Extended Reality (XR): The Future of Workplace Learning


Maria Melfa: Welcome everyone to Bring Out The Talent. My name is Maria Melfa, and I am the President and CEO of The Training Associates, otherwise known as TTA.

Jocelyn Allen: Hi everyone, I’m Jocelyn Allen and I’m a Talent Recruitment Manager here at TTA, and we’re so glad you’re back here joining us.

Maria Melfa: With companies being more focused on inclusion and diversity, is your company doing what it can to support your employees with disabilities? With one out of five employees having various degrees of physical and mental disabilities, many organizations struggle to provide the support needed to help foster a successful work environment. We have a very special guest with us today to help us understand how we can better support employees with disabilities in the workplace. Bonnie Rivers is the Director of Employer Relations at Work Without Limits. Work Without Limits is a network of employers, educational institutions, employment service providers, and state and federal agencies. Through collaboration and partnership, their goal is to increase the employment of people with disabilities until it is equal to those without disabilities. Bonnie is a fierce advocate for diversity and inclusion. Her experience managing learning and development, marketing operations, and global diversity in inclusion teams have significantly influenced the collaborative and inclusive nature of both her leadership style and approach. Welcome, Bonnie.

Bonnie Rivers: Thank you so much. Great to be here.

Maria Melfa: Very excited to have you. I know when you and I spoke on the phone, I said that you know, I reached out to you because I feel that there’s just not enough awareness on how to help integrate employees with physical and mental disabilities into the workplace. And you know, we’re a learning and development company, and we train on so many different things. But this is an area that I want to personally and professionally get more involved in, so we’re very excited to have you.

Bonnie Rivers: Thanks. That’s terrific. Love to hear it. We always are very inspired when more and more organizations want to learn more. We’ve got this down perfectly. So, the fact that you’re willing to be on the journey is awesome.

Maria Melfa: Can you explain who Work Without Limits is, and what services you provide? I know we mentioned it a little bit in the bio, but if you can give us a little more information for our audience, that would be great.

Bonnie Rivers: Yeah. And you did a great job with the introduction. I think you nailed it. So, we, Work Without Limits, is an initiative out of Commonwealth Medicine, which is the consulting arm of UMass Medical School. So, how’s that for a few layers deep, right? Effectively, we’re kind of like a nonprofit that lives within the larger UMass Medical System. And our focus, we are very mission-driven. And as you mentioned, our focus is to increase the employment rate for individuals with disabilities. So, we do that in several ways. Mainly through a very large network of employers, educational institutions, employment service providers, state and federal agencies, as well as, of course, individuals with disabilities and their family members. So, we offer a lot of services to meet those varieties of needs. So, for businesses, we’re focusing on helping them actively recruit people with disabilities, both as employees but also in their supply chains, and also to give them employers a comfort level with a disability, which often can be lacking. We work with individuals with disabilities who are seeking jobs, and partner with the employment service providers that they may already be working with. So, we provide a lot of benefits counseling to individual job seekers with disabilities who may fear if they are collecting public benefits, they may lose those benefits, like Supplemental Security Income or Social Security Disability Insurance. So, we work with them. We have wonderful, certified benefits counselors who do a great job helping individuals understand that they can go to work and achieve success in employment. And we work with employers sort of on the other side of that coin to help them build their capacity to include individuals with disabilities, not just from a recruiting standpoint, but an intersectional holistic standpoint around creating an inclusive culture, ensuring systems and physical spaces are accessible. Marketing, branding, policies, procedures, accommodation. So, all of these things that surround the world of disability can be a little overwhelming and a little scary for employers. We love helping them through that process.

Jocelyn Allen: It sounds like you do a lot of coaching, counseling, consulting to work on the frameworks, and helping organizations adapt to accommodating employees with disabilities for several different reasons. What about training offerings? Do you do classroom-style training? What does that look like and how do you offer it?

