Ep 8: Disability & Leadership - Being inclusive by design

Ascend Canada > Blog > Podcast > Ep 8: Disability & Leadership – Being inclusive by design


Early into his MBA journey, Varun Chandak saw a gap in the inclusion of the disability community – even when it came to diversity and inclusion specific initiatives. This drove him to start Access to Success, a not-for-profit that enables students who identify themselves with a disability. In honour of International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Varun, who lives with a partial hearing impairment speaks to the challenges of communicating in our pandemic-fueled remote world of work and the importance of leadership in disability inclusion. With host Anish Patel, Varun shares his story, thoughts on how organizations can better serve the disability community and also takes you behind the scenes on how we recorded this special episode.

TRANSCRIPT

Anish Patel:

Hello and welcome to the Ascend Canada podcast. Today, I’ll be your host Anish Patel and I have the amazing opportunity to speak to a leader who saw a need and took action. Varun Chandak is the Founder of Access to Success, a not-for-profit that empowers students with disabilities to become successful leaders through allyship, networking and other opportunities. He’s speaking at various events, conferences and recruitment events for persons with disabilities. Varun, thanks for joining us today.

Varun Chandak:

Anish thank you for having me I’m really happy to be here. Before we start I also want to thank you for hosting this conversation on Microsoft Teams. As you know, I have a hearing impairment and I rely on lip reading or captions so since Microsoft Teams has the captions, I really appreciate the accommodation. Thank you for that.

Anish Patel:

Of course. Varun, to kick us off, do you want to tell us a little bit more about what Access to Success is and what motivated you to start this initiative?

Varun Chandak:

Absolutely. So Access to Success actually started off as a student club when I was an MBA student at the Rotman School of Management at University of Toronto. I remember every business school has an orientation day and at my orientation day, there was an entire day dedicated to diversity and inclusion. I found it interesting that disability did not even get mentioned once during that orientation and I thought there was something off about that. So I did some research and it turned out that none of the top business schools in the world, at least at the time, had any student-run initiatives specifically for students with disabilities. Even though there were initiatives for gender equality, for LGBTQ, for race, disability was getting ignored.

So I talked to the administration and they encouraged me to take action on that so that’s how Access to Success initially started as a student club, I recruited the founding team which still works with me today. A year later from the encouragement that we received, a lot of people are telling us that we are limiting ourselves by just staying to Rotman. We took heed to those words and expanded and incorporated into a not-for-profit organization. So as today, we support MBA students at the University of Toronto, at Queens University and Western University through the Access to Success fellowship which provides annual scholarships of $75,000 to MBA students who have a disability. Along the way we also expanded into the innovation sector but I’ll talk about that some other time.

Anish Patel:

Wow that’s awesome to hear that progress you guys have had in such a short period of time, it’s interesting. So you noticed that at the university there was visibility and awareness brought into visible minority groups but there was a gap. When you think about that gap, what does it take for an organization to be more inclusive of people with disabilities whether it be schools, companies, what are your thoughts around what it takes to really push the inclusive agenda?

Varun Chandak:

Let’s talk about it from the perspective of companies. For a company I would say that the initiative needs to come from the top. There can always be grassroots movement. That’s always encouraged, but unless there is a support right from the top, it’s not going to end up as well as it would otherwise. So if there are any leaders listening I would highly encourage them to look into the world of disability inclusion and encourage the corporate leadership to support disability inclusion in a meaningful way.

The second aspect is that the commitment to disability inclusion needs to be true to the word and not a marketing ploy. The disability community has seen this for a very long period of time. Fortunately, there have been packets of true inclusion. Unfortunately, there has also been plenty of not-so-true inclusion and the community understands which is which. So I would encourage people who are interested in taking concrete steps to do it for the right reasons – not for charity, not for branding or marketing, but for true inclusion and the benefits that come with them.

The third thing is that it’s okay if people don’t have all the answers. If you were to start off by doing something for disability inclusion, you may not have all the answers for all of the disabilities in the world and that’s okay. Fortunately, there are people out there who do know what they’re doing so I encourage them to find those people and learn from them. That’s what we did, that’s exactly what we did. I personally have no background in disability advocacy when we first started Access to Success but we were fortunate that we met a lot of people who have been doing this for a lot of years and they taught us everything there is to know. A lot of what there is to know. So you learn from them and hopefully you improve along the way.

