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How To Create Disability Inclusion, Accessibility, & Equity Through Policy

In Episode 98, Dr. Victor Pineda, President & Founder of The Victor Pineda Foundation / World ENABLED, joins Melinda in a discussion on his work to create disability inclusion, accessibility, and equity through a comprehensive and integrated approach to policy. They discuss the importance of thought leadership, culture change, and training programs to address the barriers to inclusive innovation in communities and organizations. They also explore top strategies for companies and individuals to build a disability-inclusive workplace.

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There are three things [for building coalitions internally to create change.] Number one, create a common language. Understand that there is already an existing strategy within your company…, and then try to understand how a disability-inclusive lens helps you advance that strategy…. Number two, proactively ask who’s not sitting at the table. The disability community is not one monolithic community, it’s really a tapestry of a lot of different communities that understand that there are barriers…. Those experts should be rewarded and paid for their time, so the second part is understanding that there is diversity and expertise that you can call on. And the third pillar… for transformation is knowing that inclusion isn’t a destination; it’s a journey…. And so, knowing that if inclusion is a journey— knowing that it is a constant path of shedding light where there might be shadows— it’s a constant path to understanding that we all have something to learn and to share.
Headshot of Dr. Victor Pineda, a man sitting in an electric wheelchair with dark hair, a white button-down, and a black suit jacket
Guest Speaker

Dr. Victor Pineda

President & Founder of The Victor Pineda Foundation / World ENABLED

Dr. Victor Santiago Pineda is a human rights expert, scholar, investor, and philanthropist. His work focuses on inclusive and accessible smart cities. A two-time presidential appointee on the US Access Board, a senior Fellow at the Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Government in Dubai, and the Chairman of The Victor Pineda Foundation / World ENABLED. His foundation supports global non-profits and campaigns promoting the rights of people with disabilities and older persons. Dr. Pineda’s research and humanitarian work advance urban resilience, inclusion, and sustainability both at home and abroad.

Learn more about the host and creator of Leading With Empathy & Allyship, Melinda Briana Epler.


MELINDA: Hello, everyone. I am Melinda Briana Epler, founder and CEO of Change Catalyst and author of How To Be An Ally. I’m your host of Leading With Empathy & Allyship. Welcome! 


Allyship is about learning, showing empathy, and taking action. That process often includes learning, unlearning, and relearning, then building empathy for people with different experiences, and above all, taking consistent action. Each week we’ll learn from somebody new. Please be open to new ways of thinking and understanding. 


You can learn more about my work and sign up to join us for a live recording at ally.cc. 


Let’s get started. 


MELINDA: Hello, everyone. Today, our guest is Dr. Victor Santiago Pineda, an investor, philanthropist, author, and serial social impact entrepreneur. He’s the President and Chairman of the Victor Pineda Foundation and World Enabled. Today, we’ll be discussing how to create inclusion, accessibility, and equity through policy, both in our communities and our workplaces. Welcome, Victor.


VICTOR: Thank you so much. I’m so excited. I’ve been a big fan of yours, Melinda. It’s been great to reconnect and watch the growth of the community that you’ve been building. You’re building a community that I think is really at the vanguard of reimagining what kind of build the future we need. Right?


MELINDA: Thank you. Well, it’s totally mutual. I’m a big fan of yours as well and all the work that you do. This is not our first conversation y’all. Victor has been part of our Tech Inclusion events over the years, and we’ve known each other for a while.


VICTOR: I think one of the fun things about reconnecting is that at any time that the world experiences a shock, we also have to learn how to respond to that shock. We have to learn our own sort of transformation because the world around us changes. And so, I have a question for you about this podcast. How did this podcast come about? What are your goals? It’s been going on for a little bit. What are you imagining for its future?


MELINDA: I love that. I love that. Thank you. Starting up a question with me. Not me, but our work. Yeah. We started in April of 2020. I will say that I’ve been wanting to do a podcast for a long time. Our team has been talking about it for a while. 


When the world changed, our work in diversity, equity, and inclusion severely contracted. The work of diversity, equity, and inclusion is very volatile when it comes to the resources that companies are put into. When there’s a recession, when there’s an economic downturn of any kind, the budgets for diversity, equity, and inclusion contracts. And so, they contracted. 


Companies were also trying to figure out what was going on and what to do in that moment, too, obviously. And so, we had some time. And so, it was a very good time to start our podcast. So that’s why we started it when we did. The goal is to give people some really tangible actionable steps that they can take to build empathy, to build allyship, to really lead the change. 


No matter what your role is in your organization, anybody can lead the change to create greater diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility as well. I believe that when you say inclusion, accessibility is in that.


