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Dont Forget Workers with Disabilities in Your DEI Discussions

Joy Canonigo, Director of Diversity Equity& Inclusion at Discover Financial Services, Discover

Joy Canonigo, Director of Diversity Equity& Inclusion at Discover Financial Services, Discover

Many times, people from other companies will ask me how they can go about hiring people with disabilities for their organizations. The short answer is that they already have.

Millions of people go to work every day with non-apparent disabilities like epilepsy, multiple sclerosis or depression, but they keep it a secret out of fear of being treated differently by their co-workers or employers. It has only been a few years since we began asking people with disabilities to self-identify.

For people to feel more comfortable in their workplaces, we must build trust. At Discover Financial Services, we are taking action and showing our employees with disabilities that we are prioritizing action with them, focusing on solutions, listening to them and lifting their voices within the company.

We want this to be a holistic experience throughout a person’s career with Discover – creating a path through the whole employee lifecycle where people can come in and be their best, most authentic selves.

Get Leaders Talking

One of the strongest tools we have to address disabilities in the workplace is storytelling.Take mental health, for example. At Discover Financial Services, we increased awareness and made sure that our 17,000 employees knew about the mental health services available to them. We conducted training sessions for leadership, but training lacks the power of storytelling.

We saw real movement and real connections being made once our leaders started sharing their “Why?”–telling people the reasons behind their commitment to mental health services. For the first time, people shared personal stories about themselves, family members or friends. These personal moments made the issue come alive for employees. After the session was done,I saw other employees start to share similar stories from their own lives.

Talking about disabilities brings them out of the shadows.When leaders are authentic and vulnerable, they make connections. That’s where trust is built. For companies, it comes down to communicating the action, lifting voices and building trust.

My Story

In 2001, my husband and I were blessed with our second son, Miles. Early on, I noticed that Miles had development delays. At 18 months, he was diagnosed with Pervasive Development Disorder (PDD). And at 10 years old, he was diagnosed with Autism and ADD. When Miles was young, I would try hard to get him to assimilate and I was worried about his education. When Miles was fouryears old, he entered the school system early because of his developmental delay. We were fortunately paired with a wonderful aid named Jody.

One day, I went to pick up Miles and Jody shared with me that Miles had yet another difficult day. I could not hold back my tears and I cried. Jody made me look her in the eyes and she stated, “Miles will teach these kids more than they will ever know. He teaches them every day about patience, kindness and inclusion. I am honored to work with your son; he makes me a better person every day.”

It was in that moment I realized I was trying to fix my son, and the only person that needed fixing was me. I learned to see the value and beauty more clearly in Miles. He reminds me about the power of being just human. I am honored to be his mother and he makes me a better person every day.

I am passionate about taking a human-centered approach to talent development and I believe that your difference is your differentiator. My passion is shaped by my immigrant parents, being neurodivergent and being the mother of an adult with autism.

A First Step

Disabilities can sometimes be the forgotten aspect of DE&I programs. Many companies struggle to know where to begin to increase their outreach to attract more candidates with disabilities. The main thing to remember is that people want paychecks, not pity.They don’t want to be hired at a discount.

Companies that want to level the playing field and make sure people with disabilities have an equal shot at job opportunities – as well as ongoing support once they’ve been hired – should make a habit of talking to organizations that have already walked that path. Discover participates annually in the Disability Equality Index (DEI) which exists to help businesses make a positive impact on the unemployment/underemployment of people with disabilities. In 2022, 415 corporations, including Discover utilized the DEI to benchmark their disability inclusion efforts. In partnership with our Employee Resource Groups, we provide education, support, and resources for our neurodivergent talent and talent with disabilities.Below are a few examples of what Discover has done to raise awareness of disabilities:

Employee Experiences – What Drives You to Succeed at Discover – We hosted a panel consisting of employees with varying abilities, allowing them to share their personal story of challenges they have overcome. Topics included advice on how allies can support a coworker with a disability and tips to be successful working at Discover with a disability.

Universal Design & Creating Accessible Experiences – We led an event to discuss universal design and how it addresses accessibility for Discover’s customers. Presentation will focus on our Universal Design Advisory Board and the work it is doing to ensure all customers can fully engage with Discover and its products.

Intersectionality & Disability – We hosted a session exploring through personal stories and videos how disabilities and mental health intersects throughout ERG groups.

Why Accessibility Matters –Moving Beyond Accommodations – We discussed the fundamental differences between simply providing reasonable accommodations and cultivating equitable, inclusive and accessible environments that benefit not only Deaf and hard of hearing employees and customers, but everyone that interfaces with the organization.

We are proud to share that for the second consecutive year, Discover has earned a 100 percent score on the Disability Equality Index (DEI) and is being recognized as a 2022 Best Place to Work for Disability Inclusion.

I know what works at Discover might not work somewhere else, and that’s OK! But we will continue to share our best practices as well as our challenges, so others can learn and adapt them for themselves.

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