What’s Up WID: Unconscious Bias

Ashley Inkumsah:

Hello, everyone. And welcome back to What’s Up WID, the World Institute on Disabilities podcast where we discuss what’s up in the disability community across the globe. If you’re new here, I’m your host, Ashley Inkumsah. Now, a couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking with the wonderful Kamilah Martin-Proctor. Kamilah is the founder of the Martin Multiple Sclerosis Alliance Foundation. She’s also the chair of the Washington D.C. Commission on Persons with Disabilities. And prior to that, she was the vice chair on President Barack Obama’s National Council on Disability. She’s also worked with Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson and New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez. And we are also so happy to call her one of our board members here at WID. I was so excited to speak with Kamilah and she’s, by the way, had over 20 years of experience in the inclusion space and in workforce development. But it was such an honor and a pleasure to speak with her about why unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias, affects people with disabilities, especially those of color.

Ashley Inkumsah:

We also talked about the fact that now as vaccines have rolled out and the world is reopening, there is apprehension from people with disabilities to return back to a so-called normal that wasn’t really working for the disability community to begin with. So we had a really awesome conversation and it was super thought provoking. And I really hope that you enjoy today’s episode. It’s such a pleasure to have you as a guest today on today’s podcast. And I’m really looking forward to having this much-needed conversation about unconscious bias, particularly against people with disabilities in the workforce. So my first question for all of our guests is always, how are you doing and how are you feeling today?

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

Thank you so much for asking, Ashley. I’m doing well here on this hot rainy day here in Washington D.C. A lot of us are under a lot of stress at this point where we’re stressing because you don’t know how long the vaccination is going to last. We’re stressing because our work environments are possibly changing once again, and they’re going to do what they always do and trying to pull back a lot of the progress that we’ve already made in an effort to go back to the solution of power. So am I doing okay? Yes, but big picture. I think a lot of my friends and fellow colleagues and disability community probably are not doing as well.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Absolutely. I think one of the things that came out of this past year and a half of COVID was we suddenly became so much more accessible, our entire society, than we had been in the past. And living in this remote environment has been really convenient for people with disabilities. And now we’re at a time where people, I know my mom and my best friends are now being asked to go back to work. And it’s just really stressful. It’s just adding to the already stressful environment that we’re under.

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

Yeah. We haven’t even dealt with the trauma that we’ve already been through. For all of us, particularly here in D.C., there was an insurgence. Nobody wants to talk about that. That Black Lives Matter protests that are continually happening. And I do think that a lot of that needs to be addressed and it comes under the topic for today with regards to unconscious bias.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Absolutely. I think, yeah, that’s a great segue. So although unconscious bias is certainly a term that’s becoming more and more ubiquitous, I would say there’s maybe some people who are still not even familiar with what the term really means. So could you define for our audience who may not know what exactly is unconscious bias?

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

It has a very unique and academic term and you’ll see it a lot in the universities. There are a lot of conscious courses on unconscious bias and, or otherwise known as implicit bias. And to just be very clear, I use this definition because I have a lot of mentees, I work with the Girl Scouts, and I to tell them that unconscious bias is you feeling a certain way about a person based on most likely erroneous information that you’ve received. And I tell them, “It’s not always your fault. You are being bombarded with so many pieces of information from the media, from friends, from family that may, in turn, have you developing stereotypes and let’s say overall opinions about a person that you don’t even know based on that unconscious information that you’re being bombarded with daily.”

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

So that’s what unconscious bias really is. It is those little, teeny tiny pieces of stereotypes and erroneous information that you have been taught and, or heard that you now apply to another person just based on having not even gotten the chance to know them.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Absolutely. And I think that unconscious and implicit biases, sometimes it’s even more dangerous than explicit bias, because it’s so covert. And so you can’t easily detect it. And sometimes it’s born out of innocence, even within the person who is the perpetrator of it. They don’t even realize that they’re doing it. They’ve just been poisoned by the ablest ideology, the racist ideology, the sexist ideology that’s been just indoctrinated within all of us as a society.

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

Exactly. I completely agree with that. And we do try and give our family grace with regards to that. And my mother is an educator and she loves to tell me all the time, “Everybody doesn’t know everything that you know. And though you didn’t go down the path of education, I need you to sometimes be that good teacher every once in a while.”

Ashley Inkumsah:

Absolutely. Yes. How does unconscious bias affect particularly people with disabilities?

