For National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), we spoke to Meg O’Connell, PHR. about how we can build disability employment programmes in our own companies.

In this interview, you can find out how we can roll out disability employment programmes to every US DC and what employers need to know about setting up disability programmes.

Watch the full interview here or read the full transcript below:




Thank you for having me. I appreciate being on the podcast. Yeah, our company global disability inclusion, helps organizations expand their diversity initiatives to include people with disabilities. So, we help define an organization’s strategy and approach to disability inclusion, and we also help with implementation and rollout. So, we want to be there to help companies get it, right. We know that sometimes there’s a lot of fear around visibility and disability employment. We want to help companies get over that so they can see it for the competitive advantage it is.


How long as how long has your business been going on? What type of supply chain businesses or general businesses do you tend to work with?

Yeah, we’ve been around for 10 years at this point. I have been doing this work for about 25. So, a long history in this space. We have as you said, we’ve worked with some of the biggest brands in the industry.


Nice. So, I guess that brings me to something that you mentioned right at the very start of your introduction, which is what are the key points that any new business that you haven’t worked with needs to know about hiring people with disabilities because you mentioned an apprehension of doing so. So how do we reduce the apprehension?

Yeah. It’s such a great question. I think first and foremost when we talk to employers, we tell them, you’re doing this already, you just don’t realize that 1 in 4 adults in the US and it’s 1 in 6 around the world, has a disability. And most of those disabilities are invisible, whether it’s a learning disability or mental health, or maybe someone is neurodivergent. Whatever the case may be, you’re doing it already. Your people just aren’t telling you about their disabilities. So that would be the first thing to help them recognize that it’s already happening.

The second point is a lot of times, people think disability employment means oh, this is part of a charitable endeavour or an opportunity to give back to the community. And it can be those things, but what we want is to help folks understand that it’s not about lowering standards or performance requirements or expectations, just like any other diversity group, it’s finding the right talent to do the job that happens to have a disability. So, we don’t want you to change standards or expectations when you think about hiring people with disabilities.


Do you generally see a bit of a stigma of the word disability? How have you worked to remove that barrier for organizations?

Language changes over time and evolves. When I first started shortly after in the US, the ADA was passed in 1990. It was very much a person’s first language; you would say ‘Meg is a person with Pepsi.’ You wouldn’t say ‘Oh, that epileptic’ or ‘Oh, the blind person’ and now that we have the millennials, the genes who grew up with this legislation and talking about disability and disability inclusion, there’s been a lot of movement and taking back the power of that word of disability is not a dirty word. There are campaigns like ‘disabled and capable’ and ‘disability is not a dirty word’ those types of things. So, we just want to educate that. Disability is a characteristic just like someone who has blond hair or blue eyes. It’s just a part of who you are. It’s not all about who you are.

I think that’s important in not having disability define who you are, because I think I shared with you, early on, when we were having conversations around doing this, I have a younger brother who had a problem when he was younger, which led to him to have no vision out of one eye. And he is disabled, but he doesn’t let that characterize who he is and what he can do. So really removing those barriers is something that I’m passionate about.


How do we roll out a disability employment program to every DC and every operation in business in the US? It’s a big goal, but how do we do it? How do we go about it?

Oh, my. How much fun would that be, right? I mean, it would be so great. And I wish I had the silver bullet to say if we do these 3 things, that would all happen. But I would love to see a cohort of companies in the space come together, like 10 companies. Say ‘We want to do this, let’s roll this out.’ Let’s capture data and continue to spread the message that this works because we know disability employment is a competitive advantage. We’ve seen over and over warehouse after warehouse that 90% of employees with disabilities perform at the same rate or better than their nondisabled colleagues, they have 48% greater tenure. So, they stay on the job. Almost 50% longer is 42%, less absenteeism and 34% fewer safety incidences. So, this is not just a one-off. Those are stats from a study. Walgreens did several years ago that was published in a safety and management magazine, but we’ve seen this repeatedly in every distribution centre that we’ve worked in. So, I think when you think about it that way, and we know historically supply chain distribution has a fair amount of turnover, this is competitive for everybody. You’ve got employees staying longer. They show up more, they have fewer safety incidences. That’s money in the bank for every company that’s thinking about doing this. So, I think having willing participants say ‘Hey, we want to give this a try, let’s pilot it in a few locations and then roll it out for our organization’, companies can see the benefits over and over.