VICTOR: That’s quite fitting that we’re talking on the 32nd anniversary of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act. 


MELINDA: Yes! Yeah.


VICTOR: This was a law that fundamentally changed the landscape of our country and has tremendous implications for the tech sector for website accessibility. People oftentimes think about accessibility as building ramps, but it really is about eliminating all kinds of barriers. 


I think that on this day, it’s very fitting that the Tech Inclusion community reflect upon, you know, what are we doing to really proactively identify and eliminate barriers? How do we look at synergies between the intersectional identities and communities that create the diversity that drives innovation? 


I’m celebrating this morning with a lot of change makers, policymakers, and the Senate, with the White House, with colleagues that were leading the change on the streets, tying themselves up to buses to say that the infrastructure that we built the world that we built wasn’t designed for us. 


But now that we have 32 years of experience in a legacy of civil rights, advocacy, and policy, we can look at the horizon and reimagine what’s ahead. How do we create that pathway in a way that leaves no one behind?


MELINDA: Absolutely. Can we take a step back and talk a little bit about you and your story? Where did you grow up? How did you end up doing the work that you do now?


VICTOR: Well, I think the origin stories. I had a good friend, Tiffany Yu, who interviewed me, and she talked about what is your disability origin story. It starts for me in Venezuela. I was born in Caracas, Venezuela. 


I was systematically denied a chance to an education, and that wasn’t because there was something fundamentally wrong with me, but the systems, and the schools, the policies can really the imagination that teachers and principals, in a sense, limited the potential contributions that I could make. 


I realized that it didn’t have to be that way. That there could be another story, another narrative. The narrative arose when we moved to the United States. I was seven years old. We moved to Orange County in Southern California. 


All of a sudden, my wheelchair was analogous to Robbie’s red freckles or Sally’s glasses, or some other French that might be tall or chubby or skinny, or whatever. My wheelchair was part of that diversity. I think arriving here; the teacher told all the students. 


At the time, the cafeteria had steps in the front. There was an entrance into the cafeteria to the back. And so, she said, “Whoever volunteers to push Victor’s wheelchair to the cafeteria can get an extra 15 minutes of playtime with Victor after recess or during recess.” 


So, all the kids raised their hands and wanted to be my friend. It didn’t cost the school any more money at that time to help make me feel included. Ultimately, those steps and the accessibility were addressed. But you know, I literally arrived in the United States as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was being reauthorized by Congress. 


That created the conditions for millions of children with disabilities to get a mainstream education and to break down sort of this divide between channeling people into Special Ed segregated experience, creating the opportunities to have a collective experience within modifications in the classroom that allowed all students to achieve and create and grow together. 


So, that was a very impactful moment to realize that another future was possible because my mother was told, “Keep your kid at home. He won’t be able to get a job. He won’t be able to form a family. He won’t be able to contribute much to society. It would be better to keep him at home, so he won’t be bullied at school.” 


I think there was a very paternalistic sort of pity charity approach, which is still with us in a lot of ways, but we have created enough consciousness, I think, over the last 32 years since the ADA to really create a new concept of equity, inclusion, accessibility, and diversity. 


Or, as my friends like to say, a new IDEA. Inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility (IDEA). So those are the new ideas that are shaping the way we tend to unlock human potential. And that experience directly led to me forming my own foundation and a variety of social enterprises and companies that advance this work through different means.


MELINDA: Awesome. Awesome. I was looking at some of your work in preparation for this, and your mission at World Enabled is to help organizations and communities create and sustain a radically inclusive, accessible, and resilient future for all. What does that look like? What is an inclusive, accessible, and resilient future? What does it look like to you?


VICTOR: Well, what I like to say is that when I talk about radical, I mean, getting to the root, right, getting to the root of the issue. Ριζικό which is the Greek word for radical. Every human life has value and faces tremendous obstacles. 


However, every human life has limitless potential. There are challenges how do we understand the real barriers that exist and remove them from their root. We do that in a way that opens up opportunities for belonging, where every person is endowed with unique particular gifts, and those gifts can be brought to life. 


Now, the way that we’ve done that is through thought leadership on inclusion. If I help you really understand what we’re talking about, we’re talking about identifying moment barriers in the workplace through product design, through community engagement, through marketing, through strategy, through internal policies, through recruitment. This transformation through thought leadership and culture change. 


The second way that we do this work is through training and advisory services. That’s really making sure that you have your own inclusion journey and your roadmap, and you can bring people that help unlock those capabilities through training and advisory support. And then, we’ll build new partnerships with both communities and organizations around strategic design and even a certification program. 


