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 Jen Street.

Jen Street, with a rich history as a designer for some of the world’s premier brands, now channels her artistic passion as the Founder & Creative Director of Forged Flare®, a handcrafted ornament company. Having embraced the entrepreneurial spirit and known for her cherished Mother’s Angels® collection, Jen has transformed her expertise into a brand that celebrates craftsmanship and connection.

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? 

Wow, life can sure be a wild ride, can’t it? Where to begin? 

“In the beginning…” Just kidding. Kinda. But seriously, I had a pretty rough start in life. 

I was born with tracheoesophageal fistula, a rare condition in which the esophagus and windpipe are abnormally connected. I faced immediate surgery and a battle for my life since Day 1. A feeding tube, multiple surgeries, pneumonia, and physical abnormalities — such as a double toe and more seriously, dextrocardia (a heart abnormality) — defined my early years. My humor and optimism became daily companions.

Throughout my life, seen and unseen health challenges threatened my every step. As I grew older, workplace misunderstandings regarding my chronic stomach conditions chipped away at my self-confidence. I became all-too-aware of the realities facing those with seen and unseen disabilities.

Every challenge I faced became a building block for my determination to live life to its fullest. I creatively tackled each obstacle in my path in an order to make my life as “normal” as I could. It led me down a path that wasn’t always easy — from navigating skeptical colleagues and management to inflexible corporate policies. However, in hindsight, these experiences only served to shape my future and character. They led me to become an advocate for remote work, long before it was normal, and ultimately led me to entrepreneurship. Founding my company, Forged Flare®, was a huge leap of faith into the unknown where my medical issues no longer defined my potential for growth.

My love for life, positivity, creativity, and an overall empathy for others, have been my guiding light and have allowed me to build a business that accommodates my own health needs while embraces inclusion for others.

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?

  1. Optimism:
    My life experiences have been underpinned by incredible optimism, which has been crucial in overcoming a life marked by medical issues. Optimism has gotten me through numerous surgeries and has been what has allowed me to adapt my life to live fully. When I faced the end of an 11-year career, it was my optimistic nature that inspired me to transition from job seeker to entrepreneur to better-accommodate my health needs. Forged Flare® is a result of that optimism, built on the belief that beyond every challenge lies a promising future. My company is my vision of what’s possible when you approach life with a heart full of hope.
  1. Creativity:
    Creativity has been my constant companion, not just in designing our ornaments but also in problem-solving my life’s many obstacles. When I was repeatedly confronted with inflexible work policies, it was creativity that guided me to propose working remotely long before it was mainstream, allowing me to excel in my career for over a decade. And when doors closed, my creative spirit led me to envision and build a business that embraced my artistic passion and accommodated my unique medical challenges.
  1. Empathy:
    Living with an unseen disability has deepened my empathy for others, which is instrumental in leading a team and running a customer-centric business. I understand the importance of looking beyond the surface, recognizing that everyone has their own challenges. This empathy drove me to lay the groundwork for a business culture where everyone feels supported, valued, and understood. It’s the reason I strive to provide flexibility in working from home.

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

Losing my job in 2019 was a turning point in my professional career. I faced challenges of finding a job that was compatible with my health needs. Many User Experience Design (UX Design) roles demanded an on-site presence, which was next-to-impossible for me. Repeated rejections despite my openness and vulnerability about my needs left me feeling defeated and embarrassed. I was at a career crossroads.

After pausing to look at the bigger picture, I channeled my energy into creating a new path. A solution (albeit a somewhat scary one) emerged: forge my own path through entrepreneurship — the freedom to design a work life that accommodated my medical needs. 

Founding Forged Flare® gave me the freedom to work in an environment where my stomach issues no longer dictated my day or fueled the constant anxiety of managing stomach issues. I was free from the fear of sudden flare-ups during meetings or the stress of potentially upsetting management by needing to reschedule. This decision not only resolved my immediate employment dilemma but also set a new standard for what I knew a compassionate and accommodating workplace could be. As a result, I stepped out of the corporate shadow into a sunlit space where I continue to thrive and build an environment that would be inclusive to others facing similar issues.

