Pina D’Intino, organizational accessibility specialist and Founder of Aequum Global Access, Inc., discusses the oversight of technology accessibility and accommodations for persons with disabilities in the workplace.
Intro: [00:00:00.21] 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: [00:00:25.65] How does accessibility work and who should be overseeing decisions, recommendations and managing requests at your company? These are important questions we should really be thinking about, especially now with so many of us working virtually and remote. While remote work makes it easier for people with disabilities to have work because that they can now work from home, it does, however, make accessibility and accommodation request different because we are now working almost solely online and digitally. 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 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act this year, 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 even more inclusive and accessible. Today, I’m joined by Pina D’Intino. Pina is a sought-after consultant, entrepreneur and speaker who actively promotes accessibility and inclusion from both executive level and grassroots perspectives by bridging the viewpoints and the needs of the organization, employees and customers to establish best practices and environments. As the owner of Aequum Global Access Inc., her team of accessibility experts help businesses and organizations develop their accessibility strategies and plans, measure and report on compliance, and provide guidance for recommendation. Aequum Global Access also provides accommodation services, training and project management services. She is currently working with the Government of Canada, helping departments develop their roadmaps, provide consultation and technical support. In 2013, Pina received the QE2 Diamond Jubilee Medal by Canada’s Lieutenant Governor, the Honorable David Onley, for her work in accessibility and employment. It is an honor, Pina, to welcome you to the Workology podcast.
Pina D’Intino: [00:02:28.12] Well, thank you very much. It’s a pleasure and an honor to be part of this conversation today.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:02:33.78] Can you tell us a little bit about your background? You have a really exciting bio. I want to know more.
Pina D’Intino: [00:02:40.83] Well, thank you. I think one of the things that is important to note about me is, you know, when we talk about my bio and my experience working sort of on both sides of the fence, it relates to the fact that I was not always a person with a disability. So, I acquired my disability at the peak of my career, which therefore gives me the opportunity to really understand both sides of the equations. I am a person who understands some of the challenges that larger businesses face when we’re trying to implement and adopt accessibility best practices. And I certainly understand and hear the concerns of those before me who have so, so diligently, passionately and actively advocated for more rights and certainly more practices to ensure that persons with disabilities can reach their full potential. So, I think for myself, I come at this world of accessibility, with that sort of baggage or experience, depending on one, how one wants to look at it. And, you know, I’m the person who is a self-driven individual who seeks to make a difference. But I also, I think many people will tell me that I’m a facilitator, and I like to bring together individuals and professionals. I like to make sure that we build on what we’ve learned and we’ve experienced and that we build this capacity that, as you mentioned in the introduction, thirty years from now, we’ll be in a much better place. So hopefully that will be the legacy that I can leave behind not just for my own kids, my own family, but certainly many, many other people and many, many other kids that will have to live with disabilities, but certainly experience a more or greater lens on abilities rather than disabilities.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:04:57.71] One of the challenges in our workplaces is the subject of accommodations. It’s hard for an employee to have a conversation with their boss or a member of the HR team about their accessibility needs. Can you tell us about maybe some types of accommodations that you have asked employers for and can you talk about what your expectations are for somebody as an individual who’s making a request?
Pina D’Intino: [00:05:26.27] That’s a great question. And I think we can, I can reflect back on my own experience, of course, where, as I said, I was working for a large financial organization when I lost my sight. And the amount of support that I received was incredible, was tremendous. I was able to obtain a laptop before, almost immediately after I left the hospital per se. So, I was given this laptop with the screen reader, application software on it. I learned Braille very, very quickly and learned to use a mobility cane but I think, you know, when I look back, some of the things that I think about is, you know, you’re given this technology for the first time. You have no idea how it even works or what it really does. Even though my entire career was in information communications, in IT, you know when you’re dealing with procurement, you’re dealing with buying stuff and all these, you know, leading edge technology, this is a , this is an area that is not commonly known, is not mainstream to a lot of people. And so, you know, when, when you’re faced with a disability and all, and suddenly being thrown into this world of assistive technology, it’s a whole different experience. So fortunately for me, as I said, I had the support, and that sort of helped me navigate through the complexity of accommodation. That certainly didn’t mean that it was easy. It certainly did not mean that you had the best training that was possible. And it certainly did not mean that even with my assistive technology, what I needed to access was accessible. So, I can understand some of the frustration that is around this whole conversation of disclosure.
