“It’s very rare to see ourselves represented still in the workforce. And so that is what I hope people take away from this, that you must hire disabled people in order to build products and to create a business that will appeal to folks with disabilities. If you wanna be successful, you need to hire people who are disabled.” — Beth Wiesendanger
In this episode of Stories from the Field, we welcome Beth Wiesendanger who shares her unique perspective as a first-generation individual growing up with the ADA laws in the 90s. She discussed the misconceptions around what disability looks like and how it’s important to advocate for the disabled community. She also speaks on the benefits of hiring people with disabilities and how they bring a unique perspective and skillset to the workplace and ways to encourage employers to be open-minded and create a culture of inclusivity and accessibility. We hope you can tune in to learn more about Beth’s journey and advocacy for disability rights and accessibility which is grounded in her personal experiences and her belief that everyone deserves equal opportunities and access.
LEARNING HIGHLIGHTS FROM THIS EPISODE:
- Growing up in the 90s and what that looked like for someone with a disability.
- How disability looks like from a physical, technological, and societal perspective.
- What it means to be an ally to the disabled community.
Hear the Full Episode On:
About Beth Wiesendanger
26% of Americans identify with having some kind of disability – and as a double-amputee, I am one of them. I’m a lot of other things, too; I’m a woman. I’m progressive. I’m a community builder, organizer and activist. But, for the world at large, my disability is my defining characteristic.
When you’re disabled (much like when you’re a woman, Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian, LGBTQ+, or anything that isn’t a straight, cisgender white male) advocacy is not a choice. Our very existence is political. When the entire world has been constructed in ways that actively harm you – just being visible is an act of rebellion. Be it age, gender, ethnicity, orientation, religion or ability – we have to work harder to prove we can exist in spaces that never intended to include us.
I want to change that. My mission is to ensure more of us are seen and heard and advocated for. To leverage the resources I have access to and create access for those who don’t. To create opportunities, tear down the cultural and systemic barriers, and foster community, knowledge, and success.
As a Senior Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Manager, I am a champion of bringing people together and leveraging resources to educate, inform, and inspire communities at large. I’ve overseen and executed hundreds of events around the globe; bringing awareness to topics like diversity in creativity, women in tech, accessibility & disability, the future of work, and more.
Most importantly, I’m here to listen, learn, and grow.
Resources & Links
Jason Rebello: We are excited to continue our Stories From The Field podcast with a very special guest. Beth, it seems like it’s been a lifetime since we last saw each other in Seattle. Welcome back. We’d love the opportunity you to share a little bit about yourself before we get into our conversation for today.
Beth Wiesendanger: Yeah. Thank you so much. It has definitely felt like a lifetime in a lot of ways. I feel any passing of time now since 2020 feels like a lifetime, so I’m very happy to be back and to have this conversation with you all. My name is Beth. My pronouns are she/her. I am in the diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility space. I have been for a long time, but I think what I’d like to share, if it’s all right, is how I got into this space and really the focus that my life has taken around community building and what that looks like forming relationships.
For the conversation we’re having today, important context is that I am disabled. I’m a double amputee and a prosthetic user. I grew up in the nineties in a very small suburban town in California. And in a lot of ways, the nineties were very much a time of you’re only as disabled as you feel and you can do anything you put your mind to. It was that kind of narrative and there was no one else in my school or in my town or in my family that had an apparent disability in the same way I did. So it was this experience of getting that messaging from my parents and the people around me of, “Your disability doesn’t define you.” But then at the same time, my lived experience was that it was the very first thing that people noticed about me anytime I was in a room.
It became really clear to me that I had to seek out other folks who were having similar experiences that I was. Luckily, I grew up in the age of the internet. I feel very lucky to be part of the internet generation because I was able to look for online community. And I remember the first time I was in the same virtual space with a group of other folks who identified with having very diverse disabilities and neuro divergencies. It was this moment of, “Ah, my identity is not something that I need to hide or something that I need to cover.” It’s something that felt so empowering to me to be able to say, “I’m not a person with a disability. I’m a disabled person.” It is such a core part of who I am and it’s informed so much of who I’ve become that it was just almost a reclamation of taking back that identity and really seeing how it could be something that I leveraged as a tool, a resource, a way of building compassion and empathy with others.
