Disability Inclusion In The Workplace: Aunia Kahn Of Rise Visible On How Businesses Make Accommodations For Customers and Employees Who Have A Disability
An Interview With Eric Pines
I wish somebody told me to not take on toxic clients based on fear of paying my bills.
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 Aunia Kahn.
Aunia Kahn is a digital marketer, strategist, and public speaker. She is also an internationally recognized and awarded visual artist, photographer, author who has shown in over 300 exhibitions in over 10 countries; at places such as San Diego Art Institute, iMOCA, and the St. Louis Art Museum. She founded Create for Healing and the Oregon Disabled Business Owners Association. Aunia also identifies as a disabled business owner surviving and thriving with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (Type 3), Mast Cell Disease, Dysautonomia, and POTS, PTSD, etc.
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?
In my younger years, my dream job was to help people and I wanted to either be a therapist or surgeon. As I sit here today, I am not even remotely in the same field of work but I love what I do and the people I work with everyday.
While in school chasing my dreams, I had some very extreme circumstances change the trajectory of my life to bring to to where I am here today. I had moved from Michigan to St. Louis and was starting my first day of work as a dental assistant. I worked as a dental assistant for a few years right out of high school, it appealed to my love of medicine and it was great pay.
I had just driven to my new place of work on roads that I barely knew. I had been in the new city for less than a month at the time. It was exciting and scary to move move to a new place and start a new job. Within a very short time of being at work, I heard one of the other employees scream from the break room. We all ran in there and that was 9/11. As everyone sat watching the TV in disbelief, I became more and more terrified. I knew no one, I was in a new start and I already had a panic disorder. So, I asked to leave and never came back.
After trying for months after to find work, it was nearly impossible. My health was also failing and I needed to figure out how to navigate that. So, I started to lean on the secret skills I had attained over the years before after a friend gave me a computer with design and website building software. I had build numerous sites and done plenty of graphics but I though perhaps I could look at this as a job and not really a hobby. So I applied for a few places with my sad portfolio and was rejected again and again.
So, I started to freelance which has brought me to where I am today, 25 years later. I also used computer to create art due to being highly allergic to any real artist mediums. I was creating digital portraits for the last 15 years before digital was even acceptable in the art world. I am an internally aware, collected and exhibited artist and use art as a therapeutic approach. Art has saved my life many times through the challenges my undiagnosed illness.
Over the last 2 years, I have had the biggest change in my health and business. I was finally diagnosed last year (already diagnosed with Mast Cell Activation Syndrome) with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and Dysautonomia and well as a plethora of other wonderful health issues. Thank you gene mutations!
However, during this time I am finally able to function in a much stronger way and elevate my business. I have been working hard to advocate and open up about being a disabled business owner, because I have always hid that part of my life and I feel now is the time to speak out. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion are so important and the disabled community is the largest population of marginalized people.
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?
I appreciate you saying that. I think being a successful leader is about being a team player, building community and creating opportunities for others. The three characteristics that I believe have been instrumental to my success have been perseverance, communication style and openness to learn.
First, perseverance has then a large part of my life since I was a child. Growing up in a challenging home environment, as well as being mercilessly bullied through my school years,I had to persevere.
Once I hit my teen years, I started to struggle with my physical and mental health which brought again the opportunity to persevere. Followed by the last 18 years of my life, I dealt with numerous undiagnosed rare diseases. Through those years I had doctors laugh in my face, tell me I was crazy and tell me that there was nothing wrong with me.
At one point I ended up on a feeding tube formula and almost dead. With doctors that are supposed to help you and not believing you, friends and family starting to think that you’re crazy because there’s no proof that you’re not, and you’re the only one that knows the truth — the only thing you can do is persevere or give up. So I kept swimming. It was not easy and time and time again I did consider giving up, but I had a fire in me to keep going.
Secondly, communication is a very important part of my success. Over the years of trying to explain symptoms 100 different ways to 100 different people, you start to learn creative ways to communicate. You also learn a lot about how to communicate with different types of people.
I also feel that growing up in an extremely challenging home environment made me more apt to pay attention to communication. You start to learn a lot about verbal and non-verbal skills when you need to protect yourself. In these situations you are often caught off guard which has given me the gift of improv. For example, when I do podcasts or audio/video interviews when people give me interview questions beforehand, I won’t read them.
The reason for that is that the other part of my communication style is all about being organic, transparent, and authentic. I don’t like things to be scripted. I feel the more that we step into our true selves and don’t worry about how other people perceive us, we step into our super powers. Communication is also a powerful tool and helping improve the lives of others.
Whether in business or in personal life, being able to understand other people and communicate with a good communicator or a poor communicator is vastly important. We all communicate very differently and being open to all types of communication as well as being willing to adapt your communication to the communication styles others really helps.
Third, learning is one of my favorite things. When I was younger I often times had a hard time holding a job for a long time because once I master the job I would be bored out of my mind and quit and look for something new to learn. Working in the field of web design as well as SEO and all the other components of what I do are ever-changing. I never get bored.
