Disability Inclusion In The Workplace: Katherine Lees and Michelle Lapides Of dozanü innovations On How Businesses Make Accommodations For Customers and Employees Who Have A Disability

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As we all know, over the past several years there has been a great deal of discussion about inclusion and diversity in the workplace. One aspect of inclusion that is not discussed enough, is how businesses can be inclusive of people with disabilities. We know that the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires businesses to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. What exactly does this look like in practice? What exactly are reasonable accommodations? Aside from what is legally required, what are some best practices that can make a business place feel more welcoming and inclusive of people with disabilities? To address these questions, we are talking to successful business leaders who can share stories and insights from their experience about the “How Businesses Make Accommodations For Customers and Employees Who Are Disabled “.

As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Katherine Lees and Michelle Lapides.

Michelle Lapides (she/her/hers) hails from Washington D.C. and Katherine Lees (she/her/hers) is Los Angeles, CA bred and they both currently live in Austin, TX with their two dogs, Bella (Deputy of Greetings & Mighty Cuddles) and Zadok (Deputy of Security & Master Vacuum-er). As the co-founders and co-owners of dozanü innovations, Michelle, the Chief of Marketing & Branding, and Katherine, the Chief of Business Development & Operations, run your full-stack BX Design™ Team delivering innovative, modern marketing & business strategies that focus on inclusion. They aim to transform the world of marketing by making accessible marketing universal, rather than an afterthought.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you ended up where you are?

Katherine Lees, a born and raised Southern Californian, the co-founder of dozanü innovations, her areas of focus are in digital marketing, all facets of business operations, and global sales and marketing contracts. Previously, her positions include serving as a key strategy architect for the newly implemented on-line Live Chat for Trevors’ Project between 2012–2014, acting PR specialist for the Special Olympics, Los Angeles 2013–2015, and finally a Marketing Specialist turned into COO for an interpreting & translations agency in Massachusetts during 2014–2016. Katherine earned her BA from Concordia University, Irvine in Communication Studies with emphasis in Psychology.

Michelle Lapides, marketing maven and branding aficionado who hails from Washington D.C., is also Deaf and has a background in Communication Studies and Digital Media. Michelle has had a never-ending fascination with social media since she was a child and holds a passion for hiking with her sidekick Zadok, a Deaf Boston Terrier. As partners in real life and in business, we are the co-founders and co-owners of dozanü innovations and we aim to transform the art of marketing and what it means — through collaborative and inclusive initiatives.

We have both had several stints in professional marketing positions in the telecommunication industry. Back in the beginning, when the co-founders (before dozanü innovations), stepped in to coordinate an impromptu community-wide event planning gig that otherwise would have gone havoc, we realized we had potential in doing even more rather than working in our 9 to 5 jobs and feeling like something was missing. As we asked ourselves what we wanted in life, and what we could do, we decided to go big and start a business in making things happen… Including our own dream. This journey of building our all-inclusive, one-stop shop marketing agency through nearly six years has been tumultuous at times, but it continues to grow in amazing ways with our vast network. Our company is expanding, including the recent addition of two new full-time employees, and we continue to broaden our horizons and create more employment opportunities for those in the disabled community inside and outside of our company.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Our top three character traits that are most instrumental to our success are… We yearn to create a better world. Our team is inclusion focused. And we CARE. We are fueled by coffee, inspiration, and a commitment to actual results. As the co-founders, we are right there in the trenches with our team and we are involved in every step of the way. Our clients and team members love to stay with us because they know we truly care, that we will hold ourselves accountable, and that we are fun people to work with as we actually make things happen while doing what we love.

Can you share a story about one of your greatest work related struggles? Can you share what you did to overcome it?

