Workin' it Out Podcast

Disability as a Business Innovator

January 21, 2022 Vanessa J. Weaver, PhD Season 2 Episode 9
Workin' it Out Podcast
Disability as a Business Innovator
Show Notes Transcript

Jonathan Kaufman, founder of J. Kaufman Consulting and a thought leader and educator, joins Dr. Vanessa Weaver to discuss how embracing disabilities can allow companies to be more innovative and productive. He talks about his experience as a person with a disability, why people with disabilities are often overlooked in corporate America and the role resilience, patience and adaptation play in creating environments that are supportive and inclusive of people with disabilities. 

In this Episode

·      The disability market in the United States and how companies are missing out on harnessing the talent of these individuals

·      How a fear of the unknown drives companies away from discussions about people with disabilities and how that avoidance fosters a culture of ableism

·      The role of resilience, patience and adaptation in the discussion about disabilities and the experience of people with disabilities

·      Dr. Kaufman’s experience growing up with a disability and how that shaped his career aspirations and his perception of the workplace and the world

·      The actions companies must take to create an inclusive and accommodating environment for people with disabilities


·      Jonathan Kaufman

·      J. Kaufman Consulting

·      Dr. Vanessa Weaver

·      Alignment Strategies

·      Mindset Matters

·      The $400 Billion Adaptive Clothing Opportunity

·      Disability Impacts All of Us

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Dr. Vanessa Weaver:  Welcome to Workin' It Out. I'm Dr. Vanessa Weaver, your host. And on this episode of Workin' It Out, I'm joined by the innovative and renowned Dr. Jonathan Kaufman. He is a thought leader, an educator and a strategist. And what really, there's so many unique and distinguishing factors about Dr. Kaufman but one that I want to share with you about, because it ties into our conversation today is that Dr. Kaufman was born with cerebral palsy and his disability has been a profound part of his personal, academic and professional life. 

And so what we're going to talk about today with Dr. Kaufman is how disability can really be, and is an innovator to business and how businesses by considering and factoring in disability can be much more innovative and productive. So I want to thank you, Dr. Kaufman, for really having this conversation cause it's a little different twist on the types of conversations we typically have about disabilities. So welcome, how are you?

Jonathan Kaufman: Well, one, thank you for having me. I'm humbled and honored to be here. And this is exciting to sort of have this conversation and the conversation that I believe is needed.

Weaver: So why do you think it's needed? Why do you believe it's needed?

Kaufman: I think the way that disability has been sort of treated, particularly within the context of business, it's been sort of the stepchild of diversity but my sort of thought process in this is that disability by definition is the essence of diversity. It runs across race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic, sexual orientation, and is the only minority group anyone can join at any time. So if we think about disability, we have to think about it as a communal experience, not just something that is an other. And that's what makes it fundamentally different. So businesses have to reassess how they engage, not only with the disability community but the idea of disability itself.

Weaver: You know that's so interesting because typically what our show is, we have a series of what we call factoids that we share with our audience, because they really provide some context.

Kaufman: Yeah.

Weaver: And what was so interesting in the data that we found is that 61 million adults in the United States have some form of disability.

Kaufman: Correct.

Weaver: and that looks like about 26% of us. That's about one in every four of us has a disability.

Kaufman: Right. 

Weaver: And I can really relate to that in a way, because I developed sciatica, one morning I woke up and I couldn't get out of my bed. You know, I couldn't get out of my bed, I was in such excruciating pain. And for almost two months, I had to walk with the aid of a cane, you know, through airports, you know, I went to Costco, I had to get in that motorized cart.

Kaufman: Right.

Weaver: And it was such a profound experience for me because it really did a lot of what you're talking about. It made you think about how underserved the population with physical disabilities or unseen disabilities or whatever, how underserved we are, but what an opportunity our American businesses are missing because of the way we don't respond to disabilities and learn the lessons from that. In fact, it was interesting because another interesting factoid that we got was that 90% they did a study, right, and 90% of the companies that were surveyed said that they have some type of Diversity Equity Inclusion Program but only 4% of them had a DEI, which is what we call it, effort or initiative, focus on disabilities.

