Agents of Change – An Interview with Lily Zheng
By Weezie Melançon
Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity… three significant buzzwords that make up the acronym DEI – is fueling change in organizations.
How can companies and C-suite executives go beyond the checkbox and create an accessibility playbook for their DEI initiatives to evoke real impact and comply with the intent of the ADA?
Let's review the terminology that comprises DEI.
the state of being diverse; variety, the practice or quality of including or involving people from a range of different social and ethnic backgrounds and of different genders
the quality of being fair and impartial, justice according to natural law or right, freedom from bias or favoritism
the practice or policy of providing equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized, such as those having physical or intellectual disabilities or belonging to other minority groups
Using and understanding these terms is a start. Embracing the challenge of change with an open mind while recognizing the opportunity for us all to learn from, and grow with, one another is the course. Both are key to driving the systemic shake-up that bona fide accessibility requires.
So how do organizations, businesses and institutions transcend beyond the superficiality of DEI and impart a culture that represents minority communities in a work environment where everyone thrives?
There may be a long way to go, but we’re having the conversation with those taking initiative, who Ava identifies as Agents of Change.
Image Source: LilyZheng.co
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Hi, Lily. Thank you for taking the time to speak with Ava. Tell us who you are and what inspired you to do the work that you do.
My name is Lily Zheng. I use they/them pronouns. I’m a DEI strategist based in the San Francisco Bay area.
I was inspired to do this work because I wanted to find a way to leverage the things that I’m interested in, which is making organizational change and using levers of systems, organizations and communities to make the impact on behalf of marginalized communities in workplaces, and in society at-large.
I started doing this work seven years ago, starting in higher education. Not too long after that I moved to the corporate world, which is where I’ve been since. I work with clients of all shapes and sizes to get to the root of their DEI challenges and achieve diversity, equity and inclusivity in practice.
In the seven years you’ve been working in this field, what do you recognize to be the biggest challenge(s)?
In my opinion, the biggest challenges I see are that DEI topics are far larger than organizations recognize. Getting to the root of inequity and injustice usually requires changing systems rather than merely changing the cosmetic appearance at a very shallow level.
The hardest part of this work is helping people recognize that a commitment to DEI isn't the same as a genuine, true understanding of exactly what you're committed to, and why, and how long that commitment is going to bear out and how many resources that is going to take.
It's tough work. It’s challenging. It’s difficult. It takes a large amount of political will and leadership. Many organizations have an inkling that they need to do something, but not necessarily the full knowledge of exactly what they're getting themselves into, and what is needed of them to succeed.
With more recent attention on this topic, are you seeing increased demand for this line of work, and have you taken on more clients with each passing year?
Yes and no. The interest has risen. The number of clients I have has stayed relatively constant because I don’t take on more clients than I have the ability to reasonably support. There was a huge boost in interest I would say around the summer of 2020, but I’ve tried to keep my own business stable as I try to bite off things that I can chew and take on effectively.
So the real number of clients has not increased very much, though the interest in DEI work has gone up, which in some ways has made my work easier. It’s easier to talk about DEI with clients that want it. However, in some ways it’s made it harder because I’ve been inundated with a large volume of folks that haven’t done their homework, and are looking for a quick fix without really understanding what is required from them. It’s been challenging.
I think there’s a lot to be done in the space. I don’t think that it’s just awareness. I think it’s urgency and political will. I think a lot of work places just see it as a non-issue until an employee brings it up, which puts all the onus on the employee to be their own advocate.
Image Source: fairygodboss.com
Focusing on the Deaf community, do you see a shortage of Deaf representation in the workforce?
Yes, the answer to that is yes. I think the data shows very clearly the proportion of Deaf and hard of hearing representation in the workplace is nowhere near the population of Deaf and hard of hearing folks in society, and that is an inequity — one that we need to solve, in addition to all the others that are cross-cutting.
“I think the hard thing that employers need to recognize is that they haven't created environments where Deaf and hard-of-hearing employees can thrive.”
What do you recognize as hurdles for employers hiring Deaf employees?
With the caveat that I don't specialize in hiring Deaf communities, particularly, and don't specialize in hiring, in general, I think the hard thing that employers need to recognize is they haven't created environments where Deaf and hard-of-hearing employees can thrive.
Their workplace environments are not accessible. Their usage of closed-captioning, for example, is atrocious. They just haven't done any sort of accessibility audits, or made their workplace a space where Deaf and hard-of-hearing people can actually have a good experience.
When, and if they do hire a Deaf person, they typically take a reactive approach to scrambling in trying to provide resources for this person.
I compare it to… imagine going into work on your first day and you don't have an office, you don't have a desk, and you don't have a place to work. You’re given a little storage shed, and you're promised by the manager that they’ll sort out a desk for you, eventually, while you have to stand in this storage shed. Whether or not they get you the resources you need, eventually, your first experience has already been colored by the lack of resources and the lack of support.
It can really make you feel like you’re not welcomed, like you're not valued, and the workplace isn't willing to take your needs seriously. That, I feel is the biggest immediate challenge facing workplaces — that they just haven't earned having Deaf employees, yet.