There is always something new to learn. I remember a few years ago, a good friend of mine called me who lived a couple houses down from me and said, “There’s something wrong with my car. Do you know anybody who could look at it?” When I told her I took auto shop in high school and I’d be happy to look at her vehicle, she shook her head and said, “What do you not know?” I’ve always been the seeker of knowledge and at times I feel like I don’t have enough hours in the day to learn all the things I want to.
I do try my best to stay focused on the handful of things that I love, but one thing that is important to my success is being able to flow between numerous things and find ways that they can all work together seamlessly. A good way to explain that would be a person who plays a bunch of instruments and then turns it into an orchestra. Lastly, I’m always looking for a new instrument although I love all the ones that I have.
Can you share a story about one of your greatest work related struggles? Can you share what you did to overcome it?
One of my greatest work struggles has been my ability to network and connect with people in real time, with my debilitating disease even prior to Covid, I was isolated and often had to wear a mask. It was very hard for me to connect in the real world without risking my health and having a very large setback for weeks after. Years ago when I started, I was grateful to have the internet because it was a window into a world that I didn’t participate in very often.
Even though we had Skype and people could do video conferences, it wasn’t something that people did very often. Furthermore, with the changes over the last few years due to Covid where we’ve made so many things virtual, the opportunities that I have had as a business owner have been exponential. I can attend workshops, webinars, networking groups, and so many other things based on the new accessibility opportunities.
Recently I joined a networking group that was all in person, and I’m the only virtual person in the group and they worked with me to set me up on the table on a computer to be a part of the group. Nothing like this could’ve ever been possible in the past.
As much as the last two years have been extremely challenging for everybody, there have been some interesting things that have come to pass that has provided access and support with those that have disabilities. I wish that I could say that I overcame this challenge by my own doing, but really it’s been a community of people willing to work and support others that have made that happen.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
There are a lot of great changes to our company as well as client projects that have me very excited. We have recently launched Harmony in a Box, a DIY Human Resources Kit. This is an online platform we built for Workplace Harmony as an answer to businesses needing Human Resources help, but they are not large enough or have the capital to to invest in a firm and they have grown beyond the ability to do it all themselves.
The platform consists of 7 in-depth modules about important topics like: hiring/firing, company culture and creating high performance teams as well as consulting help. It was such a rewarding project.
We are also working with various small businesses to help them move into the digital space since Covid had made it hard on people who heavily relied on foot traffic.
As well as launching the Oregon Disabled Business Owners Association which is a directory of self identified disabled business owners in Oregon.
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?
Just this year with my recent diagnosis after 18 years,, I felt it was very important for me to verbalize that I am a disabled business owner. This did not come easy for me at first, because being a woman and tech is already challenging and then talking about a disability without actually having a disability to talk about it didn’t seem right.
Once I had my diagnosis I felt it was imperative to start discussing disability inclusion. Right now diversity equity and inclusion or hot topics and often disabled people have been left out of that conversation even though they are the largest group of marginalized people in the world. Disabled people are every color, shape, age, and demographic. Disability doesn’t discriminate.
Also, I have a couple clients that own HR companies and it’s been a great pleasure to write a few articles for their website as well as create social media campaigns and newsletters about such topics.
Just this year I started working on being certified as a disabled business owner and I was recently certified with Clutch, which is the leading ratings and reviews platform for B2B service providers, featuring companies in over 100 countries and 500 industries.
As a woman owned and disabled owned business owner. We are in the process of hoping to be certified by DOBE (Disability Owned Business Enterprise). I also recently launched the Oregon Disabled Business Owners Association (ODBOA),which is a directory of self proclaimed disabled business owners in the state of Oregon.
If you meet me in person, you would never pin me as somebody who is disabled. This is one of the most important parts about disability inclusion. So many disabilities are not visible. We make so many judgments about people before we ever get to know them.
When someone is in a wheelchair, it’s hard not to associate their disability with their person. They fortunately can’t escape the judgment and stigma. And as somebody who is disabled, that visibly would more than likely not be judged that way it’s important for me to take a stand and own my disability so that people can start seeing that disability doesn’t look like anything specific.
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?
This is an amazing question. Right now so many more businesses are having conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion than they ever had before. Yet there are so many businesses that don’t even recognize that they lack an inclusive work culture. I’m an Xennial.
The work culture I grew up in was very toxic. It was definitely not inclusive and most the time it was very much like a dictatorship. To watch the work culture change and have these conversations are so important. Also, it’s nothing to be ashamed about if you don’t feel like your work culture is inclusive, because once you recognize that you can do better, it’s the first place to start and that’s where change begins. Having an inclusive work culture can be life-changing for someone. Also having an inclusive work culture can help a company make more money and be more productive.