Kaufman: Correct and yeah, it makes no sense to me because if you sort of look at the numbers and you look at the fact that they have to feel it. This is about the intersectionality and it's part of the human experience. And because it's part of the human experience, we have to say, this has to be a central narrative within the DEI conversation.

Weaver: And why isn't it?

Kaufman: I don't know. I think a lot of it, well, actually, my theory is the F word—fear, fear of the unknown. And I think there's been sort of a traditional sort of model that's been inherited for such a long period of time where people with disabilities in general have been isolated from the general population. So it's considered the other. And when you have a disability, it's the inability to do things rather than saying, wait a minute, is it one's quote unquote medical condition or is it society not getting to the point where they can say we can find adaptation and actually revise the way we think and the way we interact with the very notion of disability itself, whether it be through, you know, adaptive devices, accessibility, so on and so forth. And I always tell people, you know, when I sort of talk to people about the fact that, why disability is so important. 

I talk to people all the time and say, how many of you actually wear glasses? And, you know, so many people raised their hands. I said, well, what if you took them off? You know, and then I say, okay, how many of you actually have cell phones? And everyone raises their hands. And I said, so how many of you actually text? I said, and everyone sort of raises their hands. And I said, did you know, in 1976 at Gallaudet University, really the major university for the deaf community, that is where the origins of texting began. And I had a conversation with the provost of MIT, and this goes back several years. And he said to me, you know what, about 60 to 70% of our student body is somewhere on the Autism spectrum. So the fact is when you talk about technology and then I was looking at other data along other campuses, when you look at sort of the technological revolution and the digital revolution, the fact is the fingerprints of persons with disabilities are all over it. 

I mean, a perfect example today is Elon Musk, you know. He's somebody that sort of came forward and said, wait a minute, you know, I am on the Autism spectrum. Or somebody like Richard Branson who writes, you know, voluminously almost, about the idea of how disability is a gift and how his disability, and he has a learning disability, was so important in his business strategy. So, there are people, they're sort of rumblings now, to say, okay, it is more important to begin to talk about it. 

And in the age of COVID, which has radically changed the way we do business, one of the key elements that we have to look at are hidden disabilities, you know, and that really has to do with mental health. And part of my training is as a psychotherapist. And I do a lot of work, clinical work not only with companies, but also individuals as this sort of changing workforce is evolving. What do we have to think about in terms of not only mental health, but mental fitness, and that encompasses a conversation around disability because it's important to look at hidden disability. It's so important in this changing workforce, that is changing literally by the day. So this conversation has to come and that goes back to questions of management strategy, human resources, talent management. All of these questions in terms of how we look at the future of work. Disability has to be a key stakeholder in the larger conversation.

Weaver: So Dr. Kaufman, from your perspective, the conversation shifts from, oh, that person has a disability, let me see what we have to do to accommodate them, to one of saying, how are we thinking about leveraging,

Kaufman: Yes.

Weaver: These disabilities whether they're seen or unseen or physical, I mean, how are we leveraging these disabilities to really grow the productivity and innovation in our workplaces? It made me think about Google. And Google has a program where they're committed to recruiting people on the Autism spectrum.

Kaufman: Right.

Weaver: And they talked about so many of their innovations have come from those individuals and what would've happened had they ignored them.

Kaufman: Right, I mean, I'm working on a book now, which is an expansion of my Forbes column. And it's really about disability as a language of innovation. And what I always say is you have to look beyond personhood and agency and say, disability is an idea. And if you look at it from an idea and you say it's part of, sort of a growing language. And what are some of the key areas within that narrative of that language and sort of three areas that I sort of fall on, which are in that sort of linguistic idea, which is the notion and the idea of resilience, the idea of patience and the idea of adaptation and the lived experience. Anybody who has lived the experience of disability has fallen into those areas, has fallen into those silos and begin to understand what it's like to live, and actually can attest to the fact of saying, here's my experience, here's what I've learned and here's what I could teach you. So, as a linguistic idea, it has real value.

