Lauren Camdzic joins us to discuss the need to include disabilities in corporate board agendas and conversations of diversity. She also shares her personal journey of adapting to life in a wheelchair and the importance of ADA compliance.
- Lauren discusses the Valuable 500 and the companies who have pledged to make disabilities a part of their diversity conversations
- How companies can modify their spaces to provide access for those with mobility impairments
- How to respectfully open up the lines of communication with people in the disability community
- The need for organizations to have emergency plans in place for people who are disabled
- Lauren’s journey into the spotlight as an advocate for the community during her recovery
- Call to action: learn about the ADA policies and include people from the disability community in conversations about diversity
Welcome to Inclusion Catalyst with your hosts Mickey Desai and Susan Cooper. We invite diversity leaders to the table to deconstruct complex social justice issues and showcase the best inclusion practices in our workplaces and our communities.
Hello, this is Mickey Desai, your host for this episode of the Inclusion Catalyst. Today we’re in the Porter Novelli offices in Buckhead in Atlanta. And across the table from me, I’ve got my co host.
This is Susan Cooper.
Susan, I’ve been looking forward to this interview for a while. Could you introduce our guest?
I’d love to. Today we have with us Lauren Camdzic. She is a PR professional, a mom, a wife, a future baller as her Twitter account will tell you and she’s also an advocate and member of the disability community. Welcome to the podcast, Lauren.
Thanks. Thank you for having me.
We’re glad you’re here. So what one of the things that I wanted to ask you about is you brought up to me you introduced me to this organization called the Valuable 500. And my understanding is it’s an organization that is calling out the, quote unquote diverse-ish nature of many company’s diversity and inclusion policies that often don’t include disability in the conversation. They claim to be diverse, but they make no plans. There’s no conversations around disability. So what types of companies are involved in the Valuable 500? And what are they doing?
So, the Valuable 500 has really just opened it up to any business that wants to sign on to be a part of the Valuable 500. And the goal is, after this was launched earlier this year to get 500 businesses signed on by the end of the year, who would commit to putting disability on their corporate board agendas and they only have about a little more than 100 left to get committed before the end of the year, is my understanding. And there are large companies that are household names. Most recently I’ve seen Jaguar Land Rover signed on. Accenture is one of the big the big signees to the Valuable 500. Porter Novelli and Omnicom who is Porter Novelli’s parent company has signed on. And it’s really just a community of leading businesses who have signed on to say that they pledge to to make this part of the discussion. And all the Valuable 500 asks in return or the action that they asked the businesses to take is just to make one firm commitment to action in 2019. And it’s sort of up to the companies to determine what that looks like in their own organization. They do have some guidelines or some categories where they feel like you know, companies might want to consider doing something within their organization. But it’s really up to the organization’s themselves and then just share what they’re doing internally and externally. So it’s pretty, pretty simple. And I feel like gives companies a lot of freedom to decide how that best fits into their own culture and how they want to go about it.
So like, if you were in charge, what do you think are some of the most important things that companies should be considering?
Well, one of the first things that comes to mind and is almost just one of the basics when it comes to accessibility and including people with disabilities in the conversation is just making sure that the workspace itself including the office is accessible especially for people with mobility impairments, mobility disabilities, and even going beyond mobility, just making sure that the employee has access to the building, has access to their space, and can effectively use their technology just the way any other employee would operate in a typical day. So that’s just that’s one of the basic things. And for me, someone who uses a wheelchair that looks like you know, putting push buttons on doors, so you don’t struggle holding your Starbucks in one hand and trying to open the door. Same with conference rooms. I mean, doors in general are a barrier for a lot of people with mobility impairments. So that’s just one of the basic things that companies can do. I once had an employer who went a little bit further than that and actually made some modifications to their like common area in the kitchen. Because I couldn’t pull up to the kitchen to or to the sink, I’m sorry to, to wash my hands or to do anything really with the water because it was the cabinets were in the way. So they actually gutted the cabinet underneath and made it so that it was a roll under sink for me. They brought in an occupational therapist who sort of went place by place in the office and said, here’s some suggestions that, you know, you could do to make things a little bit easier for Lauren. You know, they took some of those suggestions, that cabinet thing was one of them. So there are definitely employers who are willing to do that. It’s just a matter of making them aware, you know, in some situations that that’s something that that is helpful.
Do you think people kind of are forced to often advocate for themselves when they maybe they started a new company, do you think people who might have mobility issues or or any other disability were they there are some simple accommodations that they can do? Like do people have to ask for it? Or do you think many companies are asking them “How can we help you?”
