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Marca Bristo Interview

9/11/2007 12:00:00 AM

Marca Bristo is President and CEO of Access Living.

Tell us about Access Living.

Access Living is Chicago’s community center for people with disabilities. We work to advocate for greater participation and inclusion for people with disabilities. We help people find the keys to independence through programs supporting their independence and we do a lot of work educating the public about living with people with disabilities.

How many people with disabilities work at Access Living?

Access Living has a very strong history of employing people with disabilities. It’s central to our mission that people with disabilities should be very involved in everything that we do. At any given moment in time probably 60-70% of our workforce are people with disabilities..

As an organization that is committed to empowering people with disabilities, our mission drives our hiring. We believe very much in what we call "nothing about us without us" public policy and services. And all too often, the people who have the real expertise of how you live with a disability are not involved in the equation. So our ratio, while it’s not precise, is driven by our mission. I will also add, however, that the people with disabilities who work here make darn good employees. We’ve got people who have been with us 15-18-20 years. And these are incredibly talented people who give their all..

There’s one other thing that I’d like to add. While we have a very high retention rate among our employees with disabilities, it’s also very important to note that many people with disabilities, who have not had a lot of work experience, often get it at a place like Access Living. Then they move on into incredible jobs in the private sector. So while we don’t advertise ourselves as a training program, the side effect of the population that we employ is that we’re building the employment strengths of people with disabilities who often go to contribute in the private sector..

How does working at Access Living impact non-disabled employees?

Of course, it depends on the people and what there past experience is, but it’s really quite incredible to watch it happen. Things are pretty much the same as everywhere else, but done just a little bit differently. Watching people go through that mind opening experience can be funny, really. It is really a mind opening experience as people change the way they think about each other. It takes the form of small things, like people not knowing whether they should ask the person, do you need help, or should you just let them figure it out themselves..

Sometimes language usage might be awkward. "Oh, it’s great to see you," … oops, that person is blind; maybe I shouldn’t have said that? I think you will find that, number one; disabled people mostly have a great sense of humor. We’re not overly sensitive to a lot of those things. An awful lot of richness comes from learning about the disability experience, which makes working here a very interesting experience for people who have never been exposed to it before. When people leave to go elsewhere, the most common thing people say to me is you have changed my life. We’re very proud of that..

Is there a positive impact for the entire organization?

The disabled individual can add value to whatever it is that you are doing (and increase the size of your applicant and promotion pool which can give any organization a competitive advantage)..

There’s also a lot of information that says other employees feel better about their employer and their employment when there’s a more diverse workforce. I think it gives everybody some degree of pride and confidence that my employer is tolerant of difference. If it ever happens to me, I’m in a good place here. And that kind of intangible value is added to the workforce by the presence of people with all different characteristics. The work culture also is changed into what is perceived by other workers as a more humane work culture, which probably has an effect on other people’s desire to be part of that organization. It’s something that is hard to put a price tag on, but it has been told to us enough times by business leaders that I think it’s something that people should pay some attention to.

How does a support system emerge in the workplace for people with disabilities?

At any given moment in time, 20 percent of the population has a disability. Therefore we know that businesses have people with hidden disabilities working in their offices, and often it’s not in an organized way. But those individuals, if they have disclosed their disabilities, become a real asset to the company. When a similar circumstance happens to another co-worker or family member, there’s a vibrant network of core support that occurs naturally, where people open the door to many resources for each other. It has never been captured formally. It hasn't been taken to the next level, where a company could organize an employee assistance program around this kind of resource that exists in companies where a good percentage of the workforce is disabled.

Similarly, the best way to break down myths is through people who live the life and who can speak about the experience. That’s why we’ve been very happy to see the Chicago Business Leader Network formed here. Businesses that are becoming a part of the BLN are sharing their experience with one another, to breaking down some of the myths, setting the bar high, and creating a new culture where people with disabilities are perceived as a valued part of the work force.

What about an impact on customers?

