IAP 2019-E4: Interview with the Senior VP of Grants and Communications at Kessler Foundation

IAP 2019-E4: Interview with the Senior VP of Grants and Communications at Kessler Foundation

In this episode:

Mark chats with Elaine Katz from the Kessler Foundation, a major nonprofit organization in the field of disability and a global leader in rehabilitation research that improves cognition, mobility, and long-term outcomes (including employment) for people with neurological disabilities caused by diseases and injuries of the brain and spinal cord. She describes a few of the more interesting surveys that Kessler Foundation has conducted and the results, and goes into detail about a real-life pilot program that was born out of survey findings. They also discuss the impact of senior team leadership on inclusive hiring and company culture and conclude with examples of how accommodating for people with disabilities can have a positive effect on all people in a company, regardless of ability.

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Speaker 1: Welcome to the IAP, the Interactive Accessibility podcast, bringing you the people, technology, and ideas helping to make your world accessible to everyone

Mark Miller: Hey, welcome to the IAP. I'm your host, Mark Miller. Thanking you for helping us keep it accessible. Do us a favor. If you're enjoying the IAP, share it, tell someone about it. Hey, even link to it from your accessible website. Thanks for joining us today. I have a very special guest today, Elaine Katz, who is with the Kessler Foundation. Welcome, Elaine

Elaine Katz: Thank you for having me today

Mark Miller: You are very welcome. I want to start off by just letting everybody know what the Kessler Foundation is, and then maybe we can go into what your role is at the Kessler Foundation and how you came about working in accessibility and with such a foundation. I understand that you guys do a couple things, that you're a research center and you're also a program center, so you sort of have two sides of this. One that helps research to improve the lives of people with disabilities, and that's my way of paraphrasing it, and then a way in which you directly help people with disabilities. Also, before we get started, I want to tell you, Elaine, that some of your research you guys do through the University of New Hampshire, so I am about 30 minutes from the University of New Hampshire and it's where my son is currently attending, so we're big fans of the university around here

Elaine Katz: Great. Thank you, Mark, for that introduction. I'm the senior vice president of Grants and Communications at Kessler Foundation in East Hanover, New Jersey

Mark Miller: Okay

Elaine Katz: And as Mark said, the lives of people with disabilities through medical rehabilitation research and funding employment initiatives for disabilities. On our research side, what we really try to do is improve cognition and mobility for those individuals who may have disabilities such as strokes, spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury. And the way we do that is we test new interventions, we gather data that can be used in treatments, and hopefully restore functioning and improve quality of life so people can get back to work, back to the communities

Elaine Katz: Specifically, my area is working in our program center. And as Mark mentioned, we don't do any program directly, but we fund organizations in New Jersey and nationally to work in employment. Over the past 13 years, for example, we've spent close to 45 million dollars on our three grant programs. It's targeted on job training, job creating, job development, but our real specialty is looking at innovation and innovative ways that organizations can develop programs that increase participation of people in competitive, integrated employment. There's a lot more, but that kind of lets you know in a nutshell what we do

Mark Miller: Yeah, that's very interesting. I guess what I'm really interested in, hearing that explanation, are the kind of innovations that you guys have come up with. Are there any real standout things that throughout your career you have come up with and have really thought like, "Wow, this is a game-changer, this is something that's going to make a difference in a lot of lives"

Elaine Katz: Well, we've done a couple of surveys over the past few years. We did one for the 20th anniversary of the ADA and Americans With Disabilities Act in 2015. And what that did was look at ... talked to 3,000 people with disabilities, and asked them about working, and how they felt about working. And what was really important that came out about that, is that we found Americans with disabilities are striving to work, so you hear a lot about

Mark Miller: Yeah

Elaine Katz: People with disabilities not working, but we found that there ... We call it "striving to work," in fact, so they are trying to get into the workplace, and they do that in many different ways. It could be actively working, it could be preparing for employment through training, seeking more hours, and trying to overcome those barriers. That was innovative in the fact that you hear a lot of people with disabilities really don't want to work, they rely on benefits, but that's simply not the case

Mark Miller: Yeah

Elaine Katz: Another innovation to follow up on that was ... then we started looking at employers, and why aren't people with disabilities employing more people. And as you know, we're almost in full employment in the US, so you would think this would be the best time of all for somebody to find a job in the disability world, and it's still really is not ... We don't see the rates of hiring that we should be seeing

Elaine Katz: We can discuss that a little bit, but what was really interesting about that survey is that we found that the importance that supervisors give to hiring more managers really comes from the top. You hear a lot now about management, not top-down management anymore, but when it comes to things that companies need to do corporate-wide, it still does come down from the top

Mark Miller: Yeah

Elaine Katz: So that's tying the ... You asked, "Well, what's innovative?