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

We are currently in the process of developing a brand-new line of products. While the details are top-secret now, we cannot wait to share as soon as the time is right. Designing new products is such an exhilarating phase and being able to step back from doing some of the more creatively boring aspects of the business (like admin work) is a soul-renewing experience.

Fantastic. Let’s now shift to our discussion about inclusion. 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? 

As we expanded and began hiring contractors, I was adamant about creating an environment that embraced flexibility and recognized the diverse needs of our team members both now and into the future.

While the intricate nature of crafting our Mother’s Angels® ornaments necessitates hands-on training, we innovated our approach in 2023 to accommodate a more inclusive work structure. We developed a comprehensive series of training videos, enabling our artisans to learn and refine their skills both on-site and remotely. This not only expedited the learning process but also created a supportive reference tool, allowing team members to confidently craft from the comfort of their homes.

By accommodating different learning styles and life circumstances, we’ve crafted a workplace where all individuals—regardless of their background or personal challenges — can thrive and feel valued as part of the Forged Flare® family.

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?

A caring culture promotes a healthier work environment. When team members don’t have to conceal their medical conditions or spend energy navigating a work setting that isn’t equipped for their needs, they can focus entirely on their contributions and creativity. This is particularly relevant at Forged Flare®, where the attention to detail and artistry required to create our Mother’s Angels® ornaments benefits from artisans who are at their best, both physically and mentally.

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?

  1. Flexible Work Schedules:
    This could involve allowing employees with disabilities to adjust their start and end times, work part-time, or take additional breaks to manage their conditions. For me, I would often have to use vacation days to manage my medical issues. As a result, I would often not be able to enjoy the benefits of taking a vacation day for rest and relaxation.
  1. Work-From-Home Options:
    Providing the option to work remotely can be an accommodation that allows individuals with disabilities to perform their job duties in an environment that suits their needs while still being able to meet work requirements. This is an initiative very close to my heart.

It’s important to note that what is “reasonable” varies from one situation to another and can vary from an individual to the size and resource capability of a company. We support our artists so that they can create beautiful Mother’s Angels® ornaments without being hindered by a one-size-fits-all approach. 

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. 

  1. Customizable Workspaces:
    Offer adjustable furniture and equipment to cater to various physical needs. Even for someone like me with stomach issues, many people don’t think about the mental gymnastics your mind goes through regarding furniture. For me, I needed the ability to work from home. It wasn’t just an option, for me, just leaving the house to go grocery shopping is an entire ordeal. Having to commute to an office every day was a daily dose of anxiety and panic — which did not help my condition.
  1. Emergency Protocols:
    Have protocols in place for medical or other disability-related emergencies. I have had to leave work without warning (or being able to let anyone know) more times than I can count.
  1. Health Support:
    Provide access to counseling services, mental health days, and generous flexibility to take sick time. Unfortunately, most of my vacation days were routinely used up due to health reasons.
  1. Inclusive Office Design:
    Ensure that office spaces and facilities are physically accessible to all. For me, being able to be placed close to a bathroom would have made such a huge difference in my in-office quality of life.
  1. Disability Training:
    Regular training sessions for management on disability awareness and etiquette. And for the love of all things, please do not ever suggest to an employee who is disabled “You should just quit and go on permanent disability”. For some people like me, who get their identity in life through their work (for me, as an artist), this is a slap in the face.
  1. Establish Open Communication:
    Foster an environment where both manager and employee are encouraged to communicate about any arising accommodation needs. Speaking about your disability can be nerve-wracking. There is a feeling of constantly being judged or eyed as if you are feigning illness — especially for those suffering unseen disabilities.

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?

From the beginning, our goal was to allow our work flexibility.