In most cases, the employee would have to be their own advocate and ask for it. I think that’s for two reasons. One, the employer doesn’t want to overstep and put themselves I think, in a position of assuming that someone needs an accommodation that they may not have. And so there’s a little bit of sensitivity there. Another reason that I think employees have to advocate for themselves is that the employers also are mind reader’s about say they do need a modification or think they need a modification. You know, how to go about that. What does that look like? What is going to be the most helpful? Unfortunately, I think that a lot of employees even I mean, including myself 100% in this have trouble speaking up for themselves because there’s already mindset we’ve imposed on ourselves that we are somehow a burden or causing inconvenience already. And so to bring that up would be, you know, wouldn’t make us feel a little bit like we might be feeding into that by inconveniencing someone else or giving, you know, the employer a reason to regret hiring you, you know, anything like that, because sometimes the things that we are asking companies to do is going to cost money. And so that’s coming out of their own pocket. And we don’t want to feel like that we’re going to be seen in a different way or like more of a burden on the employer than your average person who doesn’t need any kind of accommodation.
Yeah, I feel like there’s kind of maybe some barriers to communications o both sides. From my perspective, I’ve, you’ve mentioned companies not wanting to make assumptions about accommodations. And I’ve wondered that myself when when I see people that have different needs. I’m not sure if I should offer help or see if they asked for it. What your perspective on that? Obviously, you’re not the number one spokesperson for all people with all different disabilities. So I’m not asking you to speak on behalf of everyone, but in your experience, would you prefer to try something yourself? Or would you prefer people to just offer help when you clearly need it?
I would say that I, most often, if someone just asks if I need some assistance of some kind, I’ll either happily say yes or no, I don’t have a problem receiving help if I need it. The issue or the problem comes whether you believe this or not, you may not believe it, but people will just jump in and do things for you without even asking. Sometimes. Sometimes it’s okay because it’s something small like picking up something up off the floor, which is totally fine and harmless. But there are other times when it’s literally been someone coming up behind me because they see me going up a little bit of an incline and just pushing me without, without asking. Yeah, so they’re, you know, in their mind, they’re doing something nice and being helpful. But especially for people like myself, who are whose wheelchairs, the wheelchair becomes a, like another limb, right? And it becomes the equivalent of you just walking up to someone grabbing them by the arm and dragging them somewhere.
Yeah. Invasive – I can imagine that feeling very…
So it’s, I would definitely say, you know, asking is is totally appropriate, assuming that you know, better how to do something then the person themselves who clearly could ask for help if they wanted it and taking it upon yourself to, to force them to do something is is where it becomes a problem.
So along the lines of opening up the lines of communications, today here at the Porter Novelli office, there was a fire drill. And I’ve wondered before, like, “What does Lauren do in the case of a fire drill?” But at the time, I didn’t know you very well. And I, I didn’t ask. So what should people do in those situations where they want to ask a question, but they don’t want to be rude to somebody that maybe they don’t know very well, or even somebody they don’t know at all. You don’t want to just walk up to somebody in a grocery store and start hammering them with questions.
Oh, it happens.
I’m sure it does! So what’s, what’s your thought on that?
On one hand, you know, you want to be educational and help people understand and you want to facilitate that understanding. Especially because a lot of people don’t often get exposure to people with disabilities. Or if they do, it might be someone with a disability who maybe isn’t out in the community, you know, it may be just a, you know, an older person in their family that they, you know, that has, has a disability, but they don’t see younger, especially women, because men statistically are, are impacted by my type of injury significantly more, which is spinal cord injury than women are. So, you know, you want to be that example and that that educational function in someone’s life if they aren’t exposed to that, so that they can sort of open their eyes to new things. But on the other hand, you know, sometimes you’re just at the grocery store with your family, and you don’t want to think about that today. So I see it from both sides, and I do struggle with that a bit. I think it depends on the environment. You know, it’s almost like approaching a celebrity, you know, when they’re like a dinner with their family kind of thing, right? Where they’re just trying to have dinner with their family, they don’t want to, you know, take a selfie with you or, you know, whatever. That’s kind of what it feels like sometimes, because there is this, people get this discourage to come up to you somebody they don’t even know and sort of ask about your life and why you’re in a wheelchair. And sometimes you just want your private time to be your private time. So I think it depends on the environment. If it was in a professional environment, I can definitely see where it would be taken a little bit differently. I personally would receive it a little bit differently, especially if I have even uttered a single word to a person is different than if it is honestly just a stranger, you know, in a grocery store. So I approach it, kind of depending on the environment is how I, how I received I received it differently in different environments.
I think it reminds me of I hope you don’t mind me bringing this up. But you mentioned one time in a discussion we were having as a group, that someone at the grocery store, I think, told you, oh, you’re too pretty to be in a wheelchair. And the things that people say are just cuckoo.
