In this episode of Room at the Table, Betsy Cerulo interviews John Guingrich, the President and CEO of The League, a nonprofit organization advocating for people with disabilities, about the importance of creating a disability-empowered environment. The conversation highlights specific challenges faced by people with disabilities in the workplace, the need for greater inclusion and understanding, and how to improve workplace culture to be more mindful of people with disabilities.
About John Guingrich
John Guingrich is a dynamic advocate and leader in the field of disability rights. As the President and CEO of The League, a nonprofit organization based in Indiana, he advocates for people with any disability so they can achieve equality, gain choice and control over their lives, and receive the independence and inclusion they deserve.
Throughout his career, John has been instrumental in breaking down barriers and promoting inclusivity in various settings, particularly in the workplace. He has been a driving force behind initiatives that equip managers and supervisors with the knowledge and skills to accommodate and empower employees with disabilities. His passion for advocacy extends beyond his professional life, as he actively engages in community outreach and collaborates with local employers to create more inclusive workplaces.
Episode Transcript – Creating a Disability-Empowered Environment
Welcome to Room at the Table, an opportunity for you to join me, Betsy Cerulo, and my guests for conversations about creating equitable and inclusive workplaces where leaders rise above mediocrity and our teams thrive. Pull up a chair, there’s always Room at the Table.
Welcome to another meaningful conversation on Room at the Table. I am Betsy Cerulo, your host, and welcome to my guest today, John Guingrich. He is the President and CEO of The League, a successful nonprofit based in Indiana, which advocates for people with any disability so they can achieve equality, gain choice and control over their lives, and receive the independence and inclusion they deserve. John is a fierce advocate for people with disabilities and anyone on his path whom he can serve. I’ve known him for a long time, and he has championed and pushed me to be a strong leader and ally for people with disabilities. So today, we are talking about how to create a disability-empowered environment. So pull up a chair, enjoy your favorite beverage, and let’s get started. Well, hello, my friend.
Betsy, it’s so great to talk with you. It has been such a long time. And I was just excited when you extended this offer. Thank you so much.
Oh, absolutely. And John, I’d say we’ve known each other for probably over 10 years.
When you were working with a very successful company in the federal government. And I knew from the moment we started to talk that there were some important things and messages that you would teach. And I’m so grateful for every time we spoke. I watched how you conducted business and you’re just amazing. Amazing.
Well, thank you. For me, it was just doing the best that I could. I consider you a peer mentor as well. So, you need to understand that. You taught me a lot about working with the federal government or government work, because we were both going through it. We were a little farther on the federal side, but you’ve been doing government work. And so, we taught each other. And so that was just fantastic. I love it when we can do that.
And in the role you are in now, I know there are so many people that you’re touching in and outside of your community. So, for our listeners, since they can’t see us, would you share your disability? Tell my audience about that.
Absolutely. So, I was born with my disability. It is a congenital disability or birth defect or whatever people want to call it. For me, it impacted both my arms. I have shorter arms with, shall we say, unique hands. They’re not fully formed hands. Also, my left leg is shorter, so I wear a prosthetic leg. Being born with a disability, I didn’t learn how to do anything differently. I just automatically did everything differently. It wasn’t like you’re reteaching somebody. You learn a different way as you go. I couldn’t tell you the medical terminology for it. There was a time my parents probably knew it. I can tell you I learned how to pronounce the word thalidomide because it was a drug used during pregnancy at the time that my mom was pregnant. I learned how to say that word just so I could tell people, “No, it was not thalidomide.” But beyond that, it’s an orthopedic disability over my life related to disability. I had nine surgeries on my left leg, which allowed me to use my prosthetic leg and walk.
In the times that we interacted, I never knew. I knew because I saw you, but there was no difference to me than another man standing in the room.
Yeah. And that’s one of the things with some of the work that AdNet does where we do support people with disabilities, I am always amazed at the brilliance and the command of whatever quote-unquote disability that you have, that the community has, where you don’t even know. I mean, you know it but you don’t know it. To me, it’s amazing.
