Over the past few years, there has been a lot more discussion about inclusion in the workplace. However, an aspect of this that is often overlooked is how businesses can be inclusive on individuals with disabilities. While the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities, it’s not always clear what that looks like in practice. In addition to what’s legally required, what best practices can businesses utilize to make the workplace more welcoming and inclusive of people with disabilities? To answer this question, we are talking to business leaders who have unique insights on “How Businesses Make Accommodations For Customers and Employees Who Have a Disability.” As part of our series, we were delighted to interview Jamie Weiner.

Jamie Paul Weiner, LCSW is a 20 plus-year veteran working with people who have disabilities. She has been with JFS Houston for the past eleven years (and counting). Her current title is Manager of Disability Services and the Alexander Institute for Inclusion. She graduated with her master’s in social work from Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work in 2001. Jamie works tirelessly to support adults with disabilities in their vocational journeys while advocating for disability rights on the local, state and national levels. She is past co-chair of the Disability Net Group and the Disability Employment Net Group. When she is not busy trying to save the world, she is Boss Mom to two amazing kids, one supportive husband, an overly anxious dog, and a very chill bearded dragon.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you ended up where you are? 

I always knew I wanted to be in the “helping profession.” At first, I thought that was through teaching, and I did teach for nine years at the Briarwood School in Houston. My mom was a special education teacher, and I have learning differences as well. Teaching felt like the path that made the most sense for me. After several years of teaching, however, I became more passionate about addressing the huge gap in services for young adults with disabilities once they left the school system. I wanted to help bring about change in that area and began looking for other career opportunities that would help me to address more systemic issues related to helping disabled young adults thrive. 

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

When I began working at Alexander Jewish Family Service (JFS), I started working with our program Celebration Company. The program empowers adults with disabilities to create high-quality products and art that celebrate the joy of life. JFS aims to educate our consumers about the importance of disability rights as human rights and make a global impact by fostering a community of artists, advocates and allies.

During my first year with Celebration Company there were several changes needed that I identified and helped to implement, with the support of the leadership team. I had a vision for what the program could become, and I believe that vision was crucial for my success. I was not content to keep the status-quo and could see the ways that the structure of the program needed to change.

Second, I was tenacious in my advocacy to expand the program. Almost immediately, I recognized that the program was going to need more space, more staff and more offerings to meet the needs of individuals with disabilities in our community who wanted to participate and have a professional career. I was relentless in asking for more resources to grow the program and it worked!

Third, my ability and dedication to effective communication with staff members and the leadership team was crucial to the success of growing our services. There is an annual project that the participants have been involved in for many years. Each year, the employees create honey cakes that are sold for the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. When I began managing the program, many of the staff were struggling with the execution of the production of the honey cakes. In the beginning, I proposed to our leadership team that we would discontinue the making of the items. The leadership team did not approve this decision, and I had to work with them to understand the importance of the program and still address the issues involved in its execution. Through several conversations focused on solving the challenges of the program, we formed new partnerships and shifted our model. The participants in Celebration Company became responsible for selling the honey cakes, rather than making them. Now, every year there is a huge competition for who can sell the most honey cakes for the new year. It takes wisdom to recognize that challenges can be best met with a willingness to compromise and a focus on communication. 

Can you share a story about one of your greatest work related struggles? Can you share what you did to overcome it? 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we were one of the few organizations that could reopen relatively quickly and provide safe services to the disabled community in Houston. Due to our ability to serve a need, we actually saw our Celebration Company program grow quickly. Of course, rapid growth is a great “problem” to have, but I still had to find a way to accommodate more individuals than we had capacity to serve at that time. 

When I approached our leadership team, they informed me that it was not feasible to add any more space to our building or start a new building campaign at that time. Leadership recommended to me, however, that I seek a partnership with another organization to see if we could rent and retrofit an existing space that would increase our ability to serve more individuals. 

We were very fortunate to secure a partnership with the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center located in West Houston who allowed us to rent and renovate space on their campus that was underutilized. We had some members of our program who lived in the area and were very excited about changing locations to decrease their drive time to our location which is more centrally located in the city. After about eight months, we were ready to welcome several more participants and provide them opportunities for employment. Our second location for Celebration Company opened in 2023 and we have capacity for up to 15 employees in our new location. 

In the beginning, when I was trying to solve the dilemma of not enough space to accommodate the needs of our community, I was a bit concerned about how we could accomplish our vision as an organization. However, through teamwork, problem solving and collaboration, we addressed our limitations and were able to successfully expand our program!

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

One of the most interesting projects that I am working on is a new collaboration with a local organization called Noah’s House here in Houston. We have identified that some of our participants at Celebration Company would benefit from an assisted living facility due to family limitations, desire to be more independent or needs for case management on a more regular basis. Obviously, constructing our own building is a major undertaking and so we have been fortunate to find a partner with Noah’s House. We will be renting and retrofitting six rooms that will be available to current and future participants at Celebration Company. They are an ideal partner as they have affordable housing, case managers, provide transportation to employment/school and will allow Jewish Family Services to provide wrap-around services to residents. I am very excited about this new partnership and ability to extend the services we offer to our participants at Celebration Company.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us? 

We have a wonderful offering in February every year called the ReelAbilities Houston Film & Arts Festival. During this event we share the experiences and lives of people living with disabilities through various art modalities including films, visual arts, and more. We are able to share the art created by the participants at Celebration Company and it is a wonderful opportunity to advance our inclusion and diversity efforts in the city of Houston. Our primary goal is to highlight that those who have disabilities can live full and meaningful lives that contribute positively to our community and society.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have an inclusive work culture?

