Future of Work Podcast, Episode 30.

Brook McCall, Director of the Tech Access Initiative at United Spinal Association, discusses the workplace technology challenges that people with mobility disabilities face.

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: [00:00:01.02] 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, HR and recruiting professional who is tired of the status quo. Now here’s Jessica with this episode of Workology.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:00:26.99] According to The Mobility Resource, 18 million people have a limited mobility caused by everything from accidents to disease to the aging process. Only 12 percent of people with spinal cord injuries or SCI are employed one-year post injury, and only 33 percent are employed in post injury, year 30. In this podcast interview, I wanted to shine a spotlight on mobility disabilities, including spinal cord injuries. I’m excited for you to hear today’s guest. She shares her personal experience, how she’s helping others, and ways that employers can make their workplaces more accessible using technology for all employees, including those with mobility disabilities. This episode of the Workology Podcast is part of our Future of Work series, powered by PEAT, The Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. In honor of the upcoming 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act this July, we’re investigating what the next 30 years will look like for people with disabilities at work and the potential of emerging technologies to make workplaces more inclusive and accessible. Today, I’m joined by Brook McCall. Brook is the Director of Tech Access Initiative at the United Spinal Association. Brook leads the Tech Access Initiative at United Spinal, focused on emerging tech and where these things are tied to employment success for job seekers living with mobility disabilities. Through the initiative she’s leading for United Spinal, she is working hard to connect with the tech industry. Brook is working with industry partners to advance accessible technology and is supporting tech insiders in their communities as they engage with users to understand their end user experience. Current partners include Teladoc, Microsoft, Verizon, and Google. Brook, welcome to the Workology podcast.

Brook McCall: [00:02:13.00] Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:02:14.00] Talk to us a little bit about your background.

Brook McCall: [00:02:13.00] Seventeen years ago, I was injured in a fall. Something quite random. I locked myself out of my house and unfortunately decided to climb over a fence and fell backwards and I broke my neck. So that rendered me a quadriplegic. At the time, I was a student at UC Santa Barbara and an anthropologist. So, very concerned about, kind of, understanding the world and the unique ways people move about, which I think has informed my later choices. After my injury, my life was completely different. I no longer was able to use my arms or my legs. And so, of course, I had to adapt quite heavily. But I was very motivated to get back to school and had a renewed sense to help folks navigate both the health care system and quality of life. I just saw so many barriers for folks that did not, you know, function as we are expected to, I guess, just in a unique way. So, I went back to school and studied public health and got my master’s degree. And throughout all of that, I really relied on technology. I did some work with public health in the government fields and then also in academia. I did a postgrad fellowship in neurodevelopmental disabilities because I really wanted to tap into a wide range of disability experiences and see what I could do. I ended up working, well actually just connecting with the United Spinal Association, which is who I work for now Three years ago, when I attended their role on Capitol Hill event, which is an amazing event where 100 folks from across the country that have spinal cord injuries and related disorders get together and roll on Capitol Hill, speak directly to legislators about the things that we need and legislation that can really help our lives. And I ended up taking a policy position with them and leading our grassroots advocacy program and developing that out. And then as I was working in that realm, I just was constantly telling my advocates, there are just so many unique ways to advocate. Of course, policy and legislative advocacy is huge, but also consumer advocacy as well. So that kind of blended in an opportunity to take over as the Director of our Tech Access initiative, which allows me a unique opportunity to connect folks with mobility disabilities directly with tech industry insiders as both thought leaders and partners. We have very unique user experiences, and instead of having folks spend their, you know, engineering time trying to recreate that in a way that’s probably not going to be perfect, it’s better to have people who actually have unique insights and experiences to do that with them collaboratively.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: One of the issues that has come up on this podcast frequently is that technology doesn’t work for everyone because people with disabilities historically often, as you were saying, haven’t been part of the design and development process. How have job seekers with mobility disabilities been impacted by this? And how is your initiative working to change that?

