t forget inclusion in terms of apprenticeship programs and other skill-building and training programs as well. So, I love that this was what your dissertation was on, and I can’t imagine all the resources and just research that you did to be able to make that happen.

Dr. James F. McNeil: [00:19:34.79] Yeah, I appreciate you saying that because look, I’ll tell you, in my dissertation, I, I discovered some important things, some risk factors, and some protective factors. And we were looking at, you know, employees with disabilities, so not individuals who were looking to work. There’s a lot of research on that. But there’s less research on people who are already working. And when I spoke to them, we kind of just uncovered some important things that, that are easily missed in the workplace, and that is, one, having people to go to. If you’re a person with a disability, you, you might be facing certain challenges and you might not feel confident or comfortable enough to talk about those challenges with your employer. So being a part of a support group came out to be a really important protective factor, a really important thing that should be available in the workplace for employees with disabilities. And then the other thing is just knowing your rights, your disability rights, right? You have the right to disclose, you have a right not to disclose, you have the right to accept an accommodation and you have the right to reject an accommodation. So, knowing all of that is, I think, is very, very important, and at the same time, I think helps and gives you the confidence you need to not only to be able to do your job, but to be also, but also to ask for help when you need help.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:21:06.70] I love that. Well, James, Dr. James, Dr. James McNeil, it’s been a pleasure. Where can listeners go to learn more about you and the work that you’re doing?

Dr. James F. McNeil: [00:21:17.65] Yeah. So yeah, it certainly was a pleasure speaking to you. Thank you for having me. For those who are interested in connecting with me or finding more information, they can go to www.JFMConsulting.org. And again, that’s www.JFMConsulting.org. Or they can send me an email, and my
email address is admin@JFMConsulting.org That’s admin@JFMConsulting.org. Or you know, you can find me on social media. I think I am connected to at least half of the world on LinkedIn.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:21:58.03] I feel like we all are, and we’ll include links in the show notes to your LinkedIn and JFM Consulting so you can just go over to Workology.com, search for Dr. James and you’ll be able to find him and get the show notes and the resources and links to JAN. I want to make sure we include those, PEAT, and some PIA resources as well, as well as links about the Americans with Disabilities Act and accommodations. We kind of talked through a little bit about those on the, on our podcast. So, thank you, again, so much for your time.

Dr. James F. McNeil: [00:22:32.95] It was a pleasure. I had a great time. Thanks for having me.

Closing: [00:22:36.04] I love all the resources that Dr. James has talked with us. Please go to the show notes to click through, grab all the things, connect with Dr. James and take a look at the training and the information and support that he is offering. Accommodations are such an important part of diversity inclusion and employers need support in this area, which is why I’m so grateful that there are resources like PIA and Dr. James to turn to for support for us. I appreciate Dr. James sharing with us his experience with us today on the podcast and a special thank you to PIA. They are powering this podcast series on apprenticeships and thank you to our Workology Podcast sponsor, Ace the HR exam and Upskill HR.

Closing: [00:23:19.06] This podcast is for the disruptive workplace leader who’s tired of the status quo. I know that’s you. My name is Jessica Miller-Merrell. Until next time, visit Workology.com to listen to all our Workology Podcast episodes.

Closing: [00:23:32.86] Personal and professional development is essential for successful HR leaders. Join Upskill HR to access live training, community, and over a hundred on demand courses for the dynamic leader. HR recert credits available. Visit UpskillHR.com For more.