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Want an inclusive workplace? Hire the ‘original hackers’

September 21, 2021, 5:04 PM UTC

“People with disabilities were the original hackers,” says Quemuel Arroyo, the first-ever Chief Accessibility Officer at State of NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). “We have to hack our lives every day, because very little is designed for us.”

I caught up with Arroyo on the most recent episode of The Design of Business | The Business of Design podcast that I cohost with Jessica Helfand. Arroyo is a dynamic figure with a big job: To make sure that every person with any sort of disability can get where they need to go in New York efficiently and safely. And “hacking” the system will be a part of it, he promises. 

The question that led to his hacking comment was simple, yet direct. Did he think that the willingness of employers to fully support people working from home, an accommodation people with disabilities had been advocating for long before COVID, would disappear as the world opens back up? He felt certain that a new hybrid world was here to stay. “It won’t disappear, because companies both private and public have seen astronomical benefits of telework,” he says. But as hackers of spaces and opportunities, people with disabilities should be playing a larger role in the re-design of work, he believes. “We’ve always been saying, ‘I don’t need to be in an office…for you to have access to my mind and my contributions,’” he says.

When “hacking” comes baked into your skillset, new ideas are sure to follow.

Earlier in his career, Arroyo had been the chief accessibility specialist at NYC’s Department of Transportation for about six years. “A million New Yorkers with disabilities relied on me to cross the street,” he says, but so did the ten million tourists with disabilities. Arroyo’s job was to welcome them. “Come to New York! [W]e’re open for business, enjoy your stay, come spend your money, hang out and enjoy all that New York has to offer.”

He briefly left the public sector in 2019 to become interim President and Global Head of Community at Charge Enterprises, a publicly traded company that builds charging stations for electric vehicles, mobile device charging stations, and infrastructure for cell phone use. “I saw an opportunity to bring the conversation about equity, diversity, and inclusion in the private sector where no one was really driving that dialog —talking to government and cities around the world about how they were or weren’t folding accessibility into their products into their services.” 

The opportunity cost is more than just the business case for inclusion, he says. 

“[Leaders] need to understand what it mean[s] for these silent voices to not get the service they deserve.” It was a lesson he first learned when he acquired his disability, after an accident that necessitates the use of a wheelchair to get around. “It means that people don’t have a choice about what ‘quality of life’ means for them. And I wasn’t okay with that.”

And we shouldn’t be either.

Arroyo is a brilliant thinker who describes his current job as a “facilitator” of the broader inclusion mission at the MTA. “My job is to make sure that everyone knows that accessibility is their job.”

But for anyone struggling with how to wrap their arms around the new drumbeat of stakeholder capitalism, Arroyo shared an insight that made a big impression on me: It’s also everyone’s job to banish cynicism and distrust of the other side of the public/private divide. If you’re rolling your eyes at an entire category of stakeholder, you’re not the real deal.

“We need to trust one another more,” he says. “We need to encourage business to embrace the idea that they can innovate and iterate for a public good — which government can’t do because it’s not designed to do that.” 

You’ll know you’re doing stakeholder collaboration right if it everyone is a little uncomfortable.

“The only guaranteed route to failure is to think you have the answer. Unless you speak to a variety of stakeholders — and the key word there is variety — and unless you have conversations where there is tension, there’s a voice that’s missing from that table.”

Ellen McGirt
@ellmcgirt
Ellen.McGirt@fortune.com

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This edition of raceAhead was edited by Wandy Felicita Ortiz.

On background

Hispanic: A necessary debate over identity creates a new lexicon The people whose heritage we may or may not be celebrating this month are a racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse population, 62.1 million strong. And that’s what makes the ongoing conversation around terms like “Hispanic” so vital, particularly for people who want to distance themselves from words which have direct ties to the colonial experience in Latin America. Alfredo Corona, whose rap name is Aztec Speech, does “not really like to use terms like Hispanic and Latino too much,” preferring Chicano, a term popularized in the 1960s and nods to both his indigenous and American heritages. Fatima Garza, identifies as Chicana and fronteriza, which describes someone who navigates the unique cultures of the U.S. Mexico border area. "We didn't cross the border, the border crossed us. So, there's this very unique experience," Garza told NBC News.
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Moodboard

Michaela Coel-Emmy Awards
“Write the tale that scares you, that makes you feel uncertain, that isn’t comfortable. I dare you." Challenge accepted, Michaela Coel.
Rich Fury—Getty Images

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