All of that drives sort of the capacity to unlock inclusive innovation. So, a lot of times, we hear innovation is a buzzword, but I think building accessibility is innovation because you’re changing systems that created exclusion. You’re kind of re-tweaking them to find solutions that can perpetuate inclusion. That’s the kind of way that we engage in radical inclusion with communities and government organizations.


MELINDA: Yeah. You’ve worked with several cities on this. I would love to hear what it looks like to develop an inclusive, accessible, and resilient city. What are the pieces of that? How do you start? What does that look like, kind of step-by-step? I believe, correct me if I’m wrong, that you’re just starting to work with Amsterdam, and this is kind of in the initial stages, is that correct?


VICTOR: Yeah, that is super exciting. We’re looking at a cool initiative, right, a three-year project where the Chief Technology Officer is one of the world’s leading innovators around innovation, sort of reimagining what a digitally connected city could look like, what a smart city could look like. 


He realized you couldn’t have a smart city if it’s not inclusive and accessible. You can’t have a smart city that perpetuates barriers. So, he’s like, “How can we use our AI infrastructure and our university and our science department to perhaps use machine vision and teach an AI algorithm to identify access barriers in a city so that instead of sending somebody out with a clipboard in trying to find all these access barriers throughout the city. 


We could have access to a computer to see and tag and identify those sidewalks or signage or benches in the way or street furniture or other challenges, trees, and fix up polluted sidewalks that could be then addressed, and infrastructure investments could be directed towards fixing those areas. 


What’s interesting is that we’ve actually proven that through LiDAR and 3D cloud points and technology, you can actually create paths and assess paths and pathways through cities that would have at least a three to five-foot clearance. 


And so, you could create new ways of mapping the city through artificial intelligence that can help you drive inclusion. In a city like Abu Dhabi or in Dubai, which we’re actively working on, they realized that they wanted to drive change through a comprehensive and integrated approach to policy. So they asked us to develop the Dubai Disability Strategy, which is part of the master plan in the city of Dubai. 


And then, Abu Dhabi wanted something that could also allow them to create benchmarks and indicators that they could measure in terms of six different domains: education, employment, public spaces, health, and social protection. 


We help them with that initiative and look at ways to measure, monitor, and assess their progress. So really, it’s about looking comprehensively internally into what are the policies, programs, products, and services and how you are engaging people with disabilities or a disability-inclusive perspective in those domains. How are you leveraging universal design methodology that very much is in line with design thinking, right, to reimagine solutions by changing the question of the problem? So, those are the ways we do that.


MELINDA: Thank you for sharing about your work in Amsterdam. You mentioned earlier the different components of the work you do with cities. I think there’s a really important translation that happens in the workplace. All that can happen in the workplace as well. 


I don’t think we’ve talked about it, but you have a signed commitment, the Global Compact, where cities assign and say, we’re going to do this, and then you connect the data and the research development and then develop a roadmap with diverse stakeholders, right? 


And then you’re developing a storytelling campaign. I know you have a Knowledge Hub as well. And a training program in another capacity building resources as well so that people know how to do it and know how to lead that change. Right? I mean, all of that is the same work to develop policies within the workplace. Yeah?


VICTOR: Correct. I think what’s really important is that we’re past the times of, “Why do we have to do this?” And I’ll be asking, “How do we do this?” It’s a step forward. I think what I would really encourage people to do is to look at a lot of the resources within their own communities, a lot of their own employee resource groups. 


One of my former students and mentees recently became the President of the Disability Employee Resource Group at Google. She has over a thousand Googlers to identify as persons with disabilities. Oftentimes, it’s not about capacity building. It’s about capacity recognition, recognizing the knowledge that you already have within your community or within your organization, and unlocking that capacity in order to drive change. 


The “how do we do it” is about understanding that it’s a huge market. There are 1.2 billion people in the world who live with a disability. It is oftentimes a group that is incredibly loyal to companies and organizations or employers that are actively engaging with the community.


And if we look at disposable income, it’s estimated somewhere between $2 trillion disposable income by persons with disabilities. You can add on top of that their families and you look at the ways travel, for example, people with disabilities are the ideal travel niche because we stay longer, we will repeat customers spend more money per day. We usually travel in larger groups. So I think there are just a lot of very interesting ways that we can think about looking at how to engage these communities. 


I know that on Episode 92 of this podcast, you worked with my friend, Lydia Brown. She does talk a lot about how to understand people of color and people with disabilities and the intersection of looking at interventions that could unlock you to understand this. And so, I think there’s a lot for us to work on when it comes to allyship, empathy, and understanding the fact that there are capabilities that oftentimes can shed new light on issues. 


