Disability Inclusion and Accessibility: An Interview with Catarina Rivera

by Susan Mullin

We’re so happy for the opportunity to sit down with Catarina Rivera, disability inclusion consultant, speaker and self-advocate. Catarina has worked with a wide range of organizations to improve disability accessibility and inclusion, retention and product design and started an innovative platform called Blindish Latina that focuses on disability intersectionality, advocacy and storytelling. She has worn hearing aids from a young age and was diagnosed with progressive vision loss at 17 years old.

Catarina Rivera

Catarina, thank you for joining us. Our company has been working hard to educate ourselves on disability inclusion, particularly as it relates to the workplace. It’s an important part of our DEI journey, both personally and professionally. As part of this, we want to give a voice to disability advocates like you who have lived experience vs. our perspectives as allies.

If you could write a letter to hiring managers, what are three pieces of advice you’d offer if they want to have a more inclusive team for disabled employees?

Catarina: The first thing is to make sure managers understand how important DEI is and that only 21% of disabled employees disclose to HR. Managers are often reactive about disability and are not educating themselves about it proactively. They often don’t start learning about disabilities until someone discloses.

As a manager, you can start now on your journey and there are great ways to be informed. The good thing about accessibility and inclusion is that they will benefit everyone on the team, not just disabled team members. Many managers and organizations don’t quite understand the power of accessibility. A clear example are curb cuts which were designed for wheelchair users, but everyone uses them. This includes people pushing a stroller or pulling a cart and the elderly. 

The same thing happens with a team experience. As managers, it’s important that they are prepared to respond to disability disclosure. For example, they can say “Thank you for trusting me with this and I’ll support you however I can.” It’s important to avoid microaggressions – and there are a lot of them in disclosure. Like not believing the person who is disclosing. Managers should be a thought partner and safe space regarding disclosure. Don’t expect disabled employees to know everything about our disabilities and how to address challenges– we’re not disability or accessibility experts. 

Another important element – anything you are designing, be sure to build in best practices for accessibility and inclusion. It doesn’t have to be highly advanced. Meeting notes, agendas, and facilitating in a way that doesn’t favor dominant voices helps with inclusivity. Just saying “jump in if you want to comment” is not inclusive. In that instance, someone with a hearing delay may be less likely to jump in to avoid speaking over people. The people who feel entitled to jump in are those who have more power. My overall message is that there are small things you can do right away that will change the team experience for the better.

If you could write a letter to disabled candidates and employees, especially knowing a huge number of them have not disclosed their disabilities, what would you say to them about how to potentially go about disclosing? Anything you would like to share from your background of disclosure?

Catarina: My message for employees is that while you are looking for a job and/or in the job interview process, you don’t have to disclose if you aren’t comfortable or don’t want to. Discrimination is real despite the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. If you have a non-apparent disability, it’s completely your choice. I used to feel guilty, like I was lying, but I think you can reframe that.

We all have things that we only share when we feel comfortable. It’s our prerogative given the hard times we’ve faced in our lives. It’s not necessarily something that you are going to open up with and share a list of with the interviewer. Really, it’s ok for you to share about your disability when you are ready, if you have the choice. The advice I’ve received from disability employment lawyers is that if you don’t have to, wait until you are hired to disclose.

However, not everyone has that choice – like if you have an apparent disability. In this case, when you are interviewing, explain how you would perform the functions of the role. You will likely be met with an assumption that you can’t do it. The hiring manager doesn’t know how you adapt, and they do not know your disabled life. The hiring manager might assume, “she can’t do that”, or “it will be too hard.” 

Think about your responses almost like you are your own PR agent. You need to craft and communicate your message in order to change the other person’s mindset. Whatever the role is, explain how you would perform the functions of the role (i.e. I use this tool to complete this, this is how I do this, etc.) and communicate that you are very familiar with how to adapt to complete the requirements of the job.

At an emotional level, I want disabled people to know that they are worthy and valuable and not a burden. They are talented and creative in the face of the consistent challenges and barriers of an ableist world. And that is a skillset. They are innovative, live in a different world and have a different perspective which is extremely valuable. 

If a company is creating something for the marketplace, you can represent disabled consumers or clients internally. You can influence design and your presence can help companies reach more people and do a better job. You bring lived experience to the company. Disability is often missing from the conversation. If a company doesn’t have a diverse group at the table with these perspectives, they will create products that aren’t accessible.

Owning your value is so important. The message we get told by the world – that our lives don’t matter and aren’t valuable – is hard to not internalize. Show up ready to take up space and ready to own the value that you have. It’s a journey and it’s important to connect with your own disability community as well as the broader cross-disability community Connecting to your identity as a disabled person can be very powerful and affirmingl.