It is so important for businesses and organizations to have an inclusive work culture because evidence shows that it increases work morale, work productivity and profits! Individuals with disabilities have greater work attendances, productivity and loyalty to employers when they are set up to succeed in the workplace. Additionally, research shows that Millennials and Gen Z consumers “shop with their heart,” which means that younger shoppers are more inclined to support inclusive businesses and organizations. Ghandi said, “the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” This quote leads me to believe that it is quite simply the right thing to do! 

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires businesses to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. For the benefit of our readers, can you help explain what this looks like in practice? What exactly are reasonable accommodations? Can you please share a few examples? 

Reasonable accommodations can include a variety of assistive implementation strategies to help people with disabilities perform essential job functions. I would like to mention that before any accommodation is made, it is important to begin with a conversation with any disabled employee about what would be most helpful to them. 

When we speak of reasonable accommodations we are most often referring to alterations for disabled individuals such as taking extra work breaks, working from home due to disability needs, accessible restrooms, larger screens and keyboard, adjusting lighting, adjusting a workspace and others. Most of these accommodations are quite easy to implement and very low-cost. They are “reasonable” for most businesses to incorporate for their employees.

Aside from what is legally required, what are some best practices that can make a business place feel more welcoming and inclusive of people with disabilities? If you can, please share a few examples. 

Beyond “reasonable accommodations,” we want to think about universal design for all people so that people of all abilities are able to effectively work in the office setting. For example, this would be designing a space with no stairs, wide doorways and sidewalks, elevators large enough to accommodate a wheelchair, sound systems that are connected to Bluetooth to enable those with hearing impairments to listen effectively, softer lightning everywhere, rooms for sensory breaks, accessible kitchens and restrooms, microphones in large gatherings and CART or live captioning at live events. Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list, but it provides an overview of how we can design our workplaces to be accessible and barrier-free to all people. 

Can you share a few examples of ideas that were implemented at your workplace to help promote disability inclusion? Can you share with us how the work culture was impacted as a result?

We have implemented many of the examples of accommodations that I previously outlined. When we retrofit a space we begin with a universal design mindset and make sure that we include in our building, automatic doors, closed captioning so that all may participate, accessible technology, created an accessible website, accessible kitchens and restrooms, ramps when needed and more. Beyond the physical modifications we make, at Alexander JFS we have been intentional about seeking and hiring staff members with disabilities. Specifically at Celebration Company, we currently have three individuals that identify as having Autism Spectrum Disorder. We are committed to embracing those with disabilities as members of our staff and identifying their strengths just as we would a non-disabled individual. 

This is our signature question that we ask in many of our interviews. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started My Career”? (Please share a story or example for each.)

First, I wish someone would have told me to find someone like myself who could mentor me in the process of career development. It would have been very helpful to me not to have to “figure out” ways to overcome the challenges by myself that disabled individuals encounter in the workplace. 

Second, you are enough. I have personally fallen victim to “imposter syndrome,” doubting my skills and accomplishments as highly valuable. Even when my leadership and colleagues recognized and affirmed my abilities, I struggled to see what they saw in me and my work. Despite my abilities, I have felt unqualified in my professional positions, which has caused great anxiety for me. Women in the workplace need to embrace that we are enough and highly valuable as leaders because of our perspectives, lived experiences and insights that we bring to the workplace. 

Third, there is a popular saying: “If you love what you do, you will never work a day in your life.” I have found that this is not really the case, work is work. If you are in a job or vocation that you love, you will encounter hard days, weeks, or months, but because of your love for the mission it will be possible to handle the struggles and challenges. 

Fourth, this one is very important. Success is a team effort. No one accomplishes anything alone. We are always building on someone that has gone before us or working with a team to achieve our goals. Even if you do the majority of the “work” for a project or vision, there is always collaboration and cooperation that is key to its success. 

Fifth and finally, make sure that you have and set goals. Set short-term and long-term goals. Spend time envisioning what could be and create an action plan to get there! 

Can you please give us your favorite  “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story about how that was relevant in your own life? 

My mother-in-law often uses a Yiddish word, “beshert,” which can mean something that is meant to be in life. She loves this word and frequently uses it and ascribes it to the smallest of coincidences. I agree with her that sometimes things do simply fall into place in life and it feels as though it was beshert or “meant to be.” When I reached out to the leadership at JFS for guidance on how to pivot in my career from teaching to working in the disability community, I never expected that my phone call would lead to a job offer shortly thereafter! So now, I try to keep my eyes and ears open to “possibilities” in life so that I will be ready for my next “beshert.”

If you could inspire a movement  that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Disability Rights are Human Rights. Disability does not discriminate. You will find disabilities across race, ethnicity, ages, socio-economic backgrounds, gender identity, sexual orientation, creed, religion, etc. Most of us will incur a disability in our life such as vision loss, hearing loss or limited mobility that requires assistive devices like a walker or wheelchair. If our society were to use a Universal Design approach in creating our communities, we would all benefit. If we had schools, places of worship, businesses, places to live that welcomed, accommodated, and included people with disabilities without stigma or shame all of our lives would be better and I cannot think of a more wonderful goal for all of us!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

www.alexanderjfs.org | @alexanderjfshouston

www.reelabilitieshouston.org | @reelabilitieshouston

store.celebrationcompany.org | @celebrationcompany

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!