The Landscape

Deb Dagit - Disability Rights Advocate and Diversity and Inclusion Pioneer

April 12, 2020 Naveh Eldar / Deb Dagit Season 1 Episode 4
The Landscape
Deb Dagit - Disability Rights Advocate and Diversity and Inclusion Pioneer
Show Notes Transcript

Deb Dagit is an amazing woman who lobbied for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and was present at its signing; was one of the pioneers of the Diversity and Inclusion movement that is in almost all large companies now, and worked for a fortune 500 company in that role. She was born with a brittle bone disorder that kept her in the hospital much of her childhood, and has come to understand that she needs to emphasize her disability instead of expecting people to ignore it. She explains how she came to that understanding in the episode. Deb is truly a pioneer and one of the brightest minds out there! Her current work as a consultant is changing the culture for some of the biggest corporations across the country. This episode also has Deb speaking about how COVID-19 is impacting the disability community, and how technology created for the disability community is helping all Americans who working from home during this pandemic.

spk_0:   0:15
Welcome to the landscape. A podcast to shed light on the people, programs and businesses that are changing the landscape for individuals with any type of disability. Deb Dagget is a leading name in both diversity and inclusion and disability rights. Deb lobby for the Americans With Disabilities Act and was present at its signing. She was also a pioneer in diversity and inclusion movement. She currently runs Deb Dagget Diversity LLC, where she provides consulting project support in public speaking. Today's conversation starts with Deb explaining how she arrived at her unique view of privilege.

spk_1:   0:54
So you know, I when I first started hearing the terms powered privilege in the corporate setting, Um, and noticing how many women and people of color and other groups really felt almost allergic to the idea of power and privilege. It was kind of synonymous with, um, the dominant group. And, um, when I reflected upon what power privileges it's actually situational. On the first time I remember experience experiencing power and privilege. I was actually in Stanford Children's Hospital. I have a brittle bones condition called osteogenesis imperfecta, and you fractured the most when you're a child and back in the sixties when I was getting care for broken bones, they either would put my legs in traction, wrapping them up and tying weights to the end of the bed, which held them in place for 5 to 6 weeks. Or in a big cast called the Spike. A cast that went from, um, your chest to your toenails with a bar between your legs to immobilize everything. But, you know, once you were in the castor, the traction, the pain quickly subsides and you're just bored. Um, there's not a lot to do, and back then you were not allowed very many visitors, in fact, because my mom worked and I have a younger brother. I only saw her on Sundays, and that was this for a couple hours. So I was trying to think of things to do. And there were other kids cycling through the hospital of the Girls ward all the time, and most of them had never been in a hospital before, and some had English is a second language, and, you know, they and their parents were pretty scared and upset. So the nurses started putting the new arrivals in the bed next to me and I would explain how things work around here. I would show them howto make use of the time how to get good food. Um, explain, you know the procedures and make them less scary. And after a while, it was like I was a trustee in a prison they basically incarcerated. But the doctors and nurses and technicians thought of me as a valuable asset, an ally. And so I would get special food you like outside the hospital food for McDonald's and pizza. I would get stuffed animals and believe it or not. After a while, I actually view that as a more positive experience than being at home, because I was kind of like an adult as a kid, and, um, it was kind of fun and rewarding. So I came to see power and privilege as situational in that my knowledge of the hospital system gains me unique insights and certainly privilege in ways that a child would want. And throughout the rest of my life, I looked at privilege through that lens, whether I had it where I needed it, right. Um, yeah, learned the value of being vulnerable and allowing others to give you some of their power and privilege to get to difficult situations.

spk_0:   4:21
I love that story because, um, I often, you know, it's it's upsetting that people look at privilege. Almost is a bad word. At least some people do. And I always thought to myself, You know, everybody has privilege, but I love how you put it. It is situational, right? It's like it's where you are and who you're talking to and what maybe what country you're in or what neighborhood you're in. And so I love that you put a phrase to it for me. Um, now, tell us a little bit about how you went from being that little girl who was in the hospital quite a bit to going through the school system in saying in your head, you know, I'm going to be an advocate or I'm going to change the world. Basically,

