Episode 32 – Championing Accessibility at Work – with Marjorie Aunos
If we want our world to be more inclusive, we need to pay close attention to accessibility - the ease with which individuals can participate - at work, at home, and in daily life. Disability consultant Marj Aunos shares her highly relevant personal and professional lived experience. We explore what compelled Marj to dedicate her life to supporting adults with intellectual disabilities at a tender 20 years old, what motivated her when she became a paraplegic as a single mom to her 16-month-old son, and how to be a better ally to those who have accessibility challenges.
Marjorie Aunos, Ph.D. is a researcher, speaker, and consultant on accessibility and inclusion. She teaches organizations and educators to solution-find and build environments that are accessible, inclusive, and welcoming to families with disabilities. Marjorie is an internationally award-winning speaker, author of Mom on Wheels: The Power of Purpose as a Paraplegic Parent and contributing author to We Got This: Essays By Disabled Parents. Her TEDx talk “What we can learn from disabled parents” has over 150,000 views.
00:03:20 Marjorie's journey
00:08:00 Building support networks
00:14:40 An invitation for greater empathy
00:16:47 Purpose from a young age
00:21:00 What has shifted in recent years?
00:24:30 Visible vs. invisible challenges
00:27:55 How and when to help
00:30:14 Do we treat those with disabilities differently?
00:34:00 Acknowledge the disabled as experts
IMAGE CREDITS (see images on Youtube video)
Marjorie and Thomas - credit Marjorie Aunos
Accessible space - Envato Elements
Old wheelchair symbol - Wiki Commons
Sunflower lanyard - credit Hidden Disabilities
Ramps in public places - Canva
New wheelchair symbol - Wiki Commons
#dontpushmearound - credit Clare Kumar
Learn more about and follow Marjorie:
Highly sensitive executive coach and productivity catalyst, Clare Kumar, explores the intersection of productivity and inclusivity continually asking how can we invite the richest contribution from all. She coaches individuals in sidestepping burnout and cultivating sustainable performance, and inspires leaders to design inclusive performance thereby inviting teams to reach their full potential. As a speaker, Clare mic-drops “thought balms” in keynotes and workshops, whether virtual or in-person. She invites connection through her online community committed to designing sustainable and inclusive performance, the Happy Space Pod. Why? Because everyone deserves a Happy Space.
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Audio and Video Editing: To Be Reel
Production Assistant: Luis Rodriguez
Song Credit: Cali by WatR. from Pixabay
Majorie Aunos: There's one in four people in the U. S. who have a disability. One in five in Canada actually 22 percent of the population has a disability. And I feel like in business if we don't consider that our customers a quarter will have a disability and our employees will also have disabilities. Then we're missing on hidden talents, and hidden because we're not paying attention to them.
Clare Kumar: You're listening to episode 32 of the Happy Space podcast. Today we're exploring how to make the world more accessible with Accessibility Consultant and Disability Advocate, Marjorie Aunos.
Welcome to the Happy Space Podcast, where productivity meets inclusivity, and everyone gets things done. Hello, I'm Claire Kumar, highly sensitive executive coach, speaker, and your host. Studies show that diversity leads to better business outcomes, so doesn't it make sense to invite everyone's richest contribution?
Yet, too many people are invited to burn out or opt out, and we are squandering talent. On this show, we'll explore a two part solution. Part one, cultivating sustainable performance, the individual design of work and life to preserve our energy so we can keep contributing. And two, designing inclusive performance, the design of spaces, cultures, products and services which invite The richest participation.
I hope you enjoy these conversations and find inspiration and encouragement for everyone deserves a Happy Space.
If we want our world to be more inclusive, we need to be paying close attention to accessibility, the ease with which individuals can participate at work, at home, and in daily life. I speak a lot about how it's a crime to squander human potential.
And globally, 16 percent of people live with a disability and the number is growing as our populations age. Having spaces that cannot be accessed, maneuvered, or tolerated for those with the wide variety of challenges that exist requires action. That's why I'm so pleased to have Marj Aunos joining us today to share her highly relevant personal and professional lived experience.
Marj Aunos is a psychologist, TEDx speaker, Disability Advocate and Accessibility Consultant. We explore what compelled Marj to dedicate her life to supporting adults with intellectual disabilities at the tender of 20 years old, what motivated her when she became a paraplegic as a single mom to her 16-month-old son, and how to be a better ally to those who have accessibility challenges. Please enjoy meeting Marj.
Marjorie, thank you so much for joining me today. I'm excited to talk to you about your mission around advocating and consulting for accessibility and disability, and I wonder if you wouldn't mind bringing our listeners into your journey and let us know a little bit about your history and what brought you to this place.
