I will never forget when Mary introduced me to Afrika at the Disability:IN conference in 2017. It didn’t take long to realize that Afrika was someone who shared my passion for creating positive change, in the area of employment for people with disabilities. It was a pleasure to introduce her to the team at LC Industries, who have impressed me so much with their investment in creating new avenues and innovative solutions for employment for people with disabilities. LC Industries is one of the largest employers of people who are blind in the United States and has served all areas of government for over 80 years.
It is people like Afrika who go to work every day, with purpose and resolve who open doors to opportunity for people with disabilities. I can’t tell you how proud I am of Afrika and her work at LC Industries. Her passion to help others has truly made an impact on me and everyone who knows her.
Making an Impact for Myself and Others
By Afrika Williams
Being a disability employment advocate and champion is personal for me. At various points during my life, since I was struck by a car at seven years old, I have lived with a disability that impacted my mobility, memory, mental health, learning, sleep, thinking, or vision. While working for Congress in 2006, I made complaints about unethical behavior and unfair treatment and became the target of severe workplace bullying which ended with a physical assault that left me with post-traumatic stress disorder and plunged me into a long period of anxiety and depression. Through faith, family support, and therapy, I regained my strength. Then in 2014, while working as an IT contractor at the Department of Energy in what should have been the final year of my degree program at University Maryland University College (UMUC), an infection attacked my brain, and I experienced what was for me the worst type of disability.
Throughout my life, I had always been able to rely on my intellect and ability to learn, regardless of how I was impacted physically or mentally; but suddenly, I had problems with my vision as well as problems reading and comprehending what I read. I went from my professors asking to use my papers as future class examples to spending long, excruciating hours in tears writing papers I wasn’t even sure made sense. I wasn’t able to remain in my job at the Department of Energy, and I had to take a break from my studies. So, I took time out to recover and regroup. I reframed my circumstances and saw the unique position I was in as someone who’d experienced physical, mental, and cognitive disabilities. I decided to focus on raising awareness of all disabilities especially invisible disabilities, and I committed to use my experiences to make an impact for myself and for others.
In 2015, I returned to my studies at UMUC and self-identified as a person with a disability for the first time in my life. A couple of months later, I received an email from UMUC Career Services about the Workforce Recruitment Program (WRP), an initiative co-sponsored by the Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy and the Department of Defense.
The WRP is “a recruitment and referral program that connects federal and private sector employers nationwide with highly motivated college students and recent graduates with disabilities who are seeking summer internships or permanent jobs.” I was hesitant to apply to the WRP because I was a non-traditional student, and I had work experience. But, I decided to apply because my career direction and circumstances had changed. I submitted my resume to the WRP, and I was contacted for an interview. During the interview, I shared my project management and technical background, and I expressed that I was interested in job opportunities in Diversity & Inclusion and Training & Development. The WRP interviewer made my resume available in the program database, and I was called for several interviews including one at the Executive Office of the President. I would have loved to work for President Obama, even if I never met him, plus I had visions of having tea with First Lady Michelle!
Eventually, I received a call for an interview with Perdita Johnson-Abercrombie, currently Regional Director at the VA Office of Resolution Management, and I knew instantly that she was the kind of Diversity & Inclusion leader and Equal Employment Opportunity champion I needed to work with. Perdita allowed me to leverage my strengths and experience, and she mentored me, so I could develop skills in my areas of interest.
After two years at VA HQ, I was ready for a new opportunity, and an ideal one came while I was attending the Disability:IN (formerly US Business Leadership Network) conference in 2017. I was very fortunate to meet the dynamic, Mary Brougher. Mary and I chatted, and I shared a bit about my background and career goals. Mary said, “I have the perfect opportunity for you, but it’s in North Carolina; are you willing to relocate?” I said, “Yes, for the right opportunity.”
Later during the conference, Mary introduced me to Joyce Bender. I’d heard of Bender Consulting and Joyce’s work; I was impressed by her history of disability employment advocacy especially her commitment to ensuring people with disabilities have professional career opportunities and competitive pay. Joyce arranged an interview with LC Industries (LCI), a non-profit with the mission to provide meaningful employment for people who are blind and living with low vision disabilities. LCI employees manufacture and distribute products including file folders used throughout the federal government, chemical lightsticks used by our troops, and medical kits used by military surgeons. I met with Marisa Chrismon, Chief Human Resources Officer and Jeffrey Hawting, President, and Marisa hired me to build and manage LCI’s Training and Development Department.
As the Manager of Training and Development, I use my unique mix of business, talent development, and technical experience to implement programs that prepare our employees for internal upward mobility opportunities. Programs are focused on: building interpersonal skills; teaching digital literacy; and developing specialized technical skills. Employees benefit by gaining the skills that are needed for careers in the 21st century workforce, and LCI benefits by having a workforce that is better skilled and more capable of contributing to its strategic vision. It’s a win-win.
I share the following advice with employers looking to include disability in their hiring initiatives:
1. Disability recruiting should be a part of any diversity initiative, but, diversity is not enough. After you’ve implemented a diversity strategy, don’t ignore the importance of equity and inclusion. Equity and inclusion move you from checking boxes, to creating a culture of fairness and belonging that invites diverse candidates and appreciates their differences.
2. Humans are by nature fearful of what they don’t find familiar or don’t understand. Raise awareness and build a culture of inclusion by providing diversity and disability training to everyone in your organization, top down. The training will help build trust and facilitate psychological safety. Psychological safety leads to increased engagement, and engaged employees are more loyal and productive.
3. Don’t focus on the ‘dis’ in disabilities. A perspective that focuses on the things a person with a disability cannot do is limiting, but a perspective that focuses on the things they can do is liberating. Try a strengths-based approach; focus on what people with disabilities can do and especially on what they naturally do well.
4. During the interview process, ask if accommodations are needed. It may be helpful to allow a candidate with a cognitive disability to arrive to an interview early, so he can sit alone in a quiet room and preview written interview questions, or a candidate with low vision might appreciate you offering her electronic, large print, or high contrast documents.
5. Pay employees competitive wages that are aligned with their competencies and contributions to the organization. Disability hiring is not charity work. There are many people with disabilities who are capable and qualified.
6. Provide access to training and development opportunities including career planning, mentoring from professionals with disabilities, special projects, and stretch assignments.