Taking Up Space: Making Room for People with Disabilities at The Times
Session facilitator(s): Katherine McMahan
Day & Time: Thursday, 4:45-6pm
KATHERINE: We’ll give people like two more minutes, and then we can get started. Hello! All right. Hello. We’ll go ahead and get started, and people can trickle in, or go to other sessions. It’s great. But welcome to Taking Up Space: Making Room for People with Disabilities at The Times. I’m Katherine. I’m your facilitator. And I am very excited about this session. So thank you for joining me. So the agenda, just quickly: Some hellos, some logistics, some ground rules. I’ll talk about what I think the point of all of this is, and what I’m hoping everybody gets out of this. We’ll do some goal setting. What do you want to get out of this? We’re gonna do a storytelling exercise. We’re gonna identify some challenges that are specific to employees with disabilities. Then we’ll hopefully spend the meat of this on what we can do and collaboratively come up with some next steps. And then we’ll define those next steps and we’ll do a quick check-in to see if we actually achieved that goal that we all set for ourselves. So logistics: We have a transcriber. If you can’t tell. The transcriber is also projecting on this screen. So hopefully this helps out. I tend to speak quickly or mumble. Especially when I’m nervous, and speaking in front of people. So hopefully this helps with any of that. Or if you have any hearing loss or anything like that. This will also be available online. That said, if you need to go off the record, disability is a really sensitive topic, and I’m gonna be getting really personal, and hopefully some of you will as well. Go off the record. Just say you’re going off the record. There’s no shame in it. And this is a totally safe space. And only share if you’re comfortable. Like I said, again, this is a safe space, but you don’t have to share anything that you’re not comfortable with. Again, it’s a very sensitive issue, so feel free to not share, and just observe. And identify next steps with the group.
Okay. Who am I? Some things about me. What do I do? I’m a product manager at the The New York Times for the commerce group. That’s The New York Times store and Times Journeys. We also do some licensing products that I don’t really touch. But my background is in project management, and I fundamentally believe that a happy team builds a happy product. I’m happy to talk to any of you about that. I can talk to it ad nauseam. So we can discuss that later. Other things about me. You can talk to me about immersive theater. I can also talk about that for hours. Travel and film and TV. I just went down a rabbit hole with the Mindy Project. If anybody wants to discuss Mindy Kaling, I’m happy to do that. But I’m here because I have rheumatoid arthritis. And lupus. And I started an ERG at the Times that’s focused on employees with disabilities. I have the dual privilege and challenge of having an invisible disease, so I present as able bodied, which means people don’t apply the preconceived notions of what disability is when they look at me. But I am able to… So I’m able to advocate for disability in a way that an able-bodied person would be able to, but I have the perspective of having a disability.
We’ll get more into that, as we go on. So what’s the point of all of this? The point – my hope is that we can move the conversation around disability in the workplace from compliance into full inclusion. Sorry. I also left my speaker notes in my hotel room, so this is all off memory. So when we’re thinking about our physical work space, when we’re thinking about the policies that we have through HR, through our hiring practices, through our coverage, through all of these different areas, how can we take that just past the ADA, which is great, a baseline, but it’s not fully inclusive. It doesn’t make the accessibility work that we do business as usual. And we’re all gonna be disabled at some point in our lives. This is going to impact us in one way or another. And so the work that we do to make our workplaces more inclusive is going to benefit everyone.
So let’s together, as the Media, set the standard for what that conversation is. My hope for today is that disability, from now on, is going to be actively included in discussions of diversity and inclusion. Intentionally included. It’s… Like I said, it’s important, and it impacts minorities and women in different ways, in deeper ways. And by the end of this session, I’d like for each of you to have one or two actions that you can take back to your newsroom or your product organization. The way that I think about inclusion in the workplace and disability inclusion in the workplace specifically in Media is that: It’s one pillar of the inclusion conversation for Media organizations. We have our coverage, and we have the products that we’re building. So the technology that our users are consuming our coverage on. And if we can start with the conversation about inclusion in the workplace, that’s going to impact our coverage and it’s going to impact the technology that we build.