Majorie Aunos: Well, thank you for the invitation. First, I'm really excited to have this conversation with you. Look, I was a psychologist working in the field of intellectual disabilities. When on my way to work, I had a car accident, so my car slid on black ice, and there was impact with another bigger truck and basically, I sustained a spinal cord injury.
I was 34 years old and I was the single mom of my son, Thomas, who was 16 months old at the time. And so for me, the impact of that car with, the truck basically made an impact because my professional life, basically came in my personal life and all of a sudden I was a person with a disability who had to figure out, how she would provide for her son who had to figure out where to go and shop that would allow her to come in and actually go in the aisles and shop for her son. And so it was a long process of adaptation from then on.
Clare Kumar: So now today, I'm thinking of the work that you're doing and this combined lived experience and professional experience.
Can you tell us a little bit more about your understanding as a psychologist and this work with intellectual challenge, help me understand your focus now and what part that plays in the work that you're doing.
Majorie Aunos: Well, I think it plays a huge part because I knew of the struggles that my clients had as a psychologist.
And a lot of my clients were actually parents themselves, so parents who themselves had an intellectual disability. And so the whole thing about parents with disabilities was a huge interest of mine before my accident. And it was an interest because a lot of people judge parents with disabilities in a negative way because we see, or we do things maybe a bit different than the normal parenting, that we see or that we see on TV, I guess or in our neighborhoods. And so I was very attuned to that, and I also knew how important and essential it was for us to look for accessibility and to ensure that everyone is included, because in my experience, and in research actually, when everybody is included, then we enhance the resilience of everyone, and we enhance the resilience of everyone in that case because we offer services, and so anybody can access those services.
When you need them, and we never know when we're going to need those services, to help us adapt to challenges and adversity. I didn't know that morning when I went to work that I would have a car accident that would render me paraplegic. And so the more we do for the common and everyone, the better it is for each of us individually.
Clare Kumar: Yeah. I'm thinking back to that day, 34 years old, single mom and how I think many of us think that life-changing things won't happen. We have this great denial that this could ever be me. And the point you're making is that things can happen to anyone in any moment. And so it behooves us as a society to be thinking about this inclusivity because it could be you today, tomorrow, the person you love.
It can be any of us. Yes. I would love for you to expand on this point of… there's building the supports and helps everyone. So when you're saying supports, what do you mean? can you give me some examples?
Majorie Aunos: We each have sort of our support networks, and it's important for each of us to sort of build those networks and make sure that they're nourished, but when I mean is basically sort of policies, it means like insurance, make sure that we all have access to healthcare. Like in my case it would have been very difficult for me to be resilient if I was in another country with healthcare that I would need to pay for out of pocket.
Or where doctors and nurses were not prepared for receiving someone with a spinal cord injury or didn't have the expertise. I mean, my resilience was dependent, yes, on my family who helped and helped tremendously, especially at the beginning and for the first, I don't know, 10 years, but it was also dependent on the rehab center where I was able to go. It was dependent on the insurance who paid for my income for the first few years. It's all of that. If we really considered all of this, then I think, whenever something happens, we are prepared as individuals to be more resilient because we have sort of a base of something to support us a little bit like what's happening right now with the forest fires and there's entire communities that are being displaced. And in those moments, if we have sort of the healthcare in, if we have insurance and bankers… imagine you lose everything and you don't have access to your bank account because the cards are left home. And so it's about sort of those services that we put in place.
Clare Kumar: For anyone watching YouTube right now, you can see Ellie is intruding into the podcast and my listeners know, Marj, that Ellie makes an appearance pretty regularly. And so I don't know what he wants now, but, yeah, he is like, I'm going to be in this one.
Coming back to what you were saying. I think I want our listeners to know where you are. And, so Marj lives in NDG, which is a part of Montreal. Right next door to the part that I used to live. So when you talked about the black ice, I was picturing it exactly. And the supports that you're talking about vary so much from place to place.
I'm thinking when you were talking about the supports that we need, one with particular to my MS, there was an absolute overwhelm going on in the MS clinic that I was supposed to have access to. And absolute, under service. Now there's a beautiful multi-million dollar facility. I hope that the talented healthcare professionals are actually matching the beauty of that facility.
But you raise an important point and I think Canada right now where we both live, I was making this connection yesterday. There was an event called Fyre Fest that was launched and was a massive, massive failure. In fact, so much so that the creator went to jail for four years and he's just come back on the scene and he's like, Fyre Fest 2.
