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Commentary Article August 9th, 2022
Cities • Delivery • Health • Infrastructure • Innovation

Changing government culture to include people with disabilities

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As part of @CPI_foundation's Earned Legitimacy Learning Cohort, @DetroitODA aimed to improve the city government's awareness & consideration of citizens with disabilities.

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"It takes both the disability community and the city government to work in tandem to improve accessibility and equitable opportunities for people with disabilities." Christopher Samp, Director of @DetroitODA

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In this @CPI_foundation article, Christopher Samp from @DetroitODA shares how they are educating city employees on best practices for accessibility & creating an inclusive environment.

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In 2021, CPI launched the Earned Legitimacy Learning Cohort, a 10-week program during which participating governments worked to dismantle inequitable power dynamics and enable community-driven change. During the cohort, Detroit’s team was dedicated to improving the city government’s awareness and consideration of citizens with disabilities, building on the launch of the Office of Disability Affairs.

It takes both the disability community and the city government to work in tandem to improve accessibility and equitable opportunities for people with disabilities. According to the Census Bureau’s 2020 American Community Survey, Detroit is home to over 128,000 residents with disabilities (19.2% of the overall population or one out of five residents). Transforming Detroit into a more welcoming, inclusive and accessible city began with creating an office of disability affairs, re-evaluating the city’s core values, educating city employees about disability-related issues, and empowering individuals with disabilities to lead the way.

"It takes both the disability community and the city government to work in tandem to improve accessibility and equitable opportunities for people with disabilities."

Creating an Office for the Disability Community

Breaking down systemic ableism is no easy feat. For the past decade, disability advocates have hosted town halls, educated their peers about people with disabilities, and pushed for policy reforms that will ensure a more accessible world. A group of community organizations and advocates rallied to improve accessibility, equity, inclusion, and representation of people with disabilities. In January 2020, the City Council unanimously passed a resolution for the creation of an office for the disability community, and then on February 11, 2021, Mayor Michael E. Duggan formally announced the launch of the Office of Disability Affairs (ODA), a division of the Civil Rights, Inclusion and Opportunity Department (CRIO).

Detroit Disability Power was one of several organizations that rallied behind the development of the ODA. “Having an Office of Disability Affairs as a part of Detroit city government is critical for the more than 128,000 disabled residents. We now have a place to get information so we can better engage in the programs and services our city has to offer,” says Dessa Cosma, executive director for Detroit Disability Power. “Most importantly, we now have allies on the inside, who are working to change the culture, practice, and priorities of our city government to be more accessible and inclusive. All Detroiters benefit when disabled residents get our needs met and the ODA is an essential part of this success.”

Disability advocates and disabled constituents participated in community surveys and community listening sessions prior to the development of the 3-year strategic plan to transform Detroit into a more welcoming, inclusive and accessible city. The 3-year strategic plan outlines different objectives, including increasing accessible affordable housing, improving sidewalks and public transportation, and increasing outreach to the disability community on employment opportunities. Not only does the 3-year strategic plan help identify the most significant accessibility challenges that Detroiters with disabilities face every day, it also helps the Office of Disability Affairs stay focused, especially with its limited capacity and resources. Additionally, the strategic plan outlines specific metrics and identifies collaborators to help Detroit achieve these goals.

Transformation Starts with the City’s Core Values

Last year, the Human Resource Department re-evaluated and updated the city’s core values. We added a new accessibility statement to the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) section, saying “We believe accessibility is essential to an inclusive environment and universal participation is a proactive approach to ensuring that everyone has an equitable opportunity in the City of Detroit”. Dr. Iris Ware, the Chief Learning Officer for the City of Detroit emphasizes the need for redefining the city’s core values, "revisiting and redefining our core values, allows us to question, deconstruct and reshape the role, responsibilities and performance expectations of each employee. As public servants, we are committed to operationalizing an organizational culture that addresses, reflects, respects, and includes everyone. Accessibility is not just a core value. Accessibility is at the core of all of our values." Moreover, we believe it is important for any organizations, businesses, and government entities to include a statement on accessibility in their mission or DEI commitment statements. When new or current city employees read a statement on accessibility, their mindset shifts to proactively thinking on how they can be more inclusive of the disability community.

One of the City of Detroit's core values on Opportunity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity. One of the City of Detroit's core values on Opportunity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity.

Educating City Employees Through Disability Awareness Training Opportunities

After having everyone become aware of the new commitment to accessibility, we had to train city employees and leaders on how to be stronger advocates for the disability community. The City of Detroit has over 8,000 city employees so one strategy we came up with was designing a self-paced online course.