Anish Patel:

I couldn’t agree with you more. When you think about managing effective change, you do need buy-in from folks that have what we’ll call power. I like that you mentioned ‘you don’t have to be the expert’. There are enough folks out there that you can lean on to help bridge your understanding and up-skill your education and then make it purposeful. Don’t make it a marketing ploy, make it meaningful and make it impactful. Now to help bring this whole thing full circle, when you were looking at joining a company after finishing your MBA, did you face challenges along the way? Were there instances or hesitation around companies when you disclosed the partial hearing impairment?

Varun Chandak:

Absolutely. Yes. There was one very unfortunate incident. There was a role that I came across which I thought I would be perfect for at the job description, looked like it was written for me. I had everything that they asked for and then some, at least that’s what I thought. I applied and I was lucky to actually get an interview. So they asked for a phone call, so I email them back and said that I have a hearing impairment and I rely on lip reading, would it be possible to do it either over video or in-person? And this is a very, very, very large company and they say that as a matter of policy, we don’t usually do video calls or in-person meetings for the first screening phone call.

But let me see what I can do. Let me talk to my boss and I’ll come back to you. Is that okay? He goes by, I don’t hear back from that person. So I follow up and they say “yes, I checked with my boss we’re still looking into it” and the boss is copied in that. Okay another week goes by, I followed yet again, this time the boss responds and says, “yes, we’re trying to sort that out I’m really sorry. We’ll see what we can do.” I don’t follow up again and two weeks later I receive a rejection.

Anish Patel:

That’s awful. Appreciate you sharing. People tend to tiptoe around disability and sometimes those initial conversations can be tricky. For example, can I use that word? What are some of the common misconceptions and the dos and the don’ts that we should be aware of?

Varun Chandak:

Oh, that’s a great question. The first thing is ask. Don’t ask that, hey, I think you have a disability. Do you have this disability? What I mean by that is if somebody discloses to you that they have a disability, when appropriate ask, what can you do to support the person? Whether it’s in the course of the professional life, or if it’s a friend telling me this, is there something that I should be doing better? If you’re coming from the right place, the person will tell you if there’s anything they need to do. If anything that other person needs to do. The second thing is just read up on the common dos and don’ts, the common courtesy aspects of it. Just educate yourselves and that’s the same thing for any aspect of being inclusive, of being an effective ally.

So one thing I would add is mistakes happen, so if somebody who doesn’t have a disability makes a mistake, like I said, these conversations are tricky. If you make a mistake, apologize and learn from, try not do it again and it’s okay as long as you learn from that mistake. And the final and maybe the most important thing, which I should have said the first time, is include people with disabilities in the conversation. If you want to do something that you feel is inclusive, it sounds obvious but don’t do it by excluding the person you’re trying to be inclusive of.

Anish Patel:

Thank you for that. I know self-education in many aspects is so empowering to folks in terms of just shedding light on concepts that may be somewhat foreign and helps bring empathy. Now I’ve read about inclusive design, some of the pieces you’ve put out, but for the listeners we have today, can you tell us a little bit more about what inclusive design is and why it’s important.

Varun Chandak:

Of course. Inclusive design is a design methodology which takes into account the various spectrum of human abilities. In simple terms, it designs in a flexibility that makes it possible for extreme users to use the product. To give you a very simple example, I have a partial paralysis in my left hand, which makes it very weak. Now if somebody was to design a jar for which it was easy for me to open the jar, open the lid off the jar using just my left hand, that would be inclusive design and how it expands is not only can I use it, a little child will also be able to open the jar, somebody with arthritis would also be able to open the jar more completely. So inclusive design doesn’t necessarily design for everyone in the world, but it builds enough flexibility such that extreme users can use the product. And if an extreme user can use the product, then the vast majority, that any person can also use the product in most cases. Inclusive design is again not a charity. There’s a huge commercial component and a commercial reasoning at our hands. For example screen readability.

Two years ago there was this huge component in mobile phone use where they would talk about how readable the screen is in direct sunlight. That came from an accessibility feature. For true inclusive design, there needs to be sufficient contrast your screen. If you have sufficient contrast on your screen, inevitably the visibility is much better in direct sunlight. So now that’s very common. There’s a series of kitchen tools called OXO products that’s one of the most common and most popular examples of inclusive design. That series of tools, like a can opener, was initially designed for people with arthritis and now they’re very, very popular simply because they are just so much more comfortable. That’s inclusive design.