They are. Yeah, there. There have been, there’s been a lot of that, you know, I have I’ve had people who, you know, maybe one time they like sprained their ankle or in a wheelchair for like, two months. And so they told me that they understand what it’s like. I’m like, okay, that’s a little bit different. Not the same. And yeah, people I mean, I did I had somebody say, oh, but you’re too pretty to be in a wheelchair and I didn’t exactly know how to respond because it’s sort of a compliment, but also a confusing compliment. So, you know, I try to be as nice as possible in situations like that. But I often just want to say what possesses you to say something like that to someone, you know, I get goofy looks when I push, I actually push my own shopping cart like at Target. And people look at me weird. And it’s just things that people say and do and and the way they act in public is, is interesting. And, you know, you don’t think about it until you’re on the receiving end of it.
Kind of objectifying
Yeah. Oh, for sure. Yeah. And especially because, you know, I do get out in the community and I’m, you know, active with my family and with my friends, you know, people will say, Oh, I’m so glad to see you out and about enjoying life. And they don’t know me these people say that. And I’m like, Well, what, what should I be doing? Okay, I’m just doing – These are totally normal things. Um, so yeah. And I think it just goes back to really a lack of understanding that that there are ways that people can still be out and active and enjoy life and not be holed up in a hospital bed all day. And I really think that especially that goes for some people in the older generations just because they aren’t used to some of the, like rehab technology and the rehab techniques that are being used these days to rehabilitate people who have had traumatic experiences, whether brain injury, you know, stroke, spinal cord injury, what have you. It wasn’t until after World War II that they started actually investing and finding ways to rehabilitate people with spinal cord injuries before that. You were just left to waste away basically, you know, you were considered an invalid, and not a important person in society, because you couldn’t contribute anything. So they just let you go on your way. So I think it just goes back to, you know, it’s still a pretty new, still a pretty new phenomenon to have people who are out and about unable to live life normally after, you know, traumatic injury, and in the US is actually a lot better than some places. So, you know, I think that informs a lot of a lot of people’s experiences and how they approach how they approach the whole disability conversation.
So speaking of public spaces, and also companies that either have a large building or are housed in a large building, what accessibility issues should those organizations be aware of, for people who do use wheelchairs or any other device that helps them with their mobility for emergency situations especially.
So there are some there’s some assistance of equipment for specifically for emergency situations and people with disabilities. My last employer actually purchased a was like a chair that easily could navigate stairs and it was specifically was for people who could not go downstairs to put them in the chair and have some sort of support personnel around, you know, help get them down without necessarily forcing anybody to carry that person down, but could get them out easily. So I know that there’s some adaptive equipment out there, but I’m sure again, it goes back to a money thing, you know, not everybody can, can invest in something like that, but it’s definitely something to look into. There are a lot of different resources and solutions. I know that specifically, if anybody in Atlanta were to reach out to our sort of the local, main rehabilitative hospital here, I’m sure that they would have resources that would be able to at least point somebody in the right direction of finding solutions for emergency situations. I’m sure they would have the resources and offer solutions. Some other things to consider would be you know, obviously, the person’s workspace is their desk, the right height for the wheelchair that they’re in. You know, that’ll vary if someone’s in a power chair versus a manual chair is their monitor at the right height for them to, you know, not have to lead or move around a certain way just to be able to see their screen. Bathrooms are a big, a big pain point for a lot of people with disabilities and most modern buildings. You know, you have the handicap stall. But that’s not always the case. And restrooms are definitely a big pain point for people with mobility issues. You know, if you’re not in a post-ADA world building, which some are not, yeah, that’s, that would probably be the number one thing that would absolutely have to be accessible. You know, you can almost you can almost adapt some other things to make it work. But if the bathroom isn’t accessible, you might as well not work there.
Susan Cooper 19:36
Do you find yourself like pre-screening? Like if some friends suggested have lunch place? Do you find yourself having to pre screen the places that you go?
Oh, absolutely.Yeah. Especially just in Atlanta. I mean, there are some more like historic, you know, areas of town. So I live close to Marietta square, which is very old, very historic. There are some some places on the square that I cannot get to. Unfortunately, a lot of them get a pass because they are on like, if you’re on a historic registry or or something similar, you sort of don’t have to make those modifications if it would compromise the integrity of your building. So there’s definitely I definitely still encounter that. And I do I do have to pre screen it. A lot of times it has to do with high tops as well like in restaurants or at bars, not being able to, you know, be up that high. Is is something that I’ve that I’ve encountered. So I do have to unless I know the place I pretty much either have to look it up online or call and if I make a reservation always say, you know, there’s a wheelchair in the party. So sometimes it makes for a little bit longer of a wait for for something like that. But yeah, I definitely have to sort of think, three steps ahead. Anytime. I do pretty much anything.
