Choose to include: How employers create inclusive workplaces for people with intellectual disabilities

This article was originally published in the Puget Sound Business Journal.


On Tuesday, June 19, 2018, Bank of America convened a panel discussion titled “Choose to include: How employers create inclusive workplaces for people with intellectual disabilities.” The bank’s Seattle Market President Kerri Schroeder and Puget Sound Business Journal’s Publisher and Market President Emory Thomas Jr. introduced the discussion, which was moderated by Dannielle Campos, Bank of America Senior Vice President, and Environmental Social Governance Program Director.

The panelists: Alisha Valavanis, President and General Manager, WNBA Seattle Storm; Dave Lenox, President and CEO, Special Olympics Washington; Jeff Dolven, President and CEO, Skookum Contract Services, and Mark Feinour, Senior Support Services Executive for Bank of America. The conversation took place at Key Arena, just before a Seattle Storm game.

CAMPOS: Intellectual disabilities (ID) are the most common developmental disabilities, affecting approximately 6.5 million Americans. Most adults with ID are unemployed and under employed. Alisha, can you share your perspective on how professional sports plays out in the discussion around workplace inclusion?

VALAVANIS: This city believes in equality, diversity, and inclusion. And that’s what we want to represent. The Seattle Storm wants to create a platform for positive change, how professional sports can truly drive a positive narrative around the things that matter.

CAMPOS: Dave, as the CEO of Special Olympics Washington, can you talk about workplace inclusion in the context of athlete leadership? 

LENOX: We started off as a disability organization that happened to do sports. And then we shifted to become a sports organization who happened to have athletes with disabilities. Then, we started listening to the athletes. They said, “We want to be whole.” We must look at them as a whole person, not just an athlete, not just a person with a disability. That’s when the athlete leadership programs started.

First, anything we do in Special Olympics, we believe our athletes should be able to help us do. We developed workshops on how to become a coach, or a public speaker, or serve on a board. We quickly realized that our athletes view the world through a different lens than we do. They see the world differently because the world interacts with them differently.

Every team has that person you just want to follow. They are the one who gives a little bit more, have a little bit more insight. Our athletes want to be that person, too. So, we also work with the athletes through the leadership program.

I use athletes all the time at the international level to help me with writing documents so they are really clear. This is not always the case with sports rules. Here’s an example. We had a workshop on fundraising called “Athletes and Donor Development.” An athlete told me that no one was signing up for it. I said, “What’s the problem?” They said, “I don’t want to give blood. I hear the word donor and I think of giving blood.” I said, “Well, what should we call it?” They said, “What do you want us to do?” I said, “Help with fundraising.” They said, “So, why don’t you call it Athletes Helping with Fundraising?” They’re consumers of our brands, our products, our community. If you are missing that insight and how they’re interacting with your brand, you’re missing a huge part of the population.

So that’s how we worked it. We started with the sports experience. A team can be made up of coworkers and a boss can be a coach. Showing up for practice on time is really important. Showing up for work is also important. And in sports and at work you have to listen, interact and there’s give and take. That’s why the carryover between sports and work adds so much for us.

CAMPOS: Jeff, in your former role with the US Navy you were a client of Skookum. You’ve represented both sides in hiring employees and have also worked with businesses that are contract employees. The population Skookum predominantly serves is the military veteran population. Share your perspective about why businesses and organizations need to look to the ID population for hiring.

DOLVEN: Skookum today has about 1200 employees and we are a very eclectic group. We are more social entrepreneurs than a “non-profit” in that we don’t do fundraising and we don’t subsidize our operations through philanthropy. There’s nothing wrong with that model. But I would argue that we can show a template of delivering value to a customer to fuel a social objective. I think it’s a better model.

CAMPOS: Skookum is a social enterprise?

DOLVEN: Yes, social enterprise or social entrepreneur. I think it comes down to taking really good care of your customers, and then, taking really good care to integrate people’s abilities. Be it a veteran with a disability or an individual with an intellectual disability, find where they succeed and what they’re passionate about and what they can do for your customer. If you can do that, you will find that your workforce is more engaged, your turnover rates go down, and you’re going to start putting forces into play that matter. We can compete with any business on the planet in our space, and over two-thirds of our employees have a disability of some type. I commend Mark Feinour’s Support Services Department at Bank of America for doing the exact same thing. We don’t feel like we give up any margin for our mission. We’re looking at the universe differently, and we’re looking at the potential in people differently. That comes from the way we recruit, and it certainly comes from the way we train our supervisors and our managers.