spk_1:   5:06
I wasn't sure what I was gonna do when I grew up. Like a lot of people who spend a lot of time in the health care system, I thought I was going to be a doctor. That's you. My role models were, but being four feet Paul and, um, having brittle bones at the time. Now it can be done, and there are little people who are doctors and nurses. But at the time, that was deemed insurmountable. So I ended up getting my, um, bachelors and Masters in clinical psychology. And, um, as I was going through school, I was applying what I was learning in the different jobs that I had and and those were entry level HR type pools. And, um, I got involved in helping with disabilities get placed into jobs. What happened is I was in a company where they wouldn't even allow me to interview for a promotional opportunity. They said I was lucky to even have a job. So I formed my own nonprofit organization and the job placement. And during that time, the Americans With Disabilities Act was on Capitol Hill, and my congressman was one of the sponsors, a Norman ETA, and he asked me to help lobby for it and address the concerns of the business community and its colleagues. And I was invited to be a ta ta When it was signed, um, and I realized I was at a crossroads in my life. Should I stay in the nonprofit sector? go to government or working a corporation. And I decided corporations were the biggest soap box you were more likely to affect team, right? Uh, people hoppy. What? Cos you especially the big brands. And I was doing some contract work for a company called Sun Microsystems in California, and it was supposed to just be a three month assignment. Um, but I, um, looked around for other things to do cause complying with the A d A didn't even take 10% of my time. And there is this new thing that everybody was experimenting with cold diversity and inclusion, and I

spk_0:   7:21
could hear was this again.

spk_1:   7:23
It was 1991. Okay. And so, um, they had their fledgling employee resource groups for people of color and women and veterans and with disabilities. And at that time, the way you did affirmative action in yo, they have this thing called good faith. And you would place, um, expensive ads and glossy magazines. And then if you got audited, you'd show the ads, and

spk_0:   7:52
it's a

spk_1:   7:52
matter of boat residency, right? Right. Companies routinely would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on this, so I got the employee resource fruits together and the poor ad company that was in a white face in grim. And I said, What do you think of these ads? And people said they were silly, boring, unbelievable. And then I said, Have you ever seen any of these publications? And they said No, never seen them. So I know what was gonna happen. Remember, it's still just a contractor only supposed to be doing the 80 a on I had a mine take pictures, and we put the pictures into the much less expensive publications that R E. R G recommended in an ad that had the pictures laid out scrapbook style. And it said, um, we're not where we want or need to be on our diversity journey, but we're excited about it. Would you like to join us? Nice. I've got all kinds of awards. We got a ton of resumes and we use the extra money for scholarships for high school students who wrote essays about why the company they worked for someday needs it, respect their culture, their identity. And that's how I got my first job. I was 32. So is our CEO, and he liked the HUD spotted you that, um, you know, these days you would not be able to do that as a contractor. But then I was embraced by other people who were forming the field who wanted to include disability in the agenda for diversity and inclusion. And, um, that just went on from there. So was I lucked into it in many ways. But it also was because my life, it pretty much prepared me for that kind of a rule.

spk_0:   9:45
So let's talk about that for a second. How did your life prepare you for that? I mean, like, what kind of supports did you have? I mean, cause so frequently, As you know, people are discouraged from, you know, like, one of your employers said, like, you're lucky to even have a job. So when you hear things like that, like, how did you have the confidence and fortitude Thio say? No. I'm gonna go out and become part of this corporate world and work with government and all of these things. How did you get from A to B?