On top of that challenge, I think most employees do not do proactive outreach to disabled communities, whether intentionally, out of bias, or unintentionally, out of just not really thinking about it. As a result, there is very little proactive thought put into how to include members of these communities and how to make sure these voices and this expertise is represented.
There just isn't much of that and so Deaf and hard-of-hearing employees face all the uphill challenges of potential bias in the hiring process with recruiters not reaching out to them. And then when they are hired, they face workplaces that aren't fully inclusive, and aren't built for them, which presents enormous challenges for retention.
Image Source: Marla Aufmuth | BBC
Have you worked with DEI personnel at any organizations on Deaf inclusivity and accessibility, specifically?
As part of a larger slate, totally. I am not an accessibility expert myself. I tend to refer out for those sorts of things. There are basic resources that I provide to all of my clients on as many dimensions of diversity as possible, including accessibility, but there are so many different dimensions of DEI. My approach is more systemic, so what that means is I am likely to do things, like help clients put out surveys and then cover the issues facing their communities, including disabled employees, including Deaf employees who may not be having the best experiences.
I am not the person that provides in-depth recommendations for marginalized groups, in particular. Instead, I help people recognize the ways in which inequality manifests in the workplace and then refer out for more direct recommendations. For example, to conduct pay equity audits, talk to accessibility experts, bring in racial trauma healing specialists, all of that. It’s not typically my approach to try to do everything because I’d much rather do a few things really well than try to do everything poorly. And frankly, I would rather give that space to experts already doing the work.
On the topic of ADA compliance, any thoughts or issues with that in regards to Deaf accessibility?
I think a lot of the employers that I work with are nowhere close to compliance. I don’t think they’re familiar with the changing guidelines, and I think accessibility is often a very reactive issue for them. They wait until they have an employee with specific accessibility-related needs, or rather they wait until an employee tells them they have those needs.
More often than not, they already have a couple employees that could benefit from these things, but those employees don’t necessarily feel comfortable asking. When an employee does ask, HR then tries to do their research and fill in the gaps, which sometimes ends up okay. If we’re trying to move towards a future where accessibility is created by default, where anyone can join a workplace and expect that there will be accommodations and support for their disability, we are nowhere close to that, yet — and nowhere close to the level of compliance that’s required for corporations.
I think there’s a lot to be done in the space. I don’t think that it’s just awareness. I think it’s urgency and political will. I think a lot of workplaces just see it as a non-issue until an employee brings it up, which puts all the onus on the employee to be their own advocate.
I know it isn’t something that many employees want to do, so there's likely a large number of Deaf employees or disabled employees that struggle in workplaces that are not providing the resources they need. Many workplaces have somehow taken the perspective that it’s not their job to provide these services until prompted, though legally, it certainly is.
Do you see a future that is bright in regards to DEI and accessibility with more companies becoming more proactive instead of reactive?
That’s a hard question because I don’t know what future I see, but I know that that’s the future to create. I think there’s greater conversation about accessibility and disability in the workplace. It’s going slowly.
If I were to make any sort of prediction, I think companies will be more likely to adopt these sorts of accommodations if they learn more about the curb-cut effect and if things are framed as, if we support the most marginalized, we create benefits for everyone else.
I wish we could just say that this is what is legally required and companies comply, but at least in the US, the regulatory landscape is pretty abysmal. Unless the EEO gets its act together, which I don't imagine happening any time in the next decade, we’re going to need to find creative ways to get workplaces on board with providing these necessary resources.
I think it is deeply unfair and not ideal, but we do what we can. I know the advocates pushing hardest in this space are dedicating a lot of time and energy to not just raising awareness, but making sure there are tools, processes, resources and what-not for the organizations that are willing to be leaders in this space.
More progress ahead thanks to you and to all the activists working in this space. Ava supports this kind of leadership.
I am happy to call myself a DEI leader pushing for change in some of the many aspects of this work because it is all connected. We cannot push for DEI without accessibility. Accessibility is an integral part of DEI and all of our struggles are interlinked, so I’m glad to be doing my part.
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Lily is the author of Gender Ambiguity in the Workplace Transgender and Gender-Diverse Discrimination, The Ethical Sellout, and her most recent book, DEI Deconstructed: Your No-Nonsense Guide to Doing the Work and Doing It Right, which will be released later this year.
Image Source: Amazon
As more organizations and businesses prioritize diversity, inclusion jobs and accessibility solutions, innovators in DEI and technology remain instrumental for progress.
Understanding that ADA compliance practices are designed to promote equity in the workplace in order to support marginal and minority communities is the first step. Executives and co-workers wanting to create and be part of an environment that propagates inclusivity and accessibility is the next step. Then having the knowledge and tools to make the necessary changes to incite such impact and sustain it is yet another step.
Corporations, like Apple, supporting inventive technology, like Ava, expands accessibility for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community with tools, such as live captions. Activating businesses and organizations to use the accessibility tools that are available, so that Deaf and hard-of-hearing people can have equal opportunity needs consistent prompting.
Spreading awareness of not only the issues, but the solutions is a meaningful and influential challenge Ava invites everyone to partake in, so that we can all be agents of change.