CAMPOS: What industries make up Skookum’s customer base?

DOLVEN: We are a 30-year old services company and our business is balanced between facilities maintenance and management, logistics, warehousing and distribution. We recently took over the public works operation at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. We have found military bases are a good space for veterans with disabilities because in many respects they feel like they’ve gone home again.

CAMPOS: You mentioned my good friend Mark Feinour, who’s an unsung hero at the bank. Can you talk a little bit about Bank of America’s Special Services Department and those “aha” moments where you ran into a challenge that became an opportunity, and how you were able to build a business case?

FEINOUR: It’s been a journey for me personally. I’ve been a part of the Support Services team almost 20 years. I don’t consider what I do a job. I love what I do. I love the team.

Today, we employ over 300 people at Bank of America who have cognitive and/or other developmental disabilities. They range in their abilities from someone who can fold and stuff a letter into an envelope, to others who can operate forklifts, have a commercial driving license and drive trucks. When I first started Support Services, we were known for t-shirts. If anybody’s seen a community volunteer event, that red shirt that’s worn by our teammates are produced by Support Services and fulfilled by Support Services. We also did some letter fulfillment. We knew the team had more to bring to the table than just folding letters or stuffing envelopes or putting t-shirts onto a palette. Now we do letter fulfillment, data entry work, t-shirt production, warehouse inventory management. We look at lines of business in the company and say, “Where can we bring opportunities to Support Services to not only provide meaningful work to the team, but provide better quality products and services than a line of business is getting from an external supplier?”

Nobody can compete with the quality that comes out of our team. In today’s environment, we have so many vendors who don’t want to be held accountable. Within Support Services, we have tested-out procedures, process maps, quality checks. Everything we touch impacts a customer.

We see a lot of crossover between our partnership with Special Olympics. I’m proud to say that a good number of my teammates are Special Olympians. I see a lot of what is going on on the field, in the pool, on the court, on the track carry over to the workplace. I also see a lot of what we instill in our employees carrying over to them as athletes.

Going back to my first day and seeing the team and what they were doing and looking at what they’re capable of doing today - that’s my “aha” moment. One of the best things for me is seeing the impact that we’ve made on our employees. All they want to do is show that they can contribute. All we ask of them is to do the best to their ability.

My other job is trying to get other companies to do what we do here at Bank of America. We have put together a playbook that gives the history of support services, how we partner with agencies, how we identify our work, how we interview candidates, etc. I’ve had JP Morgan Chase, Barclay’s, Coca Cola, all kinds of companies come in and tour our operation and hopefully encourage them to do what we do and employ more people with disabilities.

CAMPOS: Dave, walk us through how you work with the athletes to help them secure employment that’s meaningful and reflects their talent and abilities.

LENOX: Sure. For example, at these games there’s a job fair for the athletes so they can get a chance to put their sports experience into the context of employment and a resume, experience mock interviews and more. When I have athletes say, “I’m ready to get a job.” I say, “Okay, well, let’s talk about SourceAmerica. Let’s talk about Northwest Center.” We connect them and they help the athlete take it to the next level.

CAMPOS: I’d like to give the audience the opportunity to ask questions of our panelists.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: In Washington state there apparently is a law that states that people with special needs do not have to be paid the same amount as regular employees. I’m proud to hear that at Bank of America we don’t have that practice. Is this a common practice across the country? This was the first time I had heard about this and it infuriated me. Could you speak to that?

LENOX: The Social Security Administration, in trying to figure out if a person was eligible for benefits, had to first determine if they were employable. They did this by setting thresholds on pay. They set a pay threshold to define “fully employable.” So, if you earned that much or more, you lost benefits - Medicaid, Medicare, all of that went away. That’s what started the system of paying people with disabilities less. If they lose that job, and they’ve already been deemed to be employable, they couldn’t re-qualify and get benefits back. That’s what this movement is trying to change. No one was trying to pay people some horrible low wage. They were trying to give them employment and not have them lose their benefits.