spk_1:   10:16
Well, that's a great question in an important one. Um, there were always people from another underrepresented groups. I have to say and reflecting upon it. Almost all of them were either of African heritage or, um, from the LGBTQ community. And they were my mentors. Some cases they were my boss. Sometimes they were someone I met at a conference, and they took me under their wing and, um, spoke up for me. Sponsored me. Um, we're, uh, really helpful and accelerating my learning. Ah, and urged me. I think one of the most powerful mentoring conversations I ever had is with a very famous, uh, Trailblazer in diversity in Dr Price. Cobb's, um, he wrote some, uh, really important sentinel books. He was a psychiatrist, and, um, he and I met um when I was working at a company where my boss was an African American man said he was only gonna hire other African American, many the pop of his part of the business. And when I told him he couldn't do that because everybody was starting to sue your and hire women, he had to hire whoever was most fall off. And he said, White men have been doing this forever. It's my turn. So duck obs was supposed to be the one to set me straight. He was supposed to tell me. Well, of course he could do that. But instead, um, after hearing about the situation, he turned to this devilment that I worked for and said, I don't know what you're peeing this woman, But whatever it is, it's not enough in your auto, let's and fewer any to me. And he taught me something that was really, really important. You know, I was never gonna have a boss with the disability that just wasn't in the cards at that time. Um, so I couldn't learn from somebody who was ahead of me career wise who had on my life path. But Price said, How were you raised to think about your identity as a woman with a disability? And I said, Well, I was told, if I, um, didn't let it bother me, and I didn't make it an issue for anyone else, then I might be allowed to participate and that I should just pretend like I didn't have a disability. That way. I would get to be inspirational instead of to be Kitty, and he said, You want to be a diversity professional that's not gonna work in order for you to identify with people from groups that are not part of your identity. You need to tell your story. You need to share the challenges that you face because even though they're your challenges and not the same, it will show people that you get it, that you understand. And it took me a few years to internalize and operationalize that I mean, after spending, you know, about 1/3 of my life, you know, being very careful not to make my disability and issue. As I was told, this was a whole new way of thinking about it. And that was a game changer for me.

spk_0:   13:49
If we can talk a little bit about grit because, you know, like you said, you had to overcome a lot of things and being diversity and inclusion when like you say when people look at you, they want to feel like you can relate to some of the struggles that I have. And some of the obstacles have to overcome what we're some of the bigger obstacles that you had to overcome, or even more specifically, was there a time where you just felt like, Yeah, I can't do this anymore where I'm just ready to go home and get in the bed for the rest of the century.

spk_1:   14:23
Yeah. You know, there were a lot of tons or a lot of tons where I couldn't get a job or I got a very entry level job for which I was way overqualified. I had people overtly tell me, um, I had a situation where a company flew me from California to New York City. First class put me up in a five star hotel, sent a limousine to pick me up in this after they'd interviewed me many, many kinds over the phone and assume is the recruiter saw me. He canceled three days of interviews and sent me home. And things like that are pretty crushing. It also happened to be on my 40th birthday, a wild waiting, Um uh, and at the time, we were facing white to K, you know? So what's that to be? It was kind of like these days with the corona virus. Um, so I would say what got me through? It is, um, community of other people with disabilities, um, who were going through similar situations, so I didn't feel isolated. Um my husband and the three Children that we adopted are all individuals with disabilities, so I can shelter and place in a different way away from the world. But I guess I always had a MME a few people again. Ah, almost always of African or I'll to be t Q here it'd to who cheered me on and told me I could do it, Um, and gave me a lot of tough love. Um, I guess also, I just have to say I mean, if you get up every day and go on about your life knowing that the, you know, slightest trip or someone bumping into you, um, or slipping on a slippery surface could result in a major fracture. Really. Boards of directors and people in the C suite aren't all that scary. Um, I've had to go to the hospital many, many kinds, all by myself, even as a child, and get the doctors and nurses to take care of me on the right way. Um, when Sometimes they had to make you know, this splinter, the equipment or whatever. Um and so I I guess I found myself alone. I was also a latchkey kit um so that meant, you know, for those of us of a certain age, Um, I had a working class single mom. My brother and I got home from school. I started baby sitting him when I was nine and he was 6.5. Um, and before that, you know, we would be left alone for shorter periods of time, but starting at about that age, you know, making dinner and you know things of that nature. So there was a lot of independence. I guess the final thing I would say is maybe it was better I didn't have in my vocabulary the word able ist because I did encounter people who were able us the meaning, kind of like racism or sexism that they were, ah, full bicker and comfortable around me just because I had a disability right from the get go. But I had an interesting mental model that I wrote about back in the early nineties about how people see me. And, um, it was as e. T. An extraterrestrial, in which case they wanted to know everything a gnome or troll like something under a bridge or a leper con, which I was lucky somehow. And so what I started doing is when so you knew which it waas that they had decided I waas I would try to move them into the leper con category if I if I worked at it and a few good things happen to them as a result of being around me, they either got less scared of the gnome or they stop being quite so curious because I answered most of the e t questions. I know that sounds weird, but that mental model work better for me than if I have labeled them as able ist and avoided them.

