Guest: Joyce Bender Guest Title: Consultant, Speaker, & Podcaster
Date: February 14th, 2018 Guest Company: Bender Consulting Services / Disability Matters Podcast
Debra: Hello everyone. This is Debra Ruh and you are listening to or watching Human Potential At Work. Today’s guest is somebody that is a leader in the United States and globally, and it’s somebody that she has been a friend of mine and really a long time mentor, and just she’s an amazing person. So, Joyce Bender is joining us today. I’m so honored to have her on the program. So, Joyce, welcome.
Joyce: Thank you. Thank you, Debra. It’s an honor to be with you today.
Debra: Yes. Joyce, I know that you have been in the field of disability inclusion in employment for many years. You yourself are a person with disability and you have been a huge role model in the United States. There were so many reasons why I wanted you on the program, but one is because the model that your company has, that helps corporations effectively include people with disabilities in the workforce is a very good model. It’s a model that is both in the United States and Canada and I don’t know if they’re in other countries as well, but I know that you were speaker for the State Department and you go to other countries and you talk about the work you’ve done and the progress that has and has not been made all over the world. So I’m looking forward to talking to you about these things today. So Joyce-
Joyce: Well, before we begin, I would like to say something to all of your listeners throughout the world. As Debra mentioned, I have known her for a long time, and I will say the minute I met her, I have this saying about people that really are the real deal and Debra Ruh is the real deal and is also known internationally for her work. From when I first met her, she was all about equality for people with disabilities through accessibility. I think so highly of her, so thank you for what you do also, Debra.
Debra: Thank you, Joyce. So Joyce, I know you also have your own program and you’ve had it for 16 years on Voice of America. Will you tell the audience just a little bit about that program and then we want to dig in to who Joyce Bender is.
Joyce: Certainly. Well, every Tuesday, from 2:00 to 3:00 Eastern Time, I have a radio show called Disability Matters with Joyce Bender on VoiceAmerica.com. We have had guests including Debra across the board from senators to CEOs to people from Dora Bush, people from the Obama administration, but it’s all about one thing. It’s about equality of life for Americans with disabilities. But my other reason for doing this, and Debra, it may be the same with you, we have no history. In the disability community, we don’t have a solid history. So I felt if I would have people that were involved with the ADA currently working in digital accessibility or whatever, that people could go to my website and hear that. So on my website, BenderConsult.com, all the shows are archived and, of course, from VoiceAmerica.com so that you can hear all or any of the shows.
Debra: That’s a great point, too, Joyce that you are actually saving the history of our community, which is really important and I know that when my daughter, Sarah, was born with Down syndrome, it was three years before the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law. I did not know at the time that all these people were fighting for my future daughter’s rights. I mean I did know the efforts that were taking place, and so that’s a very powerful point that you made. Thank you for that work.
Joyce: Of course.
Debra: So Joyce, tell us about you, because I know you have a very interesting story. We’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Tony Coelho, who I know is a good friend of yours. I’m a huge fan of Tony’s. We talked about you on that show. So I know you have a very, very, very interesting story. So will you tell the audience more about how you got here.
Joyce: Certainly. Well, as I was growing up, I would often on faint and then as I got in my 20s, I would have these very unusual fainting spells where I would faint. It was horrible. It was then accompanied by vomiting and I knew it wasn’t normal. So my husband and I went to the doctor. Unfortunately, he made a mistake. He said, “Oh, that’s just some female hormonal problem and that you’ll be fine,” as if it’s connected to a virus. Now, the first question is why would I believe that? Why? I’m in my 20s. He’s a doctor, of course, he would know. But he didn’t. He was wrong.
One evening, 1985, I went to see the movie Amadeus. It’s a great movie, the Mozart film, but it’s very long. Only movie I’ve been to ever with an intermission. At the intermission, I went to get a soda. My husband went to the men’s room. I had a seizure and I hit the floor so hard, I fractured my skull, had an intracranial brain hemorrhage. I dislodged the bones in my right inner ear, which is why I also have a 60% hearing loss on my right side. I was rushed to the hospital and had life saving brain surgery. Thank God, I survived without any other major incidents other than, of course, the hearing loss I told you about. Guess what? I’m on an intravenous line to anti-epilepsy medication. Guess what? Fainting spells stopped. In other words, I always had epilepsy. Like many people, there are so many different types of seizures, it is often not understood that there are people that do not have a convulsion and they are having a seizure.