Weaver: So when you talk about, say for example, resilience, and I read your articles in Forbes, I was just absolutely fascinated by them cause you did talk about resilience, adaptation, what was the third one?

Kaufman: Patience.

Weaver: Patience.

Kaufman: Yep.

Weaver: We could all benefit from that right, being more patient.

Kaufman: Yes.

Weaver: So how does the language, this evolving language around disability show up when we talk about resilience? I mean, how do we go from making a connection of resilience and disability to the innovation?

Kaufman: Right, because I'll give you a perfect example from my own life experience because that's sort of where I initially drew it from because it was very personal to me. I mean, I was born with the right hemiparesis, a form of cerebral palsy. So learning how to, the world was not made for me, you know, I had to literally adapt to the world and that was one of the pieces, but it was being resilient and saying, there were sort of constant challenges all the time.

I mean, even walking in the streets of New York, I mean, a very simple story. I always had to think ahead, 12 steps ahead of how am I going to get to the subway? How am I going to navigate the city streets of New York with all of these people? I knew because I had a right hemiparesis, I had to get to the left side so I could hold the banister down. You know, it was always about being resilient and saying, how do I think strategically about things and how do I think ahead? You know, and you have to think about it from the perspective of, okay, well, how are those ideas modified and can be adapted to a business model and sort of the day-to-day life of thinking about how do you structure a business culture? 

So there are those sort of connecting points and there are, look, there are numerous stories like mine and people who have different disabilities who have interacted within the world in different ways. And it's sort of collecting them and saying, it isn't just about the personal experience but it's the ideas behind them and the way one thinks strategically and how do you apply them? It, you know, and that's where I think that transition has to be made to see this as, as you pointed out, an area in which you can leverage.

Weaver: So for example, and you know, my company, Alignment Strategies, we do a lot of work around diversity and we just had a session this morning where we were engaging mid-level managers who supervise a significant number of multicultural people and in this case, we define multicultural as Black/African American, Asian, Indian, Latino, Latinx, okay, so that's kind of the parameters that we define as, and the, you know, the multicultural populations were struggling with the notion that they didn't feel fully embraced, fully engaged in the organization. 

Many of them reported feeling invisible and they felt that their supervisors, all of which were mid-level supervisors at this point, were really not being effective at really increasing their visibility, holding people accountable in their workplace for the kind of biases that they were displaying, that really was making it a lot more challenging for them to contribute in ways that they knew they could. So, how would you then apply these lessons of resilience and patience and adaptation to that population? What would you tell them from your disability experience that they should be considering?

Kaufman: Right, I think, it's, a very, very good question. And one of the things that people have to think about is, first of all, step back for a moment. And when we talk about patience, what's important about patience is being able to really think about the landscape around them and being able to understand, well, what is the problem and how do we find a better solution? Because that feeling of frustration is very real, and no one wants to sort of minimize that. But then the question is, well, what is a better solution? So using those strategic tools, I mean, because this is part of a toolbox and what's important is to use them and to figure out, okay, what's the ultimate goal? What are you trying to achieve? Because if there is that feeling, that tension, that one is having, a feeling not completely included, then you have to figure out what is the ultimate solution. 

There a civil rights leader, a disability civil rights leader named Ed Roberts and he was having a conversation with other civil rights leaders within the African American community. And he said to them, you know, you wanted to get to the front of the bus, we just wanted to get on. Which was fundamentally a very different way of looking at it because in the disability community, it wasn't designed. So getting on the front of the bus is one thing, we just want to be part of the conversation. So it was a very interesting way of looking at it. So a lot of this is about finding greater solutions.