Mark Miller: Right

Elaine Katz: What's innovative about our organization is that we tie employment research to actually employment programs, so those two surveys give us some basis for saying then, "Okay. How can we increase employment in companies?" We have a program right now that we're funding for 2018 through the Anixter Center in Chicago, which is looking at three major hospital systems working in local organizations to have an embedded professional on the staff who works in HR, and really becomes that liaison between the employer and the community placing people in employment. That came out of an innovative project that we did some years ago in Pittsburgh with Giant Eagle supermarkets and United Way of Allegheny County

Elaine Katz: What we try to do when it comes to innovation, what's really hard to explain is that it doesn't have to be something totally new. It's not like inventing something, but it's taking the elements that are out there and putting them together in new ways to get better results

Mark Miller: That's interesting. I think one of the first points that you brought up that came out of the survey, which is something that I've observed because I'm in a real fortunate position to work with a lot of people with a variety of disabilities, is that people with disabilities want to work. When you step back and think about that, people with disabilities are people, right? I've never met anybody that really truly wants to be taken care of or a free ride. People want to feel valuable. They want to take care of themselves, take care of their families. They want to be of value to society, and it's no different if, for some reason you have a disability. I think it's an interesting thing and I agree with you that people who aren't as exposed to people with disabilities may think, "Hey, they don't want to work. They get a free ride, they're going to take it." And that's just not the case. Everybody's highly motivated

Elaine Katz: Mark, if you think about just going to a party, what are the first thing you do after you say your name? What's the next question people ask

Mark Miller: What do you do

Elaine Katz: What do you do

Mark Miller: Yeah, what do you do for work

Elaine Katz: [crosstalk 00:07:53] answering that, so when you think about most people's identity, a lot of who they are as a person, besides maybe being mother, father, sister, brother is really their career and what they do with their time. If somebody who is born with a disability, that becomes a really important part of their identity. Having a disability is part of your identity. At the same time, people don't want to hear about your having a disability and all the problems. They want to hear about what you're doing with your life, your quality of life, and that's what really makes it essential that people do want to get out there. Another factor from that survey, while we're talking about this, is that people found jobs through networking. Think about how you connect with everybody. Everybody uses network. If you stay at home because you may be a person with a disability and you have a more limited network, how are you going to find those jobs that aren't advertised? A lot of jobs are found word of mouth. You have a very small and narrow networking, it's a lot more difficult

Elaine Katz: People with disabilities did though find to use networks, family, friends, whatever they could. We saw that more often than actually trying to connect through a nonprofit organization or an employment organization. That becomes pretty significant, especially these days when you have LinkedIn and you have all kinds of other tools to really help you widen your network without having to go somewhere really physically

Mark Miller: Right. Yeah. I think it's so true, and it is people's identities, people's interactions. Again, it's really not any different I think for any individual out there regardless of ability. The other interesting bit I've found is that you said that a liaison within the company really is what came out of this survey as probably I would assume one of the many solutions or the best initial step to match up this desire for a person to work with a company's understanding and, I don't know how you would say it, but willingness or capability of just interviewing and hiring people with disabilities. Having that liaison, just having somebody in there that will listen to a person with disabilities and understand what it would take for them to come to work is huge

Elaine Katz: That actually came out of a white paper that we did last year. Sometimes foundations, we talked about it, about giving away a lot of money, learning a lot of things and not sharing it. What we did was look at all of our large projects, which are between 100,000 and 500,000, and we've done those national projects probably only over the last eight years to 20 of them and really sat down to look at what are the lessons learned. That's what one of them came out of that project, in that when you have a person-centered approach to employment, you have a good partnership with a company, you can develop those kinds of projects. The person you're talking about was called a career transition liaison in the project we did with Giant Eagle supermarkets and United Way, and more importantly, they were the troubleshooters

