Catarina Rivera: “Do you always know when people are being left out?”

What assumptions are you making about people with disabilities? What is ableism and how does it impact the workplace? Building an inclusive culture is critical for success in today's marketplace. Our disabled colleagues want to be included and share in organizational goals and outcomes. Catarina Rivera, MSEd, MPH, CPACC, also known as the @BlindishLatina on Instagram, talks about disability, ableism, microaggressions and other biases that keep people with disabilities out of the workplace or thwart their ability to fully participate. Join us for a candid look at diversity and inclusion–and your role in creating an inclusive culture.

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Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.

The Transcript - Interview with Catarina Rivera

Jeffery Tobias Halter: Well, good afternoon. Today we're talking with Catarina Rivera about disability awareness and the tips to create more inclusive workplaces. I'm Jeffery Tobias Halter, and today I'm enjoying a nice Italian Pinot Grigio. Amanda, what's your beverage of choice.

Amanda Hammett: I am with my old faithful, my raspberry hibiscus kombucha being the good millennial representatives that I am. So, um, now that we have that, what we're drinking today out of the way, uh, I'd love to introduce everyone to Catarina Rivera, uh, Catarina, actually, if you know anything about my background, um, I am one of the hosts of a 30 Day Inclusion Challenge in October and Catarina was my guest Uh, for one of those days, uh, during the generation's week, uh, but Catarina is a disability, a public speaker and DEI consultant who works with companies to improve disability awareness, inclusion, and accessibility. She's been featured in Nasdaq authority magazine and was one of the top 21 DEI influencers of 2021. So her past clients have included people like Harper Collins, uh, LinkedIn, Whole 30, Grant Thornton, and BCG Digital Ventures. She's the founder of Blindish Latina, a platform smashing disability stigmas throughout, uh, through storytelling, and Catarina is hard of hearing and blind So she has a BA from Duke University, uh, as well as an MS ED from Bank Street College of Education and an MPH from Hunter College. Catarina is also a certified professional in accessibility core competencies.

Jeffery Tobias Halter: Catarina, welcome to Win(e)d Down Wednesday. We're very excited to have you here. So what's your Win(e)d Down beverage of choice today.

Catarina Rivera: Thank you so much for having me. I am showing up with a green tea. I love my tea. That's what I have.

Amanda Hammett: All right. Well, um, I'm, I'm incredibly grateful Catarina to have you on the show today. Um, most people actually don't know that I actually grew up and had a front row seat to seeing how those with disabilities were treated in the workplace and how they were actually actively excluded. And that was an experience that I had that really opened my eyes at a, at a very young age and put me on the path to creating inclusive workplaces. So to say that this topic that we're discovering today, um, is close to my heart is an understatement. So I would love to start this conversation by having you share your story, as well as giving our audience an introduction to disability, awareness and inclusion in the workplace.