Pina D’Intino: [00:07:40.25] When do I tell, what do I tell? What does it mean if I say to my supervisor or my HR person that I have a disability? Is the information going to be shared and does everybody have to know? There’s a lot of different points that you will want to take into consideration. And I think. The first step is about conversation, the first step is about what one feels comfortable about disclosing when it relates to their work performance. And one of the advice that I would give to anyone who’s already in a work environment and is facing some difficulties, don’t wait to have the conversation with your boss or your supervisor when your productivity is negatively impacted. Your emotions get in the way of things. Unfortunately, sometimes because your boss or others did not know why productivity is suffering, it really creates a very negative environment, sometimes even toxic.
Pina D’Intino: [00:08:54.42] And if you wait too long, sometimes the damage is irreparable. So, you know, I would suggest people to really, really on both sides, the person who has a disability needs to feel that there is a trusted environment so that they can have this conversation. So perhaps your boss or the HR representative in your organization can help facilitate that or, you know, for the HR, the managers, if they see that this is a situation where their employee’s behavior is changing, or the employee is not producing or working in the same manner that they were, I think it’s OK to ask the question as long as it is done respectfully and with dignity. And I think one of the challenges that I hear from so many is about
Pina D’Intino: [00:09:59.71] how do you ask the question, what do you ask? What are the words I can’t say? I can’t tell you how many times people say to me, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to say you’re blind, but that’s OK. You’re not saying it in a, you’re not attacking me by saying the word. You’re asking me a question. You don’t always know the right terms to use on both sides. And so I really encourage people, you know, to be genuine and to tell people if they’re, if they don’t know and if they need some help in having that conversation, go out there and get that help that you need. So, I think it’s important for both, as I said for both sides to, to meet somewhere along the middle to sort of say we want to work together and I’m going to bring the right accommodation. So, you know, it’s a bit different if you’re starting, you’re new, you’re applying for a new job and, you know, then the question becomes, do I disclose my accommodation or not? Is it the right time to disclose my accommodation? Again, it depends on the accommodation. It depends on how you think your disability may impact the job or not. Well, certainly, I think that, you know, if the job requires for you to lift heavy boxes all the time during the day and you have some mobility issues, maybe think about the fact that it may not be the right fit for yourself. You know for myself, if a person says to me, I’ll need an interpreter to have this interview, well then you need to disclose that and ask for it as soon as possible so that when you have the interview, you know that you can have that interview with ease and there are different policies and practices that also should be considered but that would be getting really into the weed of things. And I don’t want to do that here. But I think what’s important here is, again, think about the job that you’re applying for and when you feel it’s necessary to disclose. Many, many organizations because of ADA, because of the regulations across Canada and many other countries today, have a requirement to meet accommodation requirements early on. So, don’t be afraid to ask. If you need an accommodation, ask for it.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:14:42.51] One of the questions I’m hearing a lot from HR leaders is not just providing accommodations, but where the accessibility department should reside within an organization. So, I’m asking you this because I feel like HR is normally the place where you go to request an accommodation. But do you think that the accessibility department should live within HR or somewhere else?
Pina D’Intino: [00:15:09.00] I can’t tell you how many times I get this question. And I can’t also tell you how many times I’ve spoken to organizations that have flipped. You know, when we talk about accessibility, first of all, accessibility is an extremely broad term and there are so many different components to accessibility and even accommodations, right? So, you know, you have IT accommodations, you have physical space accommodations, you have sensory accommodations. There are so many different things that need to be considered when you think of the wide and broad spectrum of accessibility and accommodation. You know, my thought, and I’ve worked in IT and so that’s where we sort of started accessibility and accommodation. But we were quick to realize that accommodation does not sit in one area alone or in isolation. You may want to have an area that will provide governance, and that means that you’ll look at the entire process from end to end and look at all the stakeholders that are part of that solution. But I don’t think it sits solely in HR or solely in IT and an example of this is what we talk a lot about with employment in this conversation right now. And so, you know, if we put it in HR as an example, I have a need for an accommodation that may be related to, I don’t know, let’s say, an accessible entry door, as an example. You may go to your HR and sort of say my door doesn’t work or you may go to your visit facility person to say, hey, my door opener doesn’t open. It doesn’t work. You know, can you fix this for me, or can somebody look at it? Or perhaps it’s a new requirement. I’m struggling, as I said, with one of my tasks or environments at work. And so, you know, I’m going to go to my supervisor who’s going to refer me to my HR policies. And say you can ask for accommodation by following this process and blah blah blah. And that’s great. So, the process can reside in HR if one wants to, wants to sort of find a home for it.