Weaver: Okay, and so then, what would you tell the supervisors, those mid-level supervisors? How can they leverage the three factors that you talk so much about, the resilience, the patience, the adaptation, how could they leverage those three factors…

Kaufman: Yeah.

Weaver: To drive more success in their teams?

Kaufman: I always come back to this idea of radical honesty of being able

Weaver: Say what?

Kaufman: Radical honesty.

Weaver: Oh, okay, radical honesty.

Kaufman: To be able to have conversations, uncomfortable conversations because this is so much a part of the disability story. It's, these are uncomfortable conversations because fear drives it. It's such a driving force. And as part of my work as a clinician, it's being able to sort of try to get to that point where you are comfortable being uncomfortable initially. And it's being able to say how do we talk about this? How do we be honest and talk about it so we can create a sort of an alliance between management and employees and say, what do we need to do together to solve the problem? And how do we use the tool sets of resilience, of patience and adaptation to benefit that?

Weaver: Wow, so that's the framework in the model, resilience, patience,

Kaufman: It's a framework,

Weaver: Adaptation.

Kaufman: Yeah, right.

Weaver: That's really powerful because the patience says, you know, both of us have to be able to walk in each other's shoes, right? And understand.

Kaufman: Yes, we have. You know, that's empathy, you know, empathy and sympathy are so important. And it's so critical and you know, when we think about the tool set, the sort of skill sets that people, that management needs, that business needs for the 21st century, yes, there's this sort of shiny technological pieces, that sort of digital pieces, but then there's sort of what one would consider, quote unquote, soft skills, but those soft skills are so valuable in terms of human interaction and what we really need. That's going to be the critical piece of that connectivity and that connective bridge.

Weaver:  And we can't avoid that connection.

Kaufman: No.

Weaver: That connectivity, I don't care how much, how many widgets or digital technology we have, it still comes down to how do people interact and feel about how they're interacting with each other. But Dr. Kaufman, you fascinate me, right? Because number one, you're a prolific writer. I couldn't put down reading the articles. I was just fascinated by what you were saying but tell me a little bit about your why. Because we can assume your why is because you were born with a particular disability. But is that really the why that drove you to do this work?

Kaufman: I mean, I think it was the, look, it was the beginning, it was the roots. But for me, it was about, the driving force was, I always feel whatever I do, I'm in the helping profession. You know, the drive is to help others. And it's the purpose of why I lived. So whether it is an individual in a psychotherapy or coaching session or whether it's an organization, and that could be in either coaching session or even sort of strategic work. But that in itself is the essence of why I do what I do. I always have found that I don't go to work, I go to play. I love what I do.

Weaver: Play?

Kaufman: I do, I think my work is play. And the reason I believe it's play is because I just absolutely love it, it's interesting. There's always something new and something intriguing and inviting but at the end of the day, if I can help another person or another organization achieve something more, then I've done my job. That's really what I'm here for.

Weaver:  My goodness, what a blessing. So, to get to that point. Yeah. I know that you've been confronted with a lot of biases, assumptions that people make about what you can't do.

Kaufman: Yeah.

Weaver: How were you able to overcome those biases? Well, first of all, what were some of the major ones what were the top three that you encountered.

Kaufman: You know, it's always the crippled boy. I mean, people used to ask, when AIDS was coming, can you contract it, I mean, these crazy questions. But it was always sort of this otherness of what you can't do rather than what you can do. And my interest was always focused on, let's see, you know, let's challenge myself to the possibility of what can be, rather than what is, and that's,

Weaver: And that's the essence of innovation isn't it?

Kaufman: Absolutely, so it sort of started with that idea. And if you sort of germinate that idea and you water it, you let it grow and you let it evolve. You know, and at one point I thought I was going to be a full-time academic and I loved school, and I loved being in learning. And I was from an academic, you know, an academic family. And what I realized is, and this was partly because of my father. My father is, you know, he's a professor of medicine but he's also a practicing physician. And he said, if you could be the scholar practitioner, you are going out and you're actualizing what you're talking about and actually helping other people, I mean, you know, as a physician, he's sort of in their daily lives, helping people. And for me, it was no different. 