So I am a woman living with epilepsy. It all started with a seizure that changed my life. I was in employment and executive search and it wasn’t long after that that I found out about the horrific unemployment of Americans with disabilities where 70% of people with disabilities are, even today, not counted in the workforce. That’s when I decided I was going to do something about this. Then in 1995, I founded Bended Consulting Services, Incorporated headquartered in Pittsburgh.
Debra: Which is very exciting. I know that had to be so traumatic for you and your husband to walk, but you wound up changing millions of people’s lives because of this walk. I know that when I interviewed Tony Coelho, he was telling us that when he was first diagnosed with epilepsy, his parents sent him to what he called witch doctors to try to cure him and get those demons out of him because, obviously, he was possessed with demons and it was very interesting. We’ve come a long ways, which is exciting, but, boy, we still have a long way to go to. Before we talk more about the model, because I really want to get into the model that Joyce, that the Bender Consulting has. But will you talk a little bit more about your leadership and your advocacy efforts to make sure that the rights of people with disabilities in the United States and other countries are held up and that we are fully included?
Joyce: Yes. Well, when I started Bender Consulting Services, I made a decision it would be a for profit company for two reasons. Number one, I wanted to provide a good healthcare benefits program, which I still do today. But, number two, no pity. People with disabilities don’t need pity. They need paychecks. One thing that happens is that frequently when someone says the word disability, they automatically think, “Oh, I feel sorry for them” or “This is a charity,” and that’s a huge problem. So once I started Bender, one thing I tried to emphasize across the country was about no pity. Now, in 1999, I received the President’s Award at the White House from President Clinton, and it was after that that I became more known nationally for the work I do. Remember, it’s competitive employment, so meaning it’s jobs in IT, finance, engineering, mathematics.
Then not long after that, I was asked by Tony Coelho … this was way back in 1996 … to be on the President’s Committee on The Employment of People with Disabilities and Tony was the Chair and he reported to President Clinton. I was so honored to be on that committee. But it was after that that I really became involved in the disability rights community, and later in my life became the Chair of the Board of the American Association of People with Disabilities and the National Epilepsy Foundation. I also served on the Board for the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. But it’s all about one thing: it’s about employment. It’s about quality of life. It’s about breaking down stigma.
Sadly today, the stigma still exists. I mean the ADA was signed, you talked about it, in 1990. Now we have captioning, Braille in elevators. Buildings are accessible. You can ride a Greyhound bus. Housing is accessible. You can ask people what is their disability. But one needle has not moved, and that’s employment, which is very sad. But that’s my crusade is the employment with people with disabilities.
Debra: It’s interesting that that’s the one needle that hasn’t moved, because the first thing we do when we meet each other is you ask somebody what do they do for a living. It’s how we define ourselves often is what do we do for a living. So to think that people with disabilities don’t want to be exactly part of society like everybody else, I think, is very shortsighted. I know that you’ve done so much in your career, it’s hard to know where to highlight it, but I know you’ve also been an advisory, continue to being advisor to the USBLN, which is a business to bus association that works with corporations, helping them make sure that they’re including people with disabilities in the workforce and other parts of society. So you’ve done so much, Joyce, it’s hard to really pinpoint it. But why don’t we talk a little bit about the work that Bender Consulting does.
Joyce: Okay. I will do that, but I’m glad you mentioned the USBLN because Andy Houghton and, of course, his wife is Jill Houghton who is the CEO of the USBLN, Andy and I went into a partnership a few years ago to form a new software product that is an e-learning product called iDisability. What it is, Debra, is 15 minute modules that train people, in other words, hiring managers, how to work with and communicate to people with disabilities. I’m mentioning that because it was Andy that came to me with this idea. Now, it’s really taking off; Bank of America, Dow Chemical, DuPont, many companies are purchasing this. But my whole goal is breaking down those barriers. That’s my purpose for iDisability, breaking down barriers to move on to employment.