And I'm saying, wait a second. We've got mass immigration in Canada. We don't have enough housing. We have a doctor availability crisis on the West Coast. We don't have these supports in your place. So I'm like, Canada, you're pulling a Fyre Fest if you don't actually build these supports. And so your point is absolutely critical for policymakers, whether it be governmental or organizational as well to make sure that, all employees are supported.
Majorie Aunos: And it's employees and it's also customers because after my accident, I mean, I was still a single mom and I still needed to provide for my son and to provide for a child, I mean, that means I need to be able to do grocery shopping. I need to be able to go and buy clothes when he needs new clothes.
And I was faced to front of stores that I loved to shop in, that I was very loyal to, and I couldn't get in anymore, or I could get in, but I couldn't go into the aisles, because they were too narrow, or I couldn't reach what I needed. And so that changed my whole outlook also in terms of like, well, who will I be loyal to next?
Because I need to be able to provide for Thomas and I need to be able to shop when I need to be able to shop. So it's also it's having dedicated employees, but it's also having loyal customers and accessibility and inclusion will do that for companies and organizations.
Clare Kumar: I'm going to remark on something here. You're talking about your son and you needed to provide for him. You also needed to take care of yourself, which is such a solid argument on its own. But do you think, is there a reason you bring up caring for your son as such an important thing? Do you think that is an invitation for greater empathy?
Majorie Aunos: My son is the reason I survived the car accident. I really do believe that. And so he became my world, and he was my world already, but he was definitely my motivation through rehabilitation and the last few years. It's also that he didn't ask for it and I was responsible for him. and I also had my son as a single parent, like on purpose, like it was, you know, through insemination. And I felt like I really needed to be there for him. I'm also a helper. I'm a psychologist and so, I usually think of others rather than myself first.
And my purpose when I was 20 years old, I saw my purpose very clearly and to me it was to be an advocate for parents, moms especially, who have a disability. And so, for me, that purpose, my personal life sort of now helps elevate that purpose. And that's why I often talk about parenting and, my child before I talk about myself.
Clare Kumar: I hope you don't mind that question.
Majorie Aunos: No, because it's interesting, it's funny because that's what I do.
Clare Kumar: I see a lot of moms demote themselves in priority and I can just imagine how motivating it was to have Thomas at that time and just to be so clear, I want to go back to this.
You said your purpose at 20 years old, tell me more about where that came from.
Majorie Aunos: I met two ladies who were my age. I was working at a summer camp. And the first one was actually five years older, so about 25, and she had two children.
I was actually working with her daughter at camp, providing support, and when I met mom, I realized that mom also had an intellectual disability. And the day that I met her, I had also been asked to provide support for a young lady who was 20, so exactly my age, who had gone to the US to be sterilized, and I was told that she didn't know that that was the result of the procedure.
But her parents didn't want her to have children or get pregnant. And in a matter of days I met those two women and I was confronted with this young mom at 25 who was doing everything that she could to raise those two beautiful children of hers. And one that had that choice taken away from her.
And so, in having those two women in my life that summer, I saw my purpose for the rest of my life. And I sort of like wanted to advocate for social justice and for advocacy and for the right to choose, if you want to be a mom or not or a parent or not.
Clare Kumar: Such a powerful experience at such a young age and that clarity, and that drove you into your studies and into the work that you do then. It's making me think of the movie Benny and Joon. Do you remember that?
Majorie Aunos: I remember that movie. It's a great movie.
Clare Kumar: Yeah, that may be my only experience seeing this opportunity for helping an adult with intellectual challenges and saying you deserve what other people deserve.
Majorie Aunos: Yes. I mean, it's human rights and Canada has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. So we technically, on paper anyways, we're supposed to build all of those supports in place and we're supposed to offer them for everyone to ensure that everyone is included, all the things that we need to have access to, to be able to be resilient.
And so we're going back to that concept again, we enhance the resilience of everyone when we offer proper services and we offer proper services when we have policies that match the needs of our population.
Clare Kumar: It would be nice to see more living up to that UN convention. Yes. I think it's 183 countries that have signed on. It was, it came into force in December 2006, I believe. And I think most people in the world probably have no idea that it exists and whether this country is even attached to this. I wrote about a watermark issue, it came out of South Africa. And that's where I first started to learn about this.
And it's like, actually it's a human rights issue. This exclusion of participation when you think now that you have both this lived experience of physical challenge, and you have this great understanding of intellectual challenge, what did you notice in your work and in the environment that we're in here in Canada, what do you notice as things that have shifted and where the next biggest opportunity before us is today?