So just small, small goals for this group. Okay. So we have an activity. Within your small groups, I want you to think about two things and write them down. Just to start this off, what’s one thing that has nothing to do with disability or the work that you do that people can talk to you about? And then what is your goal for this session? My goal for this session is for each of you to have one action that you walk out of here with. That you can take back to your newsroom. But what’s your personal goal? I’ll give you about five minutes to do this. You can write it down, and then you can share it at your table. If it helps you to speak through what you think the goal is, then you can also do that.
And if you have your goal or your topic that people can talk to you about, feel free to share it at your table.
Okay. So that was five minutes. I overheard some very interesting conversations, and I want to talk to people about quilting and embroidery and bourbon and barbecue, so I’m excited for happy hour after this. Does anyone have a goal – a takeaway that they wrote down, that they want to share?
AUDIENCE: I’ll say… So as a reporter, I have written many stories about the disability community in a lot of different ways. And I want to broaden the way that I see these stories and tell them. So that it is… Can build a more inclusive world. So that’s my goal.
KATHERINE: And would you say your name for the transcription?
AUDIENCE: Yvonne Wenger.
KATHERINE: Awesome. Any other goals?
AUDIENCE: I have Crohn’s disease. And I was diagnosed while at my first employer that I just left after about six years. And so I’m going to a new place and trying to find tools to navigate finding, like, new doctors and new insurance and trying to communicate that effectively to my colleagues.
AUDIENCE: So I’m a manager. So I would like to have some tools and maybe thought processes to help me support them, support my employees and also my other – the managers who report to me too.
KATHERINE: Awesome. Cool. Okay.
AUDIENCE: I have a coworker who is blind in the newsroom, and while I like to think that I’ve helped out a lot of young people in the newsroom, I feel like there’s a barrier in that I don’t know how to support her on a number of levels, whether it’s professionally, even socially, as she’s walking out the door. Oh, hey, it’s Katie. Do you need to know that kind of thing? And also in better understanding what kind of coverage she wants to – like, how she wants to put a spotlight on that.
KATHERINE: Yeah, that’s awesome. Okay. Great. So… We’re gonna go a little bit into the storytelling piece. So I gave you a hint of my story. But to go into more detail, I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis when I was 16. I was your average high school student, and then had severe knee pain and swelling, and could not close my hand more than this. And so I went to the doctor, was diagnosed with RA. Luckily, I had my parents. I was living at home. And they handled all of the logistics for everything. So all I had to do was focus on getting through the messiness of the diagnosis, understanding what was going on with my body, and then get back to being a high school student and get into college. In the beautiful symmetry of life, when I was 32, 16 years later, I developed new symptoms. And was diagnosed with lupus. And I was at The New York Times when this happened, and as a single woman living in New York City, I did not have my parents to deal with the logistics of insurance and doctors and getting time off work. And so I had to handle all of it. And luckily, I had a very supportive team, who I was able to be honest with. And I had a supportive manager who I was able to be honest with. But my main goal was… You know, surviving. And making sure that nobody outside of the people that had to know what was going on knew what was happening. And that my illness didn’t impact anyone else. And so it wasn’t until after I had gone through trying to figure out what meds I should be on and after I had, like, calmed the chaos down, that I started talking to more of my colleagues about this. And as I was talking to them, I discovered that there are so many people who are impacted by this. And I met someone who is in her mid-30s, who had a stroke at work. And had to go and deal with doctors because of that emergent medical issue. I met people who work on the advertising team who have cochlear implants, who were selling content to advertisers that they couldn’t consume, because at the time we didn’t have closed captions on all of our videos. So what did it mean for these employees to work at a company where they couldn’t consume the product we were producing? And through talking to everyone and through all of these conversations, we realized there was a need for this space. And so we created it. And so one of the most powerful things that I found is that I told my story to people, and they shared theirs. And some people, it was that they were caregivers for someone who was sick. Some people, it was that they were just friends with someone who got sick, who had Crohn’s or who had diabetes or who was dealing with depression. We have a colleague at the Times who is in a wheelchair because of a spinal cord injury from the ’70s. And he works at the Times because of a hiring program that no longer exists. So what does that mean for him? And what does that look like? So if you’re comfortable, at your table, just share your experience with disability. Whether it’s yourself or a loved one or a colleague or just somebody that you heard about. Christopher Reeves had a spinal cord injury in the ’90s, and that impacted a lot of people. And so… We’ll take about ten minutes. And just share amongst your table.
