Our Different Lenses
By Sharon Orlopp, Chief Diversity Officer at Walmart
As I write this article, I am sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Denver where I am clearly in the minority. About 90% of the guests are blind and there are very few people with sight in the lobby.
The National Federation of the Blind for Colorado is hosting a convention in the hotel and it’s a wonderful diversity and inclusion moment to be in the midst of many people with guide dogs and walking canes.
Recently my mentoring circle and I participated in a Dining in the Dark experience where we ate lunch and learned to serve ourselves food while wearing room darkening blindfolds. We also learned how to guide or help individuals who are blind. Those learnings have helped me quite a bit while at the hotel because I have learned how to ask others if they need help and I have learned, and am still learning, what help looks like for others.
Some tips for helping others include:
- Never assume someone needs help. First ask the person “Is there something I can help you with?”
- If you’re unsure how to help, ask “How can I best help you?”
- Don’t be discouraged or offended if a person does not want your help
- For people who are visually impaired or blind, before reaching out and touching them ask them if they would like help being guided
- One way to help guide people who are blind or visually impaired is to have them put their hand on your elbow or on your bicep, right above your elbow
- Share information, such as directions, nearby furniture, and the number of feet to an entrance, turn, etc.
- If someone has a guide dog, do not reach out and pet the dog. First ask if you can pet the dog. Often the response will be that you should not pet the dog because the dog is working.
- During meetings or when you see someone who is blind, address that person by name and state your name, even if the person knows you well.
Ryan Loken, Director of Human Resources, is blind and he’s been with Walmart for 10 years. Ryan shared what his recruiting experience with Walmart was like and it illustrates how we each have assumptions and how our assumptions are often incorrect. Ten years ago, Ryan’s phone interview went really well and the recruiting coordinator indicated that the next step was for Ryan to visit Walmart in Bentonville, AR. The recruiter was insistent that Ryan rent a car. Ryan told the recruiter that wouldn’t be necessary and he would take a cab from the airport to the Walmart Home Office.
When Ryan arrived at the Walmart Home Office, the recruiting coordinator met him in the lobby and exclaimed, “Thank goodness you’re blind!” Ryan found that statement unusual and asked the recruiter about it. She replied, “I thought you didn’t want to rent a car because you had a DUI and I was concerned that you wouldn’t pass the background check process.” Ryan felt relieved and excited about the comment and shared, “It was really enlightening to see someone totally disregard the blindness and to think of me as a regular person.”
Several years ago, I was preparing a speech for the American Association of People with Disabilities. I prefer to include personal stories in my speeches and wanted to share a personal story about people with different abilities. My father-in-law was born with polio and had an operation at a young age that created an unusual gait. Three weeks after he retired, he had a stroke that resulted in being able to speak about 10 words and his mobility decreased. He lived for 30 years after his stroke.
As I was preparing my remarks, I asked my husband what life was like living with a father who had a disability. My husband looked at me with an expression of confusion. He replied, “I have never viewed my father as having a disability. I have always just viewed him as my father.”
This was an “aha” moment for me and it became a cornerstone in my learning about diversity and inclusion. When we are with people we love and people we care about, we see them as individuals, not as a category of people.
We each need to be very deliberate about being with people who are different than we are. The differences may be based on gender, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, religious perspectives (including atheism and agnostic), ethnicity, nationality, political views, etc. By developing strong relationships with people who are different than each of us, we open our minds to new ideas and new possibilities.
A Chinese proverb states “We see what is behind our eyes.” Opening our minds opens our eyes.