So really from that moment I realized how important community spaces were and how important community spaces that are built around identity and shared experience are. That’s really how I got into the diversity, equity, and inclusion space was coming at it from this background of being involved in the disability justice community, getting involved in a lot of different intersectional communities from there, doing a lot of progressive political activist work and really approaching the space from that lens. Really happy to be here and to be talking about accessibility. It’s so important. I don’t think it’s talked about enough in the DEI space. And just really excited to have this conversation today.
Oana Amaria: I love it. Thank you so much. So what really inspired us is, as Jason mentioned, just getting to learn a little bit more about you. At the summit, one of the things that you mentioned that still gives me chills every time I repeat it back to you is this idea of in the session we talk about your front from to moment, meaning I want to transform from this place of X to this place of Y. You shared your personal mission as putting A back into accessibility. Again, in the DEI space, there’s a lot of As. I thought that was just such a simple reminder of some of the basic things that I think we often time overlook or under-represent. In the DEI conversation, I genuinely believe that depending on what industry or sector you’re in, there’s less emphasis especially for us in the corporate sector.
I think it’s powerful to have this conversation now because I think one, most people don’t know that the ADA, the American Disabilities Act, wasn’t passed until the nineties. So you talked about the nineties and being a nineties kid. To me, that blew my mind to just put it in that perspective. We also have this Goliath of the industry that has just passed away, Judith Heumann, that led that activism that you talked about. So I think those two bookends for me created the power of the momentum of this conversation.
So I’d love for you to talk about what has that journey been like for you in this conversation and how will you know that you’ve been successful? We know Judith, for example, got laws passed. I think very few of us have that mission. I mean many of us can obviously be activists and get laws passed, but what is your version of that and how will you know when you’re there?
Beth Wiesendanger: Yeah. It’s such an interesting question because disabled advocacy is a comparatively recent history. Like you mentioned, in 1990 was when the ADA was passed, the Americans with Disabilities Act. So really I’m the first generation of people that grew up with equitable laws protecting things like employment. And in a lot of ways, I think that disability rights and disability justice is sort of the wild west, for lack of a better term, of diversity, equity, and inclusion. It’s not often talked about. Many organizations are still in the very, very beginning stages of what their approach to disability inclusion looks like. And I think what I’m really interested in is shifting people’s perspective from a compliance mindset. A mindset that says we have to provide things to keep ourselves safe from risk to a more human centered mindset.
What I mean by that is when we’re talking about accessibility, I think the biggest part of that word is just access. And access is something that all of us need regardless of our backgrounds. When you think about the purpose of DEI work, it really is about creating access, right? Equitable access to opportunity, to career advancement, to success, to financial empowerment, all of the things. So when you talk about accessibility, to me it’s part of all of that conversation. It’s not separate. And there’s still a little bit of a myth. I think that the disabled community is the vital few, when in reality, we’re 25% of the population in the US. One in three of us are either disabled now or will become disabled in our lifetimes, whether it’s just from aging or something happens. So the idea that disability and accessibility is something separate to a majority experience is just not true.
When I think about how will we know we’re successful, there’s a quote I really like that we use in DEI work all the time where it’s like what is understood doesn’t need to be described or defined. And to me, it’s such a good goalpost, it’s a great North Star because what we really want to see is not systems that have been adapted to become accessible for other people, but really a complete reframing of how we build systems all together and from the foundation of building anything, making sure that we are considering how will all people of all backgrounds and all experiences and all abilities access this? I think for me, the conversation about accessibility as being something different than the conversation of DEI more broadly is part of the reason why we need to do a lot more work and a lot more advocacy. They shouldn’t be seen as two separate things. It should be part of the whole.
