Monday, October 31, 2011

Changing the Paradigm

On October 28, 2011, the World Institute on Disability officially kicked-off its Center for Economic Growth (CEG). Andy Imparato, Senior Counsel and Disability Policy Director for the U.S. Senate HELP Committee, started by describing Senator Harkin's challenge to employ 6 million people with disabilities by 2015. My opening remarks were then presented.

Center for Economic Growth
Opening Remarks
10-28-2011

            Thank you for being here. We have very high expectations for this Summit. We believe that now is the time to change the paradigm of how we think about economic growth for people with disabilities. As entitlements continue to be questioned and their funding becomes more tenuous, we must embrace the belief and create the reality that people with disabilities are equal members in our society and full economic partners.  We must change our mindset from providing disability benefits and safety-nets to providing what it takes to enable people to successfully fulfill their role in the economic growth of themselves, their family and their extended community. Economic success for people with disabilities should be defined exactly the same way it is for everyone. Economic success is taking full advantage of opportunities one can find or create that uses ones abilities to be as productive as one can be and as prosperous as one wants to be. WID believes the return on investment of this paradigm shift is both significant and measurable.

            We are going to begin the summit by reviewing recommendations made by The World Institute on Disability, Mathematica Policy Research and the National Council On Independent Living. Like all recommendations, these were made using certain mindsets. These mindsets include notions such as a safety net is needed for people with disabilities. Another paradigm is that employers should and will hire people with disabilities if they are equally as qualified as their peers. A third paradigm is that people with disabilities need rehabilitation to learn how to perform existing jobs. What if we change these paradigms? What if disability benefits were seen as equalization benefits – a way of leveling the field and removing the cost of disability as a barrier? What if, instead of safety nets, we provide civil service opportunities and expect people with disabilities to earn their way, just like everyone else? What if rehabilitation was seen as a way of discovering how a people with disabilities can be productive and prepared for tomorrow’s jobs, challenges and opportunities?

            The Disability Movement has historically been about changing paradigms. Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, the predominant paradigm regarding disability was that people with disabilities had to ‘adjust to their environment’. Our goal was to look and sound and act as ‘normal’ as possible. It wasn’t until the paradigm changed and we realized that ‘society should be accessible to all people’ that true progress began to occur.  Surprisingly, the predominant paradigm in regards to employment of people with disabilities has not changed. We still hear ‘hire people with disabilities’, and ‘people with disabilities can work.’ In this global economy, when employers know they can hire very qualified and experienced people anywhere in the world, expecting them to hire people with disabilities will only get harder. As a retired senior vice president of Wells Fargo Bank, hearing that ‘people with disabilities can work’, is demeaning and patronizing.   I submit to you that the crux of the problem behind the employment of people with disabilities lies in these antiquated constructs. I submit to you that the paradigm for the 21st century should be that everyone must be productive. Now is the time to raise expectations, to determine how we will be productive, and determine how we will create our own prosperity.
            As you listen to the recommendations Bryon and David are going to review with you, please think about the underlying paradigms. The Center for Economic Growth wants to hear your opinion as to which 2 or 3 of these recommendations should we actively pursue? If the paradigms were different, would your advice to the CEG change? Might the recommendations themselves change? Are the paradigms we have today OK?  Are the ones we just suggested any better? Are there others? What data and research do we need in order to decide? We have purposely not developed details for our proposed new paradigms because we wanted to hear from you which way you think we should be headed. One thing we do know for sure is that to meet Senator Harkin’s challenge and to significantly improve the economic prosperity for people with disabilities, something bold and different is needed.

            The Center for Economic Growth looks forward to your input both today and in the months ahead.




Monday, September 26, 2011

Remarks to students at the Henry Viscardi School


Today, I want to spend most of our time just talking and answering questions. Before doing that I want to give you a quick idea of who I am and where I’m coming from. Since Antoinette talks much faster than I do, I’ve asked her to read my opening remarks.

It’s great to be back on Long Island. I grew up in Coney Island and went to college just down the road from here at Hofstra. At Hofstra, I managed their Rolling Dutchmen Wheelchair Basketball team. I remember several games were held right here at Abilities School.

