Dr. Jonathan Kaufman, founder of J. Kaufman Consulting and a thought leader and educator, recently met with Alignment Strategies CEO Dr. Vanessa Weaver to discuss how embracing disabilities can allow companies to be more innovative and productive. He talked about his experience as a person with a disability, why people with disabilities are often overlooked in corporate America and the role resilience, patience and adaptation play in creating environments that are supportive and inclusive of people with disabilities. The following is an excerpt from their conversation.
Dr. Vanessa Weaver: Why do you believe conversations about disability are so important?
Dr. Jonathan Kaufman: The way that disability has been treated, particularly within the context of business, it’s been the stepchild of diversity but my thought process in this is that disability by definition is the essence of diversity. It runs across race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic, sexual orientation, and is the only minority group anyone can join at any time. So, if we think about disability, we have to think about it as a communal experience, not just something that is an other. And that’s what makes it fundamentally different. Businesses have to reassess how they engage not only with the disability community but the idea of disability itself.
Weaver: That’s so interesting. We have a series of what we call factoids that we share with our audience because they really provide some context. The data that we found is that 61 million adults in the United States have some form of disability. That looks like about 26% of us. That’s about one in every four of us has a disability. Another interesting factoid is that 90% of the companies that were surveyed said that they have some type of diversity, equity and inclusion program but only 4% of them focus on disabilities.
Kaufman: It makes no sense to me because if you look at the numbers and you look at the fact that they have to feel it, this is about the intersectionality and it’s part of the human experience. And because it’s part of the human experience, we have to say this has to be a central narrative within the DEI conversation.
Weaver: And why isn’t it?
Kaufman: My theory is the F word—fear, fear of the unknown. There’s been a traditional model that’s been inherited for such a long period of time where people with disabilities in general have been isolated from the general population. And when you have a disability, it’s the inability to do things rather than saying, wait a minute, is it one’s “medical condition” or is it society not getting to the point where they can say we can find adaptation and actually revise the way we think and the way we interact with the very notion of disability itself, whether it be through adaptive devices, accessibility, so on and so forth.
I talk to people all the time and say, how many of you actually wear glasses? Many people raised their hands. I say, well, what if you took them off? Then I say, okay, how many of you actually have cell phones? And everyone raises their hands. And I say, how many of you actually text? Everyone raises their hands. And I say, did you know in 1976 at Gallaudet University, really the major university for the deaf community, that is where the origins of texting began? I had a conversation with the provost of MIT and he said about 60 to 70% of our student body is somewhere on the Autism spectrum. So the fact is when you talk about technology and when you look at the technological revolution and the digital revolution, the fact is the fingerprints of persons with disabilities are all over it.
Weaver: It made me think about Google. Google has a program where they’re committed to recruiting people on the Autism spectrum and they talked about so many of their innovations have come from those individuals. What would’ve happened had they ignored them.
Kaufman: Right. I’m working on a book now, which is an expansion of my Forbes column. And it’s really about disability as a language of innovation. You have to look beyond personhood and agency and say, disability is an idea. And if you look at it from an idea and you say it’s part of a growing language, what are some of the key areas within that narrative of that language? There are three areas that I fall on, which are in that linguistic idea, which is the idea of resilience, the idea of patience and the idea of adaptation and the lived experience. Anybody who has lived the experience of disability has fallen into those areas…and actually can attest to the fact of saying, here’s my experience, here’s what I’ve learned and here’s what I could teach you. So, as a linguistic idea, it has real value.
Weaver: How does this evolving language around disability show up when we talk about resilience? How do we go from making a connection of resilience and disability to the innovation?
Kaufman: I’ll give you a perfect example from my own life experience because that’s where I initially drew it from because it was very personal to me. I was born with a right hemiparesis, a form of cerebral palsy. I had to literally adapt to the world and that was one of the pieces, but it was being resilient and saying there were constant challenges all the time.
Walking in the streets of New York, I always had to think 12 steps ahead of how am I going to get to the subway? How am I going to navigate the city streets of New York with all of these people? I knew because I had a right hemiparesis, I had to get to the left side [of the subway stairway] so I could hold the banister down. It was always about being resilient and saying, how do I think strategically about things and how do I think ahead? You have to think about it from the perspective of, okay, well, how are those ideas modified and can be adapted to a business model and the day-to-day life of thinking about how do you structure a business culture?
Weaver: Tell me a little bit about your why. Because we can assume your why is because you were born with a particular disability. But is that really the why that drove you to do this work?
Kaufman: It was the beginning; it was the roots. But for me, the driving force was the drive to help others. So whether it is an individual in a psychotherapy or coaching session or whether it’s an organization, and that could be in either coaching session or even sort of strategic work, that in itself is the essence of why I do what I do. I always have found that I don’t go to work, I go to play. I love what I do.
Weaver: What would you say to a CEO who’s saying I want to drive more innovation in my company and help me figure out how to use the language of disability to do so?
Kaufman: I think there are a couple things. One is, first of all, from a disability standpoint, do you have a disability ERG? And if you have an employee resource group or whatever term they use, mine it. Use it as a laboratory. And use it as a laboratory in the sense of saying, okay, how do we communicate with this community? And understanding that there are lots of people with disabilities in an organization.
Weaver: 61 million.
Kaufman: Yeah, even outside the United States. The population of people with disabilities, it’s larger than the size of China. You’re talking over a billion people globally and it continues to grow. And that’s the one thing, if we age, it’s part of the human experience. Whether you’re a customer or whether you’re an employee, doesn’t matter. So it’s allowing C-level executives to really have that honest, what I call radically honest conversation, but also saying this isn’t about applying this where, well, what can we do for you? No, this is a back-and-forth conversation. What can we do for each other? And how do we develop that conversation?
Weaver: Can you imagine if they better understood how they could provide and connect with their own employees, many who are hiding their disabilities because they feel uncomfortable or unprotected in coming out with them? But also how is an organization not tapping this 61 million plus in the marketplace out here.
Kaufman: Right, and when you look at the marketplace, you look at the global marketplace. This is a marketplace that the numbers spread between $8 trillion and $13 trillion of spending power.
I had a conversation the other day about the adaptive apparel market. Vogue Business said this will be a $400 billion market by 2026. And there are lots of people that could use it. Whether you have trouble putting on buttons, it is as simple as that. That is adaptive. You know, your glasses are an adaptive tool by definition. I always tell people, if you’re looking at simple things that are adaptive, you use them every day in your life. It’s that people don’t recognize it.