Meet Blake Leeper, Paralympic eight-time track & field medalist and motivational speaker. A few weeks ago, the energetic athlete hosted inclusive outdoor pop-up spin classes in the Flatiron District in New York City.
“It was incredible. Nothing compares to the energy of New York City – we had people waving and cheering us on from every street corner. The best part about the classes is that we had a diverse range of individuals taking part in the class. People of all abilities were spinning alongside each other, and it was a really powerful experience to look out at the crowd and see right in front of my eyes what inclusion and representation can — and should — look like in fitness classes.”
New research from Lakeshore Foundation, a nonprofit specializing in sports science for athletes with disabilities around the world, revealed that 81 percent of people with disabilities do not feel welcome in fitness spaces. This gets compounded by lack of representation of disabled trainers and coaches in the industry in addition to limited access to inclusive fitness spaces.
Further to that point, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2020, 17.9 percent of people with a disability were employed compared to 61.8 percent of people without a disability who were employed. October is national disability employment awareness month and as companies focus on diversity and inclusion, technically awareness, intentional proactive efforts extend beyond 31 days in the fall into every day of the year.
Degree Deodorant recently launched the #TrainersForHire initiative, a call for more representation in the fitness industry that encourages fitness companies to hire trainers with disabilities. Degree has created TrainersForHire.com — fitness companies can build their inclusive talent pool by finding diverse disabled trainers and coaches looking for employment and contact them directly for potential employment. The site also features a free online portal with curated and educational resources to help employers make their spaces accessible and inclusive for people with disabilities. The campaign is on the heels of Degree Inclusive, the first deodorant designed for people with visual impairment and upper limb disabilities.
“I hope to show fitness companies that there are qualified athletes with disabilities available for employment, and to encourage them to make their spaces more accessible for all,” said Leeper. “I know what a huge impact fitness and movement has made in my own life, and I want to help ensure that everyone can enjoy the benefits of it the way I have.”
Kath Swallow, global Degree brand vice president, said, “From a high level, our hope is to inspire long-term, sustainable change from fitness institutions to routinely recruit, hire, and promote people with disabilities across their workforce. Hiring more trainers with disabilities is just one piece of the puzzle, but it’s critical to take a holistic approach. I encourage companies to check out our toolkit and consider how they can effectively apply the content. Behind-the-scenes, companies should be aiming to hire people with disabilities across their work forces, and not just as trainers, to film their classes, work at their reception desks, and so on, to work towards ensuring this community is represented at every level of their organizations.”
Swallow said it’s important for fitness companies to seek, employ and promote trainers with disabilities in their spaces. “Accountability plays an important factor as well. I encourage companies to create measurable, specific employment goals for people with disabilities and be open and transparent about their successes and failures to reach these goals.”
This goes beyond the fitness industry. Faith Gabriel, global head of people at Touchcast, virtual experience company, said companies should focus on a two-pronged strategy.
“Intentional training/education of hiring managers and teams to mitigate unconscious bias, which entails communication strategies (i.e. how to communicate effectively with peers and hiring teams to include non-team member(s) who can serve as a bias check; and technology enablement, which encompasses anonymized candidates when/if possible, scorecard equitability, technical/competency testing, and sourcing/job postings/fairs that reach more targeted communities (audio/braille/etc. accessibility).”
For instance, Touchcast developed and produced Unconscious Bias training used by companies all over the world, including Procter & Gamble. “We require all of our team members to complete this training during their onboarding process. We are curating an ‘inclusion committee’ and affinity groups before the end of the year, our aim is to have representatives from various diversity groups within our company to share their voice, educate, and launch initiatives that impact hiring and retaining diverse talent.”
Touchcast is also reprogramming their interview model to include a non-team hiring partner to help mitigate bias during the interview process and maximize their applicant tracking systems to “enable diverse sourcing, recruiting, and interviewing systemically.”
Another item to reprogram is the traditional interview, noted Dave Kearon, Autism Speaks director of services and supports. “Assessing a person with autism, a disability that manifests itself as challenges with communication and social interaction, in a traditional face-to-face interview is simply not a good way to assess a candidate’s true abilities. Most people with autism will not do well in this scenario. Asking someone on the spectrum to sit across the table from someone, develop a friendly banter with a stranger, maintain eye contact (but not too much), brag about themselves (but not too much), etc. is setting them up to fail in many cases. Especially when the position may never require the candidate to do any of those things. Companies need to consider using alternative screening and assessment methods such as a sample job task or a trial work period.”
Kearon added, “On a larger scale, many employers tell us that including people with autism has improved the companies’ overall corporate cultures. Specifically, the companies have learned how to communicate more directly and succinctly, how to address questions or problems more quickly and directly in the workplace, etc. It has made companies more aware of the shortcomings in their traditional screening and interview processes – they’ve realized that they are missing very talented people by assessing candidates with traditional interviews, rather than by giving them a more applicable opportunity to show what they are capable of.”
Autism Speaks is committed to addressing the issue of employment in the autism community with numerous job initiatives and resources including Workplace Inclusion Now (WIN), an evidence-based employment system to build and support an inclusive, welcoming workplace culture through a comprehensive suite of resources. WIN equips job seekers with tools and resources to empower them in employment and leadership opportunities while working with employers to create welcoming workplaces by providing the resources and tools to create an embracing culture where employees can thrive.
Kearon said, “In the U.S. alone, hundreds of thousands of people on the spectrum are ready and willing to work but don’t have jobs or aren’t working to their full potential. These statistics are not driven by a lack of employable skills. They are driven by old paradigms and processes that don’t give people with autism the support they need to thrive in the workplace.”
Haley Moss, attorney, author, and neurodiversity expert, said it also goes beyond hiring. It includes retention, too. “A lot of efforts are focused on hiring and recruiting people with disabilities, but retaining and developing disabled talent often gets overlooked and also proves to be an ongoing challenge for companies. Investing in growth, mentorship, accessibility, and creating a welcoming environment for people of all abilities is a daily intentional task that has numerous benefits.”
Moss added, “Assume people with disabilities are already in your workforce, whether or not you know it. How do you ensure they feel they belong and are included? We invest in their training, mentoring, and career trajectory. There’s a common belief because of the high unemployment rate that people with disabilities just want jobs. The truth is, we want careers. Like all other employees, we want to be valued, respected, and given equal opportunities once inside the organization. Of course, if you do training or are bringing in disability consultants, make sure disabled people are leading those efforts. If you have a larger company, you might possibly explore a disability employee resource group. Disability ERGs bring together a large coalition of people: employees who are disabled, caregivers, family members, and allies. Giving a space for us to organize, educate, and participate is impactful for everybody.”
That inclusive space is ultimately a win for everyone, all employees, their employers, and society at-large.
Kearon said, “Businesses are finally recognizing that diversity, equity, access and inclusion are not just a tagline or something nice to do. These are business imperatives that impact your bottom line. Actively including and empowering people who come from different backgrounds and different experiences and who approach the world differently make you a more innovative business.”