I recently retired from Wells Fargo after 29 years. I started my career at Wells Fargo as a
COBOL / Assembler language programmer. I worked my way up the corporate semi-accessible ladder. I ended my career there as a Senior Vice President in their IT area where I had hundreds of people in my area in 5 states as well as India. I spent at least 7 hours every day in meetings. I truly felt listened to.  I must admit, throughout my career at the Bank, I enjoyed going to large meetings where few people knew me. It was great seeing the tension in the room rise as people looked at me. They squirmed in their seats avoiding looking at me. As we began talking about the topic of the meeting or the problem of the day, it was fun watching the tension go away. There was always someone in the room who I could watch and gauge how well I was being understood by their expression. More often than not, they would automatically and naturally say, ‘Neil, did you say…’ My point here is that people will listen and understand if you give them the reason and the opportunity to do so.

Another example of this is being on call. Working in IT for a Bank is a 24/7 commitment. When a computer system crashes in the middle of the night and the Bank is losing literally thousands of dollars per minute, you would be amazed at how quickly computer personnel learn to listen and adapt. For me they quickly learned to give yes and no and multiple choice questions when they called me at odd hours.

Working for the Bank was truly wonderful. I really got that if you work hard and do a good job, it really didn’t matter what you look like, where you’re from or what you sound like. Focusing on the bottom line is a great equalizer! The same is true when it comes to reasonable accommodations. Managing IT developers, you quickly learn that every IT developer always wants the latest and greatest gadget or software or access to a website etc. As a manager, you decide who gets what by how much more productive that person will be if they had that new tool. Same with reasonable accommodations – they are productivity tools.

I want to tell you a little about my work history. My first ‘job’ was as a volunteer librarian at my high school when I was a junior. First period 3 days a week I would check out books and restack books on the lower book-shelves. My first paying job was as a pool hall attendant at Hofstra. I’d collect quarters from students who wanted to play pool down in the basement of the Student Center. I did that my 1st semester. 2nd semester I became a security guard on the Thursday night graveyard shift at my dorm. I’d work 11pm to 7am, grab breakfast, go to my 8am class and my 10am class and then crash. I did that for 2 years! I then worked in the Housing Office and then I got to actually develop the first automated system for the Housing Office. My last summer at Hofstra, I was one of the shift managers for the Housing Office. Groups, including the NY Jets football team, would use the dorms at Hofstra as their summer camps and my team would staff the front desk, clean rooms, provide security etc. Can you imagine me telling a 300 lb. football player he broke curfew and could not take his girl up to his room!

The point I want to make is that if you want a career, you must work. It doesn’t matter what you do or how much you make but you must work.

After Hofstra, I went to U.C. Berkeley to do graduate work in computer science. After being in Berkeley 4 days, the Center for Independent Living (CIL)  hired me to work on a federal grant to do a study of the state of literature and disability. Two months later, IBM came to CIL with the idea of training people with disabilities to be computer programmers. CIL hired me and another person with a disability to put the school together and teach.  For the next four years I was the director and the teacher of Computer Technologies Program (CTP). It was the best job ever. Imagine, I had an entire class of students who had to listen to me all day, 5 days a week for 9 months. They had to laugh at my bad jokes and do all the assignments I concocted. I figured anyone who did that deserved to get a good job and 92% did!

After 4 years at CTP, I figured I’d get a ‘real job’ at a big company for a year or 2 so that when I returned to CTP I’d be able to more honestly be able to tell my students how great it is to work. I stayed 29 years! At Wells Fargo I moved to a new position every 3 to 5 years. I also got to hire many people. When I hire, I look for someone who is excited, enthusiastic, engaging, and eager to learn. Skills are secondary. I figure anyone with the four E’s can pick up the required skills but without the 4 E’s, the skills are somewhat irrelevant.

OK! That’s my story. Now what would you like to talk about?

Thank you!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Take our money - please!

Here is a presentation I gave on July 19, 2011 at the Department of  Labor's meeting for the Financial Sector.


Before I give my talk, you should be aware that for a few minutes you’re probably not going to understand what the hell I’m saying. I grew up in New York. Between my NY accent and my Cerebral Palsy slurring, I don’t even understand myself.

Undoubtedly, you have heard a great deal about reasonable accommodations and assistive technology. I want to point out that one of the most important assistive technologies I use was actually developed by the financial sector. Does anyone know what this is? It is the credit card! Where ever I go, people may or may not understand my speech, but when I take out my credit card, they always know what I want!