If you make yourself accessible to (a disabled) employee, you are making yourself accessible to all sorts of other people. You’re opening a door to a new customer base. Once when I was in Ft. Lauderdale on a business trip, I pushed in to my hotel and the first thing I noticed was they had the counter lowered where I would not have to crane my neck or reach up over. It was a message to me that, hey, these people want my business. If you saw that multiplied everywhere throughout one hotel chain, it commands a different loyalty from a new pool of customers that you have missed in the past.

But even more interesting, as I was checking in, a man in a wheelchair came pushing in from behind the scene, and I have to tell you, that it is still so rare to see that that I was a little startled. He came over and said hello, and I said what do you do? He said I work the switchboard. If I go back to Ft. Lauderdale, I now have two reasons to go to that hotel as opposed to somebody else’s hotel. They are hiring people with disabilities, which means something to me, and they have taken the time to make his place an environment that is seamlessly accessible to me.

Why isn’t there more awareness of the disability community as a marketing niche?

One of the things that frustrates the disability community, I think, is that we are not really seen by business as a market in the same way that other constituencies are. We command a lot of purchase power. We buy things. We shop places. We use money the same way that everybody else does. And, yet, you’d be so amazed at what little attention is given to the disability community as a market.

There may be several reasons for this. First, there's what I would call the out-of-sight-out-of-mind phenomenon. If you don’t see us out and about as much as you see other people, you tend not to think about us as a market. Number two, we’re probably a little more complex, and we are not all the same. That’s the hallmark of disability, it includes people who are blind, people who are deaf, people who use wheelchairs for a whole variety of reasons, people who have cognitive impairments, mental illness, respiratory difficulties. Trying to get your arms around this, from a marketing standpoint, is a bit of a challenge.

Then I think there’s also some stereotyping, that disabled people are poor and therefore they’re not the market we’re going to go after. Well, there is some truth to that. We do tend to be less employed, and therefore poverty and disability are connected. However, that hasn’t stopped companies from marketing aggressively to other low-income communities. It happens all the time. I wish there would be a moment in time when we would be perceived this way because a lot of our needs aren’t being met and could be. And I think you would see a very loyal customer base if someone reached out to us in that way.

What steps have you taken to be more welcoming to employees and customers with disabilities?

Audits and Policies
We’ve done quite a few things here to make our workplace user friendly for people with disabilities. First, we’ve conducted an ADA audit of ourselves. And we didn’t do it by ourselves. We had someone else come around and take a look and see what needs to be changed structurally and what our procedures are.

For a long time, although we did reasonable accommodations since the day we opened our door, a few years ago, we decided we should put it into policy. So we now have a policy that is shared with all of our employees that if you have a need for a reasonable accommodation, here’s how you request it, here’s who you go to for it, here’s how long it will take us to get back to you with a response, and here’s what you do if you don’t like the answer. It’s transparent to everybody.

We have certain checklists that are part and parcel with the way we do business. If we are having a meeting, for example, we have sort of a checklist that goes through all of the accommodation issues. Will we need a sign language interpreter? Yes or no? Do you know how to procure one? So we’ve taught our workforce about if you need an interpreter outside the organization, where do you get them? How much do they cost? How long does it take to get one? How many do you need? It’s a training issue more than anything. There is a budgetary component to it, but it’s as much as anything a training issue. Will we need materials in large print or in alternate format? Is there a need for a personal assistant to assist people who might be coming to this meeting? None of these things are terribly onerous from an expense perspective. We’ve done them for 27 years.

Technology and Purchasing
Is our technology as accessible as it could and should be? This is something you have to go back to periodically because technology changes so much. We spend a little more time than someone else for example when we buy a copying machine because we want the copying machine to be with the controls that a person in a wheelchair can use, a person with a visual impairment can see. And increasingly, product designers are seeing this market as one that they know that they need to appeal to so if you take the time to look, not always, but most of the time, you find products that are better under certain circumstances.