It all starts with showing up authentically and maybe say, “This is one area that’s weak in our DEI strategy.” or “This is an area that we want to promote more speakers that identify as persons of color and disability or without looking at their sexual identities around these experiences. It’s really about just elevating those voices like we’re doing in this podcast of taking that knowledge into your place of work, your company, or your community.


MELINDA: Yeah. I think you’ve been pretty humble about your work. You have some pretty lofty goals, work, and accomplishments. Both. And so, I want to highlight that, too. I believe you have a goal set for a hundred cities by 2030, right?


VICTOR: We have 30 cities that have signed a global compact, which is a commitment to make their cities more inclusive, accessible, and resilient. The goal is to get a hundred cities to sign up. We’re looking at technology partners that can help us drive and deliver solutions to our memberships that can help them track in real-time, aid or access barriers to identify solutions that allow us to create dashboards and tools that will help communities learn about inclusive design and planning, and public policy. 


So there’s still a knowledge gap, as well. So we’ve launched a training program with kind of the UN of cities, which is called the United Cities and Local Governments, a huge network of cities all over the world. So they’re taking a course to help provide this knowledge and training program to cities to help them shape their own vision strategies. 


So yeah, we work with both cities and Fortune 500 companies or other startups that are looking at innovation to drive this workflow. And that kind of starts for my work and really negotiating the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. 


You know, that experience that I had as a child coming to the United States and realizing that I had already had opportunities and privileges but also responsibilities. I wanted to take some of that knowledge and some of those insights and those gains from the US and make sure that other children or other adults, individuals in other parts of the world, can benefit. 


So that is an international human rights agreement and a human rights treaty that’s now been signed by 180 countries around the world which means the article’s life ensures that accessible technology is understood as a human right. So, these are radical shifts and chosen normative frameworks and just sort of agreements by countries. It’s about the translation to the local level of the translation to the day-to-day work of companies and communities. I think those are lofty goals.


MELINDA: Yeah, absolutely. In terms of companies and individuals, both, how do they get involved? What can they do to create a better world to create a more inclusive, accessible world?


VICTOR: Right. I think education. We always talk about educating and being a good ally and understanding the cultures and histories and the trajectories of these experiences, experiences of marginalization, experiences of oppression, experiences of exclusion, experiences of discrimination, just as racism and sexism exist, or just ableism, which is the concept that a body or individual life, disability has less valued life without sort of a perception of disability. 


So when we’re talking about anti-racism, we can also talk about anti-ableism. We can read about a value-neutral or perhaps even a value-positive notion of disability so you can have disability pride, just like you have gay pride. And you can have an understanding of African American culture as you have of disability culture. And part of that is knowing that there’s a huge world of leaders as well as stories. 


One of my favorites was nominated for an Oscar. That was Crip Camp, a documentary by James Lebrecht, a Bay Area filmmaker director that told the story of this camp for children with disabilities that was run by hippies in the 70s. It kind of was a hotbed for emancipation. 


In the documentary, he traces the lives of these young people and how that experience of emancipation not only changed their lives and their communities but ended up changing the world. And those people were my mentors. Those people were my sort of guides and friends. And so there’s this multi-generational passing of the baton of this big arc towards justice, as Martin Luther King said.


And so, watch the movie. It’s on Netflix. It was produced by Barack Obama. There’s other content on the website of my organization, World Enabled, Cities4All. And yeah, there are a lot of great speakers that could help illuminate a path for allyship within your organization or community.


MELINDA: Yeah, absolutely. Your work requires building coalitions. Right? You’re bringing together a lot of different people, different stakeholders from companies to different people within government organizations and community members as well. Very disparate views oftentimes, bringing them all together, having conversations, building empathy, finding alignment for action.


VICTOR: If you guys like herding cats, kind of talk.


MELINDA: Yeah. Well, I want to ask you a bit about how. I mean, because there are a lot of ways that can be translated even into the workplace as well, which a lot of our listeners are working on building coalitions internally to create change. And so, can you share some of the things you’ve learned about how to do that effectively? What are some of the tips you can provide?


VICTOR: I think there are three things. Number one, create a common language. Understand that there is already an existing strategy within your company. Whether it’s the DEI strategy, whether it’s trying to drive innovation, whether it’s just growing your revenue, right? Understand what their strategy is, and then try to understand how a disability-inclusive lens helps you advance that strategy. Get everyone in the same language by understanding the strategy. 


Number two, proactively ask who’s not sitting at the table. The disability community is not one monolithic community. It’s really a tapestry of a lot of different communities that understand that there are barriers, whether it’s for people with visual impairments, hearing impairments, whether it’s people with physical impairments. It’s a broad range of lived experiences. 