Jason Rebello: What you just shared, Beth, about the myth of the vital few I think really resonated with me and not just from the stat that 25% of the population falls into this category, which is probably new information for most people that are listening to this, but the context of disabled now or into the future simply because of the aging process that all of us are going to be going through. I feel like if people feel disconnected from this conversation because they don’t have anyone in their immediate space that falls into that category, it really helps to put that into context to think about my aging parents and my grandmother that turned a hundred years old and how her mobility is significantly hampered. It really, I think, kind of brings it to that human conversation and that sense of compassion because it’s not just an out of sight, out of mind type of context.
I would love for you to share, what are some other common misconceptions that you’ve encountered that you’d like to debunk or other myths that you’d like to shed light on? And then in addition, from there, one of the things we always talk about is allyship and what it means to be a good ally. I think this is a really great opportunity for you to share with us in our community, what does that mean being a good ally for people with disabilities now and into the future?
Beth Wiesendanger: Yeah, I think the first misconception is what disability means. The truth is that disability is such a broad term, it’s really difficult to think of it in these monolithic ways that I think we’ve been trained to think about disability. If I, say, picture someone with a disability, probably I can guess what you’re picturing is either a wheelchair user, someone who may have a visual disability, someone who may have an auditory disability, those “traditional” views of what disability can mean. What is true is that disability is an incredibly diverse and dynamic experience. There are apparent disabilities like somebody who has a physical disability, but there’s also non apparent disabilities. Many divergencies would fall in this category. And then there’s also temporary disabilities. Maybe you break your leg, you’re in a cast, you have a temporary disability. I think the biggest myth is just what disability looks like in general.
I think the other myth is around what accessibility looks like, because much our view of what disability looks like, our view of what accessibility looks like oftentimes is centered around that physical experience. Things like chair lifts and ramps, things like elevators, audio crosswalk signals, braille. I think people know that these are accessible solutions, but sometimes it can be technological, right? Closed captioning, auditory commands, adaptive websites, product design, and then oftentimes it’s societal. So access to affordable housing, access to education, access to benefits. One in three disabled adults don’t have a usual healthcare provider. And really just access to opportunities to engage in different social and cultural behaviors. I think that’s something that we can all take a little bit more time to learn about.
And it answers your question too, to how we can be better allies. I think that just being more aware and not even just being more aware, but really seeking out and having conversations with folks who have a breadth of experience across what disability looks like and their experiences with it can be really helpful for you to contextualize and even understand how to support different communities. One disabled person is one disabled person, much like any person of any background is just them and their own experiences. All of our needs are very, very different.
I would say some easy steps to becoming a better ally are to diversify your media, follow disabled creators on your Instagram, on YouTube, on TikTok. These outlets have created so much more visibility and awareness for disabled folks to really leverage and get their voice out there. And watch movies that feature people with actual disabilities or tell the stories of people with disabilities and read books by disabled authors. There are a lot of great ones out there. That’s really the first step, I think, to being a good ally for any community is to just really expand your network and hear what people’s lived experiences are.
Oana Amaria: Beth, I feel like you kind of called me out with those examples because I know, for example, in our decks when we try to be inclusive, and it’s hard because it’s images, so what are you going to pick? But you do pick the person with the ear aid. So I think that’s really fair. I also think that most people don’t realize some of the examples that you gave like giving people that are neurodiverse checklists because some of their needs are more linear than ours, or explicit instructions, or we do captions and transcripts for all of our sessions. And that’s a really important part of the way that we deliver training. But it actually is also really helpful for people that are ESL, people like me, or people that speak many languages before they spoke English. So back to this idea of the myth of the few, there’s so many examples of how we benefit from the development of products that are accessible across the board.
