Commitment: We all must commit to building a foundation of understanding — ensuring education around disability is available in schools etc. Most people are stigmatized around the idea of disability, even those of us living with disability. The root of all of this is thinking somehow having a disability is a life sentence to misery, when it really is not.
As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’, I had the pleasure to interview Tova Sherman.
Tova is an award-winning Inclusion Leader and CEO of The NGO; reachAbility. Her trail-blazing approach to equalizing the playing field in the area of disability at work has led her to be a highly sought-out Presenter and Consultant to P3 Clients across Canada & The US. Her recently released title; Win, Win, Win: The 18 Inclusion-isms You Need to Become a Disability Confident Employer is only the latest accomplishment from this passionate innovator.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
Great question! I am the youngest of 5 kids and in our family, disability was no big deal. Everyone in my family lived with disability; my mother used a Cervox to speak (similar to Steven Hawking), my father had Kidney disease, my brother had Colitis and so on.
When I saw how people treated anyone differently, I was really disturbed. As a person who is quite severe on the ADHD Spectrum and lives with mental illness, I was bullied for being different as well. This drove me to use my powers of communication to equalize the playing field for those who are most disenfranchised.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Being on the ADHD Spectrum leaves books often out of reach. As a result, I have always read articles, magazines, and both the New York Times and Washington Post end to end almost daily. The one book that truly inspired me was Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. I found it very helpful in identifying inclusion tipping points and informed my thinking.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
I will never let what I cannot do get in the way of what I can do (which is a modernized version of an Edward Everett Hale quote). This means everything when you are neurodiverse and you bring incredible strengths, but also need to understand clearly that you have some unique challenges to address.
Additionally, the title of my book, Win,Win,Win, is something I live by. The idea that there should be three wins in everything I do, and if there are not I will likely pass. For example, if my team places a person with disability in a job, the three wins are clear: the client got a good gig, the employer wins because they have added both diversity and creativity to the team, and the consumer wins because they see themselves reflected in your team and they know you are an accommodating employer whom they wish to support.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Another Inclusion-ism I use a lot is: The Fish Stinks from the Head. That is what leadership is all about — understanding that the tone, the message and the culture of your workplace is influenced from the top down. This means leaders have to possess the emotional intelligence to address their barriers (conscious or unconscious biases) as they relate to inclusion. If you take leadership and the responsibilities that come with it seriously, this is absolutely essential.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
To get my mind/body to relax, I cook (and unfortunately eat). That said, preparation is how I stay cool before any public appearances. Before any presentation, I will do as much research as possible. I need to fully understand the audience make-up in order to be ready for the challenge. Finally, I would be remiss if I did not add that because I live with an anxiety disorder and ADHD, I also tend to use a combination of talk therapy and medication to manage that aspect of my health.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
Honestly, no one likes a Canadian telling Americans what is what. But if Steven Frum can do it so can I!
That said, key tipping points are all around us. From excessive police violence bringing about the overdue Black Lives Matter movement to Harvey Weinstein-like reckonings galvanizing the Me-Too Movement. The commonality cannot be ignored; each required tipping point action(s).
The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) was established over 35 years ago, yet the idea of disability confidence is relatively new. More needs to be done. That’s why I decided to write this book. I would prefer not to see the horrific crimes I referenced above occur, so perhaps a peaceful tipping point can be supportive.
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 2000, I started an NGO with no money — just a desk with a phone. My goal was to help anyone living with any type of disability “equalize their playing field”. From legal services to employment supports, the idea was to be super creative in the how we do it.
The result: over 14 client-centered programs, an Arts Festival, an accessible tourism program, free legal services, and so much more. All our services to support clients are 100% free. Our model is founded upon many services to the few, as opposed to few services to the many. Our financial model is based on partnership and a Social Enterprise (Inclusion in Action), so no time wasted on Golf Tournaments (which I love attending but have no time to plan) or fundraising dinners.