There are interventions, right, like standards, as well as guidelines and requirements for compliance. But there are also ways to go beyond those minimum standards. And those communities are filled with experts. Those experts should be rewarded and paid for their time. So the second part is understanding that there is diversity and expertise that you can call on. 


And the third pillar, I think, for transformation is knowing that inclusion isn’t a destination. It’s a journey. The President of the Ford Foundation wrote a very powerful blog or news about the power of our privilege. He talks about how ignorance is the enemy from within. 


And so, knowing that if inclusion is a journey, knowing that it is a constant path of shedding light where there might be shadows, it’s a constant path to understanding that we all have something to learn and to share. And to know that you’re confronting the power of privilege and ignorance is not always easy. However, it is necessary. And we can do that together by knowing that we complete each other. So, those are the things.


MELINDA: I love that. I love that. Anything that we missed that you’re dying to talk about? 


VICTOR: Well, I’m on the board of a nonprofit called Respectability. They found out that more than 750,000 people in our jails and prisons have a disability, and the linkage between homelessness and disability is a linkage between understanding that health and equity and marriage equality, and mobility solutions all have a disability lack. 


People with disabilities still don’t have marriage equality because, for a lot of people with disabilities, we get penalized for getting married because if you rely on government benefits, your spouse’s income counts against your ability to qualify for those benefits. 


There are a lot of these inherent contradictions where we want people with disabilities to be meaningfully employed, yet we still have Nicodian disincentives to employment. These institutional barriers oftentimes are ignored because we don’t know what we don’t know. Already there are right of these dimensions. 


And so, I think what is important is to understand that you can recruit people, knowledgeable and technical people with disabilities, to be on your board to be consultants, to be advisors, to be facilitators, and trainers to be able to have those capabilities within your organization. 


I believe I’ve had the privilege to be a two-time presidential appointee and serving three US administrations. And so the idea of service and the idea of leadership is not something that we have to delegate to others; that we have to step into ourselves. So those are the things that I think we should remember to celebrate kind of our ancestors, our forefathers, and our mothers and our brothers and sisters that are actually doing this work on social justice day in and day out. 


So the question is, who am I forgetting? Which are my assumptions? Which assumptions are flawed, and which of my beliefs are misbegotten? So these are things that we can do to open up your channels and engage with the right partners that can help you achieve your goals in a way that’s inclusive, accessible, and resilient. Thank you so much for this opportunity, Melinda.


MELINDA: Yeah, absolutely. And you said, brothers and sisters. I also want to say our non-binary siblings as well.


VICTOR: Exactly.


MELINDA: Yeah. We always end with a call to action. So, what action would you like people to take after listening or watching?


VICTOR: Well, if you think that your city or company could benefit from a conversation or an engagement on radical inclusion, learn more about the work that we do and reach out. If you think that you are excited about learning more and educating yourself, just look up disability rights, or disability justice, or disability history to understand that journey in the US. And find folks to follow if you’re on social media like Twitter, Instagram, or whatever, and become part of that story, part of that community.


MELINDA: And we’ll also link to some episodes in our show notes, too, where we’ve talked about disability justice and disability rights for anybody who wants to learn more as well. 


VICTOR: Great.


MELINDA: Where can people learn more about you and your work?


VICTOR: We are launching a new website under PinedaFoundation.org with some really cool crypto projects. We’re building up some dowels and doing some really good work in the blockchain space. We just got today our first crypto donation. It’s kind of exciting. 


So, PinedaFoundation.org. And then the other initiative we’ve had is called Cities4All, which is this global campaign to build smart cities. And then our education, our training arm is World Enabled. So, @WorldEnabled on Twitter and Instagram and www.Cities4All.org.


MELINDA: Awesome. Thank you. Thank you for the conversation and for all the work you do, and for sharing your wisdom with us.


VICTOR: Thank you for leaving that space in the community and for engaging our community. 


MELINDA: Of course. My pleasure.


VICTOR: I’ll see you soon. Bye, guys.




MELINDA: We’ll share resources and a transcript from this discussion at ally.cc. 


And please make sure to subscribe to our channel and rate this show. It makes a difference for us. Thank you for being part of our community. And remember, the more we take action, the more we grow as humans and as leaders, and the more we transform our communities. So, what action will you take today? 


Let us know your actions by emailing podcast@ChangeCatalyst.co or reaching out on social media. 


Leading With Empathy & Allyship is a show by Change Catalyst where we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting, and events. You can learn more about us at change catalyst.co. 


Let’s keep building allyship across our communities and around the world. 


Thank you for listening.