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 Jewelyn Cosgrove.

Jewelyn Cosgrove is Vice President of Government and Public Relations for Melwood, a leading employer and advocate for people with disabilities headquartered in the DMV.

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? 

Absolutely. I was destined to work in policy and government affairs. When I was 14, I rode my bike down to a local Town Hall meeting to question my state legislators about statewide assessment testing, and I’ve been passionate about public policy, lobbying, and advocacy ever since! I got my start working on campaigns, in state government, trade associations, and media affairs. 

Since joining Melwood, I’ve renewed my passion for advocacy and empowering others to advocate for their needs. I’ve been in this role for three years now and it has been an extraordinary fit. I’m really proud of the work we do at Melwood and how we build inclusion into everything we do. People with disabilities are an important part of the diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) conversation and I’m honored to be able to help elevate voices and bring attention to the critical issues we need to fix, like the subminimum wage and other issues around workplace equity.  

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?

There are several character traits that have been instrumental to my success. While it’s challenging to narrow it down to just three, there are a few that have helped me succeed: optimism, authenticity, and integrity. 

Optimism: In today’s world, it may seem hard to stay optimistic about anything and can be easy to get lost in the noise, but having an optimistic mindset and remembering that there can still be good in the world will keep you going. Especially for people with disabilities, we must focus on what we can do to shape the future of real work, good jobs, and economic opportunity. The work is what matters – not the noise.

Authenticity: Being in the workforce for nearly twenty years now, I have watched how helpful it is to lead with your true self. It is far too easy to get lost in acting or approaching things the way others have done so or the way we’re told, but I have always led with my own instincts. That’s not to say it’s always worked out for me, but I lead with authenticity and know who I am, and over the years I’ve learned to trust in who I am and what I stand for.

Integrity: It’s really important for me to keep my word and do what I say I’m going to do. In turn, I will not work with someone who doesn’t operate with integrity. The instant someone thinks you’re being deceptive or you don’t follow through, you undermine the ability to trust in you and your organization. I think it is the backbone of a successful career. 

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

For many years, I got very nervous to do any public speaking. Sometimes my hands would even tremble or shake but I never wanted to say no to an opportunity, and I didn’t want to let my anxiety stop me from achieving my goals. My imposter syndrome would kick in when I was in a room full of people, but I just started doing it and after a lot of practice and training, I became less nervous. I had to keep telling myself that I had the proper qualifications and there was a reason that I was selected to speak. Eventually I started to feel confident speaking conversationally to different audiences, and now I hardly get nervous at all, and I really enjoy opportunities to encourage others to own their voices, too.

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

I’m incredibly proud of our work to proactively eliminate the use of subminimum wages for people with disabilities under the Fair Labor Standards Act Section 14(c). Recently, we championed and celebrated the end of 14(c) in the Commonwealth of Virginia, while continuing to partner with policymakers at the federal level to work towards an end to the discriminatory policy nationwide. People with disabilities have a right to meaningful employment in inclusive settings where they have opportunities to succeed and are paid wages that are comparable to those of their co-workers. This is one area where I continue to see Melwood taking a leadership role to bring us closer to a more inclusive economy that promotes financial independence. 

Another exciting project is how we’ve re-imagined our Arlington campus to provide not only programming services but also inclusive affordable housing. As part of the government funding bill signed into law in March 2024, Melwood received $500,000 in congressionally directed funding to convert one of Melwood’s existing buildings into affordable and inclusive housing. Not long ago, people with disabilities were only living in institutions, but today our focus is on ensuring that all our housing stock is built for inclusion of people with disabilities. I’m so grateful to be part of a project that recognizes the need for affordable, accessible, and inclusive housing and addresses the need head on.

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? 

At its heart, Melwood is an organization built to include people with disabilities in the workforce and in communities. We’ve seen such incredible success within the programming we provide, particularly the abilIT program. abilIT provides soft skills training, technical instruction, job search assistance, placement, and on-the-job coaching for people with disabilities. abilIT graduates who previously were underemployed in hourly wage positions have been able to kickstart careers in the federal government, big accounting firms, Paramount, and the cybersecurity industry with Melwood’s support. 

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?

I think it’s important first and foremost to recognize that you’re already working alongside colleagues with disabilities. There are nearly 8 million people with disabilities in the workforce, and an estimated 39.8 million people providing caregiving to someone with a disability. You are already surrounded by people who value an inclusive work culture and want the kind of employer who makes them feel comfortable bringing their full selves to work. 

An effective workforce is one that embraces everyone, including individuals with disabilities or those who may require accommodation to work to their full potential. We have seen great strides in DEIA across industries since 2020, but people with disabilities are often forgotten or omitted from that umbrella. Not all disabilities are visible, and not every person with a disability feels comfortable disclosing it to their employer. We still have a lot of ground to cover to make our workforce an inclusive place for people with disabilities.

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? 

I really like to emphasize how critical it is to focus on the workplace environment as a critical first step when considering accommodations. The Job Accommodation Network, or JAN, estimates that most accommodations are free to minimal costs, and that’s accurate. But there’s also cost savings and efficiencies to be found in making sure you have the right environment for your employees to be successful, regardless of their disability status. As one of our Melwood community members once said, if you put a freshwater fish in salt water, they’re going to struggle. 

