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Disability Inclusion In The Workplace: Intuit’s Ted Drake On How Businesses Make Accommodations For Customers and Employees Who Have a Disability

An Interview With Eric Pines

… We started an Accessibility Lunch and Learn series immediately after the company shifted to a remote workspace during the COVID Pandemic. With more than 80 presentations, we’ve explored the broad spectrum of accessibility, inclusion, intersectionality, and disability awareness. This has included multiple colleagues sharing their experiences with neurodiversity and mental health. These sessions have led to a rich neurodiversity network. Each of our presentations are archived with transcripts and resources. When requested, we also anonymize speakers and comments.

As we all know, over the past several years there’s been a great deal of discussion about inclusion and diversity in the workplace. One aspect of inclusion that is not discussed enough, is how businesses can be inclusive of people with disabilities. We know that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires businesses to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. What exactly does this look like in practice? What exactly are reasonable accommodations? Aside from what is legally required, what are some best practices that can make a business place feel more welcoming and inclusive of people with disabilities? To address these questions, we are talking to successful business leaders who can share stories and insights from their experience about the “How Businesses Make Accommodations for Customers and Employees Who Are Disabled “.

As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Ted Drake.

Ted Drake is the Global Accessibility Leader at Intuit, a financial software company that creates TurboTax and QuickBooks. Ted leads a distributed team of Accessibility Champions; working together to power prosperity. Prior to Intuit, Ted co-founded Yahoo’s Accessibility Lab and was a developer evangelist. Ted speaks regularly at technology conferences and is a member of the steering committee for the Web4All Conference on accessibility research.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you ended up where you are?

I began working on accessibility about 20 years ago, as the website manager for the San Diego Museum of Art. As a public entity, we were required to make sure our art and resources were available to everyone, regardless of their cognitive, sensory, or physical ability.

I became an early advocate for standards-based web development, which means using global standards to build web sites correctly from the start. It sounds simple, but this was revolutionary at a time when people were doing whatever they could to make a website look good in Internet Explorer. This led me to joining Yahoo as a web developer on Finance, Food, Tech, being a developer evangelist, and co-founding their Accessibility Lab. And then Intuit to lead accessibility, inclusive design, and inclusion. In 2014, I co-founded Intuit’s Ability Network, an employee network for people with disabilities and their families. Every day brings new challenges and successes.

You are a successful leader. Which three-character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

I credit my mother for each of these traits:

Being a teacher: My mother, siblings, and I have all been teachers. I taught photography for seven years at Palomar College in San Diego. Teaching has taught me active listening, embracing learning differences amongst students, and knowing how to communicate.

Always learning: My downtime includes listening to podcasts, watching documentaries, photography, and reading research studies. This Podcast Will Kill You, hosted by two epidemiologists, had an episode on Sickle Cell disease. This episode inspired me to conduct an inclusive design research project at Intuit to understand how our products could better support Sickle Cell Warriors.

Hard work: It’s normal for me to work 10–12 hours a day because I love what I do and can see the improvement it makes for other people.

Can you share a story about one of your greatest work-related struggles? Can you share what you did to overcome it?

I had two personal struggles when I joined Intuit: organization and delegating responsibilities.

For organizing content, we made the decision to publish everything and to use collaborative databases to store every audit, document, and stakeholder. We use a modified Agile Project Management process for scheduling our inclusive project work. We also use publishing platforms that can be indexed by our intranet so everything can be discovered within the company. We want people to find answers and to understand the status of their project.

I had a manager tell me we needed to solve the “Ted gets hit by a bus” dilemma. With a small centralized team, how do you continue to progress when a person leaves? This radical delegation has been difficult for me. But delegation gives other people the opportunity to grow as leaders across the organization.

Sagar Barbhaya joined the accessibility team in 2014 as an intern; he is now Intuit’s Accessibility Engineering Leader, global co-leader of our Intuit Abilities Network, and leads our training program. Our Accessibility Champion program transformed our core team of two people into a cross-organizational team of 1,200 accessibility champions, 20 accessibility product leaders, and 4 subject matter experts. Our champions are leading projects, volunteering, working with customers, teaching workshops, and much more.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Here are a couple of examples.

Pam Bingham, a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion senior program manager, and I have collaborated on research for Sickle Cell Disease and Long Covid . We’re still working on how we can improve the product experience for people with Long Covid, specifically short term memory loss, anxiety, brain fog, and fatigue. We’ve also been working within Intuit to increase awareness of Long Covid and support for those who are experiencing the symptoms.

