The April 2014 quarterly newsletter discussed the new federal regulations on disability in the workplace and how disability may interest with religion. Included in that newsletter was an interview we conducted with Deb Dagit, a diversity consultant and former Chief Diversity Officer at Merck who has a visible disability, discussing her thoughts on the intersection of religion and disability. Our interview, which has been excerpted from the full newsletter, can be found below:
Q: What have your experiences been around disability and religion?
A: Personally, I have had people wonder if I’ve been “saved.” This has been in the context of concerns about my health and mortality. My feelings about these conversations are informed by experiences when I was young (between the ages of 11 and 16) and received orthopedic care from Shriners hospitals in San Francisco, California and Portland, Oregon. At the time, these hospitals regularly encouraged representatives from various Christian churches to come to the hospital and say prayers, sing hymns, and distribute Bibles. On my nightstand were at least 10 Bibles that had been given to me by different churches. There was definitely a sense that people receiving medical care needed faith support, and that the need for ongoing medical care was the result of sin or of being inattentive to these churches’ activities. It felt very different from choosing a faith tradition by yourself or with your family. This seemed like proselytizing and like I had no choice in the matter. Now, people of faith sometimes tell me after presentations that I’m doing the Lord’s work. They are almost in tears—this is not how they react to presenters without disabilities. My discomfort with those kinds of comments is influenced by my experiences with religion when I was younger.
Q: How can religious beliefs and practices both positively and negatively impact the experiences of people with disabilities ?
A: A negative example is a time when my husband and I were trying to catch a cab. The hotel called one for us, and when the driver (who was Muslim) saw us with our service dog, he said he wouldn’t drive us. He considered our service dog to be “unclean.”
A positive example is when I was in Thailand. We were taking a tour of Buddhist temples, which have an altar step that people are supposed to step over; it is considered disrespectful to touch the step. I would have had a difficult time with this, but one of the Buddhist men who was with me lifted me over the step. Normally, being picked up without my permission would make me very uncomfortable, but this was done with complete respect and I felt at ease with it. Afterward, I found out that the Buddhist tradition encourages generosity toward others as a way of developing positive karma. I experienced that respect and generosity when I was in Thailand, and it came from a very authentic place.
Q: What advice do you have around religion and disability in light of the new disability regulations?
A: I would recommend bringing in respected faith leaders to the workplace to talk about their positions on disability and provide guidance for employees. I advise recording this event and making it available to all employees. It is important to talk about the intersections of religion and disability, and also race, gender, sexual orientation, and other identifiers. People who do not identify with a religious tradition should also be included as presenters in this event. If a company already has an interfaith ERG, I would recommend helping that ERG to collaborate with other ERGs within the company to hold conversations about disability, inclusion and self-identification. Finally, I recommend looking at accommodation policies and procedures for religion and disability to see if there are intersections between the two that can be spelled out in more detail. We’re still in the beginning stages of these conversations. Right now it is important to make sure there is space to actually have these conversations.
Additional Resources For more resources on the intersection of religion and disability, you can visit Deb Dagit’s website and find out more about the VOICE Program, which encourages the colleagues of people with disabilities to identify themselves as allies. To access the full newsletter, in addition to other resources and benefits, consider becoming a Corporate Member! You can learn more about Tanenbaum’s Corporate Membership by visiting our website: https://tanenbaum.org/programs/workplace/corporate-membership/