Okay. So if we can all come back… So we’ve all just shared stories, and if anyone wants to share with the larger group, you’re welcome to. But it’s definitely… You’re safe within your tables. But I think if what I overheard is true, we’ve identified that there are a lot of challenges. Everything from just on the individual level, trying to navigate being sick and working and keeping your job to keep your health insurance or keeping your job because you love it, and you want to keep contributing, and that’s important, to team dynamics to trying to figure out if there is preconceived notions or a stigma around working from home, or taking your sick days, or being perceived as someone who is difficult. To organizational challenges around sick day policies, the physical space. I know at The New York Times, our bathroom doors are incredibly heavy, and there are two of them to get to the bathroom. On every floor. And can you imagine trying to do that every day, if you need walking assistance or if your hands hurt or trying to deal with that?
So there are a lot of challenges. We’re not gonna solve them all today. We’re starting the conversation. We’re gonna do some brainstorming. We have some things that we can talk about. But don’t feel burdened by the weight of all of it, because there are a lot of people thinking about it, and we’re just part of it. So like I said… Creating a space for employees with disabilities has some unique challenges that come with it. That some of the other ERGs won’t necessarily face. Specifically around language of disabilities, how we talk about it. There is a spectrum of disabilities from physical to invisible to mental, and it’s a gray area. And that makes it really hard to quantify what the impact of this type of work is going to be. And that makes it hard to be an advocate for organizational change. So one of the things that we can think about, that we need to think about, is: How do we measure the impact of this work? How can we talk about the impact of this work in organizations where it might be dangerous to identify as someone who is disabled? To be labeled as someone who needs extra accommodation? What does it mean to come out to your team as disabled? To come out to your company as disabled? I am lucky enough to have a personality that’s kind of in your face about what’s going on. And I understand that that’s not always the case, and it feels really scary and uncomfortable for people to come out and let people know that they’re disabled. So what does that mean, and how can we create organizational cultures that make it safe for people to come out as disabled? And then again, what is the right language? How do we talk about it? The naming of the ERG that we’ve started is still up in the air, quite frankly, and we’ve been talking about it for eight months. Because people have very strong feelings about the language. And they should. And so that’s one of the challenges. So I’m actually calling an audible about what the next activity was. It was gonna be within your groups, but I think we’re a small enough group here that we can talk about it. And I just want to start listing out some of the challenges. So when you’re thinking about your story… And we can’t talk about them all now. When you’re thinking about your story and you’re thinking about what you just shared, there are some things that probably came up. Some challenges that you faced or that your friends faced or that Christopher Reeves faced. So what are they? And I’m gonna write them on this giant Post-it over here. I’m probably gonna move it to this side. And I can start with some of the examples that I shared with the heavy doors, how do we measure impact, also, at The Times, elevator traffic is a real problem, and if you can’t walk up and downstairs to go one floor, you have to take the elevator and that can take 20 minutes and you’ve missed the meeting. So that’s a more physical space problem. But some of the other ones are finding doctors. Finding new doctors. Changing doctors. People wanting to help and not knowing how to help. Managers not knowing how to provide or what tools exist and how to provide support. And right now, we’re just listing out the challenges. I have some suggested solutions that we’ll talk about in the next section, and we’ll brainstorm some other solutions, because you guys might also have better ideas than I do. So does anyone else have a challenge that they want to share? Have any of you experienced any of the challenges that I just talked about?
AUDIENCE: I think one of the things is like… Especially if you’re diagnosed with something, people feel like once they know, they’re like… Oh my God. They’ve changed. How have they changed? And then how do you explain something that’s very new to you without overwhelming another person?
AUDIENCE: Having to manage other people’s feelings about it.
KATHERINE: Yeah. Being sick and trying to manage feelings. Okay.