Brook McCall: [00:02:13.00] Yeah. Like you said, the reality is we just have really been left out in a lot of ways. In my 17 years as a wheelchair user, getting to know others in the community, accessing jobs is hard. It’s an unknown. There are tons of barriers on all different levels. And so, yeah, actual employment for folks is historically, the numbers are staggeringly low. And the same goes for many of the technologies that we needed in the past. Things were very limited, somewhat not very innovative. So, people using things like mouse sticks, which are wonderful for some people, but of course, take time if someone isn’t able to access the keyboard. A lot of people, if they were unable to write, they were just kind of left out because they didn’t have access to the correct technologies. And so, people have often been left kind of living isolated lives with less opportunity to advance. And the thing is, there’s a nice revolution happening in the tech industry as well as in the diversity and inclusion space, that it’s really begun to recognize some of the enormous impacts technology can have for people who face barriers because of disability. I know for me, it’s been really nice to see that tech industry leaders and those who are designing devices, they want to talk directly to us. They want, you know, I think there have been a lot of initiatives in the past and a lot of work being done where we kind of work around folks that use these products. So through feedback on a larger level, data collected, but it’s not speaking directly to consumers and getting the whole perspective of what these things that we need, how they function perfectly in our lives and what we need, what are the stopgaps? Where are the problems? Where am I getting, you know, hung up? So, in my role, I am able to connect tech savvy individuals with disabilities directly to those looking for their experience and the expertise we have. And for me, that’s very fulfilling.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:08:06.00] One of the reasons why we have this podcast series and I wanted to ask you is sometimes HR misses the mark when it comes to inclusion and accessibility. I’d love to hear some of your own experiences about how we in HR maybe can learn from those challenges you’ve experienced personally if you’re willing to share.

Brook McCall: [00:08:26.99] Yeah, I am. And I have experienced my own trials and tribulations navigating employment. So, for me, I felt that if I went back to school and if anything, maybe overeducated myself, getting back into the employment realm wouldn’t be that hard. Prior to my injury, I had never not gotten a job that I applied for. I went into things feeling very optimistic, despite hearing, predominant feedback I had been given was that it would be very difficult. And I’m someone who, like I said, I am very visibly disabled. I roll in in a wheelchair and I have an assistant. I’m somebody who actually needs an assistant in the workplace just to be around, not necessarily to help me. Something great about tech is that I can do all of that on my own. But yeah, it’s a little, it’s intimidating in the HR space. And I have had experiences where I have, you know, made it to, far, you know, third or fourth rounds of interviews on jobs that occasionally I was overqualified for. And, you know, was told you’re our second person in line, but also have had conversations where, whether it was intentionally or not, mentioned to me, where there have been side meetings discussing, you know, my situation and how what others think would be needed. And the problem with that for me is that I’m the person who knows the best about what I need. And having those ideas, you know, brought directly to me, I can likely quell any trepidation that somebody would have by just giving my honest feedback. I think something that’s unique or not even unique, but people with disabilities are amazingly adaptable. And we, you know, we have to be in every part of our lives. So, it’s something that I think should be recognized and actually, you know, seen as a benefit for employees.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:10:32.00] I appreciate you sharing. And I think it’s important to mention that these sidebar conversations are happening when they could just go directly to you and talk to you. I mean, you’re the expert.

Brook McCall: [00:10:45.99] Yeah.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:10:48.00] I think we often think of inclusion only on the day an employee becomes an employee, that first day. But inclusion and the experience happens from the minute that the candidate begins considering to apply for the job. I wanted to ask you about some of the ways that you think we can make our hiring processes and the candidate experience more accessible.