I’m about to ask a really stupid question. I think that what was about to come out of my mouth was how hard was it? And I’m like, that’s just dumb. And but but it must have been, it must have required a lot of diligence and fortitude to path yourself away from tragedy into flourishing, right. I mean, and so you had several new learning curves in front of you, how did you navigate all that and, and still managed to come out on the other side as a champion and an advocate and a rock star?
Thank you. Well, it definitely. So it’s been eight years since my injury and it’s sort of an ever evolving process and something that I am still learning to do it really, I was really kind of actually propelled so to speak pretty quickly. After my injury because actually don’t know “why me?” kind of why I was someone that people gravitated towards. But I, as an advocate for the for the community, but I kind of was I was just kind of thrust into it, so to speak.
So you didn’t necessarily choose to be an advocate for the community?
Well, it was a, it was a naturally unfolding process. I was still really, in the early stages of recovery. When I was I was approached to be on like, the cover of the magazine for the rehab hospital. And so they did like a, you know, a really in depth story on me with that, and it sort of, you know, got some buzz and people were, you know, saying they were so proud of me and sort of in the end, that sort of thing. And then I also was a guest on “Say Yes to the Dress Atlanta”, because I so actually got engaged while I was at Shepherd Center. Okay, and so that was part of the the cover story thing. And it was literally the cover said, “From Trauma to Triumph”. So like, how do you turn back from there? You know, you’re sort of set on that path.
I’ve got to triumph now.
Yeah, so that was sort of no going back. I was on the episode of “Say Yes to the Dress” and it got a lot of positive a lot of positive feedback and response from that, those sort of things. You know, people would recognize me when I was out in the community, say, Oh, I saw you on “Say Yes to the Dress” and it was sort of spark conversation. So it really just almost chose me so to speak. I mean, I’m glad that it has and then, you know, coming to Porter Novelli, which has actually it feels very serendipitous. Actually, you know, signed on to that Valuable 500 organization about disability and inclusion. And that just really sounded like something that would be perfect for me. And I felt like I have a lot to say around it and a lot of experience under my belt now. It just really felt natural for me. So it’s almost just a culmination of several small events that have that have gotten me where I am today and that I feel comfortable, sort of being a voice when possible in and advocating and that way, it wasn’t always like that. I you know, I used to have a pretty grim outlook on how my life was going to turn out that, you know, that was not all roses. And so it definitely has been a learning curve and a one foot in front of… one foot in front of the other to be ironic.
Sounds like it simply fell into place.
Yeah, it really did. It was it was sort of this, this path very much feels, you know, meant to be, you know, at the risk of sounding cheesy, but it, you know, I do think there’s a greater purpose for why I’ve sort of endured all this. And even if there isn’t a greater purpose, I feel like I’m on my way to making it a greater purpose.
It sounds like you’ve already done that. Yeah,
Yeah, I’ve tried. I’ve definitely tried, and it’s definitely come a little out of time. So it was just all very natural. I didn’t wake up one day and say, today is the day I’m going to speak up. It was just something that sort of happened.
Yep. Very cool. Yeah.
What are two things that you wish people would do to become better informed or to be better allies to the disability community?
Read up on the ADA. If you are a business owner and employer know what at minimum your obligations are because as a person with a disability we already have enough to think about day in and day out, just managing our own daily personal lives. And it’s, it’s a lot to also have to consider things that employers and business owners should be doing any way to make things as you know, as equal as possible for you without having to chase somebody down and ask them why there’s not a ramp to get into somewhere or why you have to take the ramp for the dumpster to get into the restaurant, because that’s happened to me before. So, you know, just read up on the ADA, know what your obligations are under the law at a minimum beyond that is great, but at least, at least do that and actually involving people who are members of the disability community in conversations about what you can do. I know with this sort of broad stroke of diversity and inclusion, kind of how we were talking about with the “diverse-ish” nature of some DNI policies and initiatives, people with disabilities need to be included in the conversation and help shape the diversity and inclusion, conversation and policies at that organization. Having the representation there who lives it day in and day out to actually help form what decisions are going to be made. But definitely the two things that I would say, would be most helpful.
Well, thank you so much for talking to us today, Lauren. This has been really interesting and helpful to me as someone who wants to, to open the lines of communication more and help people who want to be better allies. And I hope maybe we can we can do this again, sometime.
Yeah, absolutely, I would be happy to come back. Thanks for having me.
And to our listeners. Thanks for joining us. We’ll see you in a couple weeks with another episode of the Inclusion Catalyst. Thanks very much.
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