The blessing and curse of being business owners is that we often find ourselves working ALL THE TIME. Seriously, with our customized work set-up by Ergologics, a Deaf-owned ergonomic consultant business, and our die-hard passion for what we do, we have found ourselves working tirelessly over the years with so much to do, so little time. That was one of our biggest struggles amidst other things, of course. After realizing this system wasn’t sustainable and knowing that we always were meant to expand, a few months ago we hired our Marketing Operations Manager and Marketing Manager to work for us full-time and bring us to even higher levels with a bigger team. And this is just the beginning!

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Our projects range from supporting an one-of-a-kind pet-related company to governmental contracts focused on accessible equipment, website development for multiple customers seeking to transform their website and make real impact, revamping our own internal marketing, supporting schools for the Deaf as well as universities with their business infrastructure and strategies, and more. And that’s just a scratch on the surface!

Fantastic. Let’s now shift to our discussion about inclusion. Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

dozanü prioritizes accessibility, inclusivity, and authentic representation in our marketing work and was established with the ultimate goal of being the “go-to” agency to help companies bridge the gap between the current corporate landscape and the needs of marginalized communities. We are also broadening the scope of marketing materials by ensuring they are accessible to individuals who cannot always be reached by so-called “traditional” marketing. Our presence as Deaf LGBTQ business co-owners provides us an unique perspective and position and we hope for that to shift the mainstream understanding of all that marketing can and should be. The unique lens and skill sets that members of our often underrepresented communities have to offer may be overlooked or not given any decision-making power including Deaf and LGBTQ folks that the co-founders share similar experiences with. When we have a seat at the table, we are able to offer innovative ideas and strategies that benefit everyone and not only a select few, and act as role models to those who dream of doing the same but lack much guidance or representation.

What exactly is traditional marketing and why are we doing it differently? Traditional marketing may rely on heteronormative sets of beliefs or outdated social norms. It also relies on the auditory deployment of information in English. This means that the information in this kind of marketing only appeals to a certain group of people such as those who are not part of the LGBTQ+ community, and similarly, people who both speak English and can hear. Now, if we deploy the same message in an accessible and inclusive format, more audiences can be reached and they can truly resonate with the messages we have to offer. For example, content with more representation across vast communities when it comes to culture, race, sexual orientation, neurodivergence, disabilities, language use, and many more carry more meaning and impact when we consider the hugely diverse audience we hold across our social networks — which travels globally. Also, if information is deployed in video format that has an English voice-over, a person signing in American Sign Language (ASL) or another sign language, and using visual cues/graphics on the video, this marketing appeals to those who speak English, those who can’t hear and use Sign Language, and those who have limited English proficiency or learned English as a second language. Changemakers who are LGBTQ+, disabled, Black, Indigenous, and people of color are vital in shaping the way we think about, create, and deliver ideas. When we understand the power and the kind of impact we can have via inclusive and accessible marketing, that is when we can truly make a difference and build our way towards the kind of world we want to live in.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have an inclusive work culture?

Our disabled community is filled to the brim with talents who are often overlooked or doubted in the mainstream due to misconceptions, bias, language barriers, and many other hurdles people with disabilities are constantly facing on a daily basis, and we all know this too well ourselves as Deaf individuals whose main language is American Sign Language in a hearing-centric society. The truth is, those who need innovative solutions often dream up the most useful tools to benefit everyone — think keyboards, the lightbulb, closed captions, cruise control, e-mail, and even text messaging. All of these things we couldn’t imagine life without today were invented and became regular parts of our lives thanks to people with disabilities.

As leaders, we bring people with disabilities who hold a huge spectrum of skill sets to the forefront alongside their rightful competitors by giving them opportunities that are often not given to them in mainstream society. An inclusive work culture opens the floodgates into all that is possible by hiring diverse talents and expanding what is possible in marketing and how we create and generate ideas in a way that makes a real impact. Each member of our core team has firsthand experience of the Deaf lens and are familiar with the unique experiences of DeafBlind, Deaf Disabled, and individuals with various disabilities in all walks of life. Our ability to seamlessly communicate with our team members and many of our clients in our language, American Sign Language, or the internalized practice of providing personalized accommodations in ways that work best for each person as a standard practice brings dreams to life. The dozanü team prioritizes curating and implementing a comprehensive set of services for your business to not only shine but shed light on a wider range of humanity that has so much to offer universally.