Majorie Aunos: That's a great question. There's a few things, I mean, there's definitely, something missing around parenting and disability. There's a vague element there, and we know that women with disabilities are often under the poverty line, have had violence or abuse, they're more at risk anyways. And so there's a lot to do socially to support these women and often they are women with those challenges that have happened to them, but they're also single parents. And so we are tackling not only, or we were missing in supporting those women and their children and the children are the next generation and we want them to be able to be outside of poverty and to be supported in terms of education, for example.
In business, what I do see is, we are at the crossroads where there's one in four people, in the U.S., who have a disability, one in five in Canada, actually 22%, of the population has a disability. And I feel like in business, if we don't consider that, our customers, a quarter will have a disability and our employees will also have a quarter of our employees will have disabilities, then we're missing on hidden talents, and hidden because we're not paying attention to them. And we're also missing on the opportunities to offer services and goods and whatever we're offering to this great portion of the population.
Clare Kumar: I think about the evidence of accessibility. And I still think a lot really pertains to, we still have the wheelchair symbol as disability, which is a narrow view when we look at how much is visible and how much is invisible in terms of challenge. I've talked to an organization in the UK called Hidden Disabilities and they, I don't know if you know them, they have the sunflower lanyard which is something that can be worn to signify, I have a challenge and I may need assistance. Would you be so kind to offer help if you see that sunflower lanyard? It's a global initiative. They've had even in Rio, they had the statue of Christ with a sunflower on it, and Brazil's now passed a law that the sunflower would be the symbol of hidden disabilities.
To me, I've seen an evolution here in Toronto where I live. of ramps being put up to stores so you can get a wheelchair and a stroller in more easily, right? I've, I've seen more elevators being put in subways and, and things where there's a physical accessibility. I still think it's tremendously quiet about any other kind of challenge, whether it's sensory overload, which is something I experienced, or any other kind of intellectual challenge, learning disabilities, or ADHD, there's so many different challenges that people experience. What's your thinking on this visible versus invisible challenge and where we are in terms of understanding that it's broader
Majorie Aunos: A hundred percent, my son happens to have high sensitivity. And I see it every time I have to adjust sometimes how I speak, the tone of voice I use, because that is something that he will react to. And so I do see it and we need to, even like the symbol of the wheelchair, the symbol of the wheelchair is an issue also because it's a static.
The wheelchair person is not in motion. And so even that to me is wrong. And there's actually a movement you were talking about sort of, symbols. While there's a new symbol that is trying to get into there where it's sort of like more active, where you see the person sort of like moving forward.
Yeah, I've seen it. Those visuals are important. They are essential because they help change, the perspective of people who don't know what they're all about. you know, hidden disabilities or invisible disabilities. and they don't know also that someone in a wheelchair is not just someone you push around. Actually, we don't like to be pushed around just like anybody else literally and visually.
Clare Kumar: Well, I'd love that on a t-shirt. Don't push me around.
Majorie Aunos: I say it all the time. And my nieces and nephews and my son also for the longest time wanted to be helpful and kept sort of like trying to push me in my wheelchair.
And I had to explain to them, no, even if it's hard, you can encourage me. So when it's like uphill, for example, you only touch my wheelchair when I ask you to, because you know, I'm a person and I can decide when I need help and when I don't. And if you're unsure, you can ask, you could say, I see that you're having a hard time. Do you want me to help? but other than that, I can do my things like I drive, I go to the store, so I'm able to open doors, I'm able to do a whole bunch of different things. I'm able to figure out how I'm going to get my groceries into my car. And when I need help, I do ask and I don't have a problem with asking.
Clare Kumar: Do you think that's the norm in the population? Do you think, or is that something that evolves? Can you comment on what I'm thinking right now is this incredible conversation you brought to my mind of the interaction between someone who is able versus disabled? And you've, you've said yes, I can ask for help. What do you recommend for someone who's wanting to be helpful then? What feels good to you in that interaction?
Majorie Aunos: For me? And I know that some people with disabilities will disagree with me and I think it's okay to have different perspectives. But for me, having been someone who's able-bodied, who was a helper, and became a person with a disability, I would say ask, but before asking, have eye contact with me, give me a smile, say hi, and then say would you like me to open the door for you or are you okay? That to me is an exchange that is positive. It's an exchange that acknowledges me as a person. You know, by having eye contact and smiling, you're not just focusing on the wheelchair or the disability or what I can't do according to your preconceptions.
Because like I said, I mean, I can open the door. Some doors are very heavy. Those I can't but a door that's lighter, I could open it, no problem. And I have different strategies to do that. And so I think it's that interaction. And for me, it's important to have those interactions. I became a school ambassador of the Rick Hansen Foundation very soon after my accident.