For me, I attribute that to my parents and how I was raised. I was born in the late 60s, 1969, my parents were pretty progressive in the 70s. My parents were the ones that allowed me to try anything. Now, it is called dignity of risk, make an informed decision and go try. And back then it didn’t have a term. If my parents had been different, I would be very different. The word “can’t” was not allowed in our house until you tried. It was, “Try and then figure out a different way.” Every day, I attribute that to them. Whenever I get to talk about this, I attribute that to my parents, because if they were not the independent folks and the advocates that they were, I would not be who I am today. I know of at least another parent, my parents’ age, that when she first met my parents, it was at a picnic, and she was ready to call child protective services because they were letting me do some crazy stuff as a toddler that she didn’t believe a person with a disability should do even though she had a child with a disability. It was just a very different mindset. Later on in life, she and I met, and she goes, “Your parents were so right. And I was so wrong.”
Well, I’m glad she saw that. It is amazing how our parents support each other. If I do the flip side of it, me being LGBT, my mother who is, “No, don’t want you to live that life,” that gave me the push to be more passionate as I got older to be a strong advocate for the community. So, I know it’s different but it’s amazing how our parents shape us.
Absolutely. Yep, absolutely.
If we look at people with disabilities, what I really want here is, since the work that I do, especially with Room at the Table, it’s about workplace culture, I want the listeners to see people who are in leadership roles, whether or not they have a disability, to see how they can make their work environment, and even every place they go, more empowering for people with disabilities. So, what do you see as the biggest challenge facing people with disabilities in today’s workplace?
Sure. So, when you figure that only 21-22% of people with disabilities are employed, there’s a huge disparity in the number of non-disabled versus disabled that are employed. But yet, there are so many companies that are like, “We’re all about inclusion, we’re all about employing people with disabilities.” And I believe that, and I believe that at that C-suite level, at that CEO, COO level, they believe that very much. The issue becomes that we don’t equip more of those mid-level managers and frontline managers or supervisors on how to make an accommodation, how to include somebody with a disability, and how to ask the right questions. We just think that should come naturally and it doesn’t. People don’t ask questions because they don’t want to offend. Or they don’t ask questions in an interview because you’re not supposed to. Understand that. And in not asking questions, some things get miscommunicated. The example I’ll give, I have a physical disability, it is blatantly obvious. So people will ask questions. I have a younger brother who has a traumatic brain injury, but if you saw him walk down the street, you wouldn’t have a clue. Part of his traumatic brain injury is when too many people give him directions, he has a fight or flight, so he takes off. Literally, if somebody just simply said, “How can we help you better?” he’d tell them, have one person give me instructions, and that would be the end of it. But when he has so many people doing it, his thing is to walk instead of getting frustrated.
It’s interesting because this brings up, do I call it either the silent disability or the invisible disability? Yours is obvious and your brother’s is not. What I see in my workplace, because I have two employees who have disabilities, looking at them, you would not know. But when they ask for a certain accommodation, if they go somewhere or if they fly somewhere, they get a look of, “What do you need that?” or basically, “Get to the back of the line.” And that’s so offensive. And it’s not fair because a person with a disability, whatever that disability is, is a person with a disability. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Exactly. Exactly. You take somebody who has low vision, may not be completely blind, but has low vision. Where I happen to work at The League, we have people with all sorts of disabilities because that’s part of our culture and who we are. I can travel around the community with one of our staff members and she has low vision. She only uses a white cane, which often people who are blind or visually impaired use, she only uses it in large crowds to make other people aware that she has some vision loss because in her typical day, she can see well enough to walk, she can traverse. And it confuses the heck out of people. It is one of those things where somebody who’s deaf can walk in the room, and until you see them start to sign, you don’t know that they have a disability per se. We just need to become more accepting of what we don’t know. It goes back to the old cubby rules, seek first to understand before you make a judgment. There’s really no reason to make a judgment, it’s understand and figure out how we can best serve each other.
Well, if that was extended across everything, we’d have a much better world.
Everything, right now, is about judgment. In the disability community, it’s people on the outside, and I’ll say, my community because I don’t have a disability, there’s this judgment, or whatever opinion you think you have. And if people would stop and listen, or take the time to understand and ask a question. Well, I’m going to back it up a little bit. I think with some people it’s a fear because maybe if I don’t talk about it, it’s better. But if you go and ask someone who’s blind or ask a question to someone who has a physical disability, I find that if you ask the question, they’re wanting to bring you into what their journey is.
