Beyond the labels

Michael Ritter, Germany

Senior, Fraud Investigation & Dispute Services, EY EMEIA

In December we mark International Day of People with Disabilities, a day where we celebrate the contributions and achievements of those who have visible and non-visible disabilities. We sat down with Michael to talk more about his disability and his journey to EY.

Tell us a bit more about yourself and your journey to EY. 

I’ve been with EY since 2012 as part of the Digital Forensics and Incident Response Team within FIDS. I specialize in corporate security and information security. Aside from that, I’m also the deputy representative for employees with disabilities for EY Eschborn.

Tell us more about the ‘Blind in Business’ workshop you were involved in.

Earlier this year, I approached our D&I colleagues with an idea for a recruitment workshop specifically designed for blind and visually impaired students, only to find that they’d been thinking along the same lines already. We started planning immediately and came up with an interesting concept for a one day workshop including information about our recruitment process, simulated job interviews and participants getting feedback for their CVs. Then followed my own part. Firstly, I talked about what it means to work in a highly specialized, client-facing role at EY. There’s a great atmosphere here, but for a blind person there are also quite a few challenges, both internally and in terms of working with very demanding clients, and I tried to pass on some of the lessons learned from this.

After that I positively flooded our participants with tips, ranging from communication in a team to choosing the right assistive technology for best performance to utilizing social networks and other resources to gather the highly specialized knowledge needed by blind people in the workplace.

Despite us going to the limit in terms of number of participants, the workshop was booked solid and we had a waiting list to boot. The combination of  meeting our D&I specialists, getting hands-on feedback from real life recruiters for a large international company and hearing from an actual blind person working in the kind of position many of our participants aspire to apparently hit quite a nerve in the blind and visually impaired community.

Doing this workshop was a lot of fun in and of itself, but afterwards we were truly overwhelmed by all the positive feedback. It was a great experience for all of us. And within a few weeks we already had several job applications and already gained a wonderful new colleague in the process.

We’ve heard that your workshop has been shortlisted for an award. Tell us more about this.

It’s the HR excellence award for Germany. This year, alongside four other companies we have been shortlisted in the category of Diversity Management. This was all very last minute as the deadline was shortly after the workshop. However the D&I applied, and we are absolutely stunned that we have been shortlisted for such an exciting award.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be more inclusive in the workplace?

We’ve all been ingrained from early on to place people into specific categories. These convenient little boxes get labelled and interconnected. On the one hand, that’s simply one of the ways the human brain tries to make decisions in light of the mass of information we absorb every minute of every day. On the other hand, it’s probably the main source of discrimination not only in the workplace, but in society at large. And that goes double for the kind of passive or indirect discrimination people with disability face on a daily basis, ranging from colleagues with disability being excluded from interesting projects based on other peoples’ false assumptions of their capabilities to a waitress feeling the need to explain to a blind man what a fork is and how to use it when all he wanted was to have a piece of chocolate cake.

Fighting our own biases, trying to keep an open mind and avoiding judgement where it isn’t called for is probably the most important aspect of thinking and acting inclusively. Your brain may instinctively reject the notion that a person with a stutter may need a long time to say what they want to say, but at the same time have an IQ of 160. Or that the same blind colleague you just had to show the way to the restroom is still perfectly capable of managing a highly complex engagement. Simply watching yourself and others for bias and false conclusions will go a long way towards thinking and acting inclusively.

Also, it’s important to realize that “disability” is just one more label we put on people. Not every disability is visible, and not every difference meets our somewhat arbitrary definitions of disability. So instead of inventing ever more detailed labels with which to classify the people around us, I think we should strive to respect and appreciate each other with all our differences, our idiosyncrasies and our different personalities.

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t criticize. We all want to improve, and of course we should always aim for success, be it as individuals, as a team or as a company. But we can and should keep asking ourselves what we’re about to criticize in another person: is it something that truly needs correcting, or are we simply dissatisfied because someone else is not fitting our predefined models?

And the more open we are, the more we will experience how powerful, creative and ultimately successful truly diverse teams can be. And you know what? Working this way is a lot of fun as well. It just takes a little getting used to.