AUDIENCE: Sorry. I was just gonna say… On the flip side of that, I’ve had this experience a number of times, of knowing people who have experienced an acute illness that disables them, and, one, not knowing how to help, and two, feeling an existential dread that I’m burdening the person by even just asking how to help. So, like, how to be the least impactful emotionally… The least impactful while being the most impactful.
KATHERINE: Yeah. Not knowing how to help. What else? Has anyone tried to work remotely while dealing with any sort of diagnosis? Or had someone on their team try to work remotely?
AUDIENCE: My entire company is remote.
AUDIENCE: And we’ve had multiple people who have gone through various things in that scenario. And that’s a transparency thing as much as anything. It’s hard, because we are devoted to transparency. That’s a key value in our company culture. But it’s also… To what degree? How much do you share? If you share it in chat, it’s there forever. Do you want your health details in chat forever? Those are some things that come with working remotely. The plus side is… The only stairs you have to deal with are the ones you choose for yourself, usually.
KATHERINE: Yeah, that’s true. That’s true. Yeah?
AUDIENCE: Just destigmatization of illness. It’s sort of synonymous with less. Any kind of illness. Mental or physical. Disrupting that.
KATHERINE: Yeah. Just in general, making people more comfortable with it. Yeah. Joe?
AUDIENCE: To build upon something that you just said, if you’re caring for someone, perhaps a family member, who has a mental illness, sometimes it’s hard to discuss that, because it’s not really your story to share. So sharing with your manager that you’re caring for someone and what they’re dealing with that day… Sometimes I just want to say… I can’t make it to work. And I don’t want to go into the details. Not because I don’t want to, but because it’s not really my story to share. And that’s very difficult to be open about.
AUDIENCE: And piggybacking on that, even if it is your story, you don’t always want to share all of the details with your boss. You don’t want to… Like, you can get… There might be physical things that are happening, that you just don’t want to describe. But are totally great reasons to stay at home, and so… There’s this, like, how much should I say thing that’s always going on.
KATHERINE: Yeah. Like… What’s the right amount of information to share? Yeah.
AUDIENCE: Would you hope… And this is for anyone… That a manager… That you have a good enough relationship with your manager that you would feel comfortable doing that? Or do you think there’s always a circumstance that no matter how comfortable you are with someone, that you wouldn’t…
AUDIENCE: I would say what I would really hope is that I have a manager I feel comfortable enough to not… And that they will accept and believe and understand that, like, it is what it is. And they don’t… They just like… Oh yeah. That’s okay.
AUDIENCE: You want to be able to say to your manager: I can’t come in today. And they understand that they don’t need the details. You don’t have to explain what’s going on. Yeah. So how do you build that trust?
AUDIENCE: I disclosed to a manager that I had to leave, and I gave her the reason why. It was a scary procedure that I was having done. And I told her what times the appointment was for, and she told me that since the thing she wanted me to cover was at the end of that, if I could go afterward, and when I got upset with her and told her – that’s why I told you that I was going for a cancer screening today, that she said I was bringing too much emotional baggage to the conversation. So yeah. I don’t know how to deal with that. It was bad management.
AUDIENCE: And that’s a great example, leading then to… What HR does, and what their function is. Because in theory, HR should be a part of the company that you could go to, and you could be like… Yes, having this personal thing. It’s private. I don’t want to share it with my colleagues. But it’s gonna take time off from work. And in theory, they should then… Articulate that to the rest of the company. But often, HR does, as people say, support – protect the company rather than the employees. And there’s a big fear in there that even if you do that, which would feel like the correct course of action, that there’ll be some kind of punishment, basically.
KATHERINE: Yeah, yeah.
AUDIENCE: I think training… Managers are often so… They don’t have the expertise or knowledge, and they respond so poorly. Your example… I’ve heard just shocking reactions to things. And it’s terrible. You feel very helpless. Because you often can’t go to HR. That’s supposed to be where you go. But they’re so ill equipped. So training – at least put a mechanism in place.