Bonnie Rivers: Yeah, we do training and consulting. It’s a big piece of what we do. And I deliver the majority of our training to businesses or organizations. I do have colleagues who deliver training of a different kind to individuals with disabilities, their family members, and employment service providers. So, helping them understand the very complicated Social Security system. But as far as my training for employers, we deliver it both in-person as well as virtually. It’s a fantastic place to start for those organizations that are saying “we’re not doing anything around disability inclusion. We know we should. We don’t know where to start training courses like disability etiquette.” So that’s the What do I do? What do I say? What is a disability? What is language do’s and don’ts? How do I recover if I screw up, and I offend somebody that I didn’t intend on offending? So, we have that’s one of our most popular courses. We have a course called Disability Awareness, which is the value proposition for organizations to include individuals with disabilities on staff, as suppliers, and as customers or clients. So, we talk about some more statistics, like you had mentioned earlier, around one in five individuals identified as having a disability.

Bonnie Rivers: One in three families are directly impacted by disability. So, if organizations aren’t realizing that they have this prevalence in their culture, they’re missing some great opportunities. So that’s a terrific course. We also, from more an advanced training standpoint, do targeted training for talent acquisition teams, hiring managers, and HR around interviewing candidates with disabilities. So, what’s a good interview might be very different after you leave our course versus what you’ve been trained in that recruiting 101 types of session. And also, another advanced I would call a course is conducting performance discussions with individuals with disabilities. So as a manager, what do you do if there’s a performance issue and your employee says, “Well, that’s because of my disability”, and this is the first time you’re hearing it. So how do you handle those types of situations? So, we do a lot of generalist training, both, as I mentioned, in-person as well as virtually. They are typically one hour in length because we know very clearly from organizations, that’s it. So, a lot of times they’re kind of lunch and learn the type of sessions.

Jocelyn Allen: What’s interesting about what you’re mentioning is that it can be “forgive me for this part because I want to make sure I’m using the right words,” but there are subtle, almost nuances in the form of disabilities, and then, obviously, much more apparent ones that you can see if you will, and it’s accommodating both of those and what your programs offer. It sounds like a lot of it can be Human Resources related. Do you find that those are the departments that you frequently work through for that reason and the sensitivity around it? Or what do you, how do you know, who are you working with when you’re trying to bring these onboard?

Bonnie Rivers: Yeah. For training. Actually, for most of what we do in the employer sector. It’s HR departments, talent acquisition teams, diversity, equity, and inclusion teams. Those are really the big three and oftentimes they’re quite related. And yes, you’re absolutely correct. I mean, one of the first places we start with organizations is talking about disability, and asking people, “You know, when I say the word disability, what comes to mind.” Nine times out of 10, somebody says a person in a wheelchair. Of course, because that’s the universal symbol for disability. It’s what we’ve been trained to see is a person in a wheelchair on the accessible parking tags or the accessible doorways. So that’s a lot of the education where we start is really understanding that disability doesn’t discriminate. It’s all ages, colors, sizes, religions, genders. It’s a category if you will. Any one of us can, and likely will join at any time. Because disability can be temporary, it can be permanent. It absolutely can be visible and invisible. And every single disability has a spectrum. So, you could be partially blind, you could be legally blind. So, these are all of the things that we talk about in training and have really good dialogue. Even with virtual training, they’re highly interactive through polls, case studies, and chat. So long answer to your question, but yes. It’s HR, diversity, equity and inclusion, talent acquisition teams. Sometimes marketing teams. That’s not usually the driver, but it is an important piece to get people’s word out.

Maria Melfa: I just still find it amazing. Here we are in 2022, and we still don’t have a lot of awareness on these issues. As I mentioned to you, Bonnie, I’ve had learning disabilities growing up, and I have two children and they both have learning disabilities. And I know as a parent, I’ve had to spend so much time advocating for them. And as you know, my son is now 21. There are a lot of things that people just might not know, you know, because he looks perfect, you know, normal. My daughter does, too. My daughter has an auditory processing disorder and dyslexia, and sometimes she has a very difficult time communicating her thoughts, especially like, so for like assignments. When she reads something, she knows the information. But to just try to retrieve that information is very difficult for her, and even growing up too. It’s amazing how many people who have disabilities also suffer from anxiety or depression mental health issues because a lot of times it just gives you very low self-confidence. You start thinking that there’s something wrong with you, or you’re not intelligent when it has absolutely nothing to do with intelligence. It’s just, you know, how you relate. So, I just again, I absolutely love what you do, and I just, you know, my goal is to raise more awareness on this. So, are there challenges for companies that are a certain size? So, if you’re a small company, say, you know, 10, 20 employees and there are different accommodations, do you see sometimes smaller organizations having a harder time to make accommodations than larger companies, and how does that work?