So that model, I've used that model to this day and said, thank God I had that model to sort of utilize and see in real time what was happening. And I fell in love with it. I fell in love with the ability to be creative and to be innovative. And I always say to people, people ask me what I do for a living. And I always say to them, I'm the professional stranger. Because I'm the professional stranger in the sense that whether I'm doing psychotherapy work, whether I'm doing coaching work, whether I'm doing consulting work or strategy work, my job is to come in, use that expertise, align myself with people that know things differently and to be able to help them benefit what they do. And that is using my talents, my background, my experience, whatever I can sort of grab on to as that professional stranger. And that's the value I bring.

Weaver: The professional stranger. I love that. The professional stranger. Well, part of what we do in every one of our shows is to end our shows with providing advice to people or to companies and I'd like to take the company lens.

Kaufman: Sure.

Weaver: From you today because innovation, you know, companies are struggling with it. And we know from various employee opinions, surveys, and studies, that they don't feel companies are really encouraging them to innovate. So what would you say to a CEO who's saying I want to drive more innovation in my company and help me figure out how to use the language of disability to do so. What would be the two or three things you would recommend?

Kaufman: I think there are a couple things. One is, first of all, from a disability standpoint, do you have a disability ERG? And if you have an Employee Resource Group or whatever sort of term they use it, mine it. Use it as a laboratory. And use it as a laboratory in the sense of saying, okay, how do we communicate with this community? And understanding that there are lots of people with disabilities in an organization

Weaver: 61 million.

Kaufman: Yeah, even outside the United States, it's larger than the population of people with disabilities, it's larger than the size of China. I mean, you're talking over a billion people, so globally. So 61 million in the United States but then you're talking about a vast number outside. And it continues to grow. And that's the one thing, if we age, it's part of the human experience. Disability is part of the human experience. So you sort of, whether you're a customer or whether you're an employee, doesn't matter. So it's allowing C-level executives to really have that honest, what I call what I said, radically honest conversation, but also saying this isn't about, you know, applying this where, well, what can we do for you? No, this is a back and forth conversation. What can we do for each other? And how do we develop that conversation?

Weaver: But can you imagine if they, to your point, if they better understood how they could provide and connect with their own employees, many of who are hiding their disabilities cause they feel uncomfortable or unprotected in coming out with them. But that also how is an organization not tapping this 61 million plus, and there is got a billion plus,

Kaufman: Right.

Weaver: In the marketplace out here.

Kaufman: Right, and when you look at the marketplace, you sort of look at the global marketplace. This is a marketplace that, you know, the numbers sort of spread between 8 trillion and 13 trillion dollars of spending power.

Weaver: How much spending is that?

Kaufman: I mean, it was interesting, I had a conversation the other day about the adaptive apparel market. Vogue wrote this, I didn't write this. But Vogue Business said, this will be a $400 billion market by 2026. And there are lots of people that could use it. Whether, you know, you have trouble putting on buttons, it is as simple as that. That is adaptive. You know, your glasses are an adaptive tool by definition. I always tell people, you know, if you're looking at simple things that are adaptive, you use them every day in your life. It's that people don't recognize it.

Weaver: Well, you know, this is such a fascinating conversation because for us and for our viewers today, our listeners to this show, you stressed our thinking beyond how the language of disability can drive innovation and productivity and profitability for the organization. And also really drive more engagement from their employees who have a particular disability and those who are part of that team, how can they support and drive more engagement. 

So I just want to thank you. Thank you so much, Dr. Kaufman, for spending this time with us today. And I want people to look for your articles in Forbes and it's called Mindset Matters. Well, thank you so much for being a part of our show and I would love to have you come back again and continue this language of disability and how it drives innovation. Thank you so very much.

I'm Dr. Vanessa Weaver, your host of Workin' It Out and I wish you a safe, productive and "be happy" week. Goodbye.