I founded an Arts festival for persons with disabilities known as BAAFF (the Bluenose Ability Arts & Film Festival) in 2015 in order to provide the Disability Arts Community access to resources and opportunities to develop and show their work. My most recent initiative is the Accessible Tourist (www.accessibletourist.com) — a place where travelers to Canada can find truly inclusive vacation spots and activities. Travelers with disabilities need to be sure they will be accommodated wherever they go.
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 a diverse executive team?
Over the last 35 years, there have been several studies that address the improved reliability and creativity of workplaces when persons with disabilities are included at all levels (https://broad.msu.edu/news/how-disability-diversity-in-the-workplace-can-improve-productivity/).
But let us focus on a different angle: the belief system, the baggage (biases we bring with us) that inform leadership perspectives around disability. It is not news that persons with disabilities are not experiencing an equalized playing in everyday activities: “Persons with disabilities are more likely to experience adverse socioeconomic outcomes such as…lower levels of employment, and higher poverty rates.”
All the studies in the world will not change that until we acknowledge that our source of learning about disability (no classes in school that I remember) has resulted in stigma. Where did you first hear or learn about disability? It tends to fall into 4 categories:
1. Family/at home (usually whispered about)
2. School/Playground (a very cruel place to have a disability I can tell you that)
3.The Movies (Guy loses memory has no idea who he is)
4. Media/News reports (CNN rarely reports on a Bi-polar dad doing great, holding down job, three kids etc).
The point is, how could these sources of learning about disability leave you with anything but a stigmatized view?
I often share with executives the importance of commitment to education (correcting the myths) and osmosis (working around persons with disabilities will remove a lot of the misinformation you have been basing decisions on). That is how we will open doors fully from the top down and the bottom up.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
1.) Commitment: We all must commit to building a foundation of understanding — ensuring education around disability is available in schools etc. Most people are stigmatized around the idea of disability, even those of us living with disability. The root of all of this is thinking somehow having a disability is a life sentence to misery when it really is not.
2.) Awareness: Emotional Intelligence must become commonplace — to address unconscious biases that are getting in your way — without you even knowing.
For example, I met an employer who really wanted to improve the representation of persons with disabilities, but he was frustrated because he called an NGO 3 years ago and expressed his intent to share job ads to prove how inclusive he was. I asked him, “Did you hire anyone from those agencies.?” His answer was no.
“Have you interviewed anyone that came from that Agency?” I asked.
Finally, I asked, “Have you spoken to or reached out to that Agency since?”
“No,” he stated. So how “inclusive” were his actions?
3.) Critical thinking seems to be absent in many workplaces. The importance of critical thinking cannot be understated. It is not a new concept, but critical thinking leads to curiosity — not asking someone “what is wrong with you?” Genuine curiosity.
4.) Staying Curious: Stop assuming you know what is going on with someone. Instead, be open to being wrong or simply being able to admit you don’t know. I am always amazed at how hard it is for some people to admit that.
5.) Apply your knowledge: When stigma is rearing its ugly head, silence is not acceptable. We can never become so complacent that when we see someone disrespect a person with disability, we are not willing to speak up. That is what I mean by applying your knowledge.
If you know better, act better.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I see silver linings in every cloud. That is something I had to develop, as optimism did not come naturally to me. I see a paradigm shift already in the way society views disability. The medical paradigm suggests those of us living with disability are somehow broken and require fixing, guidance and cannot function independently. While it may be ridiculous, the basis of the Medical Paradigm is that we are broken, Alternatively, the Social Paradigm is where persons with disabilities are valued and included in all decisions as they relate to themselves.
I believe Maya Angelou said it best:
“If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.”
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to lunch with Zuckerberg/Sandberg and show them how to develop a succession plan that is focused on diversity & encourage them to see business through the Win,Win,Win, perspective.
How can our readers follow you online?
I am on Instagram @: tovasherman
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Thank you for your commitment to showcasing diverse voices with diverse opinions that we can all enjoy. This is a really great example of a win, win, win!