Bonnie Rivers: Well, first, I want to address what you just shared with us, which is incredibly personal, and I want to thank you for having the courage to do that because that’s how change is. That’s how we impact change. And a huge, powerful way to do that is for all of us to share our stories. So, for those who are comfortable and sharing their story, it makes waves of difference at organizations. So, I just want to address that and say thank you. Thank you for sharing that with us. I, too, have a sister with multiple disabilities, and I can’t tell you the number of tears that were shed on the playground growing up because she was called the R-word, and took the short bus, and why the short bus was so funny. Fortunately, I do think we have improved. It’s been, what, thirty-one years since the ADA with the Americans with Disabilities Act, thankfully, but there’s still a long way to go. So, we recognize that for employers, there is no shaming with us at all. Some of our favorite employers, regardless of the size, come to us in a whisper, and they say, we don’t know what to do. We know we’re behind the eight ball. We’ve been focused on women. We’ve been focused on people of color. We’ve been focused on veterans. But disability is just such a mystery to us. So, a very large service that we provide is our business network. So, we have about 40 organizations, both in and around the New England region, but also nationally and internationally, that are part of our business network membership, and that entails several benefits throughout the year.

Bonnie Rivers: We get together two times for training, so I deliver training courses to the network. We get together for educational webinars. So, I’m actually just getting ready now to email out a survey to all of our business networks to say, “What do you want to talk about next year? What’s hot right now for you?” You can imagine in 2020, what was the topic everybody wanted to talk about: mental health, right, as it relates to disability. So last year, we talked about interviewing candidates with disabilities. We also talked about “how do I become an employer of choice for people with disabilities?” So those are some examples. Our business network. I manage the group and I’m a little biased, but I love every single one of them. I’ve become personal friends with them. Many of them are leads in their HR or their DNI or their talent acquisition departments. And to answer your question, it’s small, one-hundred-person organizations all the way up to mega international organizations, and you can see all of our business network members proudly displayed on our website, which is workwithoutlimits.org. So, from an accommodation standpoint, it might be easier for a smaller organization to implement accommodations just because they might be more nimble. But from a readiness standpoint, it really depends on the type of organization the comfort level with a disability, the knowledge internally. There are so many factors that can contribute to an organization’s readiness from what you’re seeing.

Jocelyn Allen: What are the biggest challenges that workplaces are facing when it comes to trying to increase their disability inclusion capacity?

Bonnie Rivers: Yeah, it’s a great question. It’s a loaded question. So, some people, it’s, they just get stuck. They just feel like it’s so overwhelming. I don’t know where to start, so let’s just move on to something else that we can kind of check off a list. So, I would say just get started. Training is a great way to start. It’s a great way to start educating raising awareness. People, also. Many organizations will come to us, and say “our focus this year is increasing the number of employees we have on staff, so where can you give us some candidates? We want to increase our hiring.” And I say, “that’s terrific!” But it’s all intersectional, right? So, if your talent acquisition team is not educated on interviewing individuals with disabilities. There’s so much stigma unfortunately packed with disability. And Maria, you were talking about it earlier. Assumptions being made about what people can and can’t do just because of maybe what they look like, or an assistive device they’re using is problematic. So, if you have a talent acquisition team or recruiter who isn’t educated on that, you could be turning away really great talent, and organizations get frustrated. They’re saying, “why aren’t individuals with disabilities applying, or telling us, or identifying as an individual with a disability?” Well, if your website isn’t accessible, someone potentially who has a visual impairment, may not even be able to access your job descriptions.