Elaine Katz: Sometimes you hear people just will have trouble getting a job. Okay. They finally got a job after lots of interviews and lots of searches, and that's great. They're on the job for a month, a week, a couple months. All of a sudden, they run into some real obstacles. Where is their support? Who's continuing [crosstalk 00:11:39] to support them? So to find individuals within a company, or in this case it was a person who worked for the company but wasn't hired initially by the company, can really help those continuing bumps in the road that [crosstalk 00:11:55] up

Elaine Katz: Another way we're doing that now is we have a project with the University of Iowa and two other universities that are University Centers on Disability. What they're doing is trying to do some remote through tools that people already have. Maybe it's connecting through an iPad or an iPhone so that if you have a problem at a job, and in a lot of remote areas, even if somebody wants to go out and help you and talk to an employer, it takes them a long distance to get there if you're working a big rural state. It allows somebody with a disability to have a friend on the other line, so to speak, on your phone to call and say, "Look, I'm having this problem. How do I handle it?" Or, "About to explode, what should I do?" Or, "I have a coworker that's nasty to me." Instead of it building up, they can handle it within a very short amount of time

Mark Miller: Right. It strikes me too that, especially in our line of work, accessibility first, digital things like websites, and that would translate to HR type programs and things like that, the accommodations really exist, the technological accommodations, the ability for people to help accommodate. It all exists out there. It's just a matter of having it in place for people with disabilities. I've had this conversation before. This topic has come up on a few podcasts here and there. Not only where is that proper liaison, that proper motivation by the individual who's looking for work, when that all comes together in the right way, in the proper accommodation, oftentimes it's not just that you've figured out a way to hire somebody with a disability, but you've actually brought somebody in that can add value in a very unique way to the organization

Mark Miller: One of the extreme examples that I think of is that I had gone to see one of the Cirque du Soleil shows, it was the Michael Jackson One show, and there was a individual who had a disability. He only had one leg, and so he did a lot of his dancing and stuff in this show on crutches, but it was a value add. It was a unique experience the audience really appreciated. My initial reaction was, "Oh, hey, cool, they hired somebody with a disability. How great." Then my final reaction was, "Oh, my gosh, was it cool seeing that guy dance on crutches with only one leg and the unique things that he did." I realized he was a unique value in that organization. I think that's an exciting example, but I think that that type of thing happens all the time when individuals are employed, and all these things you're talking about come together to allow it to happen, that the organization ultimately finds ways in which this person has a unique benefit, just like they would with any other employee

Elaine Katz: Right. But you also hope they don't see the disability

Mark Miller: Right

Elaine Katz: If there were members of that audience in particular who still say, "That was interesting. That was a guy with a disability that they hired," rather than, "That was a performer who really added to the show," then I would say that's what we're looking for with complete integration. I just want to get back to what you talked about with accommodations and businesses. Our survey did show that supervisors rather than senior management really believe that, and they put much more importance to accommodations than maybe higher-ups in the organization. It's really important, and they saw it both in the application, the interview process, and doing the job. Because when you think about it, the supervisors... so, the supervisors whose jobs are on the line if somebody working for them doesn't do well. It's important that the company says, "Yes, we're hiring people with disabilities," but it's also important then that supervisors make sure to have the tools that they need to do the job

Elaine Katz: Brings us back to another innovation project is that we worked with Pepsi, America's beverage, a number of years ago. It was a joint project with Ability Beyond in Connecticut Kessler Family Foundation, Kessler Family Foundation, and Pepsi Distribution Centers, which is that department within Pepsi that we work with, wanted to hire more individuals with disabilities. But there were issues with accommodations on the interview process because many companies now are using online computer systems, and those computer systems can time out before somebody with a disability may have a chance to respond. At the same time, you have language problems and all kinds of issues. They created a different portal that was open to everybody, not necessarily somebody with a disability, but they had a high perception that if somebody applied through this particular portal, then it would be somebody who may have a disability, they may not have a disability, just because they want to be nondiscriminatory. But it was created especially to be accommodating for more individuals with a disability. Having those recruiting systems more accessible, the interview process, even using Skype, especially if you're using something with a hearing impairment where you can visually see them in sign language. That also really helps

Elaine Katz: If you think about accommodations, and I love to use this example all the time, what do you think the biggest accommodation now is in corporate America, not necessarily thinking about disability? I don't know if you know, or in offices