This baseline of integrity and empathy in our work allows dozanü innovations to best serve everyone while looking at the bigger picture of not only so-called inabilities to be accommodated to, but abilities and possibilities to be elevated and celebrated. WIth this, the wide disparities and common injustices we see within marginalized communities when it comes to socioeconomic status, employment opportunities, mental and physical health, quality of life, and so much more will improve and make a real difference in the many communities that exist in and around us, and the world at large.

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires businesses to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. For the benefit of our readers, can you help explain what this looks like in practice? What exactly are reasonable accommodations? Can you please share a few examples?

Reasonable accommodations means exactly what it sounds like — providing accommodations in ways that are reasonable, and it all really depends on who you’re thinking of. With that said, we are all about accessibility and this means universal practices that benefit everyone. All of us need to be considerate of the many different kinds of differences that people hold, whether it’s related to physical or mental disabilities, race, culture, age, body size, language use, education, trauma, neurodivergence, and more. Therefore, we need to ensure that our practices are considerate and inclusive and that anyone can find ways to communicate with us fully. For example, a blind person could access our website easily with a screen-reader, a Deaf or hard of hearing person could easily find ways to communicate with us in various avenues by reaching out to our contact form, calling us at our video relay phone number, or emailing us and instantly being asked what their communication preference is (such as communicating in ASL, written English, phone call via ASL interpreter, or even via voice to speak and text to speech to listen), before even setting up a meeting. There may be particular laws requiring accommodations, but we should be looking at the bigger picture by going beyond the specificities of what is accessible “enough” and rather making everything universally accessible the first time around, because… Let’s face it. Universally accessible marketing IS excellent marketing.

Aside from what is legally required, what are some best practices that can make a business place feel more welcoming and inclusive of people with disabilities? If you can, please share a few examples.

We believe it’s integral to ensure our clients and employees feel valued and celebrated. We aim to make sure our work environment is welcoming and a FUN place to work while encouraging creativity, fresh and new ideas, collaboration, and a sense of community and belonging. Work doesn’t have to be a bore or something we dread — here at dozanü, we love what we do and we do what we love. We deeply believe in the importance of a positive work/life balance and a work environment that inspires each team member to create, work efficiently, and raise the bar in their own niches and specializations under the umbrella of marketing. Each individual who works with us is their own unique person with their own set of skills, perspectives, and experiences, and many of our team members are Deaf with various communication preferences. We make sure we understand their preferences and needs, how they work best, and how we can best support them to create efficient and successful results, and keep doing great things for us and our clients. Once you are truly, genuinely inclusive and accessible the first time around, the rest is universal and it becomes a way of life — to do it any other way would be unthinkable.

Can you share a few examples of ideas that were implemented at your workplace to help promote disability inclusion? Can you share with us how the work culture was impacted as a result?

In our workplace, we have multiple ways to communicate with one another. Since we are Deaf ourselves who use American Sign Language, there are often ranges of communication methods or preferences between ourselves and our clients or our team members. We have plenty of options to keep in touch with each other and work on projects together, such as using Slack for English-based communication, Marco Polo for quick videos done in American Sign Language, or Zoom to chat in our primary language either directly or through a voice interpreter. This gives plenty of flexibility to who we work with in how they prefer to express and receive information, and this encourages a sense of comfort and autonomy in our virtual workplace. We also have our beloved friendly bot @accesszanu who’s here to provide accessibility for an universal + all-inclusive user experience, and with each dozanü post we share, accesszanu is always there to immediately share visual descriptions, captions, and voiceover. Providing accessibility is not only vital and expected, but it can be fun and an enjoyable step of the all-inclusive marketing process!

