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As the American Disabilities Act (ADA) turns 30, we’ve made great progress as a society – and we’ve done even better at our company.
Last month, we were recognized as a top scorer (80 percent) in the Disability Equality Index, a national benchmarking tool among Fortune 500 companies. The ADA went into effect July 23, 1990.
The ADA, a civil rights law, prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life. It was developed to ensure those with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.
Mervin (Merv) Webb began his Consumers Energy career in 2005. He joined as an intern and has served as a low voltage distribution (LVD) circuit planner in Flint for the past 13 years. Webb also is co-founder of and advisor to capABLE, an internal employee resource group. capABLE removes barriers and opens pathways to meaningful work for employees of all abilities.
Webb has Chiari malformation type 0, a structural defect in the spinal cord that blocks spinal fluid and affects coordination, balance and communication. Webb says his first days with the company were an adjustment for him and his teammates.
“When I first joined, my supervisor and teammates didn’t know how to interact with me, and many thought I couldn’t do my job,” said Webb. “Over time, my co-workers got to know me as a person and realized I learned and contributed at my own pace. Today, I feel appreciated for my skills and what we do together as individuals and as a team.”
As a testament to his value, Webb proudly received two Leave it Better awards for exceptional contributions to the company and our customers.
Webb advises prospective employees with disabilities to understand the resources available in and out of Consumers Energy to help them succeed – and to be upfront about their disability.
“Look to organizations like Michigan Rehabilitation Services that help prepare disabled applicants for interviews,” said Webb. “It’s also important to let the hiring manager know about your disability and ask if it will affect your ability to do the job. We’ve become more sensitive to the needs of people with disabilities in interviews but could benefit from more accessibility.”
Along with Webb and others, Chris Kowalski is proud to advance equality for the disabled. As chair of capABLE and strategic sourcing specialist with the supply chain team, Kowalski’s almost 13-year-old son, Drew, is autistic and mentally challenged.
Kowalski joined capABLE to understand the workplace struggles disabled people face and advocate for a more inclusive work environment.
“From the moment I joined the company five years ago, our `bring your whole self to work’ culture was on display, regardless of mental or physical ability or other factors,” said Kowalski. “That’s something I hadn’t seen before – and it’s what I want for my son and others with disabilities, now and in the future.”
We’ve received top marks in the Disability Equality Index for culture; employment practices, including benefits, recruitment, accommodations and supplier diversity; employment; education, retention and advancement; and community engagement. Through the eyes and daily experiences of Webb and Kowalski, the journey to true acceptance and equality has been made much easier but isn’t yet complete.
To continue leveling the playing field, the Disability Equality Index team revealed opportunities to close gaps in enterprise-wide access and leadership. A grandfather clause in the ADA creates an accessibility exception for facilities built before 1991, but Webb and Kowalski agree some company facilities – such as our Lansing, Flint Saginaw and Macomb service centers – must be made more accessible.
capABLE members visit two buildings each year and report access issues and improvement requests to field leaders but are stymied by funding concerns.
“Accessibility is tied directly to safety,” said Kowalski. “Handicap-accessible parking areas, restrooms and office areas in all company facilities would be symbols of our commitment to everyone’s safety.”
On leadership, Webb and Kowalski see opportunities to advance the company’s diversity and inclusion efforts via capABLE and other employee resource groups that includes comprehensive disability awareness training.
“We have an opportunity to build a more cohesive, understanding workplace by helping everyone understand the challenges and opportunities that disabled employees and others face," said Kowalski.
For Webb and Kowalski, recognition as a top scorer in the Disability Equality Index is a great platform to celebrate how far we’ve come in advancing equality among Consumers Energy’s disabled employees.
“Our award is a great platform for a new beginning,” said Webb. “We’ve seen great changes in recent years, and our award validates our progress and offers a platform to do even more for ourselves and future generations of Consumers Energy employees.”
Kowalski is fighting for the day his son can be recognized for his accomplishments and be treated just like everyone else. “If my son needs a coach or other assistance that’ll be considered normal, and that’s what I’m fighting for,” said Kowalski.