MaryAnne Howland is the Founder & CEO of Global Diversity Leadership Exchange, a forum designed to advance inclusive and global sustainability. Among the issues within the umbrella of diversity and inclusion, MaryAnne feels a deep passion for representing and providing solutions for the community of people with disabilities. As a mother of a son with cerebral palsy, she has an intimate understanding of the challenges and opportunities of living with a disability. Read on to find out what she thinks the market is missing, what tremendous opportunities are available for those who want to work in this space, and her exciting new fashion venture that offers beautiful, yet functional, clothes for people with different bodies:

How did you find your way to your mission to amplify representation for people with disabilities? Why is this cause important to you? 

My son has cerebral palsy, so I learned some hard realities about limitations and injustices that prevail for people with disabilities, up close. I have had a lifetime of immersion in all of the challenges for people with disabilities in our society.

I also learned that people who have different bodies have many abilities, but it is society who disables us: through lack of inclusive innovation to help create more accessibility, society fails a large group of talented people with many gifts who could otherwise be very productive.

The interesting thing is, the way people with disabilities are asked to survive is through disability income and social services, which taxpayers pay for. However, if we allow people with disabilities to be an active part of the economy, that may be an opportunity to alleviate the need for social services, which benefits the tax-paying community. There needs to be a new thought process around being a more inclusive society, and empowering all people to be able to contribute to the economy that would help mitigate the burden (on society), and allow all people to realize their dreams.

MaryAnne with her son

My passion for this cause comes from my son who has to navigate discrimination as an African-American and because of cerebral palsy. I want to do all that I can to help remove barriers for people who are marginalized on behalf of his future as a global citizen.

What do you wish the financial industry knew about people with disabilities?

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) 2018 Mortality and Morbidity report, over a billion people around (15% of the world’s population) have some form of disability. That’s a market the size of China! 1 in 4 American adults have a disability that impacts their major life activity. 33% of 20-year-old workers will be disabled before reaching retirement age. In the U.S. alone, there are 3.5 million wheelchair users and that number is increasing every year.

Statistics like these indicate that there is a big opportunity here, especially among aging Baby Boomers who were the highest sought-after market because of their income level. Well, Baby Boomers are now receiving retirement and pensions, and they also are getting arthritis, hip transplants, knee replacements, and experiencing natural aging—and this will repeat forever as each generation ages. If you’re solving for the disability needs of aging Baby Boomers, you’re solving for all.

Finally, everyone should know that the community of people with disabilities is the most inclusive of all marginalized groups—it doesn’t matter what race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual identity, or how much money you make. When you solve for this market, you solve for all.

What are ways companies can be more conscious about being more inclusive of people with disabilities in places of work, entrepreneurship, and in our economy (process of wealth creation, investment, etc.)?

The universal symbol of disability is a wheelchair, but it is not inclusive of all disabilities, and people need to be aware of that. Disabilities can mean: seated mobility users, amputees, visually impaired, hard of hearing, cerebral palsy, down syndrome, and the list goes on. The first thing to do is to dissect the market to understand the individual needs.

From a practical standpoint, companies need to consider the physical environment. Do you have a ramp for mobility devices? Are your doorways wide enough? Are your restrooms accessible? There is a lot of room for innovation in the space to make life easier for people with disabilities. To me, that is an opportunity- a new business or an investment for the type of lifestyle innovation that allows people with different bodies to move through life easier, and to be active in whatever community one chooses.

More companies should also develop a partnership with a local non-profit that works with our disability community, like Easter Seals or United Cerebral Palsy. There are so many to choose from. This gives an opportunity for companies to learn more about physical and neural diversity in a very comfortable way. Employees can volunteer, and you’re doing a great service to organizations who need your support.

An example, why not provide the opportunity for employees to learn sign language? This skill creates a door of inclusion for the hard of hearing to be able to operate better at work, and allows employees to have an immersive experience that can create empathy and mindfulness of others who are different.

MaryAnne speaking on behalf of people with disabilities

How can we be more mindful about our community of people with disabilities? What do we all share in common?

In the Maori language, the word for autism is takiwatanga and it means “in my time and space”. The autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior. Autism causes a person to have repetitive patterns that often impairs their interactions with people. Do we all fit somewhere in that spectrum?

What impairs your social interactions with people? Do you interrupt people? Do you cut off someone when they are talking or just stop listening to them? Do your biases get in the way of listening and understanding of others? All of those tendencies are the same as someone with autism, to some extent.

So, disability is a subjective concept. Society is the disabler. We are all able. It’s how we treat people that renders someone disabled.

Practically, we need to tear down the wall between us. Replace each brick with positive experiences to break down fear. We fear asking questions, starting conversations with people who are different from us. When you are an able-bodied person, you look at someone in a wheelchair, and you might be overwhelmed with sympathy or think, “Oh my goodness, that’s so scary”. The overwhelm of fear prohibits you from having a normal conversation with an extraordinary person. Imagine what you might learn from a perspective so vastly different from yours, one that you may have never heard before.

So just focus on the person, not the disability.

If a person is deaf and they’re signing, watch the person speaking, not the interpreter.

And just because someone is in a wheelchair does not mean they are deaf, or if they are deaf that they are also blind, or need help, or that they can’t sweep you off your feet!  If you spend a lifetime with a disability, you’ve likely already learned how to navigate life- it’s an offense to anyone to always assume they need help. Ask first if someone needs help, instead of jumping right into it.

Assistive devices help people live their lives- don’t assume you can touch them. Don’t move wheelchairs out of the way without asking. Same thing goes for service animals- you need to ask for permission before you approach or touch them.

Tell us about your work, and how you are creating more inclusive spaces for people with disabilities- what projects are you currently working on? 

I’m beyond excited to be working on a line of functional fashion called THIS! for people with all types of different bodies. We recognize that for many, participating in society is a visual practice. For example, the concept of ‘dress for success’ is taught for career growth. Well, that is applicable if you’re a person with a disability too. When you get to choose how you want to show up in your day – make a bold statement about who you are, it matters.

Currently, people with disabilities are only thought of as a medical market and relegated to uncomfortable garments that have to be altered. So we are creating custom fashion that allows people to express themselves and feel confident, while being functional, so they can move through life more openly and freely. The collection is for men and women, and it launches in early 2020. It will include tops, pants and jackets, and our first capsule will focus on seated mobility. The fashion is so beautiful that anyone would want to wear them!

We have been on the runway for Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in Moscow and London and LA Fashion Week. So we’ve done fashion shows with our models and have proven the concept to audiences in Russia, Europe and the US. (Photo on the left is a model walking for the fashion show in Russia.) We’ve gotten so much positive reaction at the shows and have been featured in media, even a spread in Harpers Bazaar. So we’ve been working on production to bring it to market to meet demand and we know there will be plenty of it!

What excites you most about being a part of SVC? 

 The single most compelling component of SVC is the people. It’s wonderful to be a part of a network and community people who are like-minded in the power of social change. People who really want to make a difference in the world with passion and purpose. It’s not just about the money, it’s about building a better world. I look forward to the conferences, when I get to see old friends and make new ones. It provides a much needed injection of consciousness that welcomes authenticity, purpose, and mission. It’s where I draw my inspiration.

Join leaders like MaryAnne in our Membership Circle and at our annual conference this November 13-15 in Berkeley CA, as we convene to “Welcome the Next Economy”.

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