When we think about just our lack of maybe awareness or even exposure, as you mentioned, how are you broadening your circle of friends? What kind of books are you reading? I think we don’t realize all the different layers, and we do approach it from this one size fits all approach. When you think about advice you would give our listeners on how to advocate, you gave some really great tips on allyship. And again, it’s not our job to educate others. This is us creating the space, but what could someone do to advocate more for this space, for this community, especially within their sphere of influence? When we talk about this in the context of race, when we talk about this in the context of gender fluidity and all this other stuff, and we have very specific examples, what could you give for individuals listening to this today?
Beth Wiesendanger: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think the biggest thing that I see within any organization is not that people are unwilling to think about diverse perspectives and include diverse voices. I think it’s really just that they’re unaware and I think it’s really important for us as people who are really invested in advancing equity and inclusion to understand that not everyone has been given the tools really to think about how can I create a checklist for myself? How can I make sure that I’m seeing these opportunities to make things more accessible for folks? I think the first is really just approaching that education with a sense of empathy.
One thing that I see a lot happen in spaces, especially in the tech industry or other corporations, that’s been really helpful is pausing for a second and asking yourself, “Let’s do a gut check of everybody who’s in the room right now talking about this, and are there diverse perspectives included here?” You should always be including somebody who has the perspective or the priority of the needs of the disabled or neurodiverse community in those conversations. I don’t think that that’s specific to disability. I think that’s a good first step for any ally in the work they’re doing.
But fundamentally, I think that’s really the first thing you need to do is anytime you’re having a conversation about a new project, a new idea, a new initiative, are the people who are sitting around this table right now virtually or in person giving us a diverse perspective? And if not, how can you get a diverse perspective? Who can you ask? Who can you loop in? If you don’t have anyone in your organization, is there a third party consultant you can work with to bring in? I think that’s the first actionable item that I would give allies is to gut check who’s at the table and involve diverse perspectives.
The second thing I would say is disability is not a bad word. And I think a lot of people are still, who aren’t disabled, doing the best they can to avoid saying the word disability. No one wants to be called differently abled or that we’re only as disabled as we think. Our disability is a core piece of our identity. So it is okay to say a person with disabilities or a disabled person. That’s not negative.
Oana Amaria: I’m just going to jump in here because I think that’s so important for you to just say that again. I think because we see all these tags like alt able and there’s these, I wouldn’t call it cultural wars, but there’s definitely a spectrum of what people believe you should say. And I even remember seeing a t-shirt like, “The future is disabled.” I’m like, “I get what you’re saying here, but that doesn’t work in this context.” So thank you for saying that out loud because I do think that that is almost like overcompensating or we’re not doing anybody any justice by minimizing or romanticizing or recreating something to fit the dominant culture norm. So thank you.
Beth Wiesendanger: I think it’s a journey that all of us in the disabled community are on as well. All of us have all of the internalized things that we’re working through that are given to us by society or culture at large. So even for me, my journey to identifying as a disabled person, it wasn’t overnight. It took time to really unpack why I felt so sensitive around identifying that way. But there is a lot of power in showing up and saying, “I’m disabled and I’m here and I deserve to take up space.” So disability is not a bad word. And of course, language evolves, and as practitioners in this space, we need to be adaptive and agile and respectful of how people self-identify. But the idea that being disabled is somehow associated with a negative perception is really steeped in ableism. So I think that’s one thing for allies to unpack even with their own perception of what it means to be disabled.
Then I would also say don’t feel sorry for disabled people or talk down to us when someone says they are disabled. I think another thing is, you hear this a lot in the disability space, that people are often told if you have a disability and yet you’re out visibly living your life, working, doing whatever, it is totally average for a person to do that you’re somehow special or inspirational. That’s never a great thing to tell someone. Also realize that people don’t owe you an explanation for why they have a disability. Don’t ask what happened or what’s wrong. It strikes me in is in the same vein as, “Oh, but where are you really from?” Those sorts of conversations aren’t helpful. I think what is helpful is really focusing on how do I bring this person in to this conversation and make sure that their perspective is valued and that they’re being seen and heard? There’s also a rallying cry within our community too that there’s nothing for us without us. So you’re not building things for us. You should be building it with us and with our input and our help.