With employment, we do have two different models but the most well-known model is the contract to hire. So what that means is I go to a company, and they give me a specific opening. Let’s say it’s entry level computer associate. So then I go through my database and through our network, and my talent programs teams recruits a candidate with that academic background. Then we send out résumé to that hiring manager, and if that hiring manager says, Y, this is the person I want.” They are on my payroll and I pay the benefits and they are on contract for six months to higher. The only thing I won’t do is I will not take a temp job that’s like three weeks, three months. It has to be an agreement that if the person does a great job, they will be transitioned as a full-time employee to that company.
How I actually got started was with Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield in 1995 right here in Pittsburgh. Now, Debra, today, some companies do want to hire the person directly and we do do that also, but most well-known is this six months contract to hire.
Debra: I would like to make a comment about that in that, that is a very typical model for everybody. This is not just something that we’re doing for people disabilities, this is a very well-known thing that is done with employment. Companies like to work with a temporary employee to see if this can be a good fit for them. It’s a very common practice. One thing that I always loved about your model was you just follow the same employment practices that everybody else is following instead of trying to create something just for people with disabilities. I always thought that was … First of all, I thought it was clever that you had a for profit company instead of a charity, and I had done the same thing. I also, both companies I created were always for profits because I didn’t want it to be about charity.
So I like how you stuck to the business models that are known and understood. I know often … and before I go too far, I was not familiar with that program that you talked about that you and Andy Houghton … I am a big fan of his work … that you have done. Can you tell the audience how they could find out more about that? Do they go to your website link, but how can they get that?
Joyce: Yes, yes. Yes, they go to our website on … We are also on social media. We also have a Facebook page. It’s small I and then capital D, Disability. Debra, you’ll remember this Debra. Years and years ago, there was one training video, The 10 Commandments of Communicating with People with Disabilities, and it was great. It was a tape. But it was one hour. It also could not be seen across the board. Andy and I decided no one is going to watch one hour, so that’s why we have 15 minute modules on things like how to accommodate a veteran with post traumatic stress disorder, dealing with someone with an intellectual disability, and you also can access it to your smartphone. But as I said, we’re hoping that these companies purchase this, it will also break down those attitudinal barriers. But if they want to contact me at BenderConsult.com, we can provide them information through that venue also.
Debra: What we’ll do is we’ll make sure that we put that address out on the marketing information that we’re going to do about the show, so people can find it. But that’s a wonderful idea. I have corporations asking me sometimes why do we need additional training before we hire people with disabilities? There are other diversity groups that we don’t have to have training for, but there’s still a lot of misinformation out there. I’m really surprised that the people that go over and start petting service dogs or I’ve actually seen people pet somebody’s head that’s in a wheelchair. I don’t know what I would think if somebody came over to me in a business situation and petted me on the head. I would be really astonished.
So why we would think that would be okay, it’s just beyond me. So I think this kind of tool is very helpful. I do agree that that kind of behavior is dehumanizing. I think this kind of work is so important and it’s something that we see happening not only in the United States but all over the country, I mean all over the world. So it’s very, very important. So I know that you work often with the very top of the organization. You work at the CEO level. Why is that important to you, Joyce?
Joyce: That’s very important and I have told this to people before. When you work with the CEO, it’s a top-down and it’s also a message across the board to everyone that “Hey, this is important, the CEO believes this is important,” but there’s one other big reason. You can be the greatest advocate in the world, a business person at a middle level job and want to do this, but it’s so much harder than when you have from the top-down this commitment, and any company I deal with, when it’s from the top-down, it takes off because everyone knows, “Oh my goodness, the CEO wants to do this, we better move forward with this.” But I would tell anyone working in this area that you need the commitment from the top-down even if it isn’t the CEO, someone in that C-suite, or it’s very, very difficult. For example, people will say, “I really want to do this, but we don’t have budgetary funding,” or so and so isn’t bought in to this, so that is the reason that I go from the top-down.