It was very important to me because I had realized through my interaction with Thomas and his cousins, the importance to have those conversations so that we shape our perspectives together, that those perspectives that the children sort of carry through include my perspective of what my disability means. And so they don't have to sort of like imagine or try to make up something that they don't understand.
Clare Kumar: I love it. Yeah. This invitation to ask. And I like what you said about making the eye contact, smiling. See me as a person. I'm really curious because whenever I see someone in a wheelchair, I generally smile at people on the street. So I make an effort to smile just as I would anyone else and see them. What's your perspective as someone who moved into a wheelchair? Did it feel different in the interactions that you had in society? Are you treated differently? Can you tell me about that?
Majorie Aunos: I did feel at times that I was being treated differently. People would just grab my wheelchair, not even acknowledge, like, they wouldn't even introduce themselves. So they would just grab the wheelchair and destabilize me because I was like, Oh, somebody's like taking over and what's that? I've had people, and even recently I've had people talk to my friends or to my mom or whoever is the able-bodied and not me, even if I was the one asking the question.
I've had parents who probably didn't know how to react, saw their kids sort of stare at me, and instead of informing the kids or maybe introducing the child to me, would just sort of grab the child and like, “oh, don't look, we don't look at these people” type of reaction. Those are the ones that I hate the most because to me if a child is staring, it's because there's a lot of questions that's going on.
They're curious and we need to nourish that curiosity because again, what we do and how we react will shape how they will perceive people with disabilities, all kinds of disabilities, later on in life. And so this is a great opportunity. And so I would ask parents if there are parents right now with young children, if your child has questions, answer them the best that you can, and please invite that conversation into your home about what is disability that is visible or invisible, disability and what those are.
Clare Kumar: Yeah, what they are and how should we respond and how we should respond as part of community. This is sort of a personal observation here. I live in a condo and there are five elevators. I have noticed these elevator doors close faster than any other elevator doors that I've ever lived with.
And there's a lovely gentleman in my building who also has MS. And I've had a conversation with him saying, how do you find the elevators? Can you navigate? Because if I have shopping bags, for example, and I put the shopping bags down, I can, I'm sometimes like, “Oh, Oh, Oh, I got to get there before it closes.”
And sometimes I've missed it. I'm feeling one of the things on my to-do list is talk to the board and ask them to extend the time that the doors are open. It's, it's things like that. Where do people look for things that can be done, how to be an ally, how to be supportive in what they notice around them that is difficult?
I mean, one of the other things near me, there's the Air India flight that went down in, I think it was 1985, there's a memorial here. And there was only stair access. They've changed it a couple of years ago, they've changed and they put a ramp in and left one small set of stairs and a ramp.
I'm like, how is this inaccessible for 20, 30 years? Like what happened? So what would you invite people to do? And this is, I think my, I'm looking at my time, I think this will be our last question. What would you invite people to do if they want to be a strong supporter?
Majorie Aunos: I think it's, oh, there's so many different things that I… I think if we're just there, acknowledging that the experts are the people who have the disability or live with the disability, and so it's not to take over their voice. It's maybe to help them amplify, and when you do see, and when you do observe, like you did, with the elevator doors, then make a point to inform someone who might not have seen it or realize that that could be an issue.
You know, like in my workplace, when I returned to work, there were two elevators that were very, very old. And it happened that one broke and they were repairing it. And then one day I get a series of calls from different colleagues of mine, the second elevator had broken that day. and everybody thought of me, and everybody thought we need to inform Marjorie not to go in or try to go in the elevator or else she could be stuck.
People rallied around me and sort of let's problem solve together. and so that is helpful when you actually sort of acknowledge, the other person and the other person's needs in society.
Clare Kumar: I’m leaving feeling like there's a lot we can do individually. There's a lot we can do as leaders who are thinking and observing what's going on.
There are a lot we can do as business owners if we want to build this loyal customer base and not marginalize a very large and growing as our population ages, more of us slip into disabilities of different kinds, right? So I think there's so much opportunity. I would encourage everyone to check out Marj's TEDx talk. Would you like to share the title here? Yeah.
Majorie Aunos: What we can learn from parents with disabilities. Yeah. So it's a different twist to parenting.
Clare Kumar: And I think an invitation for people to step into practical things you can do and also a whole lot of gratitude for maybe how much easier it might be for you than you may think as well.
There's always some beauty in understanding different people's perspectives and challenges. And I want to thank you so much for sharing your journey with me and with our listeners today. It's just a beautiful thing, your story about being 20 years old and tapping into your purpose and then living it so profoundly. So thank you so much for joining me. Thank you so much.
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