Bonnie Rivers: If you have simply an EEOC statement, you know a legal statement on your careers page, it’s not super warm and friendly. That’s a must have. If you’re a federal contractor, for example, that’s a must-have, and it’s great that it’s out there. But imagine if you had pictures of individuals with disabilities and nice language around. “If you need accommodation, we’d love to help you reach out. Here’s my contact information.” So, branding communication goes a really long way. Having accommodations, policies so people again, your recruiters, as well as your hiring managers, know what to do. If someone says, “I need an accommodation, I, I need help or an adjustment to this particular part of my job or to actually perform conduct the interview.” So here are the biggest challenges, I think is people. It’s kind of twofold. Not understanding how intersectional disability inclusion is, but then at the same time, getting frozen because of that factor, and not starting. So, it’s a little bit of a double-edged sword. So, I would say that’s what we’re here for. So, reach out to us, help join our business network, but just start, start somewhere. Nobody’s got this buttoned-up perfectly. So, there’s a lot of people on the journey, so just get on the journey. You’ll figure it out as you go.

Maria Melfa: Do you think some employers could be concerned about additional liability when hiring somebody with disabilities because they don’t know how to handle any type of accommodation, so therefore they just avoid it?

Bonnie Rivers: Sure. Right. I mean, there’s going to be some organizations that are like that. I would definitely like to think that we have moved further beyond that, but I’m sure. I’m sure some organizations are void. There are legal processes in place to prevent discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Thanks again to the ADA. I think it’s a possibility. I don’t hear that really as a driving factor. I hear more organizations feel like they have to have it perfect before they can hire people with disabilities. And that’s not the case because no one’s ever going to have it perfect. The best thing you can do to get better is to hire people with disabilities because they’ll tell you and help include them, and part of the process is really, really critical. And there are lots of great resources out there. Like Work Without Limits. Like AskJan.org is a fantastic, free website that’s all about accommodations. They, employers, can call them directly to set up confidential case files, and there’s a lot of resources out there. So, I would encourage people to take a look at the resources tab on our website, which will point you to a lot of those places or reach out to us, but definitely to use resources for sure.

Maria Melfa: There seems to be an increased awareness of neurodiversity in the workplace. Can you explain how Work Without Limits would work with an organization that would like to become more inclusive in this area?

Bonnie Rivers: Sure. So, Work Without Limits prides ourselves on being generalist in the space of disability. We are not specialists. However, we have a very large contingent of, what we call, community partners. So, we have over. I think it’s closer to seventy-five now. Community partners, are those types of organizations that are employment service providers, state agencies that work directly with individuals with disabilities, and are specialists in their fields. So, what we do, like I was mentioning in 2020, we did, mental health was the big topic. We’re not specialists in mental health, but we have community partners that are. So, when we hear and need from an organization or our our collective business network saying, “this is what we need, this is what we want to talk about.” If it starts getting specific around neurodiversity, or people who are hard of hearing or a visual impairment, and we start digging into a specific disability like neurodiversity, we reach into our community partners, and we bring them into the discussion, and to help conduct some of those educational webinars, and we make the warm introductions to these organizations. And that’s a huge benefit. Again, of being part of our business network is that we actually have consulting hours that we’ve built into a membership where organizations can contact us and we have those discussions and we connect them “where are your needs specifically?” And if it’s something we can’t meet, we refer them to community partners.

Maria Melfa: You know, certain jobs, you do have requirements. So, there might be some requirements that somebody with physical disabilities clearly can’t do, and it would be very obvious based on the job description. There could be, like for neurodiverse employees, how can you determine whether a particular job description might not be the right fit for somebody with neurodiverse issues?

Bonnie Rivers: So I love that question because we get asked it all the time. So, what are the best jobs for people with visual impairments or what are the best jobs for neurodiverse candidates? So, I’m going to challenge you, and I’m going to say to both of you, “you tell me, what are the best jobs for women”

Maria Melfa: Cooking and staying home?

