Beyond accessibility: Meet the next generation of disability advocates

Leaders of our Ability employee resource group share why they champion people with seen and unseen disabilities.

In the sixth of a seven-part Employee Resource Group (ERG) series, we’re shining the spotlight on Ability at AbbVie. This group focuses on advocacy and inclusion, uniting employees with disabilities, caregivers of people with disabilities and other allies of the community. Some disabilities are visible, like blindness or one affecting mobility. But not all disabilities can be seen, such as mental illness, some chronic illnesses, autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Seven leaders of Ability detail the reasons they were drawn to the group, how they define the mission and why some good things came out of the pandemic.

1. How would you define the mission of Ability?

Laurie Asbeck-Hickman, associate director of marketing compliance operations and Ability chair: Our mission is that everyone feels like they belong. We want to foster an environment where employees feel comfortable discussing their disability with their managers and peers.

Erica Wolf, U.S. market access regional account executive and Ability co-chair: It’s a forum for disability inclusion. It means advancing the awareness and understanding of seen and unseen disabilities to build trust, so people feel comfortable bringing their whole self to work. It’s about building a disability inclusive mindset into our recruiting and onboarding processes.

Zilma Martinez, maintenance superintendent, Ability Puerto Rico member: Ability wants employees to be able to be fully productive, no matter what limitations they have. This way, people can focus on their talent rather than the limitations.

2. What brought you to Ability?

Adam Bugenske, immunology specialist and Ability field liaison: I am the father of an extraordinary kid named Leo. Through Leo, and his diagnosis of Spinal Muscular Atrophy, my eyes have been opened to the importance of going beyond just making things accessible. Ability has given me the opportunity help build a company culture around the inclusion of all abilities, skills and talents.

Sarah Graham, supply chain quality integration lead, Ability Ireland field member: When our company’s leaders reemphasized our commitment to EED&I (equity, equality, diversity and inclusion), I started to explore and found Ability. My daughter has three genetic disorders and her illness is progressive, so I have taken an active role in raising awareness, especially around chronic illness.

Erica Wolf: I am an ally. My closest friend from childhood is profoundly deaf so I grew up around her impairment and saw what she faced around her. Now, I see her experience in the work world.

Laurinda Cooker, associate director, strategic global labeling & Ability communications chair: I had never joined an employee resource group before. When I saw there was one focused on disability, I was interested because I have a son on the autism spectrum and I want to take down barriers.

Laurie Asbeck-Hickman: My mom had a physical disability, Multi Symptom Atrophy, that began around age 55. It’s a horrible condition to watch a loved one suffer from. My mom also had mental health issues, which at times were more devastating than her physical issues.

Sherri Oliver, director of North American optimization programs and Ability co-chair: Two of my daughters are disabled and I see what they have gone through and continue to go through, since many other workplace managers aren’t trained to support people who have a disability. I have a passion for the rights of people with disabilities.

Zilma Martinez: I’m an ally and want to help educate employees about disabilities and opportunities in the work environment. Each of us can maximize the ability that others have.

3. What's something people may not know about your community?

Sherri Oliver: I think that the neurodiversity community likes to focus on ability rather than disability – by focusing on what we can do versus what we can’t. But the physically disabled community often prefers the term “people with disabilities” because they want recognition of the challenges they face, even if they overcome them. At Ability, we try to be respectful of these differences.

Laurie Asbeck-Hickman: When it comes to disabilities, everyone has a story. Disabilities affect everyone. It might be themselves, their family members, neighbors or friends.

4. Ability had just gotten off the ground when the pandemic hit. What did this mean for Ability and its members?

Laurie Asbeck-Hickman: We had to take a different approach to raise awareness and increase membership. We started Ability Circles, groups focused on a specific topic such as neurodiversity, chronic illness and physical disabilities and mental health, that enable people to come together to connect and discuss how this topic affects them. We also had the opportunity to highlight the importance of mental health. These tactics worked. Today, we have members in more than 25 countries.

Sherri Oliver: A large portion of the world’s disability community is standing up and saying, “See, we can be an effective employee working from home.” In some ways, we’re hoping it is going to enable the conversation about different ways to work and what it means to be an impactful, fully engaged employee.

Ability at AbbVie focuses on advocacy and inclusion, uniting employees with disabilities, caregivers of people with disabilities and other allies of the community. We want members of our community to be empowered to reach their full potential. Learn more about Ability at AbbVie.

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Name: Alissa Bolton
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