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

Oh, my goodness. There’s several layers with regards to that. If we want to talk specifically about the labor market, which I think is going to become very important as we try and transition back to what I hope is a more equitable labor environment, it starts from the beginning. As individuals with disabilities started looking at the job applications or the job postings, are they accessible? Can I do a paper application, because the websites you have up is not necessarily working? Can somebody from USA Jobs, give me a little help to find the right buttons? And it goes beyond just making sure that the organization has the standard EOC documentation up? Has that company built a reputation for accessibility? Have they built a reputation for welcoming individuals with differing communications patterns or veterans with disabilities? And do they make asking for accommodations easy or do you feel like it’s an interrogation?

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

Sometimes I think we forget that. When you’re asking for an accommodation, you are technically asking that person for some of their most personal medical details. So does that company have a reputation for making that process easy or for making it uneasy? And that comes from the unconscious bias of thinking an individual with a disability will not be able to do the job that you are trying to hire them for.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Absolutely. Absolutely. And how do you think that organizations can begin to work to eliminate this unconscious bias that discriminates against people with disabilities in their hiring processes?

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

With regards to their hiring processes in particular, I think it should stop being just one person. I think that the hiring process should be more of, it may be a little bit more work, but it should be more of a matrix model. I think when you apply to a school, college, or even a high school here in D.C., you have to go through a process. And then there are several people that are able to review that application and give you different points of view and making sure that that table of individuals that are reviewing that application are at the table are diverse. I would also pull out the analytics. I don’t think the code that is currently written that is pulling people’s applications is necessarily equitable or equal to everyone, because it’s being written by a certain segment of the population. And as such, it will tend to lean more towards that segment of population. So I think that those will be my two things, having a wider panel to review applications, having more accessible application platforms and then pull out the analytics.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Yeah. I think people with disabilities should be even involved in that process. That wider panel should include people who are multiply marginalized, people of different genders, of different races and people with disabilities should be in that position to be evaluating. I think that would be my personal dream scenario for sure.

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

Absolutely. Absolutely.

Ashley Inkumsah:

How would you say that, you’ve touched on this before, you started to talk about this accessibility or lack thereof, how has that entwined in the exclusion of people with disabilities in the workforce?

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

I think individuals are excluded from the workforce based on, as I think we had discussed previously, unfortunately, this unconscious bias that they will not be able to do the job. You will get past a certain point in the interview and then you’ll come to some very uncomfortable questions like, “Well, are you going to be able to travel?” “Yes. Yes, I can.” “Are you going to be able to process these widgets as fast as I need them done?” “Yes. Yes, I will. I may not do it the same as somebody else, but I can still meet these goals.” There becomes an unconscious bias in the sense that everybody has to do everything the same way. We don’t. Every individual person is going to be able to bring something new and unique to that process or to that table, especially individuals with disabilities, because we’ve had to learn how to, what did the kids call it now? Life hack? From day one.

Ashley Inkumsah:

I got you. Yeah. Literally.

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

From day one, we will be able to come to a situation and find a different, possibly even better, more succinct way of that process. If you put your bias aside and give people the opportunity.

Ashley Inkumsah:

A lot of people would say we have the ADA and we have all of this legislation and policies that should protect against discrimination. What government policies in the United States and globally help protect against unconscious bias and why does it seem there’s a disconnect there?

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

You know what I learned as a political science major? That our laws are written to be reactive, not proactive. We have a lot of amazing policies and legislation and regulations on the books, there is no enforcement protocol in place. And I think that’s where the disconnect is. I think that a lot of what happens is after the fact. We look towards that legislation to say, “Well, I was discriminated in this way and that’s what violated this law.” The laws aren’t being implemented proactively. And I think that truly is where the disconnect. I do think some, don’t get me wrong, some of this legislation can be updated and written better and could be more inclusive with regards to making sure that we’re touching on some of the gaps that are now occurring, especially with regards to technology. But until we get that implementation piece, it’s all going to still just be reactive.

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

And having to have to go through the process of gathering evidence to file your complaint or to make your case, it is exhausting and is just another round robin of unfortunate events that doesn’t really lead us anywhere. I think we need to take a different look at this. How do we implement these laws, so that they are proactive and not reactive?

Ashley Inkumsah:

Absolutely. Yeah. How do we, yeah, as everyday citizens? Is it going to take a grassroots movement? How do we get the government and the powers that be to implement these laws? I think of a Bradley Lomax, for example, the Black Panther. He enacted so much change to get the 504 section of the Rehabilitation Act to be implemented. How do we become Bradley Lomaxes? How do we do that kind of thing?