Jocelyn Allen: That’s right. Isn’t it barefoot somewhere on a tile floor? I heard I don’t know.

Maria Melfa: What I’m thinking is, so I have a friend who has a child who’s autistic. And as I mentioned to you, Bonnie, I do have family members on the spectrum. Also, I’m not sure like when we’re having this conversation, I’m just picturing, could this young man now be a recruiter? And, I’m just thinking, or a salesperson because as we know, like on the phone, especially with Zoom and having the nonverbal communication, would there be issues if somebody was to get frustrated, or get, you know, frustrated with the client, how do you let the client know, or do you not need to let the client know, that this individual might miss some cues? Mm-hmm. So, I don’t know if I’m again saying this correctly, but I could just picture that. And it’s not like in a way of like, you know, discriminating or not thinking that they’re capable of doing it, but are there things just like even somebody that has a personality that is, they could be very stressed out?

Jocelyn Allen: Right. Easily, almost easily triggered.

Maria Melfa: You might not want to put him in a certain position. So. So I guess I’ll stop talking and let you answer.

Bonnie Rivers: Yeah, no. So, I was being a little flippant earlier, but I really want to follow through on that. So, you know, because ultimately, what I’m hearing you say, and I hear people say it all the time is what can or can’t sort of this type of disability be able to do or do? Right. There are some concerns around that. So, I always challenge people who I feel safe, and know that I’m not coming at them with that question of what job can women do? And people typically pause, and then have that aha moment of “Whoa, I am making a huge assumption just because this person has a B.S. disability that they can, or they cannot do a specific function.” So, to eliminate the stigma with a disability, we need to eliminate our assumptions. And to answer your question, Maria, there’s a lot of what we talk about in our interviewing course. All of those questions you have like, “how do I know if he can do this, and how do I know if he could do that?” How do you find that out is you ask. You, you hashtag ATP, ask the person. And I’m taking that from Randy Lewis from Walgreens, but you ask the person. So, in an interviewing environment and this is referencing what I was talking about earlier, you never, ever want to assume.

Bonnie Rivers: For example, take somebody who’s blind, and they’re interviewing to be an engineer. If you don’t have an educated recruiter, the recruiter is going to be sitting there going, “how the heck could this guy be an engineer? He can’t see?” Right? So instead, what you would ask is, “Mr. Engineer want to be with or without reasonable accommodation? Can you a, B or C? So, this job requires without using spreadsheets, talking on the phone three hours a day, attending in-person meetings, and managing and zoom? I don’t know. I’m making this up on the fly. So, with or without reasonable accommodation, can you please describe to me how you would accomplish those tasks?” That’s the question you asked. So, for your recruiter example? Those would be the questions you ask. So as a recruiter, you have a job description in front of you. Those are for a reason, right? So, if it’s a well-written job description, you have key responsibilities that are required components of the job, and those are the questions you’re asking. This job requires A, B, and C. Can you explain to me with or without a reasonable accommodation how you would do that? And that question is for every candidate. Not just somebody who visually has a disability, because you don’t know so many disabilities are hidden, so the big piece there is there are no jobs just for people with visual impairments and just for people who are neurodiverse, et cetera.

Bonnie Rivers: We would never want to assume that someone can or can’t do something. If they are interviewing for the job, they should be able to speak to either past employment history, which for individuals with disabilities is typically very challenging. The unemployment rate for individuals with disabilities is two times higher than it is for those without. So, they are not going to have, in theory, as many past employment opportunities to speak to like those people without these disabilities. So, it’s important to say, “tell me about your skills. Tell me how. Why do you think you’re qualified to do this job? Here are the necessary requirements for the job. Can you explain to me with or without a reasonable accommodation how you would accomplish that?” So, if you have a question, if you’re sitting there looking at this person who’s blind, who’s interviewing to be an engineer and you’re thinking, “how the heck do you do that?” You need to ask because if you don’t ask, you’re making an assumption and that person’s never going to get beyond you into the hiring manager. You’re going to. It’s sometimes easier to avoid, and then you’re walking down a very fine line of discrimination. So, if you ever have a question, you hashtag ATP.