KATHERINE: Yeah. I think what is interesting here, and what I have run into, in a lot of my conversations with people, what I’ve found is… The more I tell my story, the more people come and tell me their story. And this is very common. This is not to downplay anyone’s personal experience. But feeling this stigma around sharing your story and then having someone come and either see you as being difficult or see you as needing extra help or pitying you or… This is not the right word, but fetishizing you… Putting you on a pedestal for the great work that you do, when you’re doing just… Your work. Is… Hard. And that’s part of the work around the hearts and minds that we have to change. And so… I want to take… Does anyone else have a challenge that they want to share, that they want listed out?
AUDIENCE: Just one thing came to mind. Last year – so my company is all remote. So then when you get in that context where you’re all in a physical space, I think there’s training and then there are one-off things. There are things people don’t think about until they’re confronted by it. They booked a space for our retreat dinner for the whole company that had stairs. And I was just like… At the time, that was just unimaginable to me. And I had like a month of anxiety before that, just thinking about… Oh, God, how am I gonna navigate this? Am I gonna have to scoot down the stairs? Is everybody gonna stare? All these things you have to think through. I feel the anxiety coming back. I feel like anxiety is sort of a theme, though. That’s what I want to say. That we all have to deal with in this context.
KATHERINE: Yeah. I think… Anxiety around every piece of the process… I’m just gonna sit here. And I think it’s also a time management – is what I’m hearing – and also kind of applying, from my experience, around… Managing doctor’s appointments and the work that you have to do, and the codeswitching there. So time management… And then, as part of that is also navigating – the time needed to navigate HR and the unknown black hole that that can be. Right?
So that’s like… Work. And the helpful tools that exist that aren’t helpful, because we don’t know about it. Supplying some editorial on there. So what I want to do now for the next 15 minutes… Let’s see. So where do we begin? I want us to take some of these challenges and we’re gonna start brainstorming solutions. And some of these we’ve started to address. At The Times. And we’re starting to build some resources, and so I can talk through what some of those are. But then within each of the tables, you guys can identify one specific thing that you want to start brainstorming around.
Applying our product thinking. Applying our journalistic minds on how we can really start solving some of these problems. So really identifying: Who is the user for this problem? When we think about time management, our user there is the employee who is sick. So which piece of that is the user story that we’re trying to solve, that we’re trying to build for, and can we build a tool around that to help solve it? For the physical space. What’s the user story there? How can we start solving it? Is there a tool that we can build to help with the physical space issue, which might just be… You know, some sort of Slackbot, reminding managers about physical space rentals or things like that. I’ll go into a little bit of some of the solutions that we’ve come up with at The Times. For example, for time management, one of the biggest challenges is finding doctors within your network. So as an employee-led initiative, we have a little bit more flexibility than HR does, because they, like you said, they protect the company. So as employees who have been sick, we have started just a database – it’s a spreadsheet right now – of doctors within our network that we have visited, and our experience with them. And the reason why this is important, and there are tools like ZocDoc and things like that, but ZocDoc isn’t actually as helpful when it comes to finding doctors within your network, and we have personal anecdotes in there, or someone you can speak to about it. We have listed out the different hospitals and the different places within the City that you can go to. And we are right now focused just on employees in New York. Because it is very specific. Health care is very specific to where you live. But that’s something that, as employees, we can start to build that resource, and we can start to share it out. In terms of the question of: I don’t know how to help… Actually, I love that question. Because it’s come up at The Times as well. We’ve put together a One Sheet that anyone who is newly sick can print out and give to their friends, give to their coworkers, give to their significant other of questions they can ask or phrases that are helpful. Or ways they can show up and be there without putting it on the person who’s sick to tell them what to do. And this way it’s also… At least, when I was sick, I wanted people to show up, and I wanted people to help me, and they didn’t necessarily feel comfortable asking what to do. And so this would have been a great tool for me to be like… Here’s what you can do. This would be great. And so those are some of the smaller things that we’ve tackled. The smaller tasks that we’ve tackled. But like I said, I love… We’ll take the next 15 minutes. Identify within your table one of the challenges. Write what you think the user story is. And then start brainstorming some of the solutions. And I will come around and be more helpful.