Is your website accessible? Do you know what that means? Most people will say to us when we ask that question, “I never thought of that. In fact, what do you mean? I don’t even understand. And what we mean is particularly for people who are blind being able to assure that your website, in addition to its graphics, has text that a person’s screen reader can read. A screen reader cannot read pictures; it has to read words. These are things that are important when you’re designing a new website and it poses challenges for companies that already have big websites on how they fix them.

How do you handle discussions with applicants and employees about job accommodations?

I always feel like it is a no brainer. You just sit down with a person if they’ve disclosed their disability. There’s a responsibility on their part to make those decisions. Do I want my employer to know that I have a disability, if it is not an obvious one like mine? That’s their right to make that decision. But if they’ve disclosed it, and if they need help from the employer to be successful, a good deal of this rests on their shoulders to come forward and self-advocate or self-represent what those needs are. Employers can’t be mind readers. They are not allowed to by law, and they can’t hoist their view of what the person needs onto the disabled person.

So it’s a two-way street here. There are definite responsibilities on the part of people with disabilities, and we are increasingly working with people with disabilities to help them understand that, and why it’s important. But when you finally sit down with a person, it’s pretty simple. You know, they’ll tell you what I need for example, some of the interesting accommodations we’ve had were the kind of soap that we had in our soap dispensers was problematic with people who had multiple chemical sensitivities… you change the soap. You take the time to go and ask them what soap works better. You change the soap. You don’t have to go out and invent the soap. You look around for what will work.

Can you give some more examples of job accommodations that you have seen at Access Living?

A lot of the creativity that applies to accommodating people with disabilities has merit to other workers as well--things like telecommuting, job sharing, reduced hours for workers who want that, or lesser degrees of work volume to enable employees to spend more time with their families. I think a lot of the things that can make a better workplace for people with disabilities are already happening in the workplace, but should be occurring more. They’re good for all people.

I’d like to say just say a little bit more about what we mean by "accommodations." I think people sometimes have notions that they’re these huge things, when in fact they’re quite little. For example, my personal accommodations include having my desk up on little wood blocks so I can fit under it. If I need something out of the top drawer of a filing cabinet, I ask for help. However, since we have low filing cabinets, too, I can generally get what I need myself. On a really snowy day, I may need someone’s assistance getting through the snowy sidewalk, which is quite correctable if you keep your snow shoveled off of your sidewalk. Now that’s just me, but let me give you a few examples of other things. We have quite a few people who are deaf here.

I think there’s a myth that if I hire a deaf person, they’re going to need a full time, one-on-one, sign language interpreter. Well that’s not true. We have 1-½ sign language interpreters for our whole office. They double duty with our client services for our board meetings, for our staff needs. You schedule them. You plan for it, and they do other things besides just sign language interpretation. One of our interpreters coordinates all of our volunteers. So there are ways in which you can maximize the value when you do hire in sign language interpreters.

With the advent of technology, even those needs are being reduced. Our deaf staff all have pagers, so if we need to reach them somewhere in the office, we can page them rather than using a telephone. We just purchased a whole new system for telephone communication with deaf people called "Next Talk." It’s in our desktop computers, so if a deaf person wants to call me, we no longer have to have a manned TTY with a person who knows how to use it. It comes right into my computer with the technology that I’m already comfortable with. An enormous number of things like that that have come on the market recently that even cut the cost more and are useful for everybody.

For those employers that like an intellectual challenge, it’s very interesting. The whole process of learning about this stuff opens your worldview on things you may never have stopped to think about. It really gets your creative juices going, which is an advantage to the employer and the employee.

Have you ever refused an accommodation request because of the costs involved?

Another myth of employers is the fear of the cost. I run a nonprofit, and it operates healthily, but on a shoestring. It has not broken the bank for us, and I think that’s a very important message. I’ve probably employed people with every disability under the sun, and only twice have I really found an accommodation request to be “unreasonable.” Even in those instances, however, where we deemed the request to be beyond what we could afford, the ADA provides the opportunity for us to sit down, talk to one another about what the need is, and begin a process to meet each other half way. So that is what disabled people need -- dialogue, an opportunity to express what those accommodation needs are.