I agree with you. I tell people the worst that is likely going to happen, you run into somebody, whether it be in employment, or just out in the community and you have a question, the worst that’s ever going to happen if you ask somebody about their disability, is they’re going to go, “No, I don’t talk about that.” And likely that is because they’ve acquired their disability, and they’re still dealing with it. For people that acquired a disability, there’s a grieving process because you’ve lost something. I will admit, when I was in college and had more time between classes, I was the obnoxious person. If I was in the grocery store and a little kid would stop and point and their mom or dad was like, “Oh, no, no, no, don’t do that, don’t do that.” I would follow them around to the store until they had to check out because when they got to the checkout, they couldn’t go anywhere. And then the little kid got to ask. My life during college, I was a camp counselor at camp. So, I interacted well with kids. And I would go, “No, let them ask the question. If we were in school, you’d want them to ask a question, right?” Well, yeah, I’m like, “Well, the world is their school.” Let them ask the question. And the worst that will happen is somebody will say, “I don’t talk about that.” But in most cases, you are right. People are happy to share the journey they’re on and what they’re experiencing. If we look at the common things we experience, it is amazing how many more things we experience that are common than are uncommon to each other. And you know what’s so beautiful about children? They don’t have that frame of reference of something’s wrong unless their parents taught them. Exactly.
They just want to know because children are naturally inquisitive. An adult can be just as innocent and inquisitive because that’s how we understand better. But sometimes, working with adults, it’s sometimes like working with unevolved children.
That is very true. We, as adults, and it is unfortunate, and we’ve all been there, I’ve been there, I think we’ve all been there, there are times we allow our pride to get in our way. We don’t want to admit there’s something we don’t know so we’d rather not ask the question. Nobody realizes that we don’t know if we don’t ask the question.
And I find that, especially with what I have learned with employees and my corporate staff, and, also, contractual staff, is people will come back and say, “Well, I think so and so thinks I’m making things up because they can’t see it.” And no one should ever have to defend what their life is. But there’s always going to be somebody out there that has a stupid response. But I think there are five more people out there that have the heartfelt response or know the questions to ask or create the space for welcoming.
Yes, I agree. And when we talk, we talk a lot with local employers and some of them are really large national corporations, and they’re like, “So what should we do differently?” And we’re like, “Simply have a conversation.” You want to know what type of accommodation somebody needs? Have the conversation. And it may not be the first thing that a person with a disability suggests. It’s a dialog to figure out what’s the most reasonable accommodation. You’ve seen a slight increase over the last few years of people with disabilities in the employment sector. Part of that reason is the pandemic. If it didn’t teach us anything else, it taught us you can work remotely. And that removed a number of barriers for people with disabilities, it removed the barrier of transportation because transportation and employment are so interconnected. If you can’t get to work, how do you work? Well, when you can get to your living room or get to your office and kick on your laptop, it makes it a whole lot easier than accessing that bus or that private van to get you wherever you need to go. The other thing is it’s reduced that social stigma. If I can work remotely, there are less questions I have to answer, less stairs I have to deal with, and less anxiety for my disability being out in front instead of my skills and experience as a person with a disability.
So, are you seeing an uptick in the percentage of the disabled community getting employment?
We are, not huge, but we are seeing an uptick. Actually, it was interesting. For us here in Indiana, it started right before the pandemic. And the reason it started right before the pandemic is the unemployment rate was so low that employers were having to find other groups of potential employees. And people with disabilities are so underemployed that there was a large group. And then, suddenly, when it was, “Oh, they can work remotely,” we saw a couple percentage point uptick. We hope that continues as people bring people back into the office or as companies bring people back into the office. We hope that they still offer those, at least, hybrid options, if not remote options.
Well, I think about the work that I’m in and as a federal contractor doing staff augmentation, the gift about what we do that makes people successful in my business is, I’m just going to say, first, your intuition to be able to make a good choice in terms of who’s the best fit for a role and all the vetting that goes along with that. But someone who has a disability, I can tell you that in the past that might not always have served the staffing industry, but now, I view it as if you can feel in your soul about a person’s essence and your customers’ needs, the rest doesn’t matter.
