When Emily Obert started at Ford in the Ford College Graduate program six years ago, she didn’t think using a wheelchair would matter. At her orientation, Obert, who is paralyzed, was among 100 product development employees in the program about to embark on their first rotation working on the line at a Ford assembly plant.
“There was a training video for plant safety,” she said, “and they came over to me and said, ‘You don’t need to stay, you’re not doing this rotation, you’re going straight to the product development center to work at a desk.’” Despite knowing her abilities more than anyone, Obert had become the victim of someone else’s assumptions.
“Not being given the choice of what I wanted to do was really difficult,” she said. “They didn’t really know my limitations because, frankly, I hadn’t had the opportunity to disclose them. They made these assumptions that no one in a wheelchair could work at the plant.” This caused Obert to miss out on a key bonding opportunity with her fellow Ford College Graduate employees.
“I felt left out,” she said. “All the bonding that typically happens – eating lunch, planning things after work – I missed that because someone felt I wasn’t capable of doing a job.”
Stories like Obert’s aren’t uncommon. While the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 guaranteed legal protections for people with disabilities in the workplace, it doesn’t prevent employers or colleagues from demonstrating unconscious bias toward them. Luckily for Obert, there was some resolution.
“It was time to do our launch rotation, which generally happens at one of our plants,” she said. “Everyone had a lot of anxiety about it, but we already had a launch manager at Dearborn Truck Plant, Don Pijor, using a mobility device, which eased some of those anxieties.” Obert ended up working there on the launch of the 2015 F-150 with an all-new aluminum body.
“I demonstrated that I could do my job, including watching console installation on the line and troubleshooting issues,” she said. “It all worked out in the end – it just took some creative problem-solving.”
For the first time, Ford received a perfect 100 out of 100 score on the 2019 Disability Equality Index® best places to work list. Launched in 2015, this index is the most comprehensive disability inclusion assessment tool designed and embraced by business leaders and disability advocates.
Ford improved over the previous year in the enterprise-wide access category, as its information technology group under Rob Mitzel has been working to make company websites more accessible. The Disability Equality Index added a new section this year on supplier diversity, in which Ford scored full points thanks to the work of Supplier Diversity Development Manager Stephanie Williams and her team.
The Disability Equality Index specifies that a score of 100 does not convey perfection, but that a company adheres to many of its leading disability inclusion practices – and that best practices vary based on the workplace and employees.
Obert’s idea of a best practice? “Be open to having a conversation,” she said. “Be open, honest and factual, and be willing to have those emotional conversations.”