I recently retired from Wells Fargo after 29 years. I started my career at Wells Fargo as a
COBOL / Assembler language programmer. I worked my way up the corporate semi-accessible ladder. I ended my career there as a Senior Vice President in their IT area where I had hundreds of people in my area in 5 states as well as India. I spent at least 7 hours every day in meetings. I truly felt listened to.  I must admit, throughout my career at the Bank, I enjoyed going to large meetings where few people knew me. It was great seeing the tension in the room rise as people looked at me. They squirmed in their seats avoiding looking at me. As we began talking about the topic of the meeting or the problem of the day, it was fun watching the tension go away. There was always someone in the room who I could watch and gauge how well I was being understood by their expression. More often than not, they would automatically and naturally say, ‘Neil, did you say…’ My point here is that people will listen and understand if you give them the reason and the opportunity to do so.

Another example of this is being on call. Working in IT for a Bank is a 24/7 commitment. When a computer system crashes in the middle of the night and the Bank is losing literally thousands of dollars per minute, you would be amazed at how quickly computer personnel learn to listen and adapt. For me they quickly learned to give yes and no and multiple choice questions when they called me at odd hours.

Working for the Bank was truly wonderful. I really got that if you work hard and do a good job, it really didn’t matter what you look like, where you’re from or what you sound like. Focusing on the bottom line is a great equalizer! The same is true when it comes to reasonable accommodations. Managing IT developers, you quickly learn that every IT developer always wants the latest and greatest gadget or software or access to a website etc. As a manager, you decide who gets what by how much more productive that person will be if they had that new tool. Same with reasonable accommodations – they are productivity tools.

So, where’s the problem? Why is the unemployment rate for people with disabilities so dramatically high?  In the financial sector, it’s because people don’t believe that people with disabilities have money.

As a manager at Wells Fargo, and a member of the Diversity Committee, every quarter I would carefully review the Human Capital Report. I knew how many people of each diverse segment of the population I had in my area and the Group. How many were hired, how many were promoted, how many were in management, etc. Part of my annual bonus was based on how well I did on my ‘diversity MBOs’ (management by objectives). We understood how important it was that our staff reflected the makeup of our customers. We learned how each diverse segment contributed to the Bank’s bottom line. To my dismay, people with disabilities were never in any of these reports. When asked why, I was told the numbers were so low as not to be significant. When I asked why the numbers were so low, the answer was that many people have invisible disabilities and many do not want to disclose.

Let’s look at that. Members of other diverse segments are often ‘invisible’ meaning that self-disclosure is required. In the past, many members of diverse segments also did not want to disclose. So what is the difference? For one thing, businesses often make it difficult for people with disabilities to disclose. For sex, we have a male or female box to check. For race and ethnicity we have 5 to 10 categories to choose from. For GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, and Transgender) we have 4 choices or sometimes a simpler yes or no box to check. However, for disability, the question is usually something like, ‘Do you have a physical or mental disability that may affect your ability to perform your work’. Heck, even I have trouble saying ‘yes’ to that!

More importantly, members of other diverse segments have come to be proud of being members of their community. They have come to realize that businesses, including financial institutions, actually like their money; Businesses will often target market to them. Businesses will do what it takes to earn their trust, including hiring people from the diverse segments and ensuring their success. It is common business sense that the more successful your customers are, the more successful you will be. For too long, people with disabilities have been seen more as a charity than as a market. For too long, the focus has been ‘hire people with disabilities because it is the right thing to do’.  Now is the time to realize that people with disabilities do have money and represents a real market. When you factor in their extended community of friends and family, it becomes clear how huge this market truly is. Now is the time to change the question to be ‘what can we do to ensure that the diverse segment of people with disabilities continue to prosper so that our company’s prosperity grows with them?’

I am very happy to tell you that in the past few months, Wells Fargo has added a marketing team for people with disabilities to their Diverse Segment Group. They promoted a person with a disability who was in a Wells Fargo intern program 5 years ago to be a member of that team! I sincerely hope this is the beginning of a trend and that the trend virally grows. After all, I still have stock options in that Bank!

Thank you!