Jocelyn Allen: I love that. We’re going to use that.

Maria Melfa: I know that was very helpful. I mean, it seems obvious, but yet, I think because of not being aware and just knowing that you don’t know how to handle this question situation. Yeah, absolutely. So yeah, it’s all about education coming over there.

Bonnie Rivers: And the key there, really the phrase, from a title one employment ADA. I’m going to get legal on you enough to be dangerous because I’m certainly not a legal person, but it’s the essential function of the job. So that’s really what you’re asking about because the essential functions are what make up the job description. So, the whole like 1982, like, “Can you lift a box more than 10 pounds?” that falls at the bottom of every job description. Like, do you really need to do that if you’re going to be in here? And is that an essential function of your job? Or is that something somebody could help you out with? Let’s say if you didn’t have arms or you didn’t have the ability to lift 10 pounds, or maybe you do, but you don’t do it with your arms, you do it with your feet. Who cares if you get it done and it’s the essential function of the job. So that’s the key terminology on folks’ job descriptions. Make sure well-written job descriptions clearly outline the need to know the need to have and the nice to have, so the essential functions and the additional duties as the needed section.

Maria Melfa: That was very helpful. Thank you.

Jocelyn Allen: Absolutely. It was. You were telling us earlier, Bonnie, before, I think before we started recording, but about we were talking about your background in instructional design, and you’re making some pivots and still doing some of that training detail with Work Without Limits. Can you tell us about how COVID affected the way that you’re doing the training and why that pivot might have been necessary? Now you’re handling it from here on out.

Bonnie Rivers: Yeah, sure. It’s probably not unlike everybody else, right? I mean, we’ve gone fully remote with our training. I now can deliver it in person, if an organization wants that. Really, if there is a silver lining to COVID, as it pertains to disabilities, it’s done a number of really positive things. A huge barrier for individuals with disabilities is transportation. So, in this world of COVID, where we’re all kind of holed up in our houses, and I’m still working and will continue to be working fully remote. For some individuals with disabilities is the best thing that happened because it takes transportation out of the mix. Additionally, it’s normal, more normalized the conversation around mental health. We’re all a lot better at checking in with one another and saying, “How are you doing? How are you feeling? You seem off today. Is everything OK?” And people are tending to feel a little safer and say, “No, I’m stressed out. I’m maxed out. I’m anxious, I’m trapped in my four walls. I’ve got three kids crawling on me. My dog is barking.” When we’re comfortable at all levels in the organization, up to senior leaders, oftentimes, which again, I mentioned earlier, storytelling is so important. Senior leaders are doing a great job of communicating their challenges at home and, you know, that type of thing.

Bonnie Rivers: So that’s been a bit helpful. Additionally, COVID from an accessibility standpoint. Zoom teams, WebEx, whatever people’s platforms are to communicate. Closed captioning. Live transcription has become much more frequent, much more normalized, and so helpful to all of us, disability or not. But especially those who may be hard of hearing. To now be able to see closed captioning on meetings because many of these technological platforms now it’s built into them. Whereas before organizations may have to outsource or hire someone, part reporters are still very strongly required and needed by some individuals with disabilities. So, we’d never want to make the assumption that built-in closed captioning is adequate. So, we still always, before meetings, want to be asking people, “Do you need any accommodations, cart reporting, or American sign language?” But now to have an ASL or American sign language interpreter on a call remotely? Piece of cake. You know, it’s just so. Some things have become more accessible in a positive way. And accessibility is such an enormous key to being a disability-inclusive employer and feel included when you are an individual with a disability.

Maria Melfa: So, one of the services Work Without Limits provides is helping employees find jobs. You have a job board. Can you tell us more about that?