This is our signature question that we ask in many of our interviews. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started My Career”?

Our advice for business owners is… First, accept that it will be hard. There’s no way around that, there’s no sugarcoating that. Once you accept that it’s hard, you’re a step closer to regulating your thoughts, emotions, and life and work balance. Dream BIG, and chase your aspirations and passions. No idea is a stupid idea. However, try your best to narrow down your niche as soon as possible. Trying to do a lot at once will always feel overwhelming. Narrow it down to what kind of audience you want to serve, and what your purpose is. Once you do that, it will become easier to reach out to the audiences you’re talking to. Last but not least, stop trying to do everything yourself. It won’t work. You may think you can save money by doing it yourself, but you’ll end up spending more money because you’ll end up not getting new projects due to not being able to finish the ones you have on your plate. Don’t be afraid to ask your family and friends for support, and outsource as much as you can.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story about how that was relevant in your own life?

Michelle’s quote is “The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing” by Walt Disney. Katherine’s quote of choice, by Mahatma Gandhi, is “Live as you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” Both quotes speak for themselves — we live to learn, and we are here to create results. We do that by DOING, and we’re always learning and growing as we go.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Marketing is a widely misunderstood and minimized field, but it truly touches each of us — the emotions that a commercial can entice, or the ideas that a billboard can spark. This impact, education, and exposure is the forefront of our daily lives and work. The more we begin to expand our horizons through the way we sell our products, services and ideas and who we sell them to, the more of a ripple effect this movement makes. The world is an ever-evolving place and we have the power to make it inclusive, accessible, and more just through our marketing efforts. Therefore, we are already doing the movement that we believe could bring the most amount of good — by our tireless work at dozanü innovations as we push for accessible marketing becoming the norm, the standard, in businesses and companies everywhere. Imagine the effect widespread accessible marketing would have — for all to truly realize and internalize what accessibility means through not just providing accommodations, authentic representation or positive messages, but ultimately a collective desire for a universal sense of worthiness, joy, and justice. So, our work remains and we look forward to having more people, businesses and organizations join our journey.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Join our journey and follow us at @dozanuinnovations on Instagram and Facebook, and check out our website at www.dozanu.com!

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

About the Interviewer: Eric L. Pines is a nationally recognized federal employment lawyer, mediator, and attorney business coach. He represents federal employees and acts as in-house counsel for over fifty thousand federal employees through his work as a federal employee labor union representative. A formal federal employee himself, Mr. Pines began his federal employment law career as in-house counsel for AFGE Local 1923 which is in Social Security Administration’s headquarters and is the largest federal union local in the world. He presently serves as AFGE 1923’s Chief Counsel as well as in-house counsel for all FEMA bargaining unit employees and numerous Department of Defense and Veteran Affairs unions.

While he and his firm specialize in representing federal employees from all federal agencies and in reference to virtually all federal employee matters, his firm has placed special attention on representing Veteran Affairs doctors and nurses hired under the authority of Title. He and his firm have a particular passion in representing disabled federal employees with their requests for medical and religious reasonable accommodations when those accommodations are warranted under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (ADA). He also represents them with their requests for Federal Employee Disability Retirement (OPM) when an accommodation would not be possible.

Mr. Pines has also served as a mediator for numerous federal agencies including serving a year as the Library of Congress’ in-house EEO Mediator. He has also served as an expert witness in federal court for federal employee matters. He has also worked as an EEO technical writer drafting hundreds of Final Agency Decisions for the federal sector.

Mr. Pines’ firm is headquartered in Houston, Texas and has offices in Baltimore, Maryland and Atlanta, Georgia. His first passion is his wife and five children. He plays classical and rock guitar and enjoys playing ice hockey, running, and biking. Please visit his websites at www.pinesfederal.com and www.toughinjurylawyers.com. He can also be reached at eric@pinesfederal.com.

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