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

Okay. I actually talk about this with, I believe it’s my Gen Z-ers and my millennials. I’m a proud Gen X-er just to put that in context.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Proud millennial.

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

Yes. But I think you guys have to be able to tap into your power. Each generation’s had to push the first generation or the generation before them just a little bit. The baby boomers, you guys have to remember, when they started work, they had to come to work every day in a three-piece suit. They had no vacation time. They had to beg for lunch hours. They were literally locked at the desk for eight hours. What did they push for? Free dress Friday. I’m sorry, it’s called casual Friday. And then they pushed for vacation and sick leave. And then you had, I guess, the next generation, possibly the Gen X-ers, we pushed for work-life balance and creating what that looks like.

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

I’m expecting my millennials and my Gen Z-ers, and, I guess, the generation after that, to start pushing for the fact that there is a different way to do things. You guys can do everything that is needed to be done from your watch. That is just a fact at this point. We really can. Why are we going back to these cubicle farms? How are we not focusing on making this place more accessible for having that global citizen community that I know we all really want? How are we not holding these companies more responsible for the health and welfare of their employees? I know people don’t to say this, but I truly believe that either directly or indirectly, a lot of what happened with this virus was because we had everybody packed into these spaces eight hours a day with no air, and no sunlight, and it’s overcrowded. And it’s all so your boss can walk around and make sure that you’re doing your job. And then we had to stop. And everybody’s still did their job.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Exactly.

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

So I’m expecting my millennials to say, “Wait a minute. Stop. I don’t want to go back to a situation that physically harmed my health when I can still do my job in a safer, more complete and accessible environment.” That’s what I’m expecting you all to do. And I’m on my way out.

Ashley Inkumsah:

We need the next generation. Absolutely. Yeah. I feel like, yeah, if anything that we learned from the past year and a half is that we can be equally as productive, if not more productive, if you think about it, when we’re working in the comforts of our own home. So it’s discouraging to see how so many employers are just like, “Okay, let’s go back. Let’s go back to normal.” Normal, so-called. Well, normal was never working to begin with, honestly.

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

No. Yeah, absolutely. But I would also want to have that conversation. I think that’s the other piece that’s missing. What do we need to be talking about? What do we need to be having and giving to each other, generationally, to move forward?

Ashley Inkumsah:

Absolutely.

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

Yeah. You see that commercial with Dr. Rick how not to become your parents and he’s throwing everybody’s signs out.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Yes. I’ve seen that commercial.

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

How do we have that conversation about let’s do this different and that change is not a bad thing?

Ashley Inkumsah:

Yeah. I think at least speaking from the point of view of a millennial, I’m not sure about the Gen Z kids, but I would imagine they would have the same issues. I think our attention spans are not where the boomer generations or Generation X, we don’t have the same attention spans because there’s too much technology and there’s just too much going on, too much stimulation. So I think that we don’t have the same attention spans, although you could make the same argument and say that social media, really in the last year and a half, has proved to be such a powerful, powerful tool. So I guess it’s a double-edged sword. It really is.

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

I agree with that to a certain extent, but I hate that it’s shaded in such a bad light. I was like, “What kid didn’t have a bad attention span at 20?” I don’t understand why, all of a sudden, it’s like, “They don’t have an attention span.” I was like, “You didn’t either.” You don’t get to have intention span until you’ve actually done some things, until you’ve learned how to sit still. For women in particular, I think that we learn attention spans earlier, because we have to sit down and get our hair done. Somebody has to do our hair. And I think that that takes time to learn to build. I hate that that’s seen in such a bad light or in such a negative conversation. Suddenly they don’t have good quote, unquote attention spans. Who determined what a good attention span was?

Ashley Inkumsah:

That’s true.

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

Okay. She did it in five seconds. She gave you that [inaudible 00:18:09] and the project came back perfect. I’m good with that. I don’t need her to do it the exact same way I would. I just want it done and done to the specifications that I’ve given. And you guys have learned or cracked the code for multitasking. I will never forget I had this intern. She was amazing, but I thought she wasn’t listening to me, because she had this pink phone. It was beautiful. This little pink phone, it was attached to her ear and I’m talking to her and she’s talking to them and she’s listening to me and the project came back perfect. She never put that phone down. And I didn’t ask her to.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Wow. That’s amazing.

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

Yeah. But I was a different kind of supervisor from that perspective, because I know that I got some pushback. It was like, “She should’ve put the phone down.” I was like, “Why? The project came back perfect. I didn’t need her to do it the way that you think it should be done.”