Brook McCall: [00:11:09.00] I would love to share about that. I think what I’ve heard echoed through the community is that we pay a lot of attention to job descriptions. So even a small mention that, you know, you are referencing inclusivity and an openness to accommodate can be a big green light for some amazing applicants that if we don’t see even some of those small cues, I think people can shy away. And just to know that you are really our first look to that company that you’re representing, you’re kind of the ambassador. So, the way that you are welcoming us and treating us, just even in some of those subtle ways, you know, somebody who’s rolling into a meeting. Of course, that’s maybe not what you expect. And I know there’s such a big conversation around disclosure. And even, you know, in my community, I hear vastly different opinions about that. But knowing that you are prepared and have, you know, a welcoming attitude to people who experience disability and have, you know, just a comfort is really huge. We can tell. And I think that’s going to make an interview much more highly successful as well as, like you said, some of these conversations that you’re going to potentially have when you’re hiring the person with a disability, you know, really can enlighten those and have someone feel really competent to be able to work with you and explain the accommodations they’ll need. I know that there’s a lot of resources for folks who work in HR. Even my United Spinal Association, we have a Pathways to Employment program that not only helps job seekers with disabilities who are looking to reintegrate into the workforce, but also has resources and lots of training for employers as well, just so people can know a little bit more about disability etiquette, where they are, you know, maybe feel like they don’t know and they don’t want to mess up. I know people can get a little, unfortunately I guess, nervous is a funny question. But, you know, it happens. Bias exists. We know that. And I think just having an attitude of welcoming and listening is huge and finding some really amazing candidates.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:13:32.00] I’ll make sure that we link to the Spinal Association’s Pathways to Employment resource too so that people can be able to check that out and learn more about the videos and the training that you’re mentioning here.

Brook McCall: [00:13:46.00] Perfect.

Break: [00:13:47.00] Let’s take a reset. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell. And you are listening to the Workology podcast. Today, we are talking with Brook McCall about accessibility for people with disabilities, including those who have spinal cord injuries. This podcast is sponsored by Workology and is part of our Future of Work podcast series in partnership with the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology or PEAT.

Break: [00:14:11.00] 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. PEAT is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, ODEP. Learn more about PEAT at peatworks.org. That’s peatworks.org.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:14:40.00] This podcast series with PEAT focuses on inclusive technology. In your work at the United Spinal Association, you work with a number of really forward-thinking partners. Can you talk about the programs that are working well for them as part of their inclusion efforts for employees, including those that have disabilities?

Brook McCall: [00:14:59.00] Yeah, I can. Just a week or two ago, I attended Microsoft’s Ability Summit, which was very focused on tools for employers and employees with disabilities. And, you know, kind of connecting people and then getting into some really amazing conversations. I know they are very dedicated in promoting, you know, employers, including folks with disabilities, and, of course, providing tools for them to be able to, you know, better do the work once they are onboarded. I also get to have some unique experiences within, you know, where generally my role has us kind of informing tech product devices and services. But, of course, things that go beyond that. So, I know I was just speaking with Google about, they are increasing their tools and resources for employers and employees with disabilities. And so as an, you know, an employee with a disability, I’ve had some opportunities to give my two cents and share my experiences, which has been lovely. And then with companies like Verizon, I’ve been connected with XR Access, which is a very unique program that is working to make virtual, augmented and mixed reality more accessible. And then even beyond that, I think a lot about transportation when I’m thinking about employment for people, especially with mobility disabilities. Transportation can be a huge barrier to, you know, getting into office spaces. So I, we’ve gotten to work with a number of organizations on autonomous vehicle creation. We’re really passionate about getting things designed from the ground up in a way that will suit wheelchair users instead of as it stood historically where things are kind of stopgaps. And we’re trying to figure out how to integrate wheelchair accessibility after a technology is put forth. So, I think those have been really impactful for me.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:17:06.00] This year we had someone from XR Access come on and talk on the podcast. So, I’ll link to that interview as well. And we have had a couple podcast interviews on autonomous vehicles. I’m fascinated with how things have moved forward so quickly with that technology.

