When the Americans with Dis- abilities Act (ADA) was being debated on Capi- tol Hill between 1988 and 1991, I was running a small nonprofit called Bridge-to-Jobs, which matched people with disabilities with
My congressman at the time, Rep. Norman Mineta, D-Calif.,
was a co-sponsor of the bill, and he asked me to help defeat
amendments that would weaken it. With the help of disability
rights leaders, I learned how to be an effective lobbyist.
When the ADA was signed into law on a hot July day 27 years
ago, I was so proud to be on the South Lawn of the White House
with more than 2,000 others who had helped usher in a new era
of civil rights in the workplace. The ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life,
including jobs, schools and transportation, as well as privately
owned places that are open to the public.
A Turning Point
On the flight home, I realized I was at a crossroads in my career.
I wanted to make my mark on the
world. But I also knew that, to create sustainable change, I needed to get
out of my comfort zone and join the
sector most able to effect inclusion
for all in U.S. culture—the corporate world.
A large and growing IT company hired me as a contractor to
help it comply with the ADA. It
was only a three-month assignment, but I took the risk, hoping this foot in the door might
lead to a regular position.
Complying with the
ADA took 10 percent of my
time at best, so I looked
around for other ways to
stay busy and make an
impression. I couldn’t
help but notice the huge
budget that my company
was using to place glitzy ads in
glossy magazines to comply with
affirmative action “good-faith” requirements for fed-
I called the public relations agency staff who created the ads and told them to share with me all of
their pieces of art work and the publications they were
being placed in. Then, I invited for a lunchtime dialogue the leaders of the company’s six employee resource
groups (ERGs)—for female, Latino, black, Asian-American
and Pacific Islander employees, for LGBT individuals, and for
people with disabilities.
I also arranged for a photographer friend to take pictures
while I asked the ERG leaders two key questions:
• What do you think about these ads? Answers: Stilted. Boring. Silly. Unbelievable.
• Do you recognize any of these publications? Answers: No.
I’ve never seen them before.
The pictures we took that day were laid out scrapbook-style
into a print ad that said, “We are not where we want or need to
be with our diversity efforts, but we are excited about the journey
we are on. Would you like to join us?”
It cost almost nothing to make, and we placed it in the much
less expensive publications that our grassroots team leaders rec-
ommended, using the surplus money for college scholarships.
The ad won awards. We attracted diverse talent. And I was
offered a full-time position.
At age 32, I was experiencing something new:
the power and privilege
that comes with a title,
hierarchy, a budget, decision-making authority and
a staff. I became the company’s first diversity leader and
the only person in the U.S. to
hold that title who also identified as living with a disability.
As such, I was encouraged
to help develop the emerging field of workplace diversity
and inclusion. This was amazing since I was totally green and
at least a decade younger than the
other trailblazers who had shaped
Embracing My Inner ‘Outlier’
Most leaders share the same reasons for wanting diverse and inclusive
workforces—and face similar barriers turning them into reality.
By Deborah Dagit
President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans
with Disabilities Act into law in July 1990.
WATCH Deb Dagit talk about how
to become an ally for people with