Pina D’Intino: [00:17:36.59] But the reality is that if the technology, if the physical environment are not accessible, then all of it falls apart. I can have an accessible interview process or recruitment process but if the technology in-house, if the websites, the applications that I use are not accessible, it doesn’t matter whether it’s in HR or not. And it’s the same thing in IT where I see so many organizations right now doing an enormous amount of work to meet standards like WCAG for the websites and digital presences and so on and so forth. So, they’re spending a ton of money making those environments accessible. But they don’t have an accessible onboarding process for people who could apply to fill those positions can’t get through the door. So I think, you know, to me, one of the things that I have learned and I certainly promote to larger organizations is to think about, you know, there’s a part of accessibility that belongs here, a part that belongs here and another part that belongs here. And we want to make sure that there’s some oversight as to how all these pieces come together. And an area where there’s a great, there’s a really well articulated communication path so that individuals know where to go, know what to do. Does that sort of answer your question.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:19:08.58] Yeah, absolutely. I wondered, does the fact that we’re virtual and likely an increase in technology accommodation requests that are coming in, does it change your, your point of view? Should IT be more involved in in maybe managing or dealing or advising on these requests or should it kind of stay in HR’s sort of wheelhouse?
Pina D’Intino: [00:19:36.78] Oh, goodness. No, IT definitely, you definitely want to involve IT and you definitely, as I said, want to involve also your physical spaces and different areas. One of the areas, so there’s a couple of other areas that we didn’t talk about that also sort of fall into play and that’s compliance. That is really important in making sure that you comply to regulatory requirements and standards. But there’s also legal and the whole conversation about understanding what your responsibility, your legal responsibilities as an organization are. I think it’s really, really important too. Right. So, while you may not go deep into those areas, I think those are also key stakeholders that you want to bring into the conversation. But, to your specific question, IT is definitely a key player in this world of virtual environment. I mean, I can’t say that enough that if you don’t include accessibility requirements in the development of your products and services early on in the process, and really engage the experience and the usability of persons with disabilities, then you’re missing the boat.
Pina D’Intino: [00:20:47.88] Right. Because what, what’s happening is that even with things like artificial intelligence, even things machine learning, we haven’t quite gotten to the point where we really can replicate every single scenario a person with a disability has or experiences. And therefore there’s a tendency to build sometimes these cases or to, to assume that this is how a person who’s blind or has a visual disability will experience this transaction or someone that, for example, is, is hard of hearing or deaf, well we need to accommodate this person this way. And this is the captioning. As long as we have captioning on the video, then we’re done. Right. And I think that we have to be really careful about those assumptions. We have to be really careful in making sure that we really understand the experience. And the IT team is uniquely positioned in this environment of virtual environments to, to create the right platform, successful platforms.
Break: [00:23:49.48] Let’s take a reset. This is Jessica Miller-Merrill and you are listening to the Workology podcast. Today we are talking with Pina D’Intino about who’s responsible for accessibility in the workplace. How do these requests happen? Who manages it? Who should be in charge?
Break: This podcast is sponsored by Workology and is part of our Future of Work series in partnership with PEAT. They’re the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology.
Break: 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: [00:28:50.59] I want to stay on the technology track and ask you about accessibility gaps, because it’s one of your areas of expertise. What are you seeing as the biggest gaps, accessibility gaps for employers and their employees right now?
Pina D’Intino: [00:29:08.83] I think a lot of the gaps exist. I’m going to say a few things, the first thing is in communication. I know you talked about earlier about, you know, having that conversation and really now making sure that people can openly discuss situations without feeling that they’re being judged. Employees, as I said, want a trusted environment. And I think that that’s one of the things that so, even though there’s so much out there right now about being inclusive, wanting to be inclusive, we still have some work to do in building that trust and demonstrating that employers can in fact look beyond the accessibility requirements or the disability of the individual. I really think that we still have some work to do there. Work, employment, is often, you know we do the recruitment still today based on what degree do you own or have? And I think that there has to be some conversation around the fact that individual talent comes in many, many different ways and competencies and skills come in through different experiences, and if someone doesn’t have a “quote-unquote” Master’s degree or PhD that does not necessarily mean that that person does not have the ability to work. So, I think there’s some work to be done there, because persons with disabilities and there’s two buckets of those, those individuals with disabilities. One is there is a group of persons with disabilities that have incredible academic credentials behind them. I know people who have multiple diplomas, Master’s and still cannot find work unless it is within the disability realm.