One thing I learned is that businesses often will hire people just like them; people that went to the same school, people that have the same demographics, people that share the same likes or hobbies. In all actuality that can be a detriment in the long run. It is common for humans to surround themselves with people that are like them. We often bond with people that have grown up in the same city, have similar families, have similar demographics or have gone to the same school, etc. And for our pack mentality this is understandably so, because when faced with something different we often feel challenged and it actually can feel a little scary. This is why they say if you stand in a group of people and throw all your problems in a pile, you’re more than likely going to grab your own problems. The reason for this is that it is familiar. So when work we have the same problem. We often gravitate to bosses or colleagues or employees that are similar.
Yet, what makes a culture rich is people that come from various backgrounds, races, religions, and abilities.
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 are things that abled bodied people often don’t think about. As a person with a disability, we are often thinking five steps ahead of time to try to find ways to adapt ourselves to an abled body world. When included in a work environment simple things can change the lives of those that need adaptability.
A good example of a reasonable accommodation would be to put in a ramp for wheelchairs at your place of business. Another great accommodation is if a business has a website, that they make it accessible. As a web designer, it is very common for people to not understand how challenging a website can be to navigate when you’re disabled. There are so many different things that you can do that have been suggested by the ADA to make your company’s website easier for those with disabilities to navigate. Another reasonable accommodation is being able to work with somebody in a remote environment or a hybrid type of situation because many people with disabilities have a hard time coming into a workplace on a regular schedule. This can be because often we don’t know from day to day how our life is going to be. Being able to work from home or work in a hybrid situation takes a lot of pressure off those with a disability and if that is something that your business is able to do it can really benefit the company in the long run. There is actually a lot of studies now showing that people that work from home work harder and do a better job.
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.
I think one of the most important things that would be best practices that a business could implement to create a more welcoming inclusive environment is treating people with disabilities just like everybody else. One of the great initiatives in my city, was created by the Oregon Supported Living Program and it is called “Look Me In the Eye”. Look Me in the Eye is a campaign to break down barriers between all people, particularly those who are marginalized or ignored. Disabled people want to be treated like humans. It is true that disabled people are welcome to and sometimes need adaption or support, however, we also have to understand that a disabled person is a human being.
A good example is I have various friends in wheelchairs, and often people will lean over and talk to them in baby voices as well as sometimes will talk to the person who is pushing their wheelchair as if they’re not there and ask them questions about the person in the wheelchair like they are not there. All of these things are examples of people not understanding nor being welcoming with those of disabilities.
Mind you, many times people aren’t doing this on purpose or not trying to be hurtful, they just don’t understand how to act because as I explained before, it’s not similar to their tribe so they become very uncomfortable and they don’t know how to. Businesses can change that by talking to their employees and staff about those people with disabilities and finding a way to include them in a sense of normalcy. Nobody wants to be an outcast or be pinned as strange or weird. Everybody wants to be a part of a tribe and one of the best things that you can do is help provide a tribe for those that are already marginalized.
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?
Currently at a company that I own and run, we work very hard to make sure that all the work we do considers disability inclusion. Truly, as a disabled business owner it’s been easier for me to implement and promote disability and inclusion in my workplace specifically because I have to, I don’t really have a choice. I mean that in deep sincerity. I think just owning and speaking out transparently about being a disabled business owner is a huge asset to promote disability inclusion overall. Furthermore, our website is accessible as well as we make sure to help others further their efforts in the disability inclusion space.
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”?
- I wished someone told me that imposter syndrome will be something you will deal with for the rest of your life.
- I wish someone told to understand my worth and ask for the money I deserved.
- I wish someone told me that 20 years later I would finally be healthy enough to do amazing things and a hold on because my day was coming.
- I wish somebody told me to not take on toxic clients based on fear of paying my bills.
- I wish somebody told me to ask for more things and try to find more ways to adapt in the world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story about how that was relevant in your own life?
My favorite quote and I say it all the time and I’m sure that everybody in my life is beyond sick of hearing it, is the Japanese proverb “Fall down seven times, get up eight”. The idea of perseverance, and not letting anything get you down has been a very large mantra of mine.
Over the years I’ve been kicked down over and over again for various reasons such as the challenging home environment, being bullied, and dealing with a severe amount of medical challenges that no one would believe me about. In all of that it’s been important that every time I get kicked down, that I stand right back up even if it’s hard.
Even if I’m bruised, even if I’m scared. It is not always easy to get back up, but if you start to get back up over and over again, it becomes easier over time to pick yourself back up. Life is not easy for anybody, life is challenging for each and everyone of us and if we’re able to get back up and try again that is the best place to start. You can always start over. You can always try again. Never give up.
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. 🙂
I would love to inspire of movement where people would accept people for who and where they are. We live in a world of such deep judgment and lack of acceptance. Anything that is different than us we often fear and cast hate and negativity towards because we view it as our enemy. In truth, as we look around to the people around us, our friends our family, our enemies — everyone just wants to be loved and accepted. I don’t think anyone has a right to tell anyone how to live their life.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you for asking, you can find me here:
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 [email protected].
Disability Inclusion In The Workplace: Aunia Kahn Of Rise Visible On How Businesses Make… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.