So as a first step, begin by looking at ways your whole workforce can benefit. For example, making environments less stimulating can be crucial for some people with sensory, intellectual, and developmental disabilities, but it can increase levels of comfort and productivity for all team members. Having unique spaces in your office for collaboration and, separately, for quiet and focused work, can benefit everyone. 

If you’re not sure where to start, begin by creating more opportunities for giving and receiving feedback with employees and past employees. What would they need to do their best work, or what do they wish they’d had access to when they were with your organization? Lastly, I highly suggest companies partnering with local nonprofits such as Melwood who can provide training on inclusivity and accessibility.

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. 

To build a world where people with disabilities are fully included, we need to take a holistic approach – engaging and empowering people with disabilities through job training, coaching and placement; partnering with employers and educating teams at every level; and normalizing accommodations and implementing workplace and benefit policies that are more equitable. 

One example is restructuring your interview process. Instead of relying on interview and conversation-based hiring processes, consider using a skills-based or learning-based interview structure. It’s important to discuss the candidates’ skills and learning patterns with them, provide an untimed task to see how they solve problems, or send them a questionnaire to complete on their own. You can also offer interview questions to candidates in advance to give them an opportunity to surprise you with thoughtful, creative responses. Think about it – what if we actually empowered job candidates to show us their best selves because they had time to think about their real answer?

Some organizations may need to rethink standard practices too. For example, are staff retreats accessible? Do team building exercises require certain physical abilities? Could typical social interactions leave certain groups out or could they be overwhelming to someone with a disability? Providing specific and intentional training to managers and team members can help shine a light on the aspects of your business that may put undue pressure or stress on employees with disabilities. 

Another way is to partner with organizations like Melwood who specialize in disability inclusion. Organizations like ours can help recognize blind spots, develop necessary resources, and assist with the recruitment and training process.

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 our earliest days teaching plant care to young adults with disabilities to now – with more than 1,500 employees strong serving more than 3,000 community members every year, driving policy change at every level and leading conversations on national scale – we’ve always taken a practical, yet bold approach to promoting disability inclusion. We lead by example with our own workforce, but we’re also working on building more inclusive spaces in the communities surrounding us.

As I mentioned, we recently received transformational funding and support from the federal government, our public and private partners, and individual donors to create affordable, accessible, and inclusive housing through our joint venture with Wesley Housing. We also launched the Workforce Innovation Skills Hub (WISH) in Fairfax County, a welcoming and convenient center committed to breaking down barriers to employment for community members, contributing to a more inclusive, thriving economy, and intentionally designed to address any barrier to employment, including disability. These are just a few examples, and we will continue to grow our programs, network, and impact to empower more people with disabilities to live, work, and thrive. 

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.)

The first thing that comes to mind is, it’s ok to take risks, to make mistakes, and to stumble along the way. You don’t have to have all the answers. You just have to have the courage to keep going. I started my career really worried about perfection and getting things “right” the first time, but in time I realized I learned the most from when I fell short and not from the things I automatically succeeded at.

Speaking of making mistakes, the next thing is to be willing to ask questions and to continuously learn. If I don’t know how to do something well, I am good at finding the best people who are good at that thing. It can be intimidating to think you’re asking a question others know the answers to, but I’ve found by asking, you’re helping to address an issue in advance and helping the team and even your whole organization learn and grow.

Don’t make yourself smaller. I had a realization that I used to make myself smaller, make myself take up less space, which feels like a symptom of being a woman in our society, being told to be smaller, quieter, all that. Over time I’ve learned it’s okay to take up space and seek out opportunities where I felt supported and encouraged to grow. I’m not as fearful now of using my voice and speaking up, and I wish I’d felt more empowered in that way earlier in my career.

Everyone you work with can teach you something. Literally, everyone. Whether it’s coming from the top or bottom, everyone can teach you something new. Don’t be so quick to tune out others, you will miss the wisdom people give out by sharing their experiences or perspectives. 

And lastly, don’t be afraid to speak up, especially about something that is important. If you find it difficult to speak up during meetings or to raise concerns that are serious, you’re not alone. I know that I’ve struggled to speak up at times. If something needs to be fixed, finding the courage to say so is critical to your success, as well as the success of your team and organization. 

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

Nelson Mandela said, “I never lose. Either I win or I learn.” This is a mantra that I’ve always lived by even in my current role. There have been many times in my career where I’ve pushed past my comfort zone and taken a leap into the unknown and sometimes didn’t turn out to be a complete success, but I’ve been able to learn from each of those moments. Life experiences are about learning and finding ways to overcome challenges.

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. 🙂 

I want to inspire a movement to help others be more curious about the world around them. Our assumptions drive so much of how the world works and I would love to see people get more curious about others who might be different from them and ask questions which can help broaden perspectives. This would make a tremendous difference across all areas of public policy and business as well.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

The best place for readers to learn more about Melwood’s collective work for people with disabilities is to visit www.Melwood.org and follow us on social media on LinkedIn and Facebook. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn.

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