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U.S. Business Leadership Network Conference Kicks Off

September 16 2009 | by

At the U.S. Business Leadership Network conference in Washington, D.C., speakers on Wednesday included the White House’s Kareem Dale, the Dept. of Labor’s Kathy Martinez and Josh Sundquist — a Paralympic skier who spun tales of humor about living life on one leg.

Wednesday, 7 p.m.

Josh Sundquist, Paralympics skier and inspirational speaker, was killing the crowds at Job Accommodation Network’s 25th anniversary reception, which is the end to today’s USBLN conference. He had the audience in splits as he told about how he decided to try out for a traveling soccer team at age 9 because he admired their uniforms. His leg later was amputated after chemotherapy treatments failed. “When I found out I had cancer, the only thing I could think of was that lime green uniform,” he says.

During chemo he lost his hair, but when Sundquist, 25, arrived home from the hospital he found his brother had shaved his own head, and later 18 of his friends shaved their hair at a party hosted by his mother.

He began ski racing at age 16, persisting long enough until he was able to make the U.S. Paralympic Ski Team for the 2006 Paralympics in Turin, Italy. Skiing took him from “looking at past disappointment” to showing him “opportunities that I didn’t know were out there,” he said.

Josh told a story of how took off his prosthesis and donned a pair of sweatpants so he could smuggle a two-liter bottle of soda into the movie theater inside the empty leg of the sweatpants. He also said he can turn his limp into a pimp walk. He didn’t demonstrate this, but he did show off his extreme “leg pendulum swing” for the audience. He’s truly funny guy who is able to poke fun at his disability and find humor in life’s greatest challenges.

Wednesday 5 p.m.

Kareem Dale is a powerful force in Washington for disabilities. He was named to the highest ranking position on disabilities ever to be created by a U.S. President. Dale is a lawyer from Chicago who is now Obama’s special assistant for disability policy. He has the president’s ear when it comes to finding ways to employ and engage people with disabilities in America, and says the White House believes that it has to “start with its own house first.”

However, Dale says that he realizes there is much work to be done with the Americans with Disabilities Act, despite all the blood, sweat and tears. He acknowledges that the poverty level is still too high for people with disabilities. This group, he says, “cannot earn a true wage based on the parameters that are set up.” He’s talking about SSI and SSDI, the two federal subsidy programs for people with disabilities who do not work. If you try to get a job, you lose federal benefits, but the wage often isn’t sufficient enough to pay for healthcare. “People with disabilities want to work,” Dale says. “But the lack of healthcare has contributed in a great way to the high unemployment rate.”

Dale is no stranger to this situation. A lawyer by trade, he is blind and says he has “walked up against that precipice” of what a lot of disabled people deal with: Earning just enough money to lose federal aid, but then how to pay for healthcare if it isn’t offered by an employer, or the job is part-time? “That’s a question that a person with a disability should never have to answer.”

Dale says change is going to start with companies, who need to enact a real, measurable hiring movement among the disabled demographic. And the White House is trying to lead by example, Dale says. Obama has appointed more people with disabilities in the last seven months than any other President has appointed in his entire term “and we’re just getting warmed up,” he adds. To that end, Obama’s health reform package will allow the disabled to continue getting healthcare even if they go over their SSI or SSDI limit.

Dale also expects to make some “major announcements” ahead of National Disability Awareness month in October.

Wednesday, 4 p.m.

Neil Romano again stole the stage with an impromptu, and might I say, frank, talk about the business-disability paradigm, which he says is “still wrong.” Neil admits he’s a marketer first and foremost. It seems he got into the disability scene when he realized nobody was marketing to the group. He also uncovered a host of other problems, like employment and healthcare, and helping the disabled became his professional and personal mission. He’s now the president of CORA, an organization that hires severely disabled people for tele-work jobs. His former job as assistant secretary of the Labor Dept. went to Kathy Martinez after Presidnet Obama was elected, and Neil says “he couldn’t be happier with the selection.” He’s moved on, and shared some tough love with the BLN crowd. When talking about disabilities, “you have to understand the issues. And you have to know how to market them,” he says. “Businesses care about profits so you have to show them how you’re going to make a difference to their bottom line,” he adds. But in order to do this you have to believe “so fervently and unshakingly in your idea” that will you go forward with it no matter what. Neil believes that people with disabilities hold tremendous value for businesses, the economy and America, but says the paradigm is “still wrong.” Companies today are still operating on a legacy model that tells them to think about people with disabilities based on old hiring models of charity and do-goodness. “It’s not about hiring a few guys for the mailroom anymore,” he says. What companies need to do, he asserts, is figure out the blind spot. By that, he means, to get companies to understand exactly what integrating the disabled into society really means. On the hiring side, it means hiring, retention and promotion. On the marketing side it means product development, packaging, marketing and advertising. (“What good is marketing Gatorade to the disabled if a person without hands can’t open the bottle?”) And it has to be done in an integrated fashion, across American businesses, he says. Ideally, Neil would also like to see companies create what he calls “ability freedom,” in which people with disabilities can have the freedom to work and excel in any job they’d like. “You can export that, he says. “Made in the U.S.A. by people who are equal.”

Wednesday, 2 p.m.

The USBLN conference has officially opened. I have a press pass and will be attending as many keynotes and sessions as I can. There’s sporadic wireless in the Gaylord National Harbor Convention Center so bear with me as I try to post these updates as timely as I can. The agenda for the afternoon is shaping up to be a good one. As I mentioned before speakers include John Kemp and Kareem Dale, Kathy Martinez from ODEP and Josh Lindquist the Paralympics skier. Also on the list is Neil Romano who had Kathy’s old job under President Bush. He’s now the CEO of a consulting company, CORA. Neil is an Italian from Brooklyn and he always tells resounding stories about having a disability (he has dyslexia). There’s one about mushrooms that I really like. He says: “If I invite you over to my house for dinner, and you tell me you don’t like mushrooms then I’m not gonna make a mushroom sauce. That’s an accommodation. And if someone with a disability needs an accommodation at work, it’s the same thing.”

Wednesday, 11 a.m.

I just arrived in Washington D.C. at the U.S. Business Leadership Network’s 2009 New Workforce conference. This is an annual event that brings together Fortune 500 companies and disability organizations to find new ways to employ people with disabilities. There will be a lot of folks from H.R., business development and other areas of top companies including Merck, Walgreen’s, IBM, McDonald’s, Motorola, Starbucks (which I’m drinking right now at the airport — Pike Peak!) and more. The four-day agenda is packed with great speakers and topics. Today the general session opens at 2 p.m. with remarks from John Kemp, USBLN’s executive director and co-founder of the American Association of People with Disabilities, who is a pretty high-profile guy in Washington’s political scene when it comes to disability-business issues. Also on tap is Kareem Dale, special assistant to the President (yes, POTUS) for disability policy. Later on we’ll hear from Kathy Martinez at ODEP (a division of the Labor Department), and Josh Sundquist, a Paralympic ski racer. Which reminds me; I saw a wheelchair tennis player practicing at the US Open last week. (I was also lucky enough to see del Potro whip Federer’s tush.) She was so athletic and fast, and just in total control of her swing and wheelchair. I would love to go to the Paralympic games some day.

I’m blogging from Washington D.C. at the U.S. Business Leadership Network’s 2009 New Workforce conference. Twitter hashtag is #usbln2009

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