Mark Miller: The biggest accommodation? You mean like thing that people do

Elaine Katz: People are asking for, any employer is asking for, any employee is asking for within businesses right now, which would be seen as accommodation if you put it into that kind of language. What do employees want

Mark Miller: Boy, that's a tough one, and I'm probably a little biased because of the work that I do in accessibility, but if I had to generalize it, I would guess it's something along the lines of working from home

Elaine Katz: No. That could be an accommodation. But if you're working in an office, the big thing their really asking for is a standing desk

Mark Miller: Okay. Yeah, which I'm at right now, yes

Elaine Katz: I can tell you how many are in my office. I know somebody who just moved to a law firm, a new space, and everybody has a standing desk. Companies don't think about that as an accommodation, but truly it is, and they're not that expensive. Corporate America does provide for their employees whether they have a disability or not, and that's I think what we're trying to look at, that it's universal accommodation, universal design, so whatever helps any employee, it really makes them more productive, whether they work at home, whether they're standing, whether they're sitting, getting in the front door, modified job duties, hours. It's a great thing. It really helps the company. It helps morale, it helps them achieve their ends, which is being a better company and producing and doing whatever they're doing

Mark Miller: Yeah. That's really incredible. We look at it from the standpoint of web accessibility. We clearly understand that when a company adheres to the guidelines and essentially accommodates for people with disabilities on their website, that that also tends to improve the overall experience for everyone, right? That standing desk example is just that. You're not talking about something that's just for people with disabilities, but something that improves the experience for everyone. Maybe that was discovered because it was originally requested by a person with a disability. Also, coupling that with this idea of the direct supervisor being the one to really take ownership over that person being successful, I think that the other aspect of that, and this is again just anecdotal from having several of these conversations, is that when it comes to accommodating, I think one of the biggest mistakes that organizations have made is they've said, "Okay, we've got a person who's in a wheelchair," for example. "Here's the list of things that we do to accommodate for somebody in a wheelchair. Here, new employee in a wheelchair. Here are your accommodations.

Mark Miller: I know firsthand, a firsthand example of a friend of mine who is in a managerial position in his company, and he walked into an individual in a wheelchair's office and said, "Hey, what's all this stuff for?" The guy said, "I don't know. They gave it to me to accommodate for me being in a wheelchair, but I don't even know what half of it is." So he said to him directly, human being to human being, "What is it that you need?" He said, "I need enough space under my desk to roll my wheelchair forward. Otherwise, I don't need anything else." I think that it becomes to put those human elements in there as well where people can really communicate what they need instead of a corporate policy that assumes a person with a certain capability or disability needs something is also important. It sounds like, through that research, you've really kind of uncovered the magic formula that allows proper channels of communication, availability of proper resources, availability of the correct types of individuals that have the right training, education, understanding to help, accommodate probably for everyone, right, but specifically for people with disabilities

Elaine Katz: It's the whole simple thing of nothing about us without us, and always [crosstalk 00:22:03] the person. I think part of Kessler Foundation being unique is that I've come from a nonprofit background. My background also is a speech pathologist, and I raised two children who have disabilities

Mark Miller: Wow

Elaine Katz: I've also worked in the field. There are many people who work in this field in employment they come from the side of the employer. We've worked more probably with, since we started our community employment program locally in New Jersey, we were very hands-on with organizations. Part of what we try to do too is make the organizations better. We offer, every year, a grantee symposium, which we open to the community, so our grantees are invited, we invite speakers in, and every year we try to talk about topics that really improve performance. For example, one year we talked about data, how data can really improve what you're doing. A lot of times, coaches people who placed individuals' employment don't look at how many times they sent somebody on an interview, what happens at a interview, debriefing people and learning from those experiences

Elaine Katz: This year, we talked about how to develop quality programs. There's a lot that say people who work in the disability area, there's a lot of turnover, but the question is: Has the organization really looked at why people are leaving, what they're doing? Because I know if you've ever worked as a manager or supervisor, pay is not the only reason why people leave organizations. If you don't feel valued in the work you do and you've worked all kinds of hours, and in these instances, people who are job coaches or helping people get placed in employment, if you have a disability, then you're driving people to the job. They may be following up. They're working odd hours. If you don't feel valued, you may not want to continue in your work, no matter how dedicated you are to the field