Anish Patel:

So a good segue here is it’s hard enough or it can be challenging when we’re not in a pandemic, but given we’re in a pandemic there’s working from home, there is social isolation, how has this pandemic played a role in either furthering or actually taking steps back in that journey?

Varun Chandak:

For me, the biggest change has been face masks. As I said early on in our conversation, I very heavily rely on lip reading. So now when I go out and I want to talk to someone it’s very, very, very difficult for me. And I’m in fact, in a weird way sort of grateful that this is happening now and not five years ago because now the technology exists for me to be able to use apps for voice-to-text translation. That didn’t exist five years ago, not automatically.

So it’s been difficult despite the existence of that technology, especially in-person conversations have been very painful but you do what you can. Sometimes if you’re lucky, the other person will be wearing a transparent face shield which makes it easy for me to lip read. There’s been a small movement to encourage people to use transparent face mask, but they are obviously very niche and only exist in very small pockets. So far, I don’t have an answer except to continue relying on the app. Sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t. Professionally now, thankfully all the conference calls, all of the meetings take place on Microsoft Teams which has the live captions feature so it’s actually made my life easier because I don’t have to deal with phone calls anymore. So you get some you lose some.

Anish Patel:

Yeah, I can imagine. Ascend has a pretty big student chapter across Canada and having being a student at Rotman yourself, would there be advise that existing students could take that you’d be able to provide to help them build a more inclusive academic culture?

Varun Chandak:

I would say the same thing that sort of catapulted me into my role at Access to Success. I once heard somebody say in the early days at Rotman, if you see the need for change around here, this is the time when you are a student, the resources that you have, the environment you’re in, you will never have a better time than that to make a change.

So I would highly encourage students who see that need for a change around them to not think “It’s not their job, It’s the Accessibility Services Office that should take care of it, for the Program Services that should take care of it.” If you see that gap still exists, I would encourage you to think what can you do to fill that gap. When I started in the space, I had no background whatsoever in disability advocacy and not even any exposure beyond my own limits with disability. I learned along the way, I received a lot support, I met a lot of people who taught me what I know now, but it all happened because I decided to take that jump. I would encourage students to take that jump.

Anish Patel:

It’s great advice. Looking back, what are you most proud of?

Varun Chandak:

I think the most proud of is making a conversation about disability exciting. In some instances, I have been fortunate to come across various examples of students who got exposed to disability inclusion, to the world of inclusive design through the work of Access to Success and those students later told me they had no idea this world of innovation was out there and this world of inclusion was out there and how now they’ve learned so much about it and now they’re interested in it and they make an effort to keep learning more about beyond what we at Access to Success do. I think that’s what I’m most excited about, to have made that conversation worthwhile and to have made that conversation happen.

Anish Patel:

So Varun this brings us to the end of our time together but before we sign off, are there closing remarks that you’d like to share with our listeners?

Varun Chandak:

Yes. Thank you. There are a couple of things I wanted to share. So two of our ongoing initiatives maybe of interest to your listeners. One, we recently launched the world’s first survey on disability inclusion in MBA programs. That survey is still live so if any of the listeners, if you are a current, former or prospective MBA student and you identify as having a disability, I would highly encourage you to visit our website, accesstosuccess.ca and participate in the survey. There is a compensation of $25CAD for the first 400 respondents. The other thing I wanted to share which I’ve been hinting at throughout this conversation is our work in the innovation space. Last year in October, we organized what was Canada’s first bootcamp for accessibility startups, with an inaugural cohort of 10 companies. That bootcamp turned out to be really successful and we are now working to launch a full fledged accelerator exclusively for accessibility startups. We are on the way to launching this, but like everything else we have done so far, we can’t do this on our own. So if this is something that you would like to get involved in, whether you represent a company or just yourself, please reach out to us. If you would like to volunteer for us in any capacity, we can always use more help so I would highly encourage listeners to please reach out.

Anish Patel:

That’s awesome. I echo the call to action, to have folks participate in that survey. If you’ve completed an MBA or are attending your MBA and the innovation bootcamp seems pretty exciting. It seems like a great opportunity to really leave a mark.

Varun Chandak:

Thank you.

Anish Patel:

No, of course Varun. With that, I do want to thank you again for taking the time to have this conversation with us. Appreciate all the hard work and the progress you’ve had with Access to Success and for championing the great work that you’re doing. Listeners this is your host signing off. Thank you for tuning in. Stay well and stay safe.