Dismantling Societal Barriers for Genuine Inclusivity

This audio was created using Microsoft Azure Speech Services

December 3rd is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. At Schneider Electric, we want our employees to feel welcomed and safe to be at their best, with our ambition to be the most inclusive and caring company in the world.

To do this, we need to act as allies and foster inclusion by better understanding the key concepts and what people with disabilities need – and not assume what that is. Rick Blair, Senior Principal System Architect at Schneider, shares his story as a person with a disability, his journey, and the importance of dismantling societal barriers for genuine inclusivity.

Rick Blair walking with his Seeing Eye dog, Delta, outside.

Hello, my name is Rick Blair. I joined Square D (a flagship brand of Schneider) in 1987. In 1999, I began to gradually lose my eyesight and by 2012, I was almost completely blind. Today, I navigate digital content on PCs and mobile devices using a screen reader (software that converts text to speech) and the world using a Seeing Eye® dog named Delta.

Navigating misconceptions

When you first meet me, especially if you cannot see my dog, you may not realize that I am blind. I will make eye contact when talking with you, and I will point and use hand gestures. I will (hopefully) look in the direction of a screen when in a conference room. Having been sighted, I can visualize descriptions and colors.  When I find the need to disclose my blindness, the most common response I hear is, “I’m sorry.” I am not sure if they are sorry because they did not know, at which point a better response might be something like, “Thanks for letting me know. I was not aware.” If instead, they are sorry that I am blind, at the risk of sounding crass, I do not need or want their sympathy.

Always ask, don’t assume

I also find many well-intentioned people assume they know if or how to help me. For example, one day I was exploring the new cafeteria layout. I stood near the windows between the exit and the vending machines, where we had placed new tables at approximately five feet intervals. I was touching the windows with one hand while slowing walking until I bumped into the next table, then feeling my way around the table until I once again reach the windows. All at once, someone grabbed my hand and dragged me to the exit. Apparently, they thought I was lost and looking for the way out. Once I heard they had departed, I restarted my exploration to determine there were six tables and about 94 steps from the exit to the vending machines.

Rick Blair and his Seeing Eye dog, called Delta, standing in the cockpit of a Delta airplane.

Yes, I probably could have asked someone to describe the new layout. But there is a sense of pride and accomplishment by doing something on your own. When you see someone with a disability, never assume that they want your help or that you know what help to provide. Always ask if they need your help and if yes, ask what help you can provide. However, do not be offended or dismayed if they decline your help.

Nothing about us, without us

If you have the opportunity to spend time with disabled individuals, you may observe that they often perform common tasks differently and sometimes, even innovatively. Embracing the disabled into your workflows often results in more innovative and universal solutions. Do not assume disabled people are incapable of participating in the workforce. There is a saying in the disabled community, “Nothing about us, without us.”

A woman in a wheelchair in front of the stairs.​​

The importance of this can be exemplified by examining the braille signage in office conference rooms. Numerous closed rooms exist, and each of them has a name. While braille signage is present, it represents the building room number as defined on the building plans, not the room name, making it effectively useless, since no one refers to a room by its number.

In a positive experience I had with Schneider – I had an opportunity earlier this year to work with the team to improve the accessibility of Schneider’s One Voice survey. This resulted in a much better user experience for people who use a keyboard or screen reader to navigate a website.

While we celebrate International Day of Persons with Disabilities every year on December 3, it is important for us to recognize the disabled community each and every day. For what they can accomplish, not what they may not be able to do. Remember to always ask if they need your help and then what help you can provide. And by all means, let’s get everyone integrated into the workforce.

A group of Schneider Electric employees with visible and invisible disabilities posing for a photo in an office.

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