Tamiko Ogburn, Talent Development Manager, along with her colleague, Yolanda Marshall, Instructional Designer, helped design an introductory course on accessibility. “The self-paced, one-hour accessibility in the workplace course provides City of Detroit employees with clear guidance, references, and tools to create an inclusive and accessible workplace for all employees, contractors, residents, and visitors,” Ogburn suggests. However, a simple crash course does not quickly break down the stigma around disability. Ogburn then adds, “we are looking forward to developing more targeted, self-paced accessibility courses for City of Detroit employees in the near future.” We planned on having several more courses with specific topics to go in-depth on, including disability etiquette (using appropriate language) or how to create an inclusive workplace.

“The self-paced, one-hour accessibility in the workplace course provides City of Detroit employees with clear guidance, references, and tools to create an inclusive and accessible workplace for all employees, contractors, residents, and visitors.”

On the other hand, designing your own disability training courses does not have to be completely from scratch. There are several local community organizations with existing presentation materials, which is also a great partnership opportunity for the city government. When I was searching through my social media newsfeed, I came across Detroit Disability Power’s Anti-Ableism workshop, which covers using appropriate language when talking about the disability community, breaking down stigmas, and strategies for change and disability inclusion. We invited Detroit Disability Power to give a workshop to our city employees. Cosma observed that “City staff who attend our anti-ableism workshops want to learn how to do their job better for more Detroiters. They are beginning to realize that being committed to the residents of our City means intentionally and proactively considering the needs and desires of disabled Detroiters specifically.” Not only does inviting a community partner helps city employees learn about the disability community, it also builds relationships and public trust.

Additionally, we have also invited Michigan Rehabilitation Services (MRS) to conduct workshops. Jacquelyn Smith, a Business Relations Consultant at MRS, explains the value of providing training with materials from the Windmills Attitudinal Training program, “providing disability awareness, Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act considerations and disability etiquette training to city leaders within the Equity Council, CRIO and Human Resource team, allows MRS and their team of subject matter experts to become an ongoing resource for training, consulting, and talent. Employees will follow the direction of their leaders, and it is our goal to assist with making space for diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace.”

Empowering Individuals with Disability to Lead the Conversation

The City of Detroit’s Human Resources Department and its Employee Engagement Team took a step further to empower city employees to have a voice in their workplace. Within the first month of launching the Disability Awareness Employee Resource Group, over forty city employees immediately signed up as members, including Michael Homant, City of Detroit’s Chief Technology Officer and Deputy Chief Information Officer at the Department of Innovation Technology. Homant supports, “I was excited to learn the City was rolling out a formal Employee Resource Group (ERG) program…Over my career in technology, I have seen many people who believe technology magically solves all issues for people with disabilities only to have the technology provide an incomplete solution or cause unexpected new challenges. Being the executive sponsor of the ERG gives me a great vantage point to get feedback that helps guide technology solutions to help address challenges of the disability community.”

Additionally, Jill Babcock, a Community Development Specialist at the Housing & Revitalization Department, became the Disability Awareness ERG’s first Vice Chairperson. Babcock makes the case, “The Disability Awareness Employee Resource Group is a vital platform for City of Detroit employees; it gives a voice to a traditionally disenfranchised group while creating a community of support and encouragement. It is important for people with disabilities to have the opportunity to voice needs and desires for themselves as they are affected and the most knowledgeable on subjects concerning their lives.” Homant concurs, “ERGs are a great way to get feedback on challenges across a broad range of departments and employee roles. Many disabilities are invisible which often means the challenges impacted employees face are frequently not recognized or addressed. The ERG is a good way to give voice to employees with disabilities (both hidden and visible) and help other employees understand their challenges.”

Since its inception, the Disability Awareness Employee Resource Group has held monthly meetings, including several “Lunch and Learn” topics covering mental health, fair housing, disability etiquette, and anti-ableism. Membership continues to grow and we are also in the process of finalizing the charter.

Incorporating Disability into Government Culture

We should be empowering the disability community to guide decision-makers on how to improve accessibility and inclusion. Moreover, the city government can be a stronger advocate and strengthen inclusion of the disability community when its stakeholders are part of the decision making process.

“Having a disability is not a problem; not knowing how to relate to and/or interact with individuals with disabilities with proper etiquette can cause the issue. Individuals with disabilities are mostly only unique in that they must find other, sometimes non-traditional ways, to do the same things people without disabilities can do. One in four individuals are diagnosed with a disability, therefore, most people will experience having a disability in their lifetime, even if it’s only due to the natural aging process,” Smith postulates.

It is important to engage the disability community in all aspects of the transformation process. Several City of Detroit employees and community partners participated in the Centre for Public Impact’s 2021 Earned Legitimacy Learning Cohort and learned strategies and tools to rebuild the disability community’s public trust in government. One of which is to optimize learning. So, the City of Detroit is currently working toward expanding the disability awareness curriculum by adding more training opportunities and engaging community partners. By educating city employees on best practices for accessibility and creating an inclusive environment, we are breaking down barriers and ableist stigma that people with disabilities face every day.

Written by:

Christopher Samp Director, Office of Disability Affairs for the City of Detroit
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