FEINOUR: We run into challenges from time to time with families. We provide benefits and everything else to employees with ID, like any other employee. Some families don’t want their family member with ID to receive benefits or raises because it can make them ineligible for Social Security or Medicare benefits. Here’s an example I’ll never forget. A teammate came on board and her father said, “You can’t give my daughter a merit increase because it’s going to take her over that threshold. She won’t qualify for benefits.” And we said, “We’re sorry, she’s an employee. She earned it. She’s getting it.” I’ve had parents say, “You can’t contribute to my child’s 401(k).” One, our partnership — our relationship — is with your child, not you. And two, if they want it to be contributed to, it’s going to get contributed to. So, that’s something that’s been hard for parents because again, their concern is they might lose their job and they’ll lose government benefits. Or they think that they’re going to get better benefits through Social Security than they are through the bank. So, that’s something that’s always been a challenge.

CAMPOS: If there was one piece of advice you could give members of the audience who are thinking about, not only in their professional lives, but also in their personal lives, how to engage more with individuals with disabilities, what would that advice be?

VALAVANIS: I’ll jump in. First, I’ve got to give a shout to Molly, who is here today. She is a former athlete with Special Olympics, a gold medalist I believe, and now works for Special Olympics. Within 10 minutes of talking with Molly I was inspired. I was motivated. She rattled off a list, a long list, of sports she’s participated in, and I thought, “I gotta get to work.” Molly learned things as a Special Olympian she is now applying on your team because she was on a team, learning to work with others, learning to collaborate, communicate, understand whose role needed to be what, whether it’s passing the ball or shooting the ball. That is no different than what you see at a Seattle Storm game. Sue Bird passing the ball, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis shooting the ball. You have to learn your role, and you have to be a team player. And we’re all the same in that. We each have a powerful voice and a powerful platform to make positive change.

LENOX: I’d like to springboard on what Alisha just said. She said that exposure and, in many respects experience, with individuals with disabilities is one of the things that I think can help bring enlightenment to our society. We’re on an arc of a journey if you think about it. Thirty, forty years ago many individuals with a disability wound up institutionalized. And then, as these individuals came into society, it was special ed, and sheltered workshops. That’s not enough. We need to move towards full inclusion. What are the barriers? One of the biggest barriers is good, old-fashioned prejudice. Not prejudice out of malice but prejudice out of ignorance. So, every time one of us can use our voice, or meet somebody, or tell a story, and create an opportunity for an individual with a disability, then they can go and interact with the broader population. We’re starting to build that kind of exposure and that brings enlightenment. That can change the world.

FEINOUR: I think it goes back to refusing to judge a book by its cover. At our company, you will not find a more dedicated, passionate, group of employees than in Support Services. At the end of the year I need to kick my people out and tell them, “Take a vacation. You’ve earned it.” They don’t want it. They just love that they had the opportunity to prove what they’re capable of doing. They love working. They love doing what they can do to the best of their abilities, and that’s all that we ever ask. I have a 19-year-old and a 16-year-old, and I introduced my kids when they were young to my team. We started by going to the Summer and Winter Games to watch the team play basketball, swim, bocce, whatever it was. And that, in turn, helped my kids as they got older. When they had inclusion classes in our school district my kids would befriend their fellow students who had intellectual disabilities.

LENOX: When you think of inclusion don’t do it because you think it helps the person who has the disability. Do it because it makes you a better person. There are some things you’re only going to learn from interacting with people who are different from you. So, that’s one piece. The other is expect to learn and expect to find wisdom in places you never thought it was going to come from. You will find perspective and you will find wisdom, and you’ll find a lot of good ideas from people that you just never would have thought of.

THOMAS: I’m wondering if you could share one of the most important plays in your playbook that would help other companies. One that you feel you are doing very well.

FEINOUR: One of the biggest is don’t always go looking for the jobs that are typically stereotyped for individuals with intellectual disabilities. Look at the job and look at the person. See what they’re capable of doing and try to match the job to their abilities. Ask them what they want to do. They have goals. That’s one of the biggest challenges. The employee may want to be able to do certain things, but they don’t necessarily have the ability to potentially do it. Maybe they will not be able to drive a forklift, but they could operate a pallet jack, for example. The biggest thing is to focus on their ability and what they are capable of and try to match the job to it. I think a lot of times people are missed and opportunities are missed, both from the employer standpoint and from the candidate standpoint, because of not looking a little bit deeper and seeing what they’re truly capable of doing.

CAMPOS: So, in closing, the message is to participate, get involved. I think there’s nothing more special or meaningful than going to a Special Olympics event or games. Thank you for the great discussion.


Open Location
Open How we're involved