  1. Remote Work Enablement:
    We’ve made it a priority to set up our team with the necessary tools to work from home efficiently. This means not only providing equipment but also offering the flexibility to work on their own schedule.
  1. Comprehensive Training Materials:
    Recognizing that different people have different learning needs, we’ve developed a range of training materials, including videos, manuals, and one-on-one hands-on training. This ensures that all our artisans, regardless of disability, have access to the information needed to succeed.
  1. Open Dialogue:
    We strive to maintain an environment where team members feel comfortable discussing their needs. By fostering open communication, we can be sensitive to an individual’s needs and adjust as required.

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.)

  1. Challenges Are Opportunities:
    Your personal challenges can lead down unexpected paths and provide pretty cool solutions as a result. When I began my career, never in a million years could I have imagined that my health challenges would be the catalyst for starting my own company. It taught me that within every challenge lies a chance to build something new and impactful.
  1. Advocate for Yourself:
    Early on in my professional career, I learned the hard way that waiting for accommodations to be offered isn’t always feasible. You need to be your advocate, clearly communicating your needs. This proactive approach helped me secure remote work arrangements before they were commonplace, setting a precedent that benefited others in my company.
  1. Find the Right Allies:
    Building relationships with empathetic colleagues and supervisors can make all the difference. I was incredibly fortunate to find a manager who believed in my capabilities and unapologetically advocated for me, which played a significant role in my remote working success. I am incredibly grateful to him all these years later.
  1. Leverage Your Unique Perspective:
    Having a disability gives you a unique lens through which you see the world. I try to channel my empathy into every area of business operations.
  1. Be Adaptable:
    For better or worse, I found out early in life that life didn’t owe me anything and life can be downright brutal. The willingness to adapt can be your greatest asset. Embracing adaptability allowed me to transition from employee to entrepreneur, creating a business that reflects my values, provides meaning for my life, and brings joy to others through my artwork.

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

One of my favorite quotes is: “The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” Of course it’s a quote by Steve Jobs. I became an Apple fan early in my career when I purchased my first iMac in 2006 and was fascinated by his creativity — watching every WWDC Apple event. This quote became especially relevant during the challenging transition from traditional employment to entrepreneurship.

My passion for design and creating art has always fueled my career. However, it was the love for creating art that truly became my saving grace when my health made conventional work impossible. When I was struggling with the constraints my health issues posed in the workplace, this quote reminded me that my passion was not just a hobby, but a potential livelihood.

This ultimately led to the birth of Forged Flare®. Here, I could channel my creativity into something meaningful and build a business around my passion for creating art. It was the love for my work that saw me through the uncertainty and hard times after losing my job. It turned what could have been the end of my professional life into just the beginning of something new and exciting. It has allowed me to open the door to a new career, build a life that I love, and craft creations that bring joy to others.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂 

Without a doubt, I would make remote work opportunities standard for all roles where feasible, ensuring those who thrive in their own environment can contribute to their maximum ability.

I’d emphasize the incredible value of trusting employees to manage their own productivity. While acknowledging that any system can be misused, I firmly believe that fostering a culture of trust and individual accountability is the answer to mitigating abuse. By treating employees as individuals and assessing performance based on output rather than location or hours clocked, concerns can be addressed while honoring the needs of those who genuinely benefit from such arrangements.

For me, working from home has been a life-changing experience. It’s afforded me a semblance of normalcy and the ability to work without the constant shadow of anxiety that often accompanies medical disabilities. As a business owner, I’ve seen firsthand that when people are given the trust and tools to manage their work-life balance, they can excel beyond conventional expectations. 

How can our readers further follow your work online? 

To stay updated on our latest creations and insights, visit us at www.forgedflare.com, where I regularly publish articles designed to enlighten and motivate both our clientele and fellow entrepreneurs. For additional content and updates, connect with us across our social platforms (@forgedflare) and subscribe to our newsletter for the latest news.

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