Bonnie Rivers: I mentioned we have community partners earlier. So, one of our great community partners is Our Ability, which is out of New York State, and Our Ability is owned by Adobe, which is a disability-owned business enterprise. So many people have heard of women-owned businesses veteran-owned businesses and people of color owned businesses. Well, there are disability-owned businesses. So, John Robinson is a certified disability-owned business. He created Jobs Ability, and we have partnered with him to market Jobs Ability, which is a job board for individuals with disabilities in New England, but also the national region for him. This job board is really great. He has contributors from Syracuse University, as well as Microsoft, so it is not too shabby. And what’s really unique about this jobs board is it is AI-driven. So, I mentioned earlier, employment is challenging many times. The unemployment rate for individuals with disabilities, as I mentioned is two times higher. So, this jobs board focuses less on uploading a resume like you would on CareerBuilder or Indeed or wherever. And instead, individuals with disabilities create profiles, and they use keywords and terms that describe their skills, abilities, and qualifications.

Bonnie Rivers: Those keywords through AI technology reach into all of the employer job descriptions that are posted on the board, and that candidate gets a custom-matched list of the jobs that might be a good fit for them. And on the employer side, all of the jobs are auto scraped, so it’s not a manual process. This is happening when you sleep, but they do have the ability to actively source in the same way. So, they can go out and see based on their job descriptions what candidates the job board is pinging. So, we offer the jobs board inside and outside of our business network membership. So, it is discounted if you become a business network member. But it’s a really great place. If you are an individual with a disability seeking employment again, check out our website, workwithoutlimits.org. Click on that Job Board tab. Create your profile. There’s no cost to doing that, and employers can certainly get their jobs, subscribe to the job board, and get their jobs posted.

Jocelyn Allen: That’s great. It’s another great way that you’re helping to support that community. I think it’s outstanding all the resources that you’re providing. And this is the second time that you’ve mentioned. And I think as you mentioned earlier when we were talking more focused on the neurodiverse aspect of this conversation. Can you tell us more about these memberships, what they look like, and how organizations can get involved?

Bonnie Rivers: On our website, workwithoutlimits.org, there is a tab called “Join US and Business Network.” That’s the place to go. Click on it, and you’ll see everything spelled out there. We have three levels of membership: bronze, silver, and gold. So bronze is two thousand five hundred dollars a year. Silver is five thousand a year, and gold is ten thousand a year. So. Your benefits are commensurate with your sponsorship level. So, what we offer there is branding at every level, certainly because it’s important is to let the disability community know you’re in it. You know, it doesn’t mean you haven’t figured it out, but you’re in it and you’re welcoming individuals with disabilities. I think I mentioned before we have training built into the network two times a year. Depending on your level, you get X number of registrations per event. We have two educational webinars each year that are determined by the network. As I mentioned, they’re going to vote and submit their ideas for what they want to hear and talk and learn about next year. We also have, my favorite part is two networking forums. So, these are 90 minutes, twice a year where there’s no agenda. So right now, we’re doing it on Zoom. We used to do it in person, but with the pandemic, we’ve increased our number of more national sponsors.

Bonnie Rivers: So, doing it virtually makes sense. Or I’m sorry, national numbers. So, these networking forums have no agenda, but it’s 90 minutes of all of our organizations joining and sharing their best practices, sharing their challenges. You know, I’m stuck. We have this employee resource group that’s not moving. All we’re doing is doing potluck lunches, and we’re not moving the needle on disability inclusion, how can we advance them? We’re challenged with doing self-identification campaigns. We’re not getting a high number of responses. What are other organizations doing? So, it’s those 90 minutes where I really do very little talking is the goal and they all do the talking. So, it’s that really collaborative B to B environment that makes this membership so great because they’re learning from one another. And these businesses are every sector, every size, every industry. It really doesn’t matter because disability inclusion is pretty universal. We additionally have, as part of the membership of Private LinkedIn Group, which anyone on LinkedIn is like, “Oh yeah, I belong to 10 LinkedIn groups and nothing’s happening.” There’s things happening in the LinkedIn group. So, the only people we allow in that LinkedIn group are all of our business network members. So, anyone in their organizations with that email extension, all of our community partners, anybody who identifies as an individual with a disability, family member, DOBEs, and disability-owned business enterprises.

