There was a penetrating silence. It’s the kind of silence that normally strikes fear into the heart of virtual meeting leaders. Here we were over twenty of us on the Zoom platform, intently waiting for someone to speak. After a few moments, a man we will call Larry shared his perspective: “I notice that we are quiet, which may mean that this is very personal. That’s how it is for me at least…” Then Larry when on to talk about what it was like being a person who is deaf in the virtual environment. Using a sign language interpreter for those of us who couldn’t understand signing, his story touched our hearts with vulnerability and openness. His perception as well as his perspective rendered me gasping for air, on the verge of tears. I found out moments later I was not alone. Members of the group stepped forward enthusiastically to acknowledge Larry’s courage and leadership. Then they shared their own perspectives in ways that took the conversation to a whole new level.
People who are disabled are regularly sidelined or excluded. Their views sometimes do not make it into streams of rapid, conventional conversations because of poorly designed processes of engagement. What we continue to learn, however, is that when people who are deaf, bind, physically, or mentally disabled are left out, you cut off immense possibilities. Over the past several months, we have enjoyed the benefits of working closely with disabled communities. Time and time again, we are struck by how the disabled bring a wealth of heart and personal experience born from fires of struggle and hardship. They offer wisdom and humility that showers us with courage and conviction. They are not disabled, but rather SUPERABLED people capable of tapping into highly attuned channels of insight that evade most of us. For this reason, it is critical that they be welcomed and even cherished.
There is a lot of talk about diversity in today’s circles. it has become almost passé and predictable in organizations that tend to conceptualize it, like they are checking a box. However, diversity is extremely practical. At its most essential, it allows and invites a richness of experiences into the conversation that would usually not be heard. I like to think of it as complexifying. Here are a few ways to set the table for people who are disabled to come forward:
- Ask: Make sure to include in your meeting or event planning clear, direct communications about accessibility. An example is: “Do you have a specific need or requirement to be accommodated in this event/meeting?” Add this question to surveys and prep meetings.
- Prepare for Support: The moment you know a participant needs accessibility accommodations, make sure to contact them about their needs. Perhaps they need an interpreter or real time typist. Don’t wait to contact support persons to ensure they have time to assist and book them on the calendar.
- Design for All Channels: When you do have an accessibility need expressed, it will take time and attention to ensure that everyone can meaningfully participate. For example, if you use slides or videos, they will need to be shown using closed captioning, or visually accessible for reading machines.
- Include unusual needs: Even with careful support and design, it may take effort to fully include people with disabilities. We as leaders have a bias built into the way we communicate and engage. So make sure to build in time to SLOW DOWN, PAUSE, and INCLUDE into your program. As we have learned, you will be rewarded with treasures of insight that might have been untapped.