Future of Work Podcast, Episode 8.
Sassy Outwater-Wright, Director of the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (MABVI), discusses why businesses should hire people with disabilities, and what it’s like for jobseekers to encounter eRecruiting and HR technologies that aren’t accessible.
This podcast is developed in partnership with Workology.com as part of PEAT’s Future of Work series, which works to start conversations around how emerging workplace technology trends are impacting people with disabilities.
Intro : [00:00:01] Welcome to the Workology podcast a podcast for the disruptive workplace leader. Join host Jessica Miller-Merrell Founder of Workology.com as she sits down and gets to the bottom of trends tools and case studies for the business leader H.R. and recruiting professional who is tired of the status quo. Now here’s Jessica with this episode of Workology.
Jessica : [00:00:27] Welcome to a new series on the Workology Podcast that we’re kicking off that focuses on the future of work. This series is in collaboration with the Partnership in Employment and Accessible Technology or PEAT. You can learn more about PEATworks.org.
Jessica : [00:00:45] It’s important to walk a mile in another person’s shoes. I encourage this awesome when it comes to understanding the job seeker journey. And certainly when talking with employees whether it’s through focus groups surveys or even applying for jobs at your company to understand firsthand what the application process is like. That’s certainly true when we talk about employees with disabilities whether it’s the job search or the work environment. It’s important to talk to adults to understand how we can make the workplace more accessible for everyone.
Jessica : [00:01:14] Welcome to the Workology Podcast where we continue our series on the future of work. This series is in collaboration with the Partnership on Employment for Accessibility Technology or PEAT. Today I’m joined with Sassy Outwater. Sassy is the Director of the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired. They provide vision rehabilitation services and community partnerships to eliminate barriers and create opportunities for people who are blind or have low vision in both work and life. Prior to her work with navvy prior to her work at MABVI, Sassy worked as a blind acoustician and audio engineer. She found that the music industry was largely inaccessible technology-wise and set out to change it. She established the first collegiate program to teach recording sciences and music technology to blind musicians. Outwater also spent 15 years in the digital accessibility field since then. She’s consulted for small business has helped make products and services digitally accessible sassy welcome to the Workology Podcast.
Sassy: [00:02:19] Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.
Jessica : [00:02:22] Can you talk a little bit more about your background because this is this is fascinating. So walk us through like how did you get to where you are now at as a director of the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
Sassy: [00:02:39] How did that all happen. On my background first was as a musician and as I started studying music I realized that I was too much of a nerd to just get up and make music. I wanted to know how that music got from that instrument to people’s ears.
Sassy: [00:02:55] So I started studying the science of microphones and recording technology got into audio engineering decided that that wasn’t quite science enough really wanted to know about the physics of the equipment that I was using so I got into microphones and during this process I realize that the business news the technology and the people I was interacting with to try to get my start in the music industry were not accessible to people with disabilities. Traditionally review musicians sitting in the studio not sitting behind the control room and certainly not sitting in the laboratory where these products are manufactured to record music. And that’s what I really wanted to do. So I set out to start looking at some of the barriers that were. Within science and technology that were keeping me from doing what I wanted to do and try to get rid of some of those barriers so that I could do what I wanted to do. That led me into assistive technology and digital accessibility for myself. And as I got into it I realised how many people were not being served by the traditional models of Digital Accessibility and assistive technology. Women were disadvantaged minority groups were disadvantaged. There were a lot of people who needed access to these new developments and technology that could easily get to them especially people with multiple disabilities like myself I’m totally blind and I have neurological disabilities from brain tumours so I really wanted to deeply investigate the user experience that a lot of people and groups were going through with regard to assistive technology and how they apply it to their daily lives such as career goals or just life daily living goals.
