On Our Minds

Working with so many organizations across multiple issue areas gives us a unique view into what’s happening in the social sector. This is where we share our insights and ruminations.
Photo of the Frick Museum building with "Lessons from the Frick" caption
Building an inclusive workplace for employees with disabilities: Lessons from the Frick

by Nakia James-Jenkins (she/her)

With October 2021 being National Disability Employment Awareness Month, it’s the perfect time to remind ourselves that a truly diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace provides belonging and safety to all, including those with disabilities. 

To that end—and with a desire to lift up the disability communities and elevate what employers can do to support them—I recently caught up with Dana Winfield, Chief Human Resources Officer at The Frick Collection. She shared with me the museum’s journey to create a truly safe and inclusive environment for staff with disabilities. Here are excerpts from our chat, including tips, takeaways, and the beautiful benefits of working with differently abled staff.

Nakia James-Jenkins: Dana, thanks for talking with us today. Let’s start with the DEI work that The Frick has been doing. What does that look like?

Dana Spencer Winfield: We've been doing things around access and inclusion for a really long time, but not really broadcasting it, so I’m glad to have the chance to talk about it. 

One of the things we’ve been focused on for a number of years is raising the salaries for traditionally lower-wage roles. And along those lines, we also work hard to make sure all of our employees—no matter what level they’re at—have equal access to benefits. We spend a great deal of time at the Frick making sure that everyone knows and understands what's available to them. Because often lower-wage earners don’t think they are entitled to things like paid family leave, which of course they are. We want all of our employees to access all those benefits that allow them to bring their whole selves to work.

Nakia: I know you’ve spearheaded an initiative to hire people with disabilities at the Frick. Can you share with us how this started and has progressed?

Dana: Absolutely! In 2015, we were contacted by an organization called Job Path. It helps young adults who are neurodiverse or with cognitive disabilities access employment, housing, and general independence. The level of unemployment for people with disabilities is off the charts. Job Path, and other organizations like it, are trying to change that. 

We were contacted by one of their job coaches. She asked the question, “What’s not getting done?” And especially at a nonprofit, you have a million things not getting done, right? Well, we focused on the gift shop’s inventory. There was a lot to do in that area. So through Job Path, we hired one young person who is on the autism spectrum. He was able to work for us a couple days a week. There was not an item in the museum shop that did not pass through his hands. It was great. Then we hired another person from Job Path, in a similar situation. And the two tag-teamed the job; they each worked a couple days a week. 

They always came to work with a job coach. It was really interesting. The job coach is there to help redirect them, guide them through the workplace. Some people may need a job coach just during the orientation period, or an occasional meeting. These two employees needed a job coach with them every day at work. It was a great resource for our managers, too, because they didn’t necessarily have the background to know how to work with neurodiverse folks. 

We’ve hired two other people through Job Path. They're both librarians. We needed support in Eastern European language materials and library cataloguing those. Job Path found us someone who's a Russian speaker. They’re incredible.

Nakia: I know that hiring people with disabilities has had some unexpected benefits. Can you share those? 

Dana: Working with people with disabilities has uncovered other things for our workplace that we didn't necessarily think of before. We hired a deaf colleague, who needed ASL interpretation of all of our internal meetings. So we started providing that. But the ASL got us thinking about language in general, and that sparked something broader: We realized we needed to translate all of our employee communications into Spanish. If an employee’s first language is Spanish, and the HR department is sending them 700 emails a week about COVID, you want to make sure everyone really understands and is comfortable processing that information. So we do that now too. Having a more diverse workplace makes you think about everything differently. 

Nakia: I love the fact, Dana, that you really acknowledge that as you were creating space and being more inclusive, there are other communities that actually benefit from it. I'm so excited to hear how your intentionality has supported your whole community. I think that's important for the disability community, but also for employers to hear as well.

Nakia: What are some tips you’d offer other HR leaders as they work to open up their hiring to more people with disabilities?

Dana: First, it has to come from the top. It was our executive director’s willingness to say, “Hey let’s give this a shot,” that changed everything. Him being open to us trying something new and getting that buy-in from the top makes all the difference.

Next I’d say think about it in baby steps. I think that people get overwhelmed thinking, well, I have to have this whole disability employment program. You don't. You can hire one person, and that one person will kickstart your access and inclusivity in your workplace. And then lead you to all these incredible relationships and learning. 

Finally, keep in mind that just like with hiring able-bodied people, not everyone works out. There are essential functions to any job. And if the person isn’t doing them, then maybe it’s not the role for them. Almost every person we’ve hired with disabilities has worked out. Just don’t let one instance where it doesn’t deter you.

Nakia: Knowing what you know now, is there anything you would have done differently?

Dana: Looking back, I think I would have gotten our staff disability etiquette training first. We did it the other way around, and it worked out fine, but it would have been better to not have put the cart before the horse. 

There’s a great resource in NYC for disability etiquette training. Through Job Path, I was put in touch with the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities. They provide very interactive, fun training. It's basically very frank conversations about interacting with people with disabilities, whether it’s someone who uses a wheelchair, someone who's deaf, someone who's neurodiverse, someone who's blind, etc. 

Nakia: To close, would you like to reflect on why hiring people with disabilities is important for any organization?

Dana: It's part of tapping into the talent that's out there in the world that we might not otherwise think about. All of the people that I've worked with who have come to us from the disability community have been incredibly dedicated, enthusiastic, resilient employees. They set a really good example for the entire staff.

But more than that—and this may sound a little bit corny—it’s part of bringing our whole selves to work every day. Think about the people in our personal worlds. How many of us know someone, for instance, who has a child who is neurodiverse, and the challenges that they have accessing good educational resources for them, and then eventually employment resources. We can't pretend that stuff isn't out there. We cannot—and should not—leave that stuff at the door when we step into the workplace. 

Nakia: I absolutely agree. I really believe that the disability community brings a very different level of resiliency, and a different perspective to everyday wins and challenges. They have had to navigate the world through vastly different lenses than able-bodied individuals do. I believe there are key life lessons to be learned from their life experiences.