Martina cheerfully greeted guests as they streamed into the meeting room at Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta. She yawned, dropped to the ground and curled into a lump next to Vincenzo Piscopo, director of community and stakeholder relations and president of Coca-Cola’s THIS-Ability Business Resource Group (BRG).

Martina is a yellow Labrador retriever and Piscopo’s mobility assistance dog. Piscopo works in a wheelchair and for the last years she has become a fixture among the associates at Coca-Cola.

On this day, Piscopo, with Martina in tow, was moderating the panel discussion “Invisible and Visible Disabilities: Impact on the Workplace.” The event was sponsored by the THIS-Ability BRG, which is a corporate thought leader for disability insights and an advocate for a winning and inclusive culture. The group exists to ensure inclusion is prioritized, diversity is respected both inside and outside the company, and to help unleash the potential of employees across all abilities.

Just as Piscopo and Martina have become part of the fabric of Coca-Cola, the company is actively working to drive the inclusion agenda so one day people of all abilities, including those with impairments, are recruited and viewed no differently than other talented employees.

According to Piscopo, the first step is creating awareness that people with disabilities are both amazingly strong HR assets for companies as well as an important consumer segment. About 13 percent of the population between the ages of 16-75 have hearing, vision or mobility difficulties.

This Ability

More Than Meets the Eye

To drive that mindset home, the BRG invited three experts to participate in the discussion: Matthew Segall, Ph.D., program director for education and transition services at the Emory Autism Center; Sheryl Arno, executive director of the Down Syndrome Association of Atlanta; and Allie Andrews, senior manager of shopper analytic advantage at The Coca-Cola Company and a member of the THIS-Ability BRG.

Andrews kicked off the discussion by stressing there are many types of disabilities, including her own – which was the catalyst for her joining the BRG. Andrews suffers from Stargardt disease, an eye condition that causes progressive degeneration of the macula.

“There are a lot of different types of disabilities people can have – some have cognitive implications and some don’t,” said Andrews. “Some are visible, and some are invisible.”

According to her, the symptoms, needs and adaptations are completely individual to each person. She explained that hearing and vision disabilities fall into the category of invisible disabilities.

Said Andrews: “I don’t have a cane. I don’t have large glasses. I don’t have the things that go along with the stereotype of how we talk about visual impairment.”

This Ability

We Want to Dance

Following Andrews’ remarks, Segall took the opportunity to shatter some of the common misconceptions about people on the autism spectrum. For instance, people with autism often have difficulty getting hired for jobs because of a perception they lack interviewing skills or don’t work well on teams. In reality, Segall said, there are a wide range of abilities across the autism spectrum, including those people you’d never know are on the spectrum. They have families and jobs and have learned various coping skills to address the challenges they face on a day-to-day basis.

Unfortunately, while it has been shown people across the spectrum often contribute to employers in meaningful ways, those on the spectrum tend to have poor outcomes from an employment and adult engagement and inclusion standpoint. Data shows that adult quality of life, including living independently, educational opportunities and employment prospects for those with autism are among the worst across a wide array of disability categories.

However, Segall believes moments like the panel discussion will help foster bigger conversations that will help people begin to think differently to change those outcomes, including creating more opportunities socially and vocationally for people on the spectrum.

Next, Arno shared with the audience her personal experiences working with individuals with Down syndrome.

“While employment numbers for people with autism are bad, those with Down syndrome are abysmal,” she said.

According to Arno, many people assume those with Down syndrome can only work in cafeterias or mailrooms, but that is the furthest thing from the truth.

She then shared many instances of people who are able to lead full, meaningful lives, including a woman who is married and works at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, an 81-year-old “sassy” woman who has all her cognitive abilities, and a young man who recently graduated from Georgia State – and not from an inclusive post-secondary program specifically designed for those with disabilities.

For Arno, it is about dispelling the myth that people with Down syndrome don’t want to work – because they do. “They want to be part of your community, they want to be in your work environments and they want to be in classes with your kids.”

Andrews chimed in with a maxim: If you get invited to the dance, that’s diversity. Inclusion is when you get invited on the dance floor.

This Ability

Everyone Belongs

For Segall, a hospital serves as the perfect metaphor when thinking about recruiting people on the autism spectrum, or any other disability. In a hospital, you have everything under the sun: retail, food service, healthcare support and high-level jobs. He posited a place like Coca-Cola is very similar: there are lots of different kinds of jobs that provide an assortment of opportunities for a wide range of abilities, skills, interests and skillsets.

As an example, he shared a story about a Chicago-based computer science company that leveraged the strengths of people on the autism spectrum to perform software development product testing.

“Some really bright folks decided they were going to contact software development companies and say, ‘this part of the job that everyone hates – we have some people who can do it and love it, so farm that out to us,’ and they hired only people from the autism spectrum,” said Segall. “It’s gone absolutely beautifully and given folks a lot of employment and also social engagement and sense of purpose.”

Just like Arno and Segall, THIS-Ability BRG’s goal is to change perceptions, destroy biases that lead to assumptions and labeling individuals, and hope more companies begin to recognize they can leverage talent across all abilities. They believe this is how to achieve authentic inclusion and a world where everyone “at the table” feels important.

Said Arno: “I want people to learn everyone belongs and everyone can be part of a conversation.”