spk_0:   18:37
Right. So you talked about how you were flown out and sent home packing on your birthday, which is terrible. I can't I can't even imagine that. Um, but I do know that you did end up working for a rather large Fortune 500 company. Can you tell us a little bit? Because I know that was a pretty incredible situation as well.

spk_1:   18:59
It wasa and, um, one where I really as they say, got to sharpen my saw. It means even diversity and inclusion in California does have its challenges. But back in the early 2000 I joined a pharmaceutical company, um, in New Jersey in 2000 and one. And at the time, um, the whole pharmaceutical industry was just starting to think about doing diversity and inclusion. So I went from the left coast, where it was ubiquitous to, uh, having to understand that I was in a place where ah white people whose ancestors were Italian or Polish or Irish considered themselves marginalized and repress groups. I conceptualize of that. If California Fiesta white person with their identity was it they shrugged their shoulders. And c, I don't know Heinz, 57 which isn't particularly helpful either, but oh, you know, that's maybe part of white fragility. But I had a hard time for the first few years. I felt like everything I did was wrong. And everything I did was too bold. Too much, too over the top, um, to open. And people were literally terrified of diversity, which I was flummoxed by, um when I set up the voice mail for my phone back then it was a very voicemail intensive culture. The date I put in was the date that I thought I could last two before I had to leave because I couldn't take it anymore. Name on. It was two year for my start day. Like I could. I could make it for two years. You know, um and, you know, my husband would tell you I spent a lot of time sitting in my dark closet crying, saying, I can't do this. Um, but you know it. That that old saw also what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I could go back to many tens of my life. I didn't think I was gonna make it. And somehow I did and came out stronger on the other end. So I had to just keep telling myself that that this will make me a better practitioner.

spk_0:   21:22
It's Ah, How has the disability and inclusion landscape changed from the nineties until today? Because you you were on the forefront of it and and you're still working in it now. So what kind of progress have we made? And what else needs to be done?

spk_1:   21:41
Great question. Um, so all the time I was a chief diversity officer. I had many other functions I was responsible for at one time or another. I managed every corporate HR function, except for compensation and benefits. And throughout my career we integrated disability and to everything we did at the three major firms that I worked for, and it wasn't that hard. But I noticed we would get scads of awards and be recognized, and there wasn't any competition in that state. So in the 2013 I decided to leave my internal roll and do consulting that. It's not on Lee focused on disability. I still do general diversity inclusion, but it's probably about 2/3 of what I do now. And what I realized is that we were taking the wrong approach to selling it in. We were doing a good job of explaining the size and the scope of the market. We were in explaining that it's a civil rights social justice issue. It's not philanthropic or charitable that there's all kinds of amazing business cases for it, not just the size of the market. But managers who are good at managing People with disabilities are just better managers, period Um, and most of the tools that we now take for granted that are allowing us to work effectively for office space jobs during the pandemic are tools that were created primarily because people with disabilities needed to work remotely, in many cases, at least part of the time. I know I did after, Ah, fracture surgery. And so I have put together quite a a few different tools and resource is and papers and now work with, um, almost 50 companies in order to help them become disability inclusive. And the longer they're at the work the more bottom line, that business benefit that they feel that they're getting. I worked with a nonprofit is a consultant called Disability in, and I love their Model because it's business is teaching each other how to be disability inclusive. And what I really love is the last couple of years. They now we're working across interceptions. So mental health disabilities are amongst the most prevalent inside corporations and also on our college campuses, where many companies air recruiting. And they are seeing that by working with all of their employees, resource groups and understanding how disability impacts and shows up differently for people of color. For people of different faiths, veterans, the LGBT community, they are seeing huge benefits. One thing I would challenge any company to do that thinks no, that's not true in my organization is all I want you to do is go to your benefits department and ask in aggregate, not violating any HIPPA rules. What are the top five prescriptions your employees were taking amongst out? Five, I guarantee you is something for depression and something for anxiety. Um, and yet people are not self identifying and asking for what they need so that the business case to make it easier for people and now with the pandemic, as you might well imagine, if you already have some kind of a health condition, you're not only at a higher health risk if you contract the virus, but the concerns that you have about dealing with that. Imagine if you already had anxiety and depression. Now you're sheltering in place and afraid,

spk_0:   25:47
huh? Yeah, I was speaking to a friend who's who's a counselor, and we we were talking about how it's the worst case scenario for a person that has depression is being forced to isolate like isolation. Just always, you know, short short periods of being alone is very healthy. But when you're talking weeks in maybe months, now of being cut off from people. I mean, I can really, um, you know, make that depression just so much worse. Um, so you work with all of these companies? How many of them? Just like you talked about the magazine, how you bought how people would buy articles. How many of them hired you, And I don't want you to name names. Um, with the ideal of this is just something we need to do. Um, and what percentage would you say? Just really had a honest desire to improve themselves.