Pina D’Intino: [00:31:07.41] And then there’s the other group of individuals who, for instance, may not have had the opportunity to attend regular school, but may have incredible talent in problem-solving and resiliency and adjusting. And I think frequently those types of abilities and competencies that are required in today’s workplaces are overlooked. So, I think that’s one of the gaps that will continue to be. When you speak to technology specifically you know, as I said before, many organizations are doing enormous work to try to make their environments accessible. But a lot of organizations, especially the large organizations, still work with a significant amount of what we call legacy or old systems that cannot be made accessible. And those, those tools are often the primary tools that employees need to access to work. A lot of the HR tools, as an example, a lot of the applicant tracking tools as an example, are very inaccessible. And a lot of the transactional tools that large companies and banks or even insurance companies or governments use are still very, very, very old. And so, making them accessible will continue to be a challenge from an IT perspective. I think the last thing I’m going to say on this topic is about training. I feel, you know, as a person with a disability and I’ve been in this world now for 20 years almost, and I experienced what it’s like, as I said, to flip from one to the next, within you know, overnight. There really is an enormous amount of lag, a huge lag in training. And in training and awareness such as training for persons with disabilities to make sure that they can enter the workplace environment with the necessary training that they need. Every work environment is different. And so, if I work for the government, I have to access all these work environments. And it’s a longer learning curve for me to learn it because of assistive technologies and interfaces that I need to learn all about. There’s an expectation that if you throw technology at someone who has a disability, if they said to you, you know, I need this device to do this work. This kind of work will give them that technology. I’m ready to go. And that’s not the case. So, I think that there has to be a lot more attention to the whole concept of training and ensuring that that training for persons with disabilities, training for people using assistive technologies is part of a change management process.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:35:52.10] During our prep call, we talked about something I really want to ask you to share. You told me that you want people to move past defining and seeing people as people with disabilities. What did you mean by that?
Pina D’Intino: [00:36:07.04] Well, what did I mean by that. Well, I think a good example of that is this, is that, you know, frequently we get these surveys, these censuses, and it says, do you identify as a person with a disability? And I think that if you look up the definition of disability, which truly speaks about sort of a mismatch of the person’s need with the mismatch of the environment, it’s a shift from taking the whole conversation of disability away from the fact that a disability is really a personal thing. Right. It’s my fault because I have this disability kind of thing towards the fact that maybe it’s the environment that is not accessible. And at the end of this and underneath that, I am still human. I’m still a person. I don’t see myself as a person with a disability, even though I am technically, as one would say, blind. I said to you before in our conversation, people sometimes feel uncomfortable by saying that, you know, are you visually impaired or are you blind, do you see a little, do you see. And to me, it’s all great. But I think sometimes when I’ll sit in discussions, HR discussions or interview discussions, I could probably spend at least the first fifteen minutes trying to explain to people how my screen reader works because they’ve never come across anything like that or about the dog in some places.
Pina D’Intino: [00:37:42.08] Right. And I think that it’s really important for people to see people as people. And the more reason I feel strongly about this is because disability will affect us all at some time. It will affect us all differently and it could be permanent or temporary. So, if, if it’s someone who, someone, for example, invents a chip that will restore my sight, does that mean that I am no longer disabled or does that mean that I am disabled? Who knows? How will that be interpreted? So I think to me it’s really important that we really think about, you know, what is the person about? What do they have to offer, what makes them unique, not because of their accessibility, their disability, but perhaps because they can bring new perspectives and new experiences to the table, that you as a person who may not see yourself as a person with a disability, may have not thought of. You know, I always use the example as well as parents who are aging. Right. As we age, we acquire vision loss, hearing loss, some of us will have mobility loss. But I dare you to say to any one in their 50s, 60s, 70s plus who are very, very active, would say that they have a disability, even though they can’t hear as well and can’t see as well.
