Promote Champions of Inclusion

Jeff Lichon can appreciate what it means to have people in his life who encourage and inspire him. At 15, he was involved in an automobile accident in which he sustained a spinal cord injury and lost mobility from the chest down. Eighteen years later, Lichon is now public affairs manager with multinational chemical corporation The Dow Chemical Co. He works with the company’s business services group and serves as global chairman of its Disability Employee Network (DEN).

The DEN focuses on improving perceptions about people with disabilities and raising awareness about the contributions they make at work and outside of work. It offers a variety of training resources aimed at leaders who manage people with disabilities.

Lichon said his experiences inspired him to launch DEN’s mentor program to support the advancement of people with disabilities at Dow. To benefit those in the community with spinal injuries, he established the Jeff Lichon Spinal Cord Injury Foundation, which provides funding support to children who cannot afford mobility equipment. It also offers scholarships to medical students enrolled in the neuroscience program at Central Michigan University — a source of talent for Dow due to its proximity to the corporate headquarters — to advance cell regeneration studies and other treatments for spinal injuries.

Dow became an official partner of the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Games and the London 2012 Paralympic Games. The company created the hockey turf in Riverbank Arena at the London Olympic Park, which was used for Paralympic football competitions. With more than 4,200 Paralympic athletes from 165 countries, the London 2012 Paralympic Games was the world’s largest competition for athletes with disabilities.

“What Dow has done through its sponsorship of the two Paralympics is unique,” Lichon said. “It has attracted a lot of positive attention because people see that diversity and inclusion isn’t just talk. It’s about changing attitudes and behaviors for the better. And it really feels like we’re heading in the right direction.”

Becoming an Employer of Choice
Since 2010, Dow’s involvement in the Paralympic Games has helped position the company as an employer of choice among people with disabilities, opening new recruiting avenues and breaking down stereotypes about employees with disabilities.

That year, Dow began working to recruit Paralympians as employees. It hired two interns who competed in the Vancouver 2010 Winter Paralympic Games. Steve Cash was a gold medal-winning goalie for the U.S. Paralympic sled hockey team. He arrived at Dow’s headquarters in Midland, Mich., for his internship in 2011 having been named Best Male Athlete with a Disability at the 2010 ESPN ESPY Awards.

Caitlin Sarubbi, a Harvard student who competed in Vancouver in the visually impaired super-g, also left a lasting legacy during her internship, helping establish the Dow Disability Games at the company’s headquarters.

“These positive experiences helped showcase Dow as an employer of choice when we recruit people with disabilities,” said Lichon, who worked in Midland at the time and was a mentor for both interns. “It also helped with employee engagement throughout our company as more and more people got to listen to their stories and understood their unique perspectives. It started to create a ripple effect around all the good things Dow does.”

Recognition for Good Works
Dow implemented the Champions of Inclusion program to recognize employees who are advocates of disability inclusion in the workplace and in their communities. The program calls for nominations for Champions of Inclusion, putting them through a regional selection process and sharing the individual champions’ stories in internal publications.

In the first year of the program in 2010, the selection committee, comprising representatives from DEN, the office of diversity and inclusion and Dow’s Olympic operations team, received 60 nominations and named 10 employees as Champions of Inclusion, who then attended the Winter Paralympic Games in Vancouver. Two years later, the committee received 800 nominations from Dow employees around the world. From that pool of candidates, 20 were selected to represent the company at the Summer Paralympic Games in London.

Dow’s effort to change minds about people with disabilities and include them in the workplace is gathering momentum among employees; more people are stepping forward as their advocates internally and externally.

Among the 20 Champions of Inclusion is Omar Martz, who works in the maintenance department at Dow’s Bahia Blanca site in Argentina. Martz is father to 6-year-old Catalina, a special needs child. Martz said helping his wife care for their daughter opened his eyes to the need to help people see beyond disabilities to the talent the individual possesses.

“Do not define people by what they can’t do. Rather, think about everything they can do,” he said. At the company site in Bahia Blanca, seven people with disabilities have been offered work in the Dow warehouse, thanks to Martz.

In Moscow, Konstantin Zvezdin, a sales representative with Dow’s performance plastics business in the Russian Federation, is also a Champion of Inclusion. Zvezdin has dedicated himself to enriching people with disabilities’ lives through sports. Since 2009, he has been playing sitting volleyball with Vector, a sports club in Russia. Sitting volleyball is a Paralympic sport played by two teams of six people each. Four of the six people are individuals with disabilities. “Engaging people with disabilities in sports and recreation is a way to improve their quality of life,” he said.

Zvezdin travels with members of his sitting volleyball team to tournaments in Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and other countries. Through these tournaments, he is helping to raise disability awareness. He said he is looking for other opportunities to help develop the potential of people with disabilities and let them shine in the community.

In Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, Dow engineer Heather Cole was named a Champion of Inclusion for her work with the Special Olympics of Edmonton. She volunteers each week as a swimming coach and accompanies Special Olympians to swim meets. Cole also volunteers at Special Olympics fundraisers and enjoys educating the public about the programs and benefits for athletes with special needs.

Dow’s Champions of Inclusion program tells the disability story through its employee advocates’ work to open doors and create opportunities for those with disabilities. The 20 Champions of Inclusion have shared the stories of their London experience with colleagues, friends and families, further spreading the message to include people with disabilities in the workplace and the community.

A Cause for Celebration
London 2012 marked the second time Dow partnered with the Paralympics and was when the company celebrated DEN’s 10th anniversary.

DEN has been a pacesetter for the company. The network continues to connect employees with disabilities with mentors, gives them opportunities to interact with senior leaders and provides a platform for employees to share their experiences and help Dow become more accessible.

DEN has 20 chapters around the globe and offers a range of programs and support to all employees who have a connection to those with disabilities. The network works with Dow people in facilities management to ensure the workplace is accessible to those with disabilities, and supports those in internship opportunities through mentoring and on-boarding.

“The Disability Employee Network calls attention to what people with disabilities are really capable of doing, which is much more than age-old stereotypes depict,” Lichon said. “As many people are uncomfortable around people with disabilities, DEN also conducts workshops on disability awareness and etiquette to increase people’s understanding of and comfort around those with disabilities.”

Reflecting on the last 10 years, Lichon said he takes pride in DEN’s advocacy to increase disability awareness and inclusion and sees the company’s Paralympic sponsorship as a catalyst to take Dow’s diversity and inclusion practices to the next level.

“We welcome the differing experiences, backgrounds and perspectives our employees bring, and rely on those differences to fuel innovation,” Lichon said. “A workplace that embraces diverse people including those with disabilities is better positioned to outperform its competitors.”

Sarah Kok is the director of organizational effectiveness at The Dow Chemical Co. She can be reached at
editor@diversity-executive.com.