Yeah. I agree. I don’t know, I don’t remember the exact statistics. What I will tell you anecdotally, and I believe this to be true, people with disabilities, when they get a job, are far more loyal to their job. Why? Because it’s hard for them to get the first job in the first place. So, they don’t want to have to go look again. I look at one of my kids who’s not disabled and his ability to drop a job and pick up a job and drop a job and pick up a job. And I’m scratching my head going, “Dude, what are you doing?” And part of it is an age thing, I understand. It’s a generational thing. But part of it is he’s a fit 20-something white male that has a military background and knows where he can go. For somebody with a disability, every time that they apply for a job, it’s, “Oh, I’ve got to answer all those questions again.” And if they haven’t had a job for a while, there’s that fear of, “Well, if I get a job and I take a job, and I lose my benefits that I’m already on, and then I lose that job, it’s going to take me years to get back on those benefits.” So it’s interesting, not only do we have to educate employers, we have to educate people with disabilities on it. There’s that dignity of risk, you’ve got to make that decision and take that risk.
Yeah. There’s definitely been a time for the LGBT community because if you could be in a place where you feel safe, we are so loyal. I mean, I was groomed to be loyal in my family because if you didn’t stay at a job until you retired, my mother would just take you to heaven and back. So, parenting by fear, but it worked. But one of the things that I have always advocated in my community and people with diversity in a diverse group is that if you hire us, whether that’s as a vendor or as an employee because we know that we have been told no so many times, we are going to make sure that we are the best because we never want you to go elsewhere. It’s kind of like, somebody can open the door for me, but I always say, but to stay in the door, I’ve got to be better than everybody else who’s already inside the door. And I think, too, when you say that about the disabled community, I get that, the loyalty.
Yeah, I completely agree. And you’re right. It’s one thing to get in the door. There are laws out there that are made to level the playing field, like the ADA. What I tell people and I told a class this morning, those laws are there to guarantee you the opportunity to succeed or fail. And even though they’re there to guarantee you, we all know guarantees really don’t exist, but they help create a playing field where you have the opportunities to succeed or fail. Once you get in that door, you’ve got to do what you believe is right so that you succeed. You’ve got to step up. Even when it comes to advocacy efforts, I will use my brother as an example again, my brother and I walk into the same room, and as a person with a disability, I have power that he doesn’t because my disability is seen. People remember me when I walk in the room. So you go back to when we did federal contracting in the federal contracting days, I would go to one of the big SBA events and meet with all those different agencies. And people remember my name. They didn’t remember me because of where it worked. They remembered my name because if I walked into a room, “That’s John because John’s the guy with the short arms.” You know what? That’s fine. You remember me however you want but you remembered my name. It’s up to me to decide what I do with that after you remember that name. It’s the same as employment. Once I get in that door, it’s up to me to make sure that you see me as the employee you never want to let go.
Absolutely. Well, you know what? Let’s talk about intersectionality. So, you’re a cisgender white male.
Okay. For your counterpart who’s from a diverse community, is there a difference in treatment that you see in the community?
Oh, yeah. Part of the reason that Centers for Independent Living like ours are so focused on intersectionality is because the more categories you compound on somebody, the more types of discrimination they face. If you are disabled, and you are black, if you are disabled and you are transgender, if you are disabled, black, and transgender, then you’re three times the amount, just as an example. We know those are barriers, huge, and what we’re trying to do is make sure when we talk about all those disparaging activities that go on, that disability is included in that intersectionality because sometimes people forget disability. The League and civil rights organizations like us, or disability rights organizations like us are reminding people that people with disabilities intersect with all other socioeconomic and disadvantaged groups or underserved groups, or whatever terms you want to use. But disability is the largest minority population across the country because we span every group. You can be young and disabled, and you can get old and be disabled, and we’ve crossed over a group. So roughly 25% of the adult population is somebody with a disability.
Yeah. With some of the work that AdNet does, we do a lot of work in reasonable accommodations where we’re providing readers and scribes. And my staff will tell you, hands down, when we do that work, it is so fulfilling. And no request is too much because we know that we are able to read and hear and are fully mobile, so to be able to serve that community, it’s almost like in the craziness of work, we feel like we’re doing something really good to serve the greater good.