Pina D’Intino: [00:39:23.53] Many people who are aging do not see themselves as people with disabilities. So why should I? It just means that I do things differently. And it just seems that I need to make sure that my environment is accessible. Someone who is aging will benefit from that ramp as much as someone who’s using the wheelchair. Right. And so that’s why I want people to go and to think about when you say, you know, think of disability more like a human thing, maybe drop the “dis” and look at the ability. Now I’m not thinking of discrediting, I’m not disregarding the fact that there are some very complex needs for people who have multiple disabilities or who have complex disabilities. So, I’m not trying to minimize the fact that there are disabilities that require more serious accommodations and adaptations. And that’s OK. I can guarantee you that even those situations, even in those situations, those persons will bring to the table some really unique ideas that we will not have thought about if you can get past seeing that wheelchair, or that cane or the other assistive technology they’re using.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:40:49.36] 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?
Pina D’Intino: [00:40:58.81] That’s an excellent question. I think you touched a little bit on that. I think that we’re going to see things, assistive features and technologies become more and more mainstream and becoming smaller. I remember during my first accessibility speaking engagement and I was invited to go to New York, and I remember having to go through customs with this huge rolling bag, rolling suitcase that, that contained my laptop, my desktop. Some people may know what that is, but it’s one of those external synthesizing boxes, these huge thick cables and headsets and a Braille refreshable keyboard that wouldn’t really fit in the suitcase because it was so big and heavy, right. Where today I basically use a small tablet or my smartphone app. So, I think one of the things we’re going to see is things getting continuing to get smaller and smaller and we’re going to see things being much more integrated into the devices that everyone purchases. I think we’re also going to see a louder voice for people, for accessibility, because, again, I think there’s an expectation that it is there now, partly because of regulations like the ADA and others around the world. But I think people are becoming, the generation, the ones coming behind us are really not as patient, you know, and there’s an expectation that everything’s at their fingertip. And so, I really expect that we’re going to see a lot of movement toward easier interfaces. And then the other thing we have to sort of take into account is automation and the use of AI and machine learning and one of the things that, there are a couple of things that concern me when it comes to that aspect of evolution.
Pina D’Intino: [00:43:06.95] And one of the things is the fact that a lot of the tasks, I want to call them task- oriented kind of job positions in manufacturing, for example, and repetitive tasks. Many of those, in mailrooms as an example, many of those positions are often left to persons with different types of disabilities. You have known typically, due to the use of stereotyping a little bit that many of those positions have been filled with persons with disabilities. More and more automation and machine learning and cognitive automation, we’re seeing a lot of those jobs changing and not as many people being needed to do those tasks that we had seen in the past. And so therefore, we’re going to see unique opportunities for people to retool. And not unique just for persons without disabilities but also for people with disabilities. And so, there’s going to be a much, much greater dependency, I believe, in customer service and the needs of customer service agents who really understand the client well and understand the needs of the clients well. And so, if you’re talking about adding client services that, to be diverse and inclusive, then you can’t do that without engaging persons with disabilities as well as any other demographics. That’s something to keep in mind.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:47:13.36] Pina, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today. Where can people learn more about you and what you do?
Pina D’Intino: [00:47:20.99] Well, I do try to keep my LinkedIn profile to date so I think people can certainly reach out to me on LinkedIn for sure. The website for Aequum is www.aequumglobalaccess.com. And certainly you can find me there. I think through this podcast and other venues, I do do a number of speaking engagements both in the US and in Canada, people who are also abroad. So maybe seek me out there as well.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:47:56.16] Awesome, thank you so much.
Pina D’Intino: [00:47:58.87] You’re very welcome.
Closing: [00:47:59.43] I love having Pina on as a guest. She’s an expert and also someone who is willing to talk to us candidly and openly about her own experience requesting accommodations and accessibility. This is important for us as HR leaders to hear. I think, you know, our jobs sometimes keep us siloed. I want our leaders to think about the process for accessibility requests. I want them to be open and available to learn more about the different technology, tools and resources that are now available to us and our employees. We want, and I want you, to help your employees and others to be their best selves and do their best work. The Future of Work series is in partnership with PEAT, and it is one of my favorites. Thank you to PEAT as well as our podcast sponsor, Workology.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: Join me for the first ever virtual HR Expo, October 5th through 9th. Demo and meet thirty-five companies just like at the Conference Expo Hall. But all online. Let me and Workology help connect you with great HR technology and service providers at virtual HRExpo.com. That’s www.virtualHRExpo.com.