Mark Miller: Guess what. That's the same for anybody. That kind of research or that kind of interaction, understanding with an organization, it's appropriate for anybody and it's appropriate for that employer retention overall. It's interesting that you then have to step back and think about it separately for a person with a disability, that there's some assumption that they might be leaving for some reason related to their disability. When you're dealing with human beings, there a myriad of reasons why people might make a decision like that

Elaine Katz: Right. I'm talking more specifically about people who work in nonprofit agencies trying to place people in employment. I think then there's very high turnover among those professions

Mark Miller: Oh, I got you

Elaine Katz: When you look on the employer side, there's the fear, the "How am I going to tell somebody to leave if they don't meet job expectations?" Part of why we're talking about it is the myths and the barriers to entry. You can still have a CEO that says, "I want to hire people with disabilities." People may not follow along in HR, because there's also risk. [crosstalk 00:25:17] candidates that present themselves equally on paper and they come in for an interview, you find one of them then has a disability, everything is really equal except for the disability. There's still that bias that people have that, "Maybe I can't take the risk because my success as an HR person," especially in larger companies, it's all on rankings and [crosstalk 00:25:40] and how long people stay in the jobs and the ratio of interview to getting the job and all those numbers, so there's still that fear, unless there's really been a cultural shift

Elaine Katz: What we talk about, and a lot of consultants in the field talk about, is when you're looking at hiring a person with a disability, it's really not only just a culture change in the company, but it's the continually updating education, due diligence you need to do to make sure that's happy, so that you have a great employee. Sometimes you hear that people with disabilities are a lot more loyal, they have better attendance. I've talked to employers who said, "All my good employees are like that." [crosstalk 00:26:26] just having a disability make you a more loyal person than not. They don't like change so much, so it may be people stay at their jobs and they're not necessarily as happy, which brings us to the whole issue of looking at promotion. It's getting the job, keeping the job, but then not staying in the same job for the next 10 years, which oftentimes happens

Mark Miller: Yeah, and I think that a person with a disability, there's no doubt that they might have to work a little bit harder to get the job in the first place, so they're probably the type of person that can go through those challenges and come out the other end in a positive way is also the same type of person that's going to be a really good, loyal employee. There's probably a lot of factors, you know what I mean, that go into that

Mark Miller: We've, Elaine, kind of come to the end of the podcast. Is there anything really outstanding or important about what you guys have been doing that we haven't touched upon that you want to get to before we sign off

Elaine Katz: I would say we're always interested in hearing new ideas from the field. Go to our website, www.kesslerfoundation.org. You'll see we're right now accepting grant applications in most of our programs, so you can tell your listeners feel free and go get information on that. We also have a national trends in disability employment report that comes out every first Friday of the Department of Labor Statistics on employment for people with disability, and that's done with the University of New Hampshire, so if you'd like to be on that webinar that they run and the information that we send around, please send us an email. We'd be happy to add you to the list

Mark Miller: Very cool. We'll make sure that all that stuff is in the show notes as well, so if you're listening and you didn't have a chance to capture that information, we're capturing it for you. Other thing I'd throw out there is that in looking around and doing my research on the Kessler Foundation, I found that you guys have a pretty robust and interesting YouTube channel as well, with some videos, so if you're just looking for more information, I'd recommend jumping over there as well

Elaine Katz: And SoundCloud. We have a SoundCloud channel as well

Mark Miller: Ah, I didn't find the SoundCloud channel, but the SoundCloud channel as well. Beautiful. Elaine, thank you so much for joining us and talking about us. We love to hear about people who are doing this kind of work, because you really are making a difference. It strikes me that there's nothing crazy in what you're doing. It all, in hindsight, probably falls, a lot of it, into that common sense realm, but just aggregating the data, working to help people pull these things together that make things better. Everybody wants to work. Everybody wants to carry their own weight and be a value to society, and it's just wonderful to see that there's organizations like the Kessler Foundation out there making that happen in a way that's positive for everyone, not just the person with a disability, but for the companies that are hiring them and for the people that work with those people. For all of that, we thank you for doing what you do every day

Elaine Katz: Thank you, Mark. It's been a pleasure to be on your show, and give us a call again. We're happy to come back

Mark Miller: Yeah, you're very welcome. This is Mark Miller thanking Elaine and reminding you all to keep it accessible

Speaker 1: The IAP, Interactive Accessibility podcast, is brought to you by Interactive Accessibility, the accessibility experts. You can find their Access Matters blog at interactiveaccessibility.com/blog.


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