We talk about robotics and conveyance and station and all these different technologies being the solution to labour shortages. But it’s almost as if it’s a completely untapped resource for employees to look at even before they go ahead and put in these massive automated systems. The simple thing is looking at disability employment. It’s interesting, isn’t it?

Yeah, absolutely. And when you talk about how we expand this, we also know a lot of warehouses use temp agencies to bring somebody on for the first 90 days once they’re making rate, we’ll convert them to a full-time employee. So, we need to get the sourcing pipeline focused on talent with disabilities as well, and not just a separate initiative. Technology has been a great equalizer for people with disabilities and the greatest technology we have is in the palm of our hand, right? I mean, you can find language interpreting apps that will let you speak and then the person will assign to someone who is deaf or hard of hearing. You can get time tracking if you need somebody to focus on a specific task at a time. So, there are lots of tools and resources that people with disabilities use that are just in the palm of their hand. Of course, some might need other equipment that is more robust, but most accommodations or things that people need or things that they already have access to or allow I know phones in a lot of warehouses are not allowed on the floor.

Some places make exceptions for if someone is hard of hearing, some devices are text-only that would vibrate. So, if there was an emergency or the employee had a question, they could reach out to a manager. So, there are workarounds in any situation that will make it viable for both the standards for the company and for the employee to be successful.


Yeah, absolutely. It’s so important. Can you just walk me through an example with Low to see, Michael’s whoever it may be where you help bring awareness to the organization and roll out a disability employment program?

Yeah. And since Michael is a current client, I’ll start with them. We’re in our third year, with Michael’s. They are such a great client because they’re very willing and they’re the type of client that is like okay. And what’s next? So, there hasn’t been a big resistance that sometimes we see or where we must do a lot of education on the front end. So, we started in 2020, which was a tough year to start, right? We had started late 2019 with an assessment and doing some strategy planning with Michael’s kind of understanding of where they were at that time and what we would recommend so that their infrastructure was prepared to bring people on. So, what policies programs procedures did they have? The right accommodation processes were in place where their gaps that we needed to help fill to make sure that it was successful. In 2020 it was the perfect time to run a small pilot because the supply chain was still moving faster probably than most industries. And we started in the 8 distribution centres: one manufacturing facility and 25 of their stores. So, each location started small, let’s do one to 2 hires in each place. Except for one brand-new DC that had a staff of up to 700 people. We did a lot of training and education with the team. We were in very high touch that first year, helping them find partners in their community, whether it’s a nonprofit partner, or state agency educating them on doing that process by being part of those interviews. Then we began hiring and we put together leaders guide for the distribution centre, the manufacturing facility and their stores that were here are all Michael’s resources, here’s what the program is. And then, of course, we did monthly training answered questions, and tackled things head-on. And after that first year, we really can assess how the program was going. What did we want to do differently? What did we want to change? Were there areas to course, correct? And then when we did that and sat down, we had such great buy-in and enthusiasm from the pilot the organization said ‘Okay, next year, let’s roll out to the remaining manufacturing facilities and 150 stores.’ So, what we started doing was building cohorts within the organization, which is such a great way to embed knowledge into the organization. So, it’s not person-centric. Sometimes you can have a key champion who’s excited about an initiative and then I leave and then the initiative dives. So, what we were building with that cohort structure, the first group of pilot stores and DC became the coaches and mentors to the next 150 stores that launched. So, we were building in, we were still providing training and education, but we were building a coaching mentoring system that allowed them to ask their peers. Hey, how did you handle this when this happened? What was the best practice for you when this came up? They’re creating that culture of helping one another. So, we’re now in our third year, rolling out to another 150 stores. We’ve had over 300 hires at this point again, building off the cohort model year over year. So, this is now the second or third cohort from the pilot or including the pilot and again, the excitement, the energy, we’re building leaders and champions across the organization. And it’s just been such a great project to work on because of the culture of inclusion that Michael has. We didn’t have to try to affect that change. It was already there, which is what makes it. So fantastic. And I said all the time, they’re my favourite client because of that. But they’re energetic they’re enthusiastic, they want to get this right. And they have that energy at every level of the organization. So, for me and my team, it’s been a fun project to work on.


Nice. And specifically, we talked about the study that you conducted with Walgreens. And we talked about those impactful statistics about the impact of disability employment programs. Have you seen a similar set of results within Michael’s organization?

