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Small changes can have monumental effects


Flexability co-founder and CEO Nancy Geenen is an achiever with an impressive academic background and a stellar career as a high-profile lawyer, strategic facilitator and entrepreneur. She has also always seen herself as “not quite fitting in”.

Feeling like an outsider from a young age compelled her to perform in order to be on the “inside”, she says. It also kept her championing others who did not fit in with the norm, or what was seen as the “standard”.

Geenen’s degrees in law and education and her expertise in intellectual property and financial litigation have provided a solid foundation for her mission at Flexability: to increase the employment of individuals with disabilities, and to partner with jobseekers and like-minded employers to build stronger workplaces. She is passionate about advising on issues around company culture and retention, career development, and leadership.

She recalls first experiencing disability in the 1960s, growing up in a white, middle-class Midwest family, playing with a first cousin who was intellectually and developmentally disabled. Her cousin was “lovely and generous and kind and patient”, but was – at the time – regarded simply as “different”.

This was when she realized it was really about “understanding how different people perceive the world”, and about the assumptions we make.

Eight years ago she received her own, unexpected diagnosis: “I have 40% hearing loss and have had this my whole life,” she says. “What we discovered as I was learning more and more about my hearing loss is that I developed ‘superpowers’ around reading micromessaging and it made me a better trial lawyer … since I didn’t hear well, all of these other skill sets developed. If you give me a document, I can look at it and find the mistake in seconds.”

‘Getting a job is everything’

Geenen says it’s important to realize how much of an impact the working environment has on employees. (You'll find extensive resources on disability and employment here).

“We spend more than 70% of our waking time at work, or doing work. Between school and work, that’s where we’re shaped. It’s where we get much of our human interaction. It’s also the place where the greatest change can happen, the greatest transformation.

“Getting a job is everything. It’s opportunity. It’s independence. It’s self-worth. And when you get a job that fits your abilities, fits your passion, there’s nothing better than that,” she says. “Small changes can have monumental effects.”

When it comes to inclusion in the workplace, these “small changes” could, for example, entail setting up a conference room that has 42 inches instead of 36 inches between a chair that’s partially pulled out and the wall. “Because that means anyone with a mobility issue can navigate safely …

“When we redesigned the offices at our law firm, we put in carpeting that didn’t have texture to it, because texture can trip up somebody with cerebral palsy or somebody in a wheelchair. All those things make it more difficult to move around.”

Covid-19 and the resultant lockdowns have proven that “remote working” – which is what “working from home” has always been known as in the disability world – has always been possible, adds Geenen. “The pandemic has taught everyone that remote working is effective.”

It is important to spend time understanding how people learn – not speaking about it in terms of disabilities, but rather in terms of “different learning styles – and understanding different health challenges, and “not requiring someone to be at work from exactly 9 to 5”.

Finally, she reflects, it’s important to remember that not all disabilities are the same, and that the same disability can affect different people differently.

“Many companies tend to see disability as one thing. They’re not all the same. They don’t require the same productivity tools. Where companies slip up is when they see disability as a ‘check-the-box’ thing and don’t put effort into training and inclusion.”

Find resources on how to create an inclusive workplace environment here.

Get in touch with our team to talk about how to create a diverse, successful and productive workplace in your company or organisation. Or share your stories using the hashtag #MyAbility and tagging @getflexability on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.