Debra: Joyce, when it comes to … I get asked this question a lot, so I’m going to ask you this question. People ask me often, “Should we just take some jobs and just cull them aside from people with disabilities instead of opening up all jobs to people with disabilities? What is your recommendation on that?
Joyce: Oh, I do not like that at all because then, really, you’re segregating. I think all jobs should be open across the board. I don’t mind if there’s one job will, say, in a print shop or wherever, however, there better be jobs in Finance, IT, Accounting, Human Resources equally because the minute you say, “Oh, we’ll set these jobs aside,” you’re really saying separate. Separate. You’re really not accomplishing the goal of bringing people into the workforce. You are exactly right, Debra, when you say that so many companies do not understand when it comes to dealing with people with disabilities. Even to this day, I have people that will be talking to me and they’ll say, “Oh, I can’t even tell you have epilepsy,” or “Boy, you don’t look that bad,” or “You don’t look sick.” As you said, with the service dog, thinking the person’s wheelchair, that you can lean on it, I mean, I could go on and on but it is shocking in the business world how people do not know so much of this.
Debra: It’s also shocking, and of course, both of us a working on this and other many, many other leaders, but it’s still shocking to me that why would you not include people with disabilities in the workforce? If somebody wants to work, they’re motivated to work, they’re eager to work, why would you not do that? I’ll give you an example. This is an old example. Before I became an entrepreneur, I was in the banking industry. I was in the banking industry for 25 years. At one point in my career, I was responsible for getting employees for customer service positions. At the time, it was Crestar, it’s now SunTrust. I just was really surprised at the resistance that I got for including people with disabilities because what we would do, we were so desperate to get employees for these positions. We were working with prison programs, we were working with all these different programs, and it was a sophisticated position.
So my team would train people for six weeks, six weeks intensive training. They loved it. They had a blast doing our training because we made it fun. Then what would happen, we would put them on the phones. We had people that were there one morning, they would leave at lunch, never come back. It was terrible. When we started employing people with disabilities, we found that they were some of our brightest, most loyal, most talented employees. I mean, we also had some that were okay employees. People with disabilities are people, but these people want to work, Joyce. They want to work and we have so many positions that aren’t being filled. Why are employers still not understanding the value that people with disabilities bring to workforce even though maybe they look different?
Joyce: Well, a couple of things I want to say about that. First, to your comment you just made. People with disabilities want to work. We have a saying here: We’ll be at work early everyday with a smile on my face. I always tell my employees, if you’re at work early everyday with a smile on your face, you already beat 70% of the non-disabled employee base. This is why I tell a company, not charity. It’s a business decision. It is a retention decision. It is someone that so appreciates the opportunity to work because they’ve been left out. You know what, it so bothers me why won’t they hire people. It’s fear, it’s stigma, it’s ignorance, and I’m sorry to say this, but sometimes it’s they don’t like the way the person looks.
Debra: I think also the fear of the unknown. Because I remember, I was talking in a meeting one time and these were people that were trying to help veterans with disabilities or wounded warriors and individuals with disabilities get a job and they were saying, “This is so hard. The corporations don’t care, the employers don’t care,” and they were just slamming all the employers. I said, “Well, tell me how you’re starting the conversation with them.” They said, “Well, the first thing I’m going to ask you is if you have any barriers to employment.” I said, “Well, the conversation’s over. I’m going to smile at you, I’m going to listen to you, and I’m going to try to think of how to get you out of my office.” They’re like, “Why?” I said, “Well, because you just threatened me.” “I didn’t threat you.” I say, “Yes, you did. You threatened me with the ADA.”
I started naming some different laws and they were like, “Well, that’s not really how we start the conversation.” Well, I think it actually is how we often start these conversation, which is why I think your model is so powerful because you don’t start the conversation. You look at it, Joyce, more as you have a partnership with these corporations. Your job is to make them successful and make sure that the individuals that you’re serving with disabilities, that it’s a good match. That’s a model that I don’t always see. It seems to be there is a little bit more. It’s more of a charity model. Let’s help these poor people with disabilities. Also, Joyce, when you comment on that, I think there’s a lot of misinformation and misnomers about invisible and hidden disabilities.
