Launching disAbility Employee Resource Groups in Fargo

by Gabby Ruddy  |  August 3. 2018

Microsoft welcomes all of their employees with open arms and a desire to change for the better. When Justin Odney (Customer Success Manager) started at Microsoft 1 year ago, he had a goal of starting a disAbility Employee Resource Group (ERG) at Microsoft; a little under a year later, Microsoft hosted the launch of their new ERG. I asked Justin what fueled his passion with this ERG:

“My passion for the ERG is fueled by a love for my brother Chase, who happens to possess a range of disabilities. He is the reason I’m creating this group – as individuals like him deserve a chance to be creative and change the world for the better. We need to start becoming intentional about inclusion on campus, and it starts with granting opportunities and providing resources to a group of individuals who are often marginalized or left behind.”

At the ERG launch keynote speaker Vera Jones shared her inspirational story as a mother and what her son, who has lost his sight, has taught her about vision. Vera is a motivational speaker, author, television and radio broadcaster, and Syracuse University Hall-of-Fame Scholar-Athlete.

Vera told the story of her journey with her son. A visit to the doctor determined that her son would need surgery that would drastically change their lives forever. Surviving the surgery, Vera’s son was faced with the reality of becoming blind, left with only a small, straw-like hole through which he perceived the world around him. In the beginning, he had a lot of difficulty navigating school, bumping into cupboards as his peripheral vision was gone, and feeling self -conscious about using his cane.

Seeing his frustration, Vera took a coaching approach, bringing her son to the busiest spot she could find, a Subway Station. She told him that he would have to follow her, adding that if people wouldn’t move, he should just starting swinging his cane and they would. Vera went on to describe her son’s successes over the years, what he accomplished on his own, and what they do together as motivational speakers.

Vera left us with great takeaways and considerations, but one that resonated with me the most was the mantra: “I’VE GOT IT.” If you ever get the chance to listen to Vera Jones speak, I highly recommend this inspiring experience.

Next up was a panel of individuals who work for businesses that develop careers for people with disAbilities. The panelists were all from local businesses in the Fargo/Moorhead area and included Tim Eissinger with the Anne Carlson Center, Dana Maddock with CBRE, Inc., Kim Pladson with TNT Fitness, and Tony Thomann with Mindshift. Justin Odney moderated the discussion, outlined briefly below:

How do you get individuals to identify without giving up privacy at work?

Assuring these individuals that they aren’t alone and that it is okay to be open by potentially offering community talks and showing acceptance and inclusion of all employees is one way to open the door. Additionally, every employee wants to be respected, so asking these individuals how they would like their situation to be handled and making sure they know they are a part of the team is very important. Lastly, most of these individuals want empathy, not sympathy, so just understanding the challenges from their perspective and welcoming them to your team goes a long way.

How direct should companies be in hiring these individuals? Should we specifically say what we are looking for?

Companies should be intentional in their search for these individuals. If you are looking for someone who has great communication skills and can lift 75 pounds, you’ll write that in the job description; act the same way for these individuals, if you are actively looking for someone with a specific ability, write it out to let them know what you are looking for. These individuals do not want to feel like a charity case., Knowing that they earned this position because of who they are and the abilities they bring to the organization is crucial to making them feel included.

How do you continue to provide resources for individuals with disabilities after high school?

Be the company to make a difference first and do the right thing. By modifying, adapting and changing the way we support, hire, and retain these individuals is the best way to provide the support that they need throughout their careers.

Justin says that he expects the team to expand over the next year to help launch their goal of 8-10 initiatives that encapsulate the needs of our campus and community. The mission of the team is “To educate and empower individuals of all abilities to achieve more through the use of Microsoft’s products and services.”

This employee resource group launch was memorable and inspiring for all attendees. From a personal perspective, I am excited to see the future for people with disAbilities at Microsoft and I am honored to say that I am a part of a company that is actively searching for these individuals to offer them potential careers.

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