Absolutely. We’re seeing the same thing. Greater tenure performance is on par better less absentee of them. All those things we see repeatedly, companies wouldn’t continue to do this if they weren’t seeing those results and we’ve had some industries, and I won’t name names where they’ve had 80 to 84% turnover and that drops by 20 per cent points when they start hiring people with disabilities. So, it’s a win for everybody.


We talked about disability employment being powerful, but powerful tool in terms of finding people to grow the organization and talked about DC starting with 700 people. And in these new start-ups in DC, you are seeing more and more investment in automation technology. So, this question would probably be very useful to executives within the warehouse automation market. But from what you’ve seen yourself, what are the top 3 technology or warehouse automation disability, inclusive technologies?

There are so many warehouse management systems right out there now, but they have evolved from when we first started in the space 10- 15 years ago. To be very kind of what we think of the old green screen with lots of words on it, to things with step-by-step instructions with pictures associated with it – and it works not just for people with disabilities, but people that maybe English is their second language when they need a little extra instruction in getting the steps done. We also see things like pick to light. It’s a great automation that helps people move faster and know where to go and that works for everybody. That’s not just for people with disabilities. And that’s the other point that I would make when we talk about technology in general, at least in the disability space, we always say designed for disability because if you designed for disability, you’re creating a better environment for everybody.

So, think of the automatic door that you use when you have an armful of stuff in a suitcase the curb cut for your suitcase or mom with a stroller these were things that were built for people with disabilities and everybody thought ‘Oh, they’re going to be the only ones that use them’, but then they work for everybody. So, when we talk about technologies and talk to firms that are building tools, we always have that mantra designed for disability. Think about the people with disabilities who will be using this product or service or this tool within your warehouse, how will it work for them? I think that’s the biggest message and whatever you’re creating or whatever you’re using, make sure that it has that component. And I would ask your vendors, what are they doing to make sure they’re being a disability, inclusive? If you start asking the questions of the companies that are running your that are providing the warehouse management systems, they’ll start asking those questions internally and then working with their teams to make sure that they are completely accessible.


And that just makes what your objective is so much easier if that technology exists. Because it removes another barrier from your consulting to a firm, like Michael’s and one of I guess, one of the newer things that is being brought up every single time we talk about technology every time we talk about warehouse automation, robotics is AI. And a question from the last executive that I interviewed a good friend of yours. Heather Carol. So, within your work and your client’s portfolios, how have you thought about AI and how have you leveraged it in your own business to maybe roll out disability programs?

It’s such a good question and it’s always fun to talk to Heather about that because she’s kind of on the forefront of the AI in this industry and where to go. And for us, we’re still getting up to speed and learning like the rest of the world, right? But I think it can be a real game changer. I think when we think about what the internet did for the world for 5-10 years, we’re going to be saying AI has done something similar for the world. And so again, we’ve just been getting started, we’ve used it for things codifying research that we needed to present. We’ve crafted some marketing messages oh, here’s our idea, make this more creative that type of thing. But yeah, we’ve got a lot to learn in the space and our team is taking some classes on AI just so we can get smarter on it. Because it’s here and we might as well use it and know how to use it and all the potential it has to offer us.


Yeah. I think about is it’s so interesting because especially within the UK and this is what I’ve seen myself, you see the skills that have been useful within businesses for the last 10-15 years and you look at the impact of AI over the next 5 years and it’s just a complete re-classification of what the key skills needed are. And it’s going to be so interesting to see how that transpires into the future workforce. And again, on your side, I’m sure it’s going to be interesting how you roll out these programs to companies like Michael because changing skills is difficult for me for you for everybody. So how do we adapt to it and how do we make it more comfortable for people with roadblocks to using it, for example?

Yeah, absolutely. And I think it’s like anything, right, everybody has a learning curve. Everyone has the story of their 5-year-old who can zip around on their phone or find something on the internet. So, they’re going to be digital natives to AI very soon. So, I think it’s on all of us to learn the capabilities and understand how it impacts our industry, which is why we’re getting to work to get smart on it. But I think it’s seeing how we can leverage it to help more people with disability as an employee is a great idea.


The question now goes out to you, and you get the chance to ask the next person in so what do you want to ask of your fellow supply, chain executive? What do you want to hear from them?

This goes back to your previous question – how do we roll this out to every distribution centre supply chain organization in the world? So, my question is, why aren’t you doing this? The data is clear that performance is the same for 10 years longer, all those things we’ve already talked about. So, what’s preventing you from doing this within your organization? And I think if we can get the answer to that, we can achieve what you asked in your question of how we roll this out globally within the industry.


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