I think most employers find that the costs are nowhere near what the myths have led us to believe. The big costs are often in the infrastructure issues, and in large companies those issues are increasingly issues of the past. In smaller companies, they’re still out there. The message that I would like to give to small businesses is, that as you begin to plan for your future, for instance capital needs, whether it’s a new computer system or a new roof, if you envision that the community of people with disabilities is part of your market, is part of your workforce, you begin to plan those things in. Those costs might be spread out over time and planned. Beyond that, I think most of the myths about cost are simply that—myths--and they aren’t borne out by reality.

What are some other myths and fears that you have seen when it comes to hiring people with disabilities?

Before I talk (more) about the myths and the fears, I should say ignorance is one of the more significant barriers that we face because disabled people have been historically outside the mainstream. A lot of people simply haven’t had a chance to get to know who we are, and that’s where those myths come from. Dr. King helped us understand that it’s necessary for people to live in a community in order to get to know one another to break down the prejudice that keeps us apart. And that was a conundrum there. Until we begin to break down the barriers, we don’t have coworkers down the hall doing their job just like everybody else who might be a little different. And yet we have to tackle the prejudice that keeps people out of the workplace in order to have them sit down the hall.

What about a fear of the ADA and lawsuits?

There is fear on the part of employers that if they hire people with disabilities they might be opening a Pandora’s Box. I would say to those employers, read the Americans with Disabilities Act. It’s a common sense approach. Nothing in the law requires you to do more than what is reasonable. And I think you will find that most people with disabilities are not going to work in order to bring lawsuits. They are going to work because they want chances at the American dream just like everybody else. People want to raise their families, they want a decent quality of life, and when given the opportunity to show what they have to offer, they make extraordinary employees.

In the disability community we jokingly talk about the glass ceiling, because we’re not even in the room where the glass ceiling exists yet. We wish we were, and no doubt about it, upward career mobility is more of a challenge, and people with disabilities can get trapped in low-end jobs. We want more than to just get in the door, we want to be able to go up the career ladder, as well.

I should say, on the flip side, if we get into a job and we are not cutting it, we should be fired or meet with whatever the other remedial circumstances are that an employer uses. We don’t want charity. We don’t want you to hire us under some misguided "hire the handicapped" notion. We want to pour our own talents and skills into the job and make our own contribution. I fire people here if they can’t do the job. Nothing in the ADA or any of the other disability rights laws requires you to hire people, or prevents you from firing people.

Of course, it's certainly a lot easier to hire white, non-disabled men. But in this day and age, I don’t think most companies would do that because, if a pattern can be shown that they are discriminating against whole classes of people, they can get sued anyway, for not hiring anybody. So that argument sort of puts us in a Catch 22.

As I said, the disabled people I know don’t wander around thinking, oh; I’ll get a job somewhere and then go sue them. If the employer does the right thing, people with disabilities can be good employees. Now does that mean you are going to be immune from lawsuits? No, of course not. Even employers who do the right thing can be sued for things that we would say are ridiculous arguments, but it shouldn’t stop you from trying.

One of the things that is hidden in the statistics about employment discrimination is, most of the complaints (involving disability) that go to the EEOC are settled. Positive resolutions occur more than any other protected class. Our complaints end in resolution before they go into litigation. Successful resolutions. Not just close the book on them and throw them away resolutions and I think that that’s part of what we have to see happening more and more.

What will it take to expand opportunities for disabled workers throughout the business community?

What I’ve learned over the years is that it takes two things. It takes a committed leader, a visionary leader within the company--not necessarily the CEO, but a high level person who starts to tackle the corporate culture in that respect. Then it also takes line staff hiring people who, together, at the top and bottom, are working to make this happen.