spk_1:   26:42
Well, I would say, because the way the model set up in my relationship with disability in the price point to become a member to get the service is not just from me, but from my subject matter expert colleagues. It's such that it's highly unlikely that people would join the group that we call inclusion works if they weren't really serious. Um, but of people who hire me privately outside of that, um, I'm unit. I know this sounds egotistical, but I have a pretty well known brand in diversity and inclusion. Yeah, um, so they know they're hiring someone, um, Who's an expert in the field and they wouldn't hire me unless they were really taking it seriously. Because the rule I play is to integrate it into every part of the people practices in business. And that means having access to their CEO and that individuals direct reports they're not gonna want someone that, you know they're not really comfortable with. Um, they brought into the organization. Unless they have a degree of confidence that you can hold your own in on, be professional and have gravitas and all of that, I think it's really interesting that, um, you know, when I was a kid and I wasn't quite 21 you know, 1920 I wanted to get into casinos and bars. Like all kids that age, I was trying to get fake I d. On. My mom told me not to bother because I could shoplift the canoe and no one would ask me what I was doing. And one of the things that's interesting and answer to your question is that while people will hire me for my expertise, I think it's really interesting that when I go meet with powerful executives, in part, they let me into their office and they let me try things because they think it's not really gonna work like that. They're humoring me, Um, and they want to be nice to the little woman with the disability. And, you know, it doesn't sound too bad we could try that training, or we could bring in that speaker. This was all my internal jobs and all my consulting jobs. And, um, then, you know, before they know it, um, it's infiltrated. And now people like it. And there they have new words and their lexicon and that you don't have enough seats for the training and everyone wants to join the employee resource groups. And by then it's too late. I listed the canoe and I'm using it. I've used how I look is a tool. And instead of seeing it as you know, they're being a downside that people doubt what I can accomplish. I I see it as one of the divine interventions when I get got picked to do this work.

spk_0:   29:52
Yeah, um I think it's very much human nature that we follow the leader and when you're so I think in my head one of the places that we need to do work is with big corporations because if you have, you know, companies that are invested in diversity, like your Googles and your Disney World's in places like that, other companies see that and they want to follow suit. But also within the companies like you mentioned. How important is it toe have buy in from the CEO, um, her or himself instead of just like the VP or director of diversity and inclusion?

spk_1:   30:37
It's vitally important that this CEO uhm in the best case, is the strongest champion for diversity and inclusion. And in the case of getting anything done, it all, um, is it least going to give lip service to it if the CEO and just it's not, more importantly, the chief, each our officer are not on board, then you're really wasting your time. Um, they're going to be of able to effectively be barriers. You know what kind of an interesting trend is CEOS who have recently either grown up through the ranks to be named the top person or have recently joined who have religion, if you will about diversity and there that the top walker is their head of HR, um and therefore the diversity and inclusion person calling me and saying, I don't understand. I can't get my HR colleagues to work with me. I coined the term friendly fire because you're usually embedded in the HR function. And yet that's where the most barriers already getting things done. And, um, unfortunately, the reason for that is that many of the HR folks think that they'll be seen in a more positive light if they block something that many executives aren't comfortable. Um, down to they haven't received training in diversity and inclusion, so they are as uncomfortable as anyone else for whom this is new. And, um, it's just something that they worry is taking away from trying to convince people that human resource is it's vitally important to the P and L to the bottom line. Um, and and also diversity and inclusion jobs tend to be once that are kind of an interesting hybrid, in that you end up spending not only a lot of time working internally, but externally with communications and social media and public relations and government relations. So there's a lot of glory, you know, when people get jealous because they see you showing up, it's the company spokesperson and in various publications. So it's something that we have we need to talk more about in order to tackle. But it's hard because you can't complain about it publicly, Um, without it making your situation worse. Uh, and so what happens is the night professionals get together with each other and give each other coaching and support and mentoring and safe places to get ideas about how to overcome friendly fire.