Brook McCall: [00:17:24.00] They have, yeah. Things are moving. And yeah, we want to be included. So, we are working hard to get our, you know, become a big part of those conversations so we aren’t left behind.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:17:35.00] How is technology playing into all of this? When I think about you and I right now, we’re talking over Zoom doing the interview, but you’re working virtually. I’m working virtually. How does that work for somebody who has mobility disability?

Brook McCall: [00:17:52.00] I think if you asked the predominant population, it’s really presenting a unique opportunity. There have been people who’ve been asking for reasonable accommodations that included some flexibility to work from home and telework, whether that is all the time or just, you know, a few days a week or as needed and often been refused, even though, for someone with a mobility disability, that can mean so much more productivity. I can tell you, as anyone who’s sat in a car for 12 hours straight on a vacation, then you want to get up. And it’s sitting in one place, you know, at a desk in a wheelchair, it’s difficult. You want to take some breaks occasionally. I need to put my feet up. People have all types of needs. And often, you know, we want to do that in our own space. And often people want to kind of augment their hours a bit. So they may want to work a little bit, you know, in the morning and take some time to rest and do whatever they need to do and then come back to it. Or even, like we mentioned, with transportation, some people have to have unique schedules just given, you know, if they’re taking public transportation into the city and rush hour, you know, trains fill up and it’s quite hard for somebody with a disability to travel at those hours. Having some flexibility is huge. So, telework and the ability to have some opportunities for working from home or just “mobiley” are really, really big. And it’s really nice that we have so many technologies that are allowing that. And, you know, it’s one of the small, good potential silver linings of our current pandemic.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:19:39.00] I mentioned virtual and telework programs. We talked about that a little bit. What are some ways that you’d like to see employers going the extra mile to make the virtual workplace more accessible?

Brook McCall: [00:19:50.00] Yeah, I’ve noticed this even just recently as, like we said, given that so many people are working from home and all of us are zooming all the time or working on various virtual meeting platforms. And I’d love to hear the conversations where people are trying to select the platform that is going to offer the most accessibility features. So you, they want to find one that can work for captioning and potentially has cart availability, screen reader capability. And I’ve really loved exploring products like Microsoft Teams where I’m able to take the captions and then they are typed up and then you can actually use those as notes and you can go in and change a few things, if they didn’t come out perfectly, although the AI that runs those is, it’s impressive. And for me, someone who can’t just easily take notes while doing a virtual meeting, that has been really helpful. And I’m also just really, like I said before on the last question, working from home is big. So even for me, someone who needs some assistance throughout the day, just with some activities of daily living, being able to be at home and have that person be able to, you know, go in the other room and be free, as opposed to when I worked in an office, whomever was with me would have to just sit right there next to me. So, it gives you a lot more flexibility. Not to mention, I would like to see, and I like when offices are thinking more about ways to include people in unique, different ways.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:21:35.00] I’m also a big fan of universal design and I believe it makes technology work better for everyone. An example of that in my everyday life that I love, and so many others do, is speech to text. Can you talk a little bit more about the concept of universal design and for maybe in some more detail for those who were unaware?