We know intersectionality is a big part of DEI in general and of disability inclusion/advocacy. You have a platform called Blindish Latina that addresses intersectionality and inclusion in the disabled community. We’d love to hear more about it. What prompted you to start Blindish Latina? What you are currently focused on? How is it impacting the space? Anything else you’d like to share?

Catarina: I started it because I reached a point in my disability journey where I started using a white cane. I was now publicly disabled and became a self-advocate. When I saw the impact of showing up with my cane and being able to say, “this is what I need, this is what you can do to help me,” it made things easier, and I received more support from the outside world. 

My life got better from self-advocacy and wasn’t satisfied with advocating only for myself, so I decided to focus on the workplace. It’s so important. We all spend a lot of time there and organizations can do better. Blindish Latina started in April 2020 as an Instagram page and storytelling platform with the goal of raising awareness. I felt a need to be a public advocate and that there was a need for my voice. I did not see many disabled Latinas in the space, and I wanted to add to the representation that I would like to see – especially as a highly educated person.

In January 2021, I turned it into a business and wanted to be a full-time entrepreneur. I saw a lot of potential and started developing myself into more of an authority in disability inclusion at work, which led me to start speaking and consulting with clients. I left my full-time employer earlier this year to work for myself. 

My current focus for Blindish Latina includes growing the team and working with the travel industry with the goal of making things more accessible. Travel is a big part of my life, and we are very behind in the ability to have great travel experiences for disabled individuals. Travel can be awful and horrible for disabled individuals. This isn’t new and has been going on for so many decades and it’s not okay. I want to make a big difference in this. Apart from travel, I want to publish a book on disability inclusion – a simple, clear guide for everyone. I definitely want to continue growing my impact. We need to make a change in the world for disabled people.

For allies, whether in the role of hiring manager or colleague, what are two things that you recommend to help support disabled team members and drive more workplace inclusion?

Catarina: One thing I’d like to say to everyone – people think they have to know everything before they can speak up and be an advocate – and they don’t. It’s so important and simple to speak up no matter how much you know or don’t know. Ask the question, “Have we considered disability and accessibility?” You don’t have to have all the answers. It’s crucial to just show it’s important and make accessibility non-negotiable in planning and decision-making processes.

In terms of supporting disabled team members, as you learn about a colleague with a disability and what accommodations or help they ask for (like closed captions on videos), advocate for them if you notice a video that doesn’t have captions. Usually, the disabled person advocates for themselves over and over again about the same issue. If you know that they need captions, you should also advocate. You don’t have to use their name and it’s actually better not to use it. You can just say “We don’t have captions and it’s not accessible – and we need to use a different option or put on captions.”

It’s hard as a disabled person to continually advocate for your needs. You may not even feel like you can approach a higher-level manager. It’s very stressful. I love it when I don’t have to ask someone to be my ally. I once had to tell my manager directly, “It would be helpful if you could also tell people I need captions. Sometimes I forget or sometimes I’m tired.” Be part of conversation even if it doesn’t impact you – a lot of people don’t recognize their ability to impact change.

For staffing and recruiting firms like TorchLight, what are the best ways we can impact inclusion for disabled employees in our work with clients and candidates? 

Catarina: Using your influence over the design of the hiring process, like incorporating a task where disabled individuals can demonstrate their performance and can show who they are and what they can contribute. For example, Microsoft has a diversity hiring initiative. As part of it, candidates play a video game that allows hiring managers to see how they communicate and work with each other and how they approach solving problems. This is obviously different than verbalizing it in an interview. It’s less hypothetical and hiring managers can see the person in action. It’s more informative.

It’s also important to remove unnecessary requirements within the job desription and hiring process that can be discriminatory. Designing a rubric or decision-making tool could help clients evaluate candidates and reduce bias. When you engage with a client, you can show them the values you have and show them the way you are doing things regarding disability inclusion and accessibility. 

For example, clients may not be aware of or don’t have resources like ASL interpreters for deaf candidates. Maybe you can provide them with a resource or a list of companies that can help. You could also have your clients sign an agreement to support accessibility – and give them resources on how to do that in a way that would make a difference. The more you can make support available for everyone, the more destigmatized it will be for disabled people and all team members. For example, create space for disabled people and others who may need more time to read a question or would like to have their camera off. This can help make inclusion better for everyone.

Catarina, thank you so much for sharing your insight and guidance on disability inclusion and accessibility. You’ve given us concrete ways individuals can support disabled people in the workplace immediately—and recommendations for organizational-level shifts necessary to make the hiring process and workplace fair and equitable for the disabled community. 

To learn more from and about Catarina, we encourage you to check out her amazing TEDx TalkCreating Inclusive Workplaces for All.”

For more information about her public speaking and the disability inclusion consulting she provides, visit Catarinarivera.com

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Posted in , Diversity, Equity and Inclusion