Jason Rebello: Love that. Love that. Speaking of building, Beth, what are you working on right now that you’re really excited about?
Beth Wiesendanger: Yeah. I’m excited about so many things in the disability space. I think what I’m really excited about is the beginning of understanding that, again, disability is this very wide experience and also what we were speaking to earlier, that curb cut effect of something that is accessible, really just being more accessible to everyone, not just the smaller population of people who identify in a specific way is really exciting.
For example, thinking about communication. If you send an agenda ahead of time and give people time to process information ahead of a meeting, as well as send takeaways after, that is something that benefits folks who need more time to process information who have neurodiversity, but it also benefits everyone to have that information. If you send an email that has a lot of really critical information in it and include an audio recording of the email script, that helps people who need different processing methodologies. But it helps anyone. It helps anybody who may be holding their baby and still needing to listen to an email. I think what I’m really excited about is seeing other stakeholders really connect the dots between, “Oh, this is just better for everyone. It’s not better for a small population.”
I’m also really excited about how there are some amazing companies that are doing a lot of wonderful work in the disability space. Disability:IN is an organization that I’ve really loved working with. And one of their most helpful tools is an external benchmarking audit that helps you understand where your organization is at in terms of disability inclusion. And why it’s really helpful is because through taking the audit, you create a roadmap to improvement internally. And what’s exciting about their work is that they’re creating a global version of that as well. So I think we’ve talked a lot about disability rights and justice in the US as a very specific context, but how do we apply that globally and what does it look like in other role contexts is really interesting, exciting and is, I think, on the cutting edge of what’s happening right now in the field.
Oana Amaria: That’s amazing. We were just chatting about disability and the benchmarking because that’s really powerful, especially because just like with other DEI stuff, different laws in different places have different requirements and because of where we are in society where it’s still compliance-based, it becomes very different.
I remember a story, I was working with Unilever and in Europe, they actually have mandates in specific countries of hiring a number of people with disability, whatever that means. I remember it was like a factory or something like that, and there was a person that was deaf working there. So they had to figure out how to do alarms differently. This idea of thinking differently actually helped the entire workforce there, right? Because it’s not just, to your point, about sending audio or sending a video, it helps learning styles, not just the person that is impacted. I think that’s really incredible and we’ll definitely add a link to Disability:IN so that people can explore and really get to know this tool.
You talked about what’s important and what you’re excited about. I’d love for you to really give us a sense of, what is your parting request for our listeners and for inclusion champions and for practitioners? Tell us to go do something, Beth. What are we going to go do starting right now, starting today?
Beth Wiesendanger: Yeah. My call to action is to hire people with disabilities into your company and to refer people with disabilities to be hired within your company. The unemployment rate for folks with disabilities is about 70% compared to 30% of the non-disabled population. I feel very privileged to be able to be in a position where I am now as an apparently disabled, proud, loud person in a position at a company where I can impact our approach to inclusion. It’s very rare to see ourselves represented still in the workforce. So that is what I hope people take away from this, that you must hire disabled people in order to build products and to create a business that will appeal to folks with disabilities. If you want to be successful, you need to hire people who are disabled. And secondarily, I’ll say not just white disabled men, intersectional disabled identities.
Oana Amaria: What a powerful note to end on, Beth. I think that’s the sound bite. Right? Well, thank you so much for all the insights. I love the way that you think about this and the way that you’ve inspired us to think about it and the way you’ve organized some of these concepts, sending Jackie notes and this idea of not just physical, but also technological and societal have really stuck with me. So thank you for joining us and thank you.
Jason Rebello: Thank you so much.
Oana Amaria: Yeah. Thank you to all of you for listening.
Beth Wiesendanger: Thank you for having me.