A noted American writer once said, "We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations." But when you listen to Jim Sinocchi, IBM director of workforce communications, relate the story of the surfing accident that made him a C5 quadriplegic at age 25, and discuss the associated challenges of living and working with that type of disability, you have to wonder if he ever saw his seemingly impossible situation as a "great opportunity."
The truth is Jim sees opportunities abound—for people, governments, and corporations to make a real difference in the way we relate to each other, structure our societies, and do business. "Attitude is the biggest barrier. If people could begin to look at each other more in terms of what we have in common as opposed to what's different, we'd accomplish more. We'd be more productive. We'd be a better society," he says.
That's not to suggest that he doesn't see real challenges in terms of creating environments in which people with disabilities can be productive. In fact, between addressing his own unique needs and his 30-year career with IBM—which has included working on or leading teams in marketing, media relations, employee communications, and research and communications planning—Jim has gained clear insight into the gaps. In his view, the primary goal is to provide the infrastructure and support to enable people with disabilities to physically get to work and be productive contributors to the workforce, society, and the economy.
"For some employers today, the inclination is to think that if you have a disability, the issues can be surmounted by providing technology that enables you to work from home. In some cases that may be true or even necessary. But I think it's critical for people with disabilities to be visible and in the workplace. To overcome basic misconceptions, people with disabilities must be fully integrated into society, not isolated. For example, there are many organizations that will hire a person with a disability with the right skills for a job, but how many have the vision to consider that same person to run their company or organization? Take a look at people with disabilities who are professionals and already employed; they may be the invisible leaders ready to lead. Visibility and interaction are essential to change, both in business and society," says Jim.
To enable people with disabilities to reach their full potential, Jim believes that there has to be a fundamental shift in the way government, business, and society think about people with disabilities. According to the latest statistics, over 40 percent of people with disabilities are unemployed in the United States alone, and the poverty rate is as high as twice that of the able-bodied population.
"I see an increasing number of businesses that are willing to help close the employment gap, but local, state, and national governments must take a more active leadership role to enable the infrastructure to get these people to work. For example, if public transportation were truly accessible, companies wouldn't have to reach so far outside their realm of expertise to employ a person with a disability. And having more people with disabilities in the workforce allows employers to see first-hand a pool of professionals capable of succeeding in higher-profile roles. Ultimately, this is about enabling people with disabilities to develop careers, pay taxes, and contribute to the economy—not just get jobs. Long-term, that's better for people with disabilities as well as business, government, and society."
Four major issues top Jim's list of inhibitors for people with disabilities: transportation, technology, personal care concerns, and education. Governments and businesses must begin by looking at environments from the perspective of a person with a disability and asking the right questions. For example, how does a person with a disability get to work? For a person with quadriplegia, it can cost as much as $122,000 for a vehicle with all the necessary equipment. Is air travel accessible? What about buses, trains, and taxi cabs? According to Jim, mobility is a major key to being able to contribute at work.
The inability to fly easily removes people from consideration for a variety of positions, making career progression extremely difficult. Although some public transportation companies take steps to improve accessibility, Jim asserts that business support and government mandates must be stronger to ensure adequate accommodation.
Issues of personal attendant care must also be addressed. In most cases today, the burden of responsibility for care lies with families. But more personal care assistants are needed, and Jim believes that businesses and governments must work together to help facilitate this accommodation. For instance, providing tax deductions or incentives for personal-attendant care and related expenditures, such as service animals, makes these major investments more accessible, contributing to a person's overall ability to effectively function at work, home, and in society.
From Jim's perspective, technology is a great equalizer and will continue to play a major role in enabling people with disabilities to reach their full potential. In terms of assistive technologies, accommodations may be relatively small—such as mouse adapters for people with mobility impairments, special headset jacks for people with hearing impairments, or screen-reader applications for people who are blind. In other cases, the investment is more significant, requiring advanced technologies and changes in business processes. Large companies, like IBM, may employ cost-recovery programs that take the budgetary burden off of hiring managers, but Jim suggests governments must also make it possible for smaller companies to take the necessary steps to employ people with disabilities. "Small- and medium-sized businesses are the backbone of our economy. But they don't have the same financial resources as larger companies. They need to be looked at in terms of enabling people with disabilities to work for them as well," he says. Jim asserts that government and business partnerships geared toward closing the home-to-work gaps can also help small- and medium-size businesses over the long term.
Finally, education is crucial to ensuring effective, productive interpersonal relationships. Jim contends that while business and government must be active participants in the conversation, people with disabilities play an especially important role in helping change people's perceptions.
"The people who know me best don't expect less of me. So why should society? If I'm at work and I see a person who's uncomfortable with me, it's my responsibility to help make them comfortable, because if I don't, I can't do my job. As disabled people, we have to reach out. It's a shared responsibility. When you show understanding, compassion, and leadership, most people will respond in kind. When it works, people will go out of their way to collaborate with you. For people with disabilities, a leadership quality is required to be able to bring people together despite differences."
From a corporate perspective, Jim believes a healthy, holistic attitude toward inclusion is the key to success. And attitude, it appears, is everything. "We concentrate a lot on inclusion at IBM—being comfortable with people who are different, not just people with disabilities. That never ends. Truthfully, I hate being disabled, but I cope with it. Once you flip the attitude switch on, things tend to go better. IBMers continually work on this, which says a great deal about our values as a company," he says.
Both at work and at home, Jim is always reaching out, standing firm in the belief that at the end of the day, people are most likely to measure you by your intellect, not how you look. For him, learning to relate to each other "intellect to intellect" is the goal we, as a society, should be trying to reach. "Ultimately, we're all led by our heads and drag our bodies with us," says Jim. "As a society, if we could get to a point where we realize that we have more in common than not, that would be a great beginning."
From Jim's perspective, finding ways to reach those business and societal milestones may present great challenges, but also great opportunities. Impossible? Certainly not.