Catarina Rivera: Amanda, I did not know that your personal connection to this topic, and I hope we can talk more about that another time. I'm glad that you are going to be always a champion for disability. Cause we need that. As far as my story, I'm Cuban and Puerto Rican, I was born in the United States and being Latina is a big deal for me. Growing up in a culture that was not the dominant culture, but a rich culture, super rich learning Spanish as my first language, all of these things taught me the power and the value of diversity. I just knew it based on my family experience. When I was young, my parents found out that I was hard of hearing. I was fitted with hearing aids, put into speech therapy and exposed to the oral world only. It was conventional wisdom at the time to not expose hard hearing children to deaf culture or to American sign language. So that's something I'm connecting with now as an adult, but it was really the way things were done at the time. Unfortunately, I went through my schooling with my hard of hearing my hearing aids and adjusting very well. And then when I was 17, everything changed again. As I found out that I was going to be losing my vision overtime. This was a big surprise for me, for my family and for my brother as well, because he has the same condition and it started my journey with disability, where I went through different stages of feeling about this. In the beginning I was in denial. I was upset. It felt like a tragedy. I didn't want to talk about it with anyone. I tried to hide any challenges that I was experiencing with navigating word. As I grew older and had more exposure to the disability community. So blind people that were in the thirties, forties, and fifties, I became more comfortable with my disability, more accepting, and I received some services that were really helpful as far as knowing about tools that could be supportive. And then after that, the next shift for me was to self-advocacy. As I started using a white cane and became very comfortable. Over time with being visibly disabled, because people do look at you differently. They do treat you differently. And so I had to show up with a lot more confidence about who I was and what my needs were, and that actually made my life a lot better when I reached that point. I wanted to do more with my voice. It wasn't enough for me that my life was better. That is where I started my interest in public advocacy and becoming a public voice for the disability and also by showing up as Blindish Latina, I am helping other people to see that we exist, that there are many diverse members of the disability community. So that's something that's really important to me. When we look at the workplace, the workplace is a reflection of our society, and we still have a long way to go with disability inclusion. Although 90% of companies claim to prioritize diversity, only 4% consider disability and these initiative. According to a report from the return on disability group. And this is from the Harvard Business Review. From an article by Caroline Casey. So that's really shocking maybe to cure, but I think for people that are in the workplace, it will resonate for many employees who don't see mentioned that disability, who haven't seen any awareness trainings on disability in their workplace and are experiencing microaggression. on a regular basis. When people think about disability in the workplace, many of them think about the ADA and reasonable accommodations, but accommodations are the minimum legal standard, but everyone must comply. They do not support disabled employees in every context or in every situation that they encounter at work. They only help people with certain functions of their role. And they also only support employees who request them. It's very important to, for employers to recognize and me to go beyond the ADA, to prioritize disability inclusion throughout their organizational culture and throughout their entire employee experience.

Jeffery Tobias Halter: So fascinating, um, information and, and, and your story is just incredible based on your last statements. Um, I know our listeners would love to learn more. Um, can you talk more about ableism and the role that it plays in the workplace?

Catarina Rivera: Ableism is so important to talk about if you haven't heard of the term before, don't worry, because there are actually a lot of people out there who are not familiar with the term. So first I'm going to define it. Ableism is the idea that non-disabled people are more worthy or valuable than disabled people. It leads to prejudice, bias and discrimination it's ever present in our society and in our workplace. We see the real consequences that ableism, when disabled people are trying to get hired for jobs and interviewers are making assumptions about them based on their disability. They're making assumptions on what kind of employee they will be and what their capabilities are. And people are not being offered the job. Some people struggle to find employment. When we think about ableism and its impact, this idea that non-disabled people are somehow better or more worthy is a false idea is promoted though, within society. And it's reinforced throughout the media. We don't see a lot of characters in entertainment that are whole club disabled people, where the writing is actually from disabled writers. And is authentic. There's a real lack of representation. So plain and simple Ableism keeps disabled people out of the workforce and leads to discrimination against the disabled community. I was always nervous about job interviews and I never disclosed my disability until after I was hired. This is very common because of the discrimination and the hiring process. Many disabled people have that story. If they are able to hide their disability, that's oftentimes what we do. Even when disabled employees are in the workforce, they tend to face daily challenges related to ableism, like microaggression and inaccessible company cultures. There's a real privilege and not being able to see the barriers that exist for disabled people, because you have an experience and challenges yourself. For example, I have 5% of my vision remaining preparing for a handshake is stressful for me. And I have to consciously think about it. I have to stand a little further away from the person. I have to extend my hand and, and look down to make sure that I'm meeting their hand and I'm spending mental energy on that process. So if they're talking to me, none of that is getting processed. All I'm trying to do is connect with the handshake, because if I miss that handshake, what kind of assumptions are going to be made about me? People are gonna think I'm ignoring their handshake. It does not even enter into most people's minds that I might not see it, that I might be a nice person who has disability. And you know, that is, is challenging because I don't have the, I don't have a sign on my work outfit that says, this is everything you need to know about me so that you don't misinterpret me. And nobody has said, so it's something I spend mental energy on to avoid those miscommunications or negative assumptions being made about me being labeled rude or unfriendly rather than explaining my disability to every single person. and If you think handshakes are tough, consider high fives. I always missed high fives all the time. So when I share about my vision disability and how not having peripheral vision, make everyday moments like handshakes and colleagues even handing me things stressful and challenging and people respond. Wow. I never thought about that. It really demonstrates that none of us know what's going on with anyone else and that our world can look very different. So within an accessible work environment, there's a pressure on disabled employees to constantly adapt and to create strategies, to manage those inaccessible situation. And that creates unacceptable mental health class for the employees. It takes a toll and it creates more work for us. It's critical to address ableism in the workplace and create an environment that is free of microaggressions, prioritizes inclusive language, and is accessible for all employees.