The Intuit Accessibility team moved from our core engineering unit to the Intuit Design System organization in 2020. This allows us to influence the earliest stages of product development and design systems. I’m especially proud of our new color palette and typography. These will significantly improve the readability for our customers in the future.

Fantastic. Let’s now shift to our discussion about inclusion. Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

In 2016, we did a follow-me-home interview with Mozzeria, a Deaf-owned pizzeria restaurant. We learned the importance of representation within product development, customer support, and services. This led us to hiring Sarah Margolis-Greenbaum, as an intern the following summer, to research the barriers and opportunities for Deaf entrepreneurs and accountants. Sarah’s other project was to ensure the next person we hired wouldn’t face the same barriers she discovered as a Deaf employee.

Since her internship, Sarah has become an accessibility subject matter expert. She created our sign language and captioning protocols, established live captioning at all large events, and worked with our accommodations team to establish a centralized accommodations budget for interpreters and other services. She also mentors a network of Deaf and hard-of hearing colleagues, and much more.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have an inclusive work culture?

People developing products and services tend to be their own test subjects. If that group is homogenous, errors will slip through to production. Common examples are automated soap dispensers that only recognize light skin tones, camera applications that take upside down photos for left-handed users, car seat belts that don’t protect women and people of shorter stature, and artificial intelligence systems built on biased data. An inclusive work culture ensures teams are diverse, everyone has the confidence to express concerns, and product teams reflect the needs of your customers.

In 2020, the TurboTax and Mint products created a new team to design sophisticated animations. To make sure they were accessible, Hsin-Fang Wang, a QuickBooks engineer with a vestibular disorder, consulted with the designers and engineers. Together, they created a process for delivering two versions of every animation.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires businesses to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. For the benefit of our readers, can you help explain what this looks like in practice? What exactly are reasonable accommodations? Can you please share a few examples?

One of Intuit’s goals is to be “the place where the world’s top talent does the best work of their lives.” Workplace accommodations are adjustments made to ensure everyone can bring their whole selves to work and make their best contributions.

One example was a colleague who moved from our office in India to California in 2016. He uses a wheelchair and it was difficult for him to attend meetings that were scattered across the campus. He requested an electric wheelchair, which we provided for him to use whenever he needed to travel between buildings.

Another example is people with Long Covid who may have chronic fatigue. Working from home, and avoiding a 30 minute commute, can be an important way to reserve energy.

In response to the two examples above, Intuit has shifted Zoom meetings to start 5–10 minutes after the hour to give people time between meetings. Also reasonable accommodations are offered including assistive technology, like screen readers, magnification, reading enhancements, task managers, and ergonomic desks and keyboards. For additional context, please search for a Protocol article titled, “How to Support Workers with Long Covid,” which includes an Intuit perspective.

From a customer standpoint, our product development teams are also actively exploring and experimenting with ideas for improving product experiences for small business owners and consumers with Long Covid for products such as QuickBooks and TurboTax.

Aside from what is legally required, what are some best practices that can make a business place feel more welcoming and inclusive of people with disabilities? If you can, please share a few examples.

The number one best practice businesses can make is appreciating how other people experience a situation. Intuit’s accessibility team welcomes every new employee with an email introducing our commitment to customers, employee resource groups, and links about accessibility and inclusion at Intuit. The email also includes a video about disability etiquette from the Washington DC Office of Disability Rights.

We recently updated our interview process for technology candidates to create a more equitable experience for potential candidates. The new process, which was developed by a team that included neurodivergent colleagues, allows candidates to share their personal preferences for coding, communication, and interview format.

Can you share a few examples of ideas that were implemented at your workplace to help promote disability inclusion? Can you share with us how the work culture was impacted as a result?

Intuit launched an Accessibility Champion program in 2018 to give everyone an introduction to accessibility and a roadmap to becoming an inclusion leader. The champion program has been a huge success. More than 1,200 people have completed the introduction badge and 30 have become leaders within their products and locations. Our champion program has also been used as a template by dozens of technology companies. More than anything, our champions have transformed how we discuss accessibility and inclusion at Intuit. We build upon a foundation of common knowledge, and teams have the tools and resources they need.