Sassy: [00:04:36] And that brought me eventually to the mass Association for the blind. I was fascinated by age and that disability that come along with age intersect with low vision blindness and how assistive technology is and is not serving their needs. So I was sitting at a summit a couple of years ago that the mouse Association for the blind or Navy as we call it was holding the topic of technology was prevalent there and I just remember being fascinated with how this organisation was nimble enough to evolve into this space and try to kind of fill a gap that was being widely expressed and their way of filling the gap was to put a big question mark there and say What can we do to fix this. And I remember thinking to myself I want to be a part of that and then a year later they posted a job for somebody to head up that question mark and to start turning it into a reality and actual physical steps to do and I jumped at the chance and got the job then that evolved into moving coming the director of a whole program and that’s all I got here.
Jessica : [00:05:46] Awesome I want to back up to and just ask you see you’re a musician. What instruments do you play.
Sassy: [00:05:53] My studies were in voice and then I also play harp cello piano and violin and anything with strings other than guitar. I don’t play guitar bass or anything that resembles popular music. I was a classical music snob. I was going through cancer as a kid and my version of Make a wish for Make A Wish was really make a wish was to get a chance to go up on stage and see the orchestra and touch the orchestra because I couldn’t see it from the audience. So they gave me that. The symphony brought me onstage and let me get on their laps and hold their instruments and find out how they worked and touch them and the conductor picked me up and helped me conduct and that was it. I was kind of a musician for the rest of my life and that became my driving force. Even though I direct now I’m still a musician I’m still doing what I do. I just am intersecting that with how technology is used by people.
Jessica : [00:06:52] I love how it kind of all comes together. It’s a great story.
Sassy: [00:06:55] It’s kind of weird how it all comes together. I was teaching at the Harvard School of Engineering. There was giving a lecture on assistive technology design principles and how we think about assistive technology versus mainstream technology and what the evolution of that is going to look like in the future. And I I said you know in 100 years we probably won’t have any disability or if we do their choice driven meaning that somebody may be blind and chooses not to go through the treatment to get rid of them and I said that makes me sad in a way I’m really excited that humans won’t have the pain and the problems associated with disease and disability but there’s opportunity involved in that as well. And to many of us it’s a big piece of our identity it’s a piece of who we are today. Of course a lot of our work and our personal lives and choices and the way we interact with the world and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a good thing there are those of us out there think there is good business as well and I try to bring that out within my work and just kind of walk right up to the fact that I’m a blind physics nerd who loves technology and science and tries to put them together with human experience.
Jessica : [00:08:09] Well let’s talk a little bit about inclusiveness and accessibility. Can you maybe talk to us about what this might mean to someone who as yourself who is a manager of employees and also as someone who has a disability
Sassy: [00:08:24] I think to me this goes back to the basics of diversity and inclusion. And it also just goes back to the basics of a good business. Any manager their job is to look for their employees strengths and to maximize them and to look for their weaknesses and support them in those new ways to to deal with them. So my job at as a manager is to find my employees strengths whether their physical mental emotional or other and work with those things. So if I’m providing accessible or assistive technology in the environment or to help them do their jobs that would just be to me right alongside giving them a computer to work rather than a pen in a legal pad. Kindle Winegar were involved to the point now. That’s not how we do the majority of our work. Most of us use technology to do our jobs and to do them well because technology is easier it makes our jobs better. So why would I just work with the bodies that I have and that I’m given it and that are best for this job. And if that means that those bodies happen to come with eyes that don’t work. It’s my job to put technology in front of them that helps them do their job anyway. It’s no different to me to provide assistive technology to my employees than it is to pay the light bill for my sighted employees because all technology is assistive technology if you really want to think about it like that.
Jessica : [00:09:45] I like that. I’m taking notes here and I’m thinking this is a great all technology is assistive technology and I think that is a good point for us to make.
Sassy: [00:09:55] Yeah I mean like I don’t need lightbulbs to do my functions and I will routinely make fun sometimes of sighted people who do I don’t need the light bulb to cook dinner or get dressed or whatever but sadly people do. And yet you know I have sighted people stare at me for taking out my phone and listening to my phone. Talk to me or listening to my computer read to me I don’t need the computer screen and you do. I can get away with my computer just being a keyboard with no mouse attached and having full functionality. But sighted people need screens so that’s why the computers assistive to allow ICE to work with it. So all technology is assistive. It’s designed to work with the maximum number of bodies and physical presentations possible.