spk_0:   33:37
I just recently went to a diversity and inclusion conference, and so I I heard many, um, you know, the positions are different everywhere. Some of them have VPs, and some of them have directors. Some of them are in HR. Some of them are separate from HR. But it was fascinating to me the different experiences that they were having in making any kind of headway. Um, in one of the issues were size. So if you took, you know, ah, a company that, let's say, 4000 employees toe 10,000 employees. How long does it really take? The changed the culture of the entire company like to where you're hiring like management level positions this diverse and all the way down to the entry level.

spk_1:   34:32
Well, it depends on where you're starting out. Um, if there's a lot of resistance, it's not a very diverse organization. There are a business to business versus a business to consumer. So the business cases harder for people to see. I would say generally that period of time it's gonna be in the neighborhood of actually 10 years. Um, we're gonna have to cheat so much from the bottom up. Uh, I I would say, for companies who have some of the factors that they need, you know that how the stronger business case that are starting out with at least a few senior executives who are committed and are willing to get visibly involved, um, you can shorten it to it as little as five years. But you know, it really does take time because to change the culture towards anything like, you know, companies who are adopting things like Six Sigma or other ways of making their companies more efficient. It takes that long for that, and there's almost no resistance, right, so it take each element and integrate it. A huge mistake that companies made for a long time was that diversity was seen as something separate. And it wasn't until we fully integrated it. Um, so that, for instance, you know, you didn't have a diversity recruiter. All recruiters had to get a diverse pipeline or you didn't have diversity training. You had management training that diversity was an integral part of.

spk_0:   36:22
I've only heard you speak a couple times, but I've always been somewhat in awe of you. And so, um, I just I'd love listening to you speak, I I feel like you're one of the smartest people I've ever heard. So I want to thank you for your time, But I always like to end with just some some personal questions Like, um, you know, what is a favorite book that you enjoy or what is a favorite movie on? Do you have any pets?

spk_1:   36:52
So, um, I used to read a lot of books that were related to my job, but, um, I will admit to a guilty pleasure. I can't stand reality TV, but book wise, I did make my way through most things that were written by Nora Roberts. Ah, as a romantic novelist with a little bit of mystery and mysticism thrown in. Um, so yeah, that's my guilty pleasure. Um, you know, I I like feel good movies. Um, you know, I make myself watch The things that I know are important that are telling a story that needs to be pulled that I need to be aware of. But I prefer feel good movies. My poor kids will lament that my husband and I raise them on the Waltons. Yes, my fate of current a serious that I have watched all of are Anne with an E and call the midwife, which, by the way, not only feel good but have a lot of diversity integrated into them. So I get a little bit of both, and I love dogs. I've always had a dog since I was five. Um, I currently have a more keen Maltese and Yorkie. She weighs about £6 that we actually got her at 10 weeks old and trained her as a service dog. Um, so she's an emotional support dog and one of the things that happened as a result of all my treatment since I have post traumatic stress. So she's very comforting when I'm feeling anxious about getting hurt or him in the hospital or having nightmares at night. Um, and you know, it's not too hard to train a little dog. What do they basically does comfort you? And if I'm having a nightmare, she wakes me up. But that's that's really been, um ah, special blessing in my life.

spk_0:   38:53
That's awesome. Well, thank you so much for your time. And, um, like I said, I'm a big fan and I will be following your work, as I've done. I was just on Ah webinar that you did, which I really, really enjoyed. We're actually looking at starting at the RG around. I bet diversity in my company and I'm a part of developing so that that was very hopeful. For more information on today's guest, visit her Web site at Deb Daggett diversity dot com. That's Deb Daggett Diversity All one word dot com And for more information on disability in visit disability in dot org's. On the next episode, we will have a conversation with Dr Cheryl Flesh, a Vanderbilt Medical Center, and Ashley Bluhm, the director of the Homeless outreach program at Park Center, a mental health nonprofit organization in Nashville, Tennessee. We will discuss their collaboration on the street psychiatry program, which provides assessments and treatment to homeless individuals in the national area. This was the first program of its type in the country. Hope to see you then.