Joyce: Yes. As a matter of fact, when I get a tour at company and they say … and by the way, you do need the company as your partner, just as you said. They have to see return on investment. But when I go to a company, a new company, sometimes they will say to me, “Joyce, we’re so glad to meet you because we have not hired people with disabilities before and now you can help us. I say, “Oh yes, you have. Yeah, they’re working here right now. They have epilepsy, bipolar disorder, depression, MS, learning disabilities, hard of hearing. I could go on forever, it’s just they aren’t telling you.” So companies have to remember that.
I tell companies, hiring managers, “Be careful when you make a negative comment about hiring a person with a disability because you may very well be talking to a person with a disability. This is why, Debra, when 503 was enforced here and there was that voluntary identification with the aspirational goal of 7%, many companies felt, “Oh well, no problem because we have so many employees with disabilities that we’ll self-disclose.” They were really surprised when that did not happen, but it is because until a company believes you’re disability-friendly environment, they won’t self-disclose.
Debra: I remember I had a client coming from the United Kingdom over to the United States and they had some really wonderful policies in the United Kingdom. They had asked me if I would help take their policies and make them work in the United States. So they had all this information about because you have to disclose in the United Kingdom. You’re encouraged and the government encourages you and everything else, and so they were so astonished that in the United States you can’t ask people to self-disclose. They’re like, “Well, as employers, how do we know if we’re meeting our quota or not if we can’t self-disclose?”
They were so confused how you would do business in the United States. I think that’s another reason why your model works. You used a term a little while ago that made me smile because it’s a business term, return on investment. I often talked to people when I do training and stuff about the importance of using business language when you’re talking to businesses. Don’t use disability language. I mean, it’s okay to incorporate disability language and help them learn, but you’ve got to speak their language first and then help them interpret the disability language into what they’re doing.
Joyce: Yes. You have to remember, when they have an opening, you don’t just send a person with a disability and then wonder, “Hey, why aren’t you hiring them?” The person has to fit the requirement that the company has. I always tell companies, if this person does a good job, you hire them. If they don’t do a good job, we won’t be keeping them. Now, I’m very fortunate I have such a high success rate, but Tony Coelho has a saying, “Give us the right to be fired.” Because until companies realize, “Oh, if they do a good job, promote them, hire them. If they don’t, we’ll let them go.” Until they realize it’s the same, it’s the same as it would be for any employee, we won’t get anywhere.
Debra: That’s a great point. I remember, and I think you were a part of this, too, Neil Romano had done a documentary about employing people with disabilities. Unfortunately, it didn’t get wide viewership, but they had interviewed me and I had made a quote that I have hired a lot of people with disabilities and I have also fired people with disabilities, and that was what they included in the documentary. I thought, “Oh, you’re going to make me sound so mean,” but the reality is we got to treat people with disabilities like everybody else, which means we get an equal chance to apply for jobs and do all the other things. But if I’m not doing my job, and regardless if I’m a person with disability or not, if I’m not doing my job, what do you do?
Well, there’s a very, very step by step things that you have to do in HR and as a manager. It’s very clearly defined what HR and the managers have to do if an employee’s not performing. A person with a dis … an employee, I should say, with a disability should be treated like others. Now, I will say this one thing, I do think sometimes it’s good to have some empathy, and I’ll give you an example, Joyce. I had an employee that had autism and he was a really, really good employee. About three years into his employment with me, he started really acting out and he just became disruptive in the workforce. I wasn’t sure what to do because he’d been such a good employee. Luckily, I had an employment partner, like your company, and I said, “I don’t know what happened but all of a sudden he has become disruptive.”
They stepped in as my partner and they talked to him and his roommate had talked him into going off his meds saying, “Hey man, it makes you feel fuzzy,” so he’d gone off his medication and it caused disruption in the workforce. They got him stable and he was able to continue working with me for many more years. That’s why it’s so important to have a partner because as a small business, for example, it’s hard for me, anytime, any employee goes off the rails, so knowing that I had somebody like you, Joyce, where I could come to and say, “I don’t know what’s going on with this employee, but I really want them to be successful.” I think that is invaluable.