Bonnie Rivers: So, what’s happening in that LinkedIn group? Employers are posting a job, a hot job, or an internship that they might have. Candidates are posting their resumes or sharing their LinkedIn profiles. Community partners are sharing their opportunities, seeking employers to get engaged and maybe help them with an initiative they’re working on. Dobies or sharing their business. So, it’s a lot of it’s like a big virtual bulletin board is what’s happening out there. And then, of course, I mentioned earlier, we are generalists, so our day job is disability inclusion. This is what we’re focused on, you know, a nine to five. It’s not what our business members are focused on. So, we take all of that information from all the community partners, the national information we receive, the international information we receive, siphon it down and push through some exciting opportunities that we learn about that have nothing to do with Work Without Limits. They just might be great things that are happening in the U.S. or internationally, and we share them as opportunities for our business network members to get involved. So, I think that highlights most of what we do through the business network.

Maria Melfa: Bonnie, in your many years of working at Work Without Limits, what are you most proud of?

Bonnie Rivers: You know, I’m going to answer this collectively as an organization versus a Bonnie response because I’ve only been with Work Without Limits for about four years. But we started years ago under a federal grant. And federal money is great, right? When you get federal money, great things happen. But when that federal money goes away, so do all of the services. So, I think what we’re most proud of is the business network community that when the federal money for our grant back in 2008, when the grant was running out, a few years later, we went to the business community and we said, you know, “The grants running out. Birdies, leave the nest. You’re ready to fly. You’ve got this.” And all of them said, “Absolutely not.” This is not our day job. We need your support to continue, so we will pay you. Let’s create a membership model because we need your guidance moving forward. So that’s how our business network membership was born, and there were about ten, nine, or ten original businesses. So, we’ve more than quadrupled that amount in the few or eight or nine or so years since that funding ran out. So, I would say that’s what we’re most proud of is taking that federal money and turning it into something very sustainable. And businesses hold such impact and have such a voice of change. So, when they are on the journey and they are getting this and they’re becoming advocates, that’s what drives us up. And that’s really what we get most proud of because the difference is happening.

Jocelyn Allen: What a beautiful picture to paint of the impact that you made on your members in the time that you were given the grant for them to help you sustain it throughout. Like what an amazing thing to have accomplished that might make this next question a little hard, but hey, it’s a podcast. So, let’s throw some curveballs in there. No, I’m just kidding. All the amazing things that you’re doing, what could be your goals in the new year? What are you striving for in 2022?

Bonnie Rivers: We want to continue our training and continue growing the training with the number of contracts that we have because it’s received so overwhelmingly positive. Like Maria, you said earlier, like, “Oh, I guess this is kind of common sense when you think about it.” But for many people, it’s not, and its great information to have. So, a goal of ours is to continue to grow our gaining exposure because that means people are learning. The impact is happening, and education is being shared out there. So, between growing our business network, which we’re always seeking to do, as well as really our training efforts, that’s where we’re feeling, in the business community from getting back to our mission, which is to increase the employment rate for individuals with disabilities, empowering organizations through training and education and the business network membership. Are our solid goals moving forward.

Maria Melfa: Thank you so much, Bonnie. It was an absolute pleasure to have you today. I learned so much more and we’re looking forward to getting, you know, more involved in this in the future.

Jocelyn Allen: Yes, absolutely. We appreciate you giving us a safe space for us to ask questions that we maybe even didn’t know how to ask. But you gave us the answers and we’re appreciative, appreciative of that more than you even know. So, we look forward to the continuing partnership and seeing all the successes for you in 2022.

Bonnie Rivers: Thank you! And we look forward to TTA coming onboard our business network. Wink, wink.

Jocelyn Allen: Wink, wink. A little nudge in there.

Maria Melfa: Ok. Thank you so much, Bonnie. Have a great day. Bye-bye.

Jocelyn Allen: For more information on today’s podcast guests and how they can help your organization, please visit www.thetrainingassociates.com.

Maria Melfa: Bring Out The Talent is a MuddHouse Media Production.