Brook McCall: [00:21:56.00] Of course. Yeah, I’m also a big fan of universal design. In my mind, I always just, the first thing that comes to my mind, is just ramps because they’re so useful to everyone and anyone who’s pushed a stroller or how to, you know, a hurt leg or needed to move with a dolly or something can recognize the usefulness of a ramp. But, of course, in tech, there are additional universal design elements that have been revolutionary for folks with mobility disabilities, one being virtual assistants. Nowadays, we have many options to have virtual assistants on our phones through environmental controls and smart speakers in our homes. And for me, they have been very helpful. I don’t need to have someone come and write down all of my appointments. I can just use, you know, whichever platform. I have many different platforms in my home. So, it’s kind of a funny one, depending on what I say, something will light up and respond. But that’s been huge, as well as even things like safety, which is important in the workplace and in the home for folks with disabilities. I have many options to call folks for help if I need to do so. And it’s nice to have backups through, like I said, smart speakers or virtual assistants. There’s just all kinds of benefits. But also universal design is huge when thinking about physical space, like anything like an automatic door or a wider hallway, big, large bathroom stalls that are universally accessible are things, you know, stalls that work for everyone. And often people prefer a larger stall anyway. So, it’s nice to think that people will be pleased. There’s just, it’s a level of thinking, about being thoughtful and finding ways that are going to suit everyone and be a benefit for everyone. And, you know, having things like elevators that create ease of use and access. At this point, a lot of the universal design features will also be helpful with social distancing. And like I mentioned, an automatic door, you know, is something that people don’t have to touch. And I think that is going to be interesting moving forward, seeing how that moves, because as somebody with a physical disability, doors can be huge barriers. So, you know, the more the merrier when it comes to automatic doors.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:24:28.00] As we look to the next 30 years of work, what emerging workplace trends or technologies do you think will have the biggest impact on people with disabilities?

Brook McCall: [00:24:38.00] Good question. One thing I really love about my role is that, amongst the folks I’ve worked with, thus far in the tech industry, but I’m hoping this continues is that while we can, of course, acknowledge that there’s a competitive nature and in some other realms, you know, some organizations or, you know, companies don’t play that well with others. But our partners really consistently point out and agree that in the accessibility space, it’s really about improving the experience for those who have been left out. So, I really look forward to continued inclusion and opportunities for unique experiences and perspectives to help build tech devices and services that meet needs universally. Also, if you don’t have a super cool robo suit, as I mentioned before, I do think transportation is huge. So, AV and some kind of, whatever you want to say, Hyperloop trains or more accessible airplanes will really allow for increased independence and ease for folks with disabilities to move about our world.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:25:49.00] Well, Brook. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today. Where can people go to learn more about you and what you do?

Brook McCall: [00:25:57.00] You can visit unitedspinal.org. You can go directly to forward slash Tech Access Initiative or just check out unitedspinal.org just to learn about our entire organization and the exciting things we do, including our Pathways to Employment program. And I will also give a shout out to our magazine, which is called New Mobility. And I’m a frequent contributor and it really highlights a lot of great insights from active wheelchair users across the country. And I think it’s pretty informative. So, I think it would be great for anyone who’s interested to check it out.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:26:34.00] Awesome. We’ll include all these resources that you mentioned during our interview. And I will also include your LinkedIn profile so people can connect with you, too, if they have questions or want to learn more about the work that you’re doing there. So, thank you so much for talking to us today.

Brook McCall: [00:26:51.00] Thank you.

Closing: [00:26:51.00] Are you tired of putting your professional development on the back burner? It’s time for you to invest in yourself with Upskill HR by Workology. We’re a membership community focused on personal development for HR. Gain access to our elite community training, coaching and events. Learn more at Upskillhr.com.

Closing: [00:27:16.00] I feel so honored to have Brook on this podcast. And I love the work that she and the United Spinal Cord Association are doing. Their Pathways to Employment is a fantastic resource. Now, Brook mentioned this on the podcast. We’re linking to it in the transcript of the podcast over on workology.com. The United Spinal Cord Association works closely with their members, as well as the state’s vocational rehabilitation services to take advantage of any work initiative programs, including on the job training, salary, incentive programs and so much more. I mentioned the unemployment numbers at the beginning of the podcast for SCI, and it only bears repeating. Only twelve percent of people with spinal cord injuries are employed one-year post injury. That number increases to 33 percent post injury year 30. As employers, we have a real opportunity to make our workplaces more welcome and inclusive for every single person who works at our company, as well as those that are interested in employment with us. This starts with education, training and conversations with our leaders to help make this happen. For all people, including those with disabilities and mobility disabilities too. The Future of Work Series and Partnership with PEAT is one of my favorites. Thank you to PEAT as well as our podcast sponsor, Workology.