We started an Accessibility Lunch and Learn series immediately after the company shifted to a remote workspace during the COVID Pandemic. With more than 80 presentations, we’ve explored the broad spectrum of accessibility, inclusion, intersectionality, and disability awareness. This has included multiple colleagues sharing their experiences with neurodiversity and mental health. These sessions have led to a rich neurodiversity network. Each of our presentations are archived with transcripts and resources. When requested, we also anonymize speakers and comments.

This is our signature question that we ask in many of our interviews. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started My Career”?

Everyday should be a challenge.

In art school, my professor emphasized that “comfort kills creativity.” We should always seek new challenges. Use your voice of the customer feedback for new problems to explore.

Keep your skills up to date.

It’s difficult to be a subject matter expert and stay current with technology and programming. As a developer, I wish I dedicated more personal time to building side projects and staying up to date with programming tools and languages.

Intersectionality is critical.

Our customers are not one-dimensional, neither should our approach to accessibility and inclusion. Your work needs to include cognitive, sensory, and physical abilities, as well as socioeconomic status, housing stability, family structure, gender, race, and education level.

Block your calendar to focus on tasks.

Dedicated time is important for working on projects that need focus. Create blocks of time on your calendar and reduce distractions.

Use “we” instead of “I”.

Always acknowledge and celebrate the work of others. Accessibility and Inclusion requires teamwork.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story about how that was relevant in your own life?

While it’s not a quote, I appreciate the lyrics to Kimya Dawson’s song “Walk Like Thunder”. It reminds me of supporting AIDS Art Alive and protecting the dwindling time with friends. There would be a memorial service every weekend with no end in sight. But you learn to carry their memory like a torch and walk like thunder. This song is about taking care of yourself and those around you. Keep moving forward and share the stories of those who’ve made an impact on your life.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

The world is filled with people who want to contribute, but may not know how to get started. The key to success is giving people an opportunity to contribute, while also having clear guidelines and success criteria.

I admire Jaccede, an organization working towards inclusive environments in France. Many people have developed inclusive maps, but Jaccede created a platform for data-driven community contribution. They hosted annual events for people to spread across their city and take detailed records of each business to create a comprehensive map of accessible places. It’s now possible for someone to find the perfect restaurant, theater, or park to meet their requirements.

Random Hacks of Kindness and Crisis Camp created global hackathons for social improvement. Tikkun Olam Makers (TOM) connects makers with people who need accommodations; together they create open source solutions and embrace the philosophy of Solve for one, Extend to many. There are many other collaborative organizations working towards inclusion, environment, justice, and education.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I believe in sharing knowledge and creativity. Everything I publish has a creative commons license, and I welcome people to use and adapt the content to their needs. I share technology and accessibility information on my personal website: last-child.com The name references a programming attribute and my status as the youngest of six kids. You can learn more about inclusive design on the Intuit Design System website. I also share information on YouTube, LinkedIn, Slideshare, and Flickr.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

About the Interviewer: Eric L. Pines is a nationally recognized federal employment lawyer, mediator, and attorney business coach. He represents federal employees and acts as in-house counsel for over fifty thousand federal employees through his work as a federal employee labor union representative. A formal federal employee himself, Mr. Pines began his federal employment law career as in-house counsel for AFGE Local 1923 which is in Social Security Administration’s headquarters and is the largest federal union local in the world. He presently serves as AFGE 1923’s Chief Counsel as well as in-house counsel for all FEMA bargaining unit employees and numerous Department of Defense and Veteran Affairs unions.

While he and his firm specialize in representing federal employees from all federal agencies and in reference to virtually all federal employee matters, his firm has placed special attention on representing Veteran Affairs doctors and nurses hired under the authority of Title. He and his firm have a particular passion in representing disabled federal employees with their requests for medical and religious reasonable accommodations when those accommodations are warranted under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (ADA). He also represents them with their requests for Federal Employee Disability Retirement (OPM) when an accommodation would not be possible.

Mr. Pines has also served as a mediator for numerous federal agencies including serving a year as the Library of Congress’ in-house EEO Mediator. He has also served as an expert witness in federal court for federal employee matters. He has also worked as an EEO technical writer drafting hundreds of Final Agency Decisions for the federal sector.

Mr. Pines’ firm is headquartered in Houston, Texas and has offices in Baltimore, Maryland and Atlanta, Georgia. His first passion is his wife and five children. He plays classical and rock guitar and enjoys playing ice hockey, running, and biking. Please visit his websites at www.pinesfederal.com and www.toughinjurylawyers.com. He can also be reached at eric@pinesfederal.com.

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