(Second), it takes reaching out to the disability community. I don’t think businesses can be (successful) at this without tapping into the community resources that are there to help them do it well. When Access Living started, we were among the first ten independent living centers in the United States. There are now four hundred or more, and this concept has gone worldwide. We succeeded by sharing our experience and our programs with one another. I'd like to see the business community network with one another in a very serious way, to begin to help us to overturn (the high) unemployment rate of people with disabilities. It's something we can do. It's something we should do.

We are spending so much of money in this country to keep people in an unwanted state of dependency. Ultimately, you’re paying anyway through your taxes. If we could convert that 70% of people who are working-age disabled, who are not working, to taxpayers rather than “tax consumers,” that would be good for everyone and for everyone’s bottom line—but especially good for people with disabilities who tell us they want to be working. Now that’s on the big picture kind of level. I find that most people can’t think beyond next year’s balance sheet in their own company. I wish that they could, because I think that, as we begin to think about the systemic cost of keeping people with disabilities outside the work force, we’ll come to understand that we simply can’t stay on the path we are on.

On a more practical level, I think I would say something really basic: Try it. You’ll like it. You know, it’s not that much more complicated. People with disabilities have a lot to contribute. We’re not all that unique compared to other people. We’re going to have strengths and weaknesses like other people. If you take the time to figure out how to make your workplace accessible for this person, I think you’ll find not only do you get a person with a disability ready to make a contribution, but also the rest of your workforce will appreciate it. It’s the right thing to do.

How can an organization measure if it is making progress? Have you ever established hiring quotas?

We've never set a goal. We never did. We just knew, given who we are, it was very important that a high number of people with disabilities be here in order to do what we do. So we didn’t start out with percent of our work force needs to be people with disabilities. I might add that subsequently the federal law that funds us decided that a majority of our board, our staff, and our management must be people with disabilities.

I’m always frustrated when people say “well oh we can’t track it because it's illegal”. Voluntary disclosure is not illegal. There is nothing that I’m aware of that keeps an employer from asking people who want to self disclose to do so. Now it won’t give you a perfect assessment, but it’ll be able to show trends and therefore I think that’s one thing that could easily be done to mark progress over time.

Do have any resources in mind when it comes to bringing job seekers and employers together?

One of the main things that I hear from employers is, I’m ready to hire people, but I can’t find anybody. Where do I go? There’s this maze of different government programs, there’s three hundred non-profits. All I want is to fill these positions. Give me some candidates. That’s a very real issue, and it’s one that the disability network of social service organizations is finally beginning to tackle. It’s too complicated for a business that wants to find people. They have to sort through so many different possibilities, and we have to find a way to make it simpler.

One of the resources that’s come online, so to speak, in the last few years, is an online resource called What I like about this is it makes it easier for employers to find candidates with disabilities. Also, it makes it easier for disabled people to get themselves out there directly. There’s definitely a place for the provider organizations that are there to help people with job training etc., but sometimes people with disabilities feel as if that layer between the employer and us is part of the problem. If only we could be out there, directly showing ourselves to employers, that would streamline things for us.

Now we're seeing the next generation with disabilities growing up with technological savvy as they are coming out of college. They’re bypassing all these stiff established networks and going to and going to, popping their resumes in the mail through seeing postings in the newspaper. These were skills that, believe it or not, we weren’t trained on doing--how to do it yourself. While there’s definitely a place for the provider organizations, which are there to educate employers and to give particular training skills to individuals, I think we’ve got to do more to bring the client or the customer or the potential job applicant face to face more directly with the employer.

Any final comments that can help employers understand the disability movement and employment?

A young woman with a disability said it better to me than I ever could. She was a high school girl and she’d been here for a while for the summer and I said to her how was your experience here? What did you learn? She said well, before I came to Access Living, I thought that my wheelchair was too wide for the bathrooms. Now I know that the bathrooms are too narrow for my wheelchair. That’s the paradigm shift. It’s the philosophy underpinning the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is very simple. Inclusion not exclusion. Independence not dependence. And empowerment not paternalism. Those are the things that our public policy should be guided by, and now increasingly is being guided by, and it's what we want employers to internalize because if they build a workplace that’s guided by those principles, everybody wins!