Yeah. I get that very well. So, whether it be interpreting for somebody who’s deaf, or transcribing things into braille, because we do both, we have sign language interpreters, we transcribe things into braille or large print, communication is key. When you’re helping somebody to be able to communicate to get through that job orientation or to be able to understand that employee manual, it’s a huge thing. You look at the population of people who are deaf, and interpreting, and I think this goes for any language, but I’m going to focus on, obviously, on deaf because of disability. I can’t imagine being in a healthcare setting and having to have a family member interpret for me, regardless of the language I speak, whether it be a spoken language, Spanish, Burmese, Chinese, or American Sign Language. If, suddenly, you’re asking me if my child can interpret for me — absolutely not. I have a right to have an interpreter there. And that’s your responsibility to provide that. It goes much smoother when you have an interpreter because the interpreters are trained.
Absolutely. So let me ask you this as we bring our conversation to an end. It’s like, I have so many more questions, and I know we could create a part two, which we might. In your opinion, how can we shift the perception of how society tends to view people with disabilities as a disadvantage to an empowering perspective?
Again, it is all about communication and teaching those people that are actually doing the work. It’s not the C-level employees that have gone to a conference and understand it, it is teaching those frontline supervisors, those middle managers, that, look, they’re people first. You have employees that have disabilities that you don’t even know about. It may be a mental health issue that they’re seeking therapy for, it may be attention deficit disorder that they use medication for, or they’ve just found other coping mechanisms for. My daughter has finally decided to tell us she thinks she is a highly functioning ADD adult. I only wish I had her high functioning ADD because of what I know she does. She’s phenomenal. But it’s realizing that people with disabilities are all around you. It is simply being open to having the conversation and being open to thinking a little differently.
Well, and as we were talking earlier, it’s about listening, it’s about asking questions, and, I think, being vulnerable enough to know that I don’t know. And to ask because we are all in this together and there’s enough opportunity for everyone. And if we would just open the doors to it, we could really all prosper each other.
Absolutely. I completely agree. There was a time when it was, “I need my piece of the pie.” Well, we see in the nonprofit community, I remember the nonprofit community in the 90s, and it was, “I get my piece of the pie. And we’re going to keep my piece of the pie.” And I think this translates into employment into everything else we do in the world. Now, it is, “You know what? The more we work together, it makes the pie bigger. And if we make the pie bigger, there are more opportunities for more people.” And that increases employment, that reduces stigma, that increases self-worth when we can help people realize that.
Absolutely. Well, John, let me ask you this. So, is The League just in Indiana, or are you also outside of Indiana?
So, The League, as an organization, we are just in Indiana, but we are what is known as a Center for Independent Living. That is a federal term because we are federally funded. Part of our funding is federal. There are 350 Centers for Independent Living across the country. Every one is different but there are five core services they have to provide. They have to provide information and referral, that includes unemployment because they believe knowledge is power. They have to provide individual and systemic advocacy. We’re advocates by nature, and that doesn’t mean that we all go marching down the middle of the road and protesting. That means we help people learn how to ask for what they need. It is teaching somebody independent living skills because if you acquire a disability, you need to learn how to do things differently. It is peer support. We use a model that people with disabilities are the experts on people with disabilities so have them talk to each other and they’ll figure things out. The last one is helping people get out of nursing homes. It’s called transition. So it’s helping people get out of nursing homes. And that’s also helping young people with disabilities figure out what’s next in life beyond high school. Every Center for Independent Living provides those five core services. And there’s the Administration on Community Living, which is a federal agency that has a list of all those centers across the country.
Wow. It’s amazing what you do. So, if any of our listeners want to know more about your organization or make a donation, what’s the best way for them to reach?
I appreciate you asking that. So, our website is The-League.org. Simply go to that website, you can make a donation, you can go to that website to ask questions, and that information referral piece that I mentioned, we provide that internationally. We provide that anywhere. Anybody can ask us a question, and we’ll point you in the right direction. So don’t hesitate to reach out.
Wonderful. And another organization that my company works closely with is the National Federation of the Blind. And that’s NFB.org. So, like I said, we all take care of each other, and there’s plenty to go around. Plenty.
So, John, thank you so much for this conversation. It is an honor and a privilege to be on this journey with you, as you have morphed into, I’d say, your most amazing self and as an amazing leader. So thank you.
Betsy, thank you for the opportunity. Just seeing your face come on the screen made me smile. I know your listeners can’t see your face, but just the ability to interact with you, it’s been a long time, and I so love doing this. So thank you so much.
Thank you, John. So, listeners, we can’t wait until we get your feedback on what you thought of today. So, thank you for joining us, and there’s always Room at the Table.
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