Since the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, many employers have struggled with what is sometimes a difficult balancing act: incorporating people with disabilities into their staff while managing very real stigmas, myths and stereotypes. With more than 50 million Americans having some type of disability, this community represents a very talented pool of potential employees. Yet no matter how well intentioned an employer may be, if he or she doesn’t address intrinsic beliefs, qualified employees may be inadvertently overlooked.
So how can this be changed? How does a human resources manager overcome her perceptions? How does a department director encourage his employees to look past a co-worker’s disability and regard her as a typical employee?
These are the kinds of questions the California Governor’s Committee on the Employment of People with Disabilities explored as they sought to help companies by creating Windmills. An upbeat training program now used by more than half of the Fortune 500 companies, Windmills is aimed at raising awareness of the limitations often imposed on people with disabilities due to a lack of knowledge or low expectations.
Through exercises led by a professional trainer who has a disability and is well-schooled in the program’s concepts, participants are able to identify emotions, stereotypes and attitudinal barriers which may cause them to be less effective managers. Through group discussions, the participants examine unfair attitudes and learn methods and techniques that assist them in becoming more effective.
Finally, employers are seeing what a person with a disability can do, instead of perceiving what he or she can’t.
A leading force behind this program, which has revolutionized both individuals and workplaces, is trainer Alex Valdez. He’s built a reputation as the first comedian with a disability to break into the national stand-up arena, and has been a Windmills trainer for 15 years. More passionate about his now than ever. He remains one of the most sought-after trainers, and believes the program “serves as a powerful tool delivering fresh insights,” which allow those without a disability to see the world from the perspective of those who have one.
The Windmills curriculum is comprised of 11 training modules, with each taking about one hour to complete. Because the program is easily modified to focus on one particular module or a combination of many, it can be tailored to meet the needs of the smallest or largest companies.
Cathy Cole, an employee with Portland General Electric became familiar with Windmills during an event partially sponsored by her employer. She points out that the program has been successful for many reasons, including the fact that it can be easily implemented in pieces. “Everyone enjoys the experience and the implementation of the module is quite simple,” notes Cole. Another popular component to the training is that the concepts are not limited to disabilities and are written in such a way that other areas of diversity can be addressed as well.
Joyce Phelps of the Oregon Department of Human Services recently employed the program’s training sessions in a project advocating for people with disabilities and found: “Windmills spurs participants to recognize their own perceptions of people with disabilities, the origin of those feelings and how they affect their own behavior in the workplace,” says Phelps. “It really prompts participants to self-evaluate.”
Many would argue that Windmills is the most powerfully effective tools in leveling the employment playing field for people with disabilities, and Valdez would agree: That’s no joke.
These are the 11 Windmill modules used for training.
- Establishes group and individual identity. Provides an opportunity for participants to better understand their own feelings and the feelings that an employee with a disability may experience in a first encounter situation.
- The Story
- A warm-up experience that allows participants to share experiences they have had with disabilities or with persons of diverse backgrounds.
- Rumor Game
- Rumors can be fixtures in the work place. This exercise demonstrates how and why rumors quickly become distorted, and how they can have a negative impact on the job environment.
- This role-model exercise demonstrates how stereotypes can predetermine ability, placement and advancement. This may be attributed to an employer’s lack of experience or limited exposure to the wide range of disabilities. Job matches on a case-by-case basis are explored.
- Disability: Fact or Fiction
- After completing a short questionnaire, this module teaches participants to anticipate situations that might occur in a workplace employing people with disabilities. It will also present an awareness of etiquette, language and basic employment law.
- Pick a Disability
- Allows individual fears and stereotypes about disabilities to surface. It brings out participants’ fears about disability and demonstrates how easily emotional reactions to diversity can be transferred.
- Ask It Basket
- Provides a safe environment for participants to ask questions about disabilities by giving them the opportunity to do so anonymously. The answers come from the group.
- Includes a discussion with a panel of individuals with disabilities in a noncompetitive, relaxed and information-sharing atmosphere.
- Whose Fault
- Demonstrates how prejudices and negative experiences cause us to limit the employment of persons with disabilities. This module looks at how the experience of one disability affects the awareness of others.
- Reasonable Accommodation
- Looks at potential needs of workers with disabilities and possible solutions. Includes a review of an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) questions/answer sheet on the more frequently asked questions about ADA requirements.
by Lynda Jean Groh and Marc Goldman
Windmills is a product of the Friends of Californians with Disabilities