Amanda Hammett: So Catarina. Can I ask you how can each of us be more aware and what are your tips for us to avoid microaggressions and to use more inclusive language?

Catarina Rivera: I want to share a few common microaggressions. There are many, but I think these are good starting point. Oftentimes there a situation arises where you might want to offer help to a disabled person. It's very important to ask us if we need help. And if we say no, respect the no, you might not understand my vision, but I do. So if I'm telling you that I know where I'm going and I don't need your assistance, then I want that respect for my agency. My determination, if the disabled person said, yes. Then I recommend you ask them how you can best help them, let them guide you because oftentimes you have not, you don't have experience. They're the experts and that moment, and you're going to come up with something that's probably not exactly the best and most helpful way for them. So ask them how to best help them above all, do not touch disabled people or their mobility aids, wheelchairs, canes, white canes, without their permission. consider all of that, an extension of their body. And we don't go around touching people's bodies without their permission. Another common microaggression is asking invasive questions of disabled people. Oftentimes, this comes from non disabled people centering themselves and their curiosity feeling entitled to other people's stories, just because you want to know, not because it benefits the other person to tell you their story or that you've built trust with them. I'm speaking really about context where you don't have a deep relationship with someone while you're perhaps out in public, or you just met them. Many people, disabled people face invasive questions and conversations such as, Well, what happened to you. Why don't you in a wheelchair, disabled people when we're out living our lives, you know, we do not exist to educate you. We might choose to, but it's not our, your prerogative to know our story or to invade our space and our existence when we are living on lives. Another suggestion that I have for avoiding microaggressions is to re examine your automatic use of the words Like inspiring hero and break for disabled people. A lot of times you're not calling a disabled person inspiring, brave or hero for something that you would call a non disabled person those words for. Let's focus on people's accomplishments. Let's focus on why we're using language like that, because that really perpetuates a ultimately harmful narrative about disabilities. That it's not surprising for us to have good lives or to get out of bed and go to work. You know, we continue on with life and we there, I love sharing disability joy on blindish Latina. I love sharing moments where I'm dancing. where I'm, I'm having a great time back here and my life is good and that's important for me to share because I think it really does come up against a stigma that people have about disabilities. Like, oh, your life is over. And that's not true. When we comes to inclusive language. We also need to be mindful of ableism language and work to consciously consciously change terms like OCD. I'm so OCD and staying crazy. All of these are overused and are not inclusive when it comes to mental health. Wheelchair bound is not inclusive. It when, um, wheelchair users, which is the term that I recommend wheelchair users. They talk about their wheelchair to provide some freedom. They're not bound to their wheelchair. They're not in a wheelchair all the time also. So it's not accurate. And we also have common phrases like deaf and dumb or tone deaf, and think about what that association sounds like when you're using it. And you have a deaf or hard hearing person listening. And the last thing that I'll say, because I have so many is when you're talking about the disability community, use the word disability, say the word there's nothing wrong with the word disability. Avoid euphemisms, like handy capable are differently abled adopt person first for identity first language. Person first is person with a disability. Identity first is disabled person Those are the ones that are respectful for the community.

Jeffery Tobias Halter: Wow. This has been such an amazing session. We never seem to have enough time. Um, I've been doing DEI work now for over 20 years and this was just a thesaurus on things we don't know, um, things companies can do. And, uh, I want to thank you for coming on to talk about disability awareness. My hope is you're going to be joining us again in the future to share additional tips. So Catarina, thank you for joining us today. You'll find out more information on Catarina and her work on her website And we'll also have this downloaded and you can, uh, look on it on our website where you can download her free book on accessibility or follow her on Instagram @blindishlatina And there are amazing videos that she puts front and center, and it just helps everyone to understand and learn more. And so thank you so much for joining us today.

Catarina Rivera: Thank you again for having me.

Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.