Ashley Inkumsah:

Absolutely. Yeah. Everyone has a different way of accomplishing, as long as you get the finished product at the end, I guess. Yeah. There’s many paths to get to the same location in the end.

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

Exactly.

Ashley Inkumsah:

If you’re a company and you’re looking to make your hiring process, services, products, or environment accessible to people with disabilities, WID is here to make that happen. 1.3 billion people across the globe have a disability. And this accounts for $1.9 trillion in disposable income each year. Not only is making your products accessible for people with disabilities the right thing to do, it’s also the best thing to do for your business. So consult with us today by reaching out to the director of our accessibility solutions program Kat Zigmont at kat@wid.org. We look forward to doing business with you.

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

Absolutely.

Ashley Inkumsah:

I’m curious to hear how and when did you get involved in unconscious bias and disability inclusion space? How and when did that took place?

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

I kind of always been in this world. My mother is a special education teacher here with D.C. Public Schools. So I have always been aware just about in my community, in general, what unconscious bias looked like from a racial perspective, from a female perspective and then from a learning and communication perspective. It was very important to her that we understood early on that everybody is different and that’s a beautiful thing. But, unfortunately, not everybody’s going to see it that way and that’s not sometimes due to their own fault. That might just be how they are being raised. The information that they’re receiving from friends, family, and the media. But we had to put forth a different type of information process, be willing to ask those questions, be willing to have that conversation.

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

And so from there I’m lucky enough to have gone to Howard University. So as a proud Bison, they work really hard to make sure that we come out as global citizens and that we know that these things exist, but our job is to have those uncomfortable conversations and address unconscious and implicit bias in every way that we can.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Absolutely. Yeah. It’s amazing. I always say, “We are the sum of our own life experiences.” And I think oftentimes our individual lived experiences is what ends up coloring what we end up doing for a living. Especially in the non-profit space, it’s really important to draw from our own personal experiences, for sure.

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

And that’s why we need to have diverse conversations and inclusion at the table to make sure that these conversations are had. If you have the same perspective across the board, then the unconscious bias will just continue to bleed into everything. It’ll bleed into your outreach. It will bleed into your programming. It’ll bleed into your ones and zeros. Everybody thinks that the ones and zeros are going to save all. They can’t, because they’re written by a person. And who are those people on that team? And what do they look like? And what are, as you said, the sum of their experiences?

Ashley Inkumsah:

Eradicating unconscious bias in the workforce, why is that an issue that businesses, corporations, why is that something that they should prioritize?

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

I know that we sometimes forget that we do live in a capitalist society.

Ashley Inkumsah:

It’s hard to forget.

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

I wish it was different.

Ashley Inkumsah:

I don’t forget, personally.

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

We have to understand that the goal of capitalism is to make money. It is at the end of the day. So why should businesses, in particular, prioritize addressing unconscious bias is because this underlying issue is affecting your bottom line. You may not understand it. You may not see it, but I guarantee you it is affecting your bottom line by all these 20%. You are missing out on opportunities. You’re dealing with a whole lot of unnecessary lawsuits. It is affecting your bottom line. And then the more altruistic reason really is, I think most of our companies, because we are run by people, you want to be a global citizen. You don’t want to cause pain, and harm, and hurt, because we all have to answer to somebody later. But those would be my two main reasons why we need to focus on eradicating unconscious and implicit bias, because it’s affecting your bottom line and because you want to be a better global citizen.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Absolutely. And I’m curious, and only if you feel comfortable with sharing, did you have personal experiences with unconscious bias in the workforce?

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

Unfortunately, yes. I am an African-American female with a disability and an Arabic name. So there was a lot of layers that I do have to constantly maneuver through to make sure that I’m addressing, either directly or indirectly, anybody’s unconscious bias. Whether that’s making sure that I’ve done the project, not just to their specifications, but have gone beyond, but also to make sure that I can answer or address any questions or concerns they may or may not have. And also manage my own wellbeing and health with regards to that. Because the stress and the anxiety can eventually get to everybody

Ashley Inkumsah:

I totally agree with you. I would love to hear, though, about your, I know you have a foundation for MS. I would love to hear more about what you have going on there and what inspired you to found that. And, yeah, I’d love to hear all about that.

