More than 56 million Americans have a disability. Jaime Elving is one of them.

Elving, a