Handicapped African American Athlete cheering at finish line, Special Olympics, UCLA, CA (Shutterstock)
By Michelle Boockoff-Bajdek, Skill Soft
The global pandemic is raging on into its eighth month, and organizations worldwide have found themselves in the eye of a perfect storm of change. Along with tragic personal loss and widespread economic uncertainty, the Black Lives Matter protests have electrified the streets as people demand equal justice and an end to systemic racism.
As an organization devoted to learning, Skillsoft already offers Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) training to our clients. But, during this time of upheaval, many are struggling with how to shift from awareness to true cultural transformation. And they desperately want to: 18,000 people across the globe registered for our recent DEI Leadercamps with renowned inclusion coach La’Wana Harris.
After my experience at the DEI Leadercamp, I was both exhilarated and humbled as I reflected on what I learned. Exhilarated because I truly believe we are poised for powerful social change. And humbled, because we still have so much to do. We must ask this question: could long-overdue conversations about race be a doorway into healing not only the racial divide, but also addressing prejudice against all marginalized people?
How do we, as leaders, embrace the unique strengths and talents of all individuals? I believe it begins with understanding. And that starts with listening.
Leveling the Playing Field: Lessons from Special Olympics
I reached out to Special Olympics athlete Manu de Souza, and Denis Doolan, the nonprofit’s Chief of Organizational Excellence, and asked them to be guests on The Edge, the Skillsoft podcast series. In the words of the organization: “Special Olympics helps people with intellectual disabilities (ID) discover new strengths and abilities, skills and success through the power of sports. Our athletes find joy, confidence and fulfillment — on the playing field and in life. They also inspire people in their communities and elsewhere to open their hearts to a wider world of human talents and potential.” Talk about learning from the experts.
During the podcast, we discussed how Special Olympics has maintained connection, community, and competition in 200+ countries amid the pandemic. Digging deeper, we also explored the meaning of true inclusivity, and how organizations can shape and adapt workplace culture to ensure that employees of all backgrounds can contribute in a meaningful way.
Manu’s personal stories and observations offered a window into her challenges, as she experienced hardships in the workplace, and also her triumphs, as she has grown into a confident athlete and advocate for people with intellectual disabilities. Denis, as an executive whose own sister is a Special Olympics athlete, offered the perspective of passionate and practical allyship. Speaking with them, I was touched and inspired by their unique viewpoints and their natural teamwork. I hope you’ll listen to the podcast — you can tune in to the episode here.
Meanwhile, I’d like to share some powerful takeaways, and helpful questions we can ask ourselves as we strive to create a more equitable workplace for all:
To be human means to want to belong.
Manu spoke about Special Olympics being her “home.” Her loyalty to the organization stems from feeling empowered, involved, and, as Denis says, “part of something bigger.” There is nothing sentimental about it — she has found meaning and purpose. How are we contributing to “belonging” in our workplaces and communities? What could we change?
A seat at the table means little without a voice in the room.
“Performative allyship” has been a common phrase lately. Manu shared an experience of working for an employer who hired her, but never checked in to see how things were going. This allowed her co-workers to take advantage of her and left her feeling disconnected from her job and teammates. According to Denis, very often the simplest of adjustments can make for a perfect fit. Are we asking for and listening to feedback from all our employees? How do we adapt our environment – and culture – to ensure everyone can contribute?
When we underestimate people’s abilities, we shortchange ourselves, too.
Even before the pandemic, a labor study commissioned by Special Olympics found that only 44% of working-age adults with ID were in the labor force — compared to 83% of adults without disabilities. And yet, according to fascinating research by Accenture U.S., “Companies that embrace best practices for employing and supporting more persons with disabilities in their workforce have outperformed their peers.” Inclusion benefits everyone. Does our hiring process offer opportunities to reap the benefits of a more diverse organization? What organizations and communities could we get involved with as we learn and grow?
This is a subject close to my heart, and I’m excited by the enormous human potential we can nurture together as we work towards a more inclusive and equitable world.