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

Okay. I thank you so much for that. And, yes, we have a foundation. It’s called the Martin M.S. Alliance and we focus on multiple sclerosis in communities of color, particularly. I was diagnosed with MS when I was 16 and I realized that there was not a lot of research and, or outreach in communities of color in regards to multiple sclerosis. There was a bias, implicit and, or directly, not just from the general public, but from the medical community that MS does not affect people of color. And you had one or two. At that point we had Richard Pryor, we had Montel Williams who were the celebrity faces of color with multiple sclerosis, but there wasn’t much else out there. So I started the foundation to really address that, not just in the community, giving voice to individuals that are living with MS and their family and friends, because it touches everybody differently.

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

So once one person’s been touched, then that whole community becomes touched. But also having those conversations with medical professionals, so that they can do better early detection. Because even though MS has no cause and no cure right now, early detection and proper treatment can greatly improve one’s quality of life. So what we’re doing right now is Pride. So, unfortunately, we don’t get any parades this year. I would be downtown with my booth and talking about multiple sclerosis in the community with our ADA umbrellas. But this year, we’re just mainly doing a whole lot of outreach and webinars online and, hopefully, everybody can join us and see what we’re working on. So we’ve got Pride taking place and this is going to be our first year looking at disability images in film with the Tribeca Film Festival. And that has been so exciting and so exhausting.

Ashley Inkumsah:

I’m sure.

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

There’s so much good stuff to take in, but that’s what we’re working on right now with the foundation.

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

But that you so much for asking.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Absolutely, yes. Where can people keep up with what you guys have going on at the foundation?

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

Absolutely. Please reach out to us. Our website is, I have two, because I to keep everything as fluid as possible. You can find us at manyfacesofms.org, also at the martinmsfoundation.org. And you can find us @kamilahproctor on all the platforms, Facebook, IG, Twitter. And our YouTube channel is up right now but, unfortunately, we don’t have any new postings at this point. But with the Tribeca Film Festival, we are hoping to have some really great new interviews to be posted to our YouTube channel, which is also at manyfacesofms.org.

Ashley Inkumsah:

That’s so exciting. I’m definitely going to be following you guys everywhere. I’m so excited for everything that you have going on.

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

Thank you.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Absolutely. Absolutely. Are there any closing thoughts, famous last words that you would to leave our audience with regarding unconscious bias in the workforce and why we should all, collectively, as a community really fight to eradicate it?

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

Yeah. Closing thoughts. I just want to leave everybody thinking that I know that it’s stressful right now, and I know that we are facing a lot of unknowns and transitional feelings. And those little pieces of unconscious bias are going to start to creep up. I want you to do very well to address that, internally and externally, so that you’re not missing out on a great opportunity, a wonderful partnership, a new friend, a new business colleague, or a new employee that can turn your business around in ways that you can’t even imagine. Address those within yourselves, push them to the side, be brave and take a moment to say, “You know what? I’m not going to listen to that voice. I’m going to try something new.”

Ashley Inkumsah:

Absolutely. We all have work to do as a society, for sure. We all have work to do. Well, it was so exciting and such a pleasure. I had so much fun chatting with you today. Thank you so much for being a guest.

Kamilah Martin-Proctor:

Ms. Ashley, I truly appreciate you. Thank you for the work that you’re doing. Thank you for having me and let’s do this again.

Ashley Inkumsah:

Absolutely. Yes. Absolutely. What’s a wonderful and important conversation. I was so happy to have the opportunity to have this much-needed conversation with Kamilah. And unconscious bias, it definitely is so much more harmful than other biases, I think, because it’s perpetrated without the perpetrator actually being aware of their actions. I think when we experienced more explicit forms of bias, it’s easier to call out, but the biases that are ingrained within people by, and I love how Kamilah puts it, friends, family, and the media have really significant ramifications on people with disabilities. And this is why it’s so important to listen when people with disabilities, when people of color say that they’re experiencing discrimination. We live in a society that is so systemically ablest, racist, sexist, and so on and so forth. And we all are influenced by it, whether we realize it or not.

Ashley Inkumsah:

So listening, learning, and including people with disabilities, people of color, women, LGBTQ+ people, non-gender conforming people. That’s the only way that businesses and corporations can thrive and really reach the entire market share that they’re trying to reach and that we as a society can truly achieve equity. So thank you so, so much for tuning in. As always, you can find transcripts and American sign language interpretations for today’s episode and all of our past episodes on our website at http://www.wid.org/whats-up-wid. And as always, to paraphrase the words of one of our founders, Ed Roberts, we need to get out there and change the old attitudes, so we can build forward better. Thank you so much once again.

2 thoughts on “What’s Up WID: Unconscious Bias

  1. Maryann Lytle

    I would like to apply for the remote position for Business Development specialist. But I did not see an application link for this can I email you my Resume?

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