Joyce: Yes. Yeah, you’re right. There’s no question about it. Actually, Debra, we talk about that in our iDisability training product because you could interview someone with Asperger’s, just as you mentioned, and they could act different but you’ll have to understand that’s just part of who they are. I look at it as an accommodation. There are times you will have to make an accommodation. Well, many times, but even for people with autism or a learning disability, but if at the end of the day, that person is exemplary and you have that return on investment, it’s worth it.
Debra: I agree. I agree. Well, Joyce, I want to ask you one more question. Well, really, two more questions. Can you give us an example of corporations that … you can name the corporations if you want or you can name the type of the industry that they’re in, give us some examples of industry or corporations that your company has worked with.
Joyce: Okay, absolutely, and I’m happy to do that. I’m going to start with Highmark because how I started Bender Consulting Services, which many people do not know this, but I went to the CEO. How I knew him was what I was doing for a living at that time was executive search, that’s why I have this employment background, and I said to Bill Lowry, “Bill, I have this idea. I want to start this company to provide employment for people with disabilities, but I need someone to partner with me. My question is, Bill, would you have six people with disabilities and they would be my employees on contract, in IT, and keep them for three years?” As you might guess, even today, if I would walk in to someone and say that, I have a hard time getting them to do it. It took Highmark only one day to say yes. That’s why I always say if it weren’t for Highmark, there wouldn’t be a Bender, even though they don’t agree with me, but I feel like that. Every CEO since that day has stood behind me.
The current CEO, imagine this, now, they have bought many other companies and they’re very large, and imagine going into that CEO and the first thing he says to you is, “Joyce, what do I have to do to hire more people with disabilities from you?” Unheard of. Then PNC is also a customer of mine. My friends Steve Van Wyk said to me, “Joyce, I want to make a commitment to you to always have a position for Bender Consulting Services,” and immediately brought on people with disabilities. Then when it comes to iDisability, Bank of America, Dow Chemical, Northrop Grumman, many companies have purchased iDisability and the reason is that they do want to break down those walls.
Then Debra, we also have a group that does digital accessibility and we have partnered in that area with Audio Eye. They have their own software product. A little point there, one time I had an employee doing all this work. Someone at the customer site said, “You know, I can’t believe this, that Joyce Bender thinks people who are blind would be able to do this,” and he said, “I am blind.” Yes, people who are blind can do this work but those would be some of the people … Oh, one other I want to mention, the National Security Agency. We worked with them for 10 years and we also worked with the Office of Personnel Management. I always say if the NSA can hire people with disabilities, so can you.
Debra: Great examples. Great examples. So Joyce, tell our audience how they can find more about you and your company. You mentioned that you’re on social media. You have already mentioned your URL, but will you mention your website again and just tell everybody how they can contact your corporation.
Joyce: Absolutely. They can go to, number one, our website, which once again is BenderConsult.com. They can go to LinkedIn and find me, Joyce Bender, on LinkedIn. They can go to Twitter and find Bender Consulting Services under Bender Companies. They can also go to, as I mentioned before, VoiceAmerica.com to contact me, but certainly the best method is BenderConsult.com.
Debra: Excellent, excellent. Well Joyce, thank you so much for everything you’re doing. You’re really, really changing the world and we appreciate you being on the show today. Excuse me for my cold. It is the season, but thank you so much for being on the program today.
Joyce: It is my pleasure. Thank you very much, Debra.
Debra: Yeah, so I look forward to watching you continue to make a difference, so thank you so much, Joyce. Thanks everybody.
You’ve been listening to Human Potential at Work with Debra Ruh. To learn more about Debra and how she can help your organization visit RuhGlobal.com. If you’ve enjoyed today’s episode and you want to make sure that you don’t miss any future epsiodes, go to itunes and subscribe to Human Potential at Work. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll be back next week with a new episode.