AUDIENCE: Do you have that One Sheet with you?
KATHERINE: I do have it on a Google Drive, and I can share it.
AUDIENCE: You would share it? Oh, that seems so great.
KATHERINE: Yeah. Okay. Two-minute warning.
Okay. So we have about five minutes left. So we’ll do a quick share-out for any of the ideas. I don’t know why I’m leaning towards the microphone. So we’ll do a quick share-out of ideas, if you came up with any actions that you can take back. And we’ll just start that list here. Does anyone… I was sitting at the back table that let me crash. And one of the things that was brought up was: Recruiting. And how can we start recruiting more people who have different levels of ability. And if there are any non-profits we can work with, or other organizations who are thinking about that and thinking about placement of people who have disabilities. What were some of the conversations at these tables?
AUDIENCE: So similarly to that, we talked… We talked about a couple things around management. Where we talked about strategies of putting someone with a disability kind of in the driver’s seat. Instead of making assumptions about what they can and can’t do, just… Ask what they want to do, what their aspirations are, what… Okay. And then also… Also for managers, reminding managers that it’s their job to have productive and effective employees. Not to have employees at their desk every day. So making sure that managers are optimizing their carrots and sticks for…
KATHERINE: Yeah. So you’re saying reframe the conversation for the managers. So it’s… Them creating a space for their employees to be successful. Rather than the employee being difficult.
AUDIENCE: And then also: Recognize when employees are struggling and be… As a manager, be proactive about helping them. And that might be one of the things I mentioned. Talking about… If work can get stressful, if work is very hard, long hours, disability or not, offer them time off. Make sure that they’re able… That your employees are able to recover from whatever hard work they’re doing at the office.
KATHERINE: Yeah. That’s awesome. Yeah. How can you build in breaks? How can you build in mental health moments, or just breathing moments for all employees? And then it’s not a conversation about disability. It’s just a conversation about people. Yeah. That’s great.
AUDIENCE: We talked a lot about listening and creating the time and space to do that.
KATHERINE: Did you have any tactics for that?
AUDIENCE: Did we have tactics? Team?
AUDIENCE: A few. One that I think is really powerful is that people are going to fuck up. Right? And…
KATHERINE: Not me. I’m perfect.
AUDIENCE: Never you. I mean…
And so when you make a mistake, do not qualify your apology. Just apologize and listen. And do not qualify it. You may… I had given an example where… I have been misinterpreted as making a sexual innuendo, when that was not my intention by an employee. But it’s a pretty powerful anxiety. And I didn’t realize that that had happened. And they told me that they were very upset with me, but not the details. And eight days of sort of them being really mad at me, we were having a conversation, and I just, again, I was like… They brought up that they were still mad. So I said… I’m just really sorry. And that’s that. And there was a very long pause. And then she was like… You look like you want to say something more. And I said… The only thing I would say is that I would never qualify it. And after I said that, that was the moment that she opened up. She described exactly what happened. We were able to clear it up. And we rebuilt the relationship. Right? And I also won’t… There was a specific word, which is phrasing, which I guess is from a thing, but… Don’t say phrasing just as a singular word with a question mark, I learned.
KATHERINE: I mean, that’s really interesting I was thinking about it in terms of… As someone with a disability, when I make a mistake, but I think that’s a really good point too, when you’re talking to other employees, who may or may not have a disability, just apologizing…
AUDIENCE: The screen went off.
KATHERINE: Oh, the screen went off! Oh, it logged me out. There we go. Okay. That’s great. We have… We are at time. We’re over time. So what I’ll also do is make sure that we have links to the one-pager. And I’ll provide an example of the doctor recommendations that we’ve put together. And these notes will be available. I’m also gonna make sure they’re on Library, which is another New York Times talk that was done. But thank you all for coming. I hope that you are leaving with… If not a specific action, just an idea around how to have conversations with people about disabilities. I think that’s really the first step. And if you have any further questions, I am here to talk. Like I said, I will always talk about this. So… Or if you want to talk about beer and bourbon and embroidery, I can also do that.
But thank you for coming, and I think we’re done for the day now! So now it’s just fun times.