Jessica : [00:10:42] You previously published an article about your own experiences with inaccessibility in the job application and interview process. Can you elaborate a little bit more on why accessibility matters and what you mean by what employers don’t know and what they need to know when it comes to the application process.
Sassy: [00:11:01] We don’t often think of the application process as being a barrier. We think the application process as an opportunity to hire the best person. So from a manager perspective usually you know I write up the job description send it off to my entire department. They posted they give me resumes. I sort through them interview and hire the actual application process is not something that crosses the mind of too managers and oftentimes from an age our perspective is just thrown up on a Web site or to put it up where put out to some recruiters and then walk away. And those who are disabled have to interact with the Web sites that you post that job advertisement to and whether those Web sites are accessible or not has to be forefront of H.R. managers minds because you can’t get to all of the candidates that qualify for that job position. If the application is not accessible you’re missing out on talent. If you’re your ad is posted on the Web site that for example doesn’t have good captions which is the focus of the article that I wrote. And those captions are not accessible say it’s a visual challenge.
Only there’s no audio alternative. There’s no two factor authentication alternative and all there is is this picture and you have to you know identify pieces of that picture to make it past the process and hit submit. Then the person who is blind who is absolutely qualified for that job and like you the best person for your job is going to have to walk away from applying for that job. There’s a company out there called Ayra who saw this as a barrier and stepped forward and said do something about it. They are now offering people the chance to have a sighted person who can assist them with this process. Too often I have had to look at somebody else like I do with the article and say Can you help me through this process because I really want to apply for this job and if putting hours of work on this application now I need to hit it. And
Sassy: [00:12:57] Saying to a disabled person oh don’t you have any able bodied person around for that. Yes. His name is Stan and I keep him in the top drawer of my desk for whenever I encountered something so simple. No I don’t have a sighted person available to me 24/7 or I didn’t. But now I have AIRA. So I can just call up an AIRA agent they can look through my phone’s camera or their the camera of sunglasses at a screen look at the button. Help me get my application submitted and then I can disconnect. So I do have a site and person that I keep in my dustier for stuff like this but not everybody has access to that so it’s really up to the H.R. managers to make sure that when you post a job application you’re posting it to websites that consider accessibility a priority and that work with you to make sure that your application is accessible and if you don’t know go to the Web site. Are you an accessible Web site. Are you committed to making sure that disabled candidates can apply for my jobs and my career. Because I like hiring the best person and that might be a disabled person.
Jessica : [00:13:58] A couple of things I just want to reiterate that that you said. First of all it’s not just a career site that needs to be accessible it is the job board or the job aggregator or the other sites where these jobs are posted on that need to be accessible for people for everyone.
Sassy: [00:14:15] That recruiters recruiters are a big barrier that I see a lot of recruiters and H.R. manager doesn’t know that a recruiter is doing this but a recruiter is screening and recruiter sees somebody has a disability on the resume or hears that the person has a disability as they schedule the interview and suddenly the job is magically filled in the H.R. manager or just need another recruiter to do that. LIASSON There. So when you talk to recruiters who are going out there and hiring for your position. If you are committed to hiring the best person for the job be very specific. We’re not at a point right now. Will we get to walk away from specifics. I wish we were but we’re not. So be specific and say I want the best person for this job. Disability is not a barrier. I am willing to have you consider for being the best candidate for this job. I want the best candidate no matter what ability they have.
Jessica : [00:15:06] I also want to talk a little bit about AIRA.
Jessica : [00:15:09] You mentioned this a little bit. It is through your phone or through a pair of glasses that you wear. And then you call up an AIRA agent and they can help you.
Sassy: [00:15:22] Do what kinds of things they can help you do anything set aside a person’s eyes with you for them. So like this morning I had to do a PowerPoint presentation and I was getting really frustrated with how my screen reader which is what takes text on a computer screen and reads it aloud to me. I was getting really frustrated with how it was reading to me some style font changes. So I called up Ayra and I said Can I send you this PowerPoint file can we work together to make sure this looks appropriate for this the people who will officially be interacting with me presentation and so I emailed it over to them and they helped me just get the colors right get the theme I get everything to make sure that it looks correct and send it back to me. And there you go. My presentation was made much faster much easier. And I was able to maximize my time and go on to do other things that otherwise I would have had to spend an extra hour to wrestling with an inaccessible process. You know I use them to go shop thing if I need to run into the first start we think about it all the labels are print in a grocery store. And if I need to just go grab food for dinner I don’t want to have to wrestle with trying to teach a customer service agent how to best assist me.
You know highroad agents are already specifically expertly trained to do that. So I don’t have to go through the process of teaching them every single time I call I just you know grab an AIRA agent go pick out what I need get myself checked out point of sale machines are not accessible and if I don’t want to have to give my private information to a sales agent or have them help me with those screens now I can keep that process entirely in my own hands and sign the the screen and hit the right buttons using AIRA I can travel throughout the city if I need to to go to an unfamiliar place and have not had training to do that.
Sassy: [00:17:08] Eirik and now the gate and you with me safely and see through the glasses what’s ahead of me and what’s around me. Give me that information. I have a friend who lived in a neighborhood for 10 years maybe more and never knew that on a power box on the way to his house was a picture of a mural of a squirrel eating a pepperoni pizza cooked in this neighborhood and just never had any idea that this picture was right there. And it’s a big piece of what provides character to his neighborhood. And so he was thrilled to know that there was this mural of squirrel eating a pepperoni pizza in his neighborhood because he had never had that information and AIRA will point little things like that out to you if you walk around. So it’s a really cool technology and it’s what I like about it is it’s my time I pay Irit to give me the visual information on my time I don’t have to ask a friend or family to give up their time. I get to pay for my time to use the way I need it to be used.
Jessica : [00:18:05] Can you talk about how you guys use AIRA in the office. Now you guys offer this service to anyone at your office right. They can call AIRA and it’s like a bulk purchase of minutes. Correct?
Sassy: [00:18:18] Yes. So we purchased what we call a brick of minutes and all of our offices across the state are geophones so anybody can call Ayra from our locations and have their minutes covered by Nafie. All of our staff members who are blind to low vision who want the service are given the ARA equipment and can call and they have their own Iris subscriptions and when they call they can do anything from sorting sorting their mail to their expense reports looking at receipts to travel even if they need to go to an unfamiliar location or into someone’s home. We have to get home visits we have to go to different senior centers across the state or different agencies and. AIRA can help us navigate it can help us read body language.
Sassy: [00:19:05] I have to do interviews and I’m one somebody who’s nervous or what they’re wearing or are they engaging with me and looking right at me or they will keep you away. I can have AIRA on my headphones and they can just be quietly telling me what they’re seeing. If I’m teaching a room full of students and I want to know who’s paying attention who’s looking down at their phone who’s looking at each other. AIRA can give me that information.
Jessica : [00:19:29] I love this technology. I think it’s great because it’s amazing.
Jessica : [00:19:32] And what a great failing to provide your employees technology like that to be able to do their jobs to the best of their ability and feel comfortable and confident.
Sassy: [00:19:44] Like I said I know I pay the light bill or the computer bill for my cit. staff. And mean it’s just a no brainer to me that I would pay to get the best out of my employees. I pay for the technology that I need to be able to successfully comfortably do their jobs. That just is common sense to and I think that we’ve put in place the things that allow people to maximize their time and.
Jessica : [00:20:05] Let’s take a little bit of a reset here. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell and you listening to the Workology Podcast in partnership with PEAT. Today we’re talking about job search and employee accessibility with Sassy Outwater. You can connect with Sassy on Twitter @sasyoutwater.
Sponsor : [00:20:27] The Workology Podcast Future of Work Series is supported by PEAT The Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. PEAT’s initiative is to foster collaboration and action around accessible technology in the workplace. PETA is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, ODEP. Learn more about PEAT and PEATworks.org that’s PEATworks.org
Jessica : [00:20:56] I want to talk a little bit about the Americans With Disabilities Act in most of our podcast listeners are likely very familiar with the line and the concept of reasonable accommodation. When you told me in preparation for this podcast that one mistake companies make is that they have just a compliance mindset instead. Of focusing on the best way to utilize the skill set and the abilities of the person of the employee who has a disability. Can you elaborate a little bit on this?
Sassy: [00:21:30] I’ve always had kind of a personal problem with the words accommodation and reasonable accommodation because to me that says to be employee you have to go above and beyond or in a different direction to accommodate this employee. Yes. Disability is the expense of minority. Yes we can be hard to accommodate sometimes when the accommodation costs money. But that’s just a fact of business. Renting an operation and there are expenses involved in that not my very kind of heart and backsliding on that is we want the best person for the job. I can’t reiterate that enough then sometimes you have to pay a little extra if you are hiring the right person and there has to be a salary increase to get that person you don’t think twice about that but we think long and hard about building some extra accommodations around the office like a ramp or an ASL interpretor or something that’s kind of ridiculous in my opinion that just would be lumped in with hiring the best person for the job and they need what they need to be able to do their job.
Sassy: [00:22:37] You give that to them if you want the best person for that job. I look at disability when it comes in and I’m hiring somebody who is disabled. It’s a variable to me software like an engineer will solve for x. We all hear that in high school math class and it still stands true in this instance too.
Sassy: [00:22:54] Disability is a variable it’s a question market and opportunity. It’s not a goal. It is a legal mandate but it’s so much more than that.
Sassy: [00:23:01] It’s an opportunity for companies to innovate. It’s an opportunity for a company to diversify and to break some boundaries and some old things that maybe aren’t working for that company more anymore maybe there’s more that the company can be doing to be inclusive and to think bigger and to think better. Because when you generally accommodate somebody with a disability you wind up doing more for the company culture as a whole. Even if you don’t mean to it just kind of naturally happens and involves like.
Jessica : [00:23:49] one of the things that you also said and I think about your background and what you described how you have this sound engineering and acoustic and musical background and this interest in technology that led you to your current role. So it’s a really unique specialized set of experience and skills that you likely wouldn’t otherwise have unless you had a disability right. And so one of the things that you said that I thought was really important was that sometimes it’s that special skill or experience like like you’ve had that is a very important asset for the organization and certainly in your career it has been a defining experience that’s made you and helped to be an expert on on the subject of accessibility and this technology that exists or doesn’t exist right now.
Sassy: [00:24:29] I do a talk for disabled individuals who are getting into the job market and who are applying for work. And I called the cheap cheap talk of how to ensure you can get hired when you are disabled. And one of the things I say is try to live a lot of fear and a lot of stress for a disabled person going into they’re not going to hire me they’re going to discriminate against me they’re going to have questions about how I do things and that’s going to be where the interview is focused on not about me as a person and my talent.
Sassy: [00:25:00] So my responses to that have varied over the years but I finally about five years ago settled on and came to the realization that we can completely flip that when I walk into an interview. Now I walk in in a position of leadership. I walk in with more information than that employer has on me and with a level of expertise that that employer does not have. So in a way I’m using this interview as an opportunity to teach which puts me in a leadership role and puts me in a confident and capable leader role rather than the supplicant. Oh my gosh. Will you hire me and would you pay me all of fear. And I think when you can walk in with that level of confidence and comfort because you have one thing going for you know yourself you know your disability. You know the accommodations that you need you know the accessibility features you’re going to need. So when they started asking these questions that’s your opportunity to lead and to say to the players having a disability has taught me to be diplomatic.
It’s taught me resourcefulness that taught me problem solving and innovation it’s taught me how to compromise it’s taught me how to lead and not just to go to the grocery store to pick up apples. I need to hold the skills to just interact with society on a daily basis. So when you hire somebody with a disability you’re also hiring the set of skills they have developed to live with that disability in a society that is not designed for people with disabilities and it takes a lot of ingenuity creativity and talents that employers search for to be able to live with a disability in today’s society. And that’s a hiring plus.
Sassy: [00:26:37] But the disabled person has the chance to direct that narrative and to be comfortable with themselves in that body. In that interview and to take that leadership role so it’s not a fear based concern of intimidation and discrimination. It’s a chance for us to walk in and say So here’s how this is going to go. I’m an expert in my own body. And let me teach you about what that looks like.
Jessica : [00:27:01] I love that point of view. I just. I just think that that you can offer. So many great insights to employers which is why I wanted to havea on the podcasts to be able to help them understand and then also maybe make that transition when say do may extend an offer to a candidate. Help them make that transition from candidate to employee be more successful so do you have any advice for employers on how to get how to do that.
Sassy: [00:27:32] It starts long before you know that you’re going to be hiring somebody with a disability. It starts now. It started. It’s not whether or not you have a disabled employee working for you. It starts with you.
Sassy: [00:27:43] It starts with every single person at your company. It has to be baked in diversity and inclusion and disabilities specifically and accessibility has to be baked into your company so you can ask three questions One what does my company do about accessibility both digital and physical. And you can ask that question you can go to your boss right now. Whoever you are wherever you are in that company you can go to your boss right now and say what is our company doing about accessibility for people with disabilities in any aspect of what we do whether it’s for employees with disabilities customers with disabilities anything. And you can have the accessibility discussion. The second question that you can ask is What can I do to be a more accessible participant and to bring accessibility to this company. What can I do to bring accessibility to my company.
And that takes Google that takes going online Netflix listening to podcasts like this. It takes talking to disabled people and finding out from them what their experiences are. Reading blogs finding out more about digital accessibility physical accessibility and not just the laws but the lived experience of fighting out from disabled people what is good and what is bad. And I don’t mean the caregivers of disabled people or the parents of disabled kids.
Sassy: [00:28:57] I mean disabled people centering their voices is key to question number two. And the third question is if a disabled person works you come here. What would they encounter. And again it goes back to question 2 centering the disabled voice what are they going to need. Have you company wide builds a culture that used disability as normal as part of the company as an equal contributing heavy weight number. So for example if you hire disabled employee are you going to measure them by the same performance standards that you’re going to measure anybody else by. Or are there some inherent things that you would have to change for their performance review when you hire somebody with a disability or are they going to have the same interactive experience getting their lunch taking their break getting through the work processes or are there going to be some inherent changes and there will have to be some inherent changes to the way you do business and the way people work within your culture at your company. But asking those questions no matter where you are in the process before you hire while you’re hiring and after you hire and then implement any information you find out from those questions will lead to an accessible comfortable diverse working environment.
Jessica : [00:30:07] Sassy, thank you so much for joining us today. Where can people go to learn more about you and what you do?
Sassy: [00:30:17] That’s an abi.org they can find me at @sassyoutwater on Twitter they can find me on Facebook at Pawsitivly Sassy that’s PAWsitivly Sassy and they can find out more information on any of those sites and they can find out more information through PEATworks about how to create a comfortable working environment for people with disabilities.
Jessica : [00:30:47] Thank you so much for joining us today. Thank you for having me.
Jessica : [00:30:51] Sassy says all technology is assistive technology and that is certainly true. It’s important to talk to employees who have a disability or office whether it could also be a friend or a trusted expert like Sassy to better understand how you can make your workplace more accessible. I think that sometimes it might seem overwhelming but the best place to start is right now and whatever focus or direction or accessible tool or program you choose to implement. The important thing is to start today. Thank you for joining the Workology Podcast, a podcast but the disruptive workplace leader who’s tired of the status quo. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell. Until next time you can visit Workology.com to listen to all our previous podcasts episodes.
Exit: [00:28:38] Until next time you can visit Workology.com to listen to all our previous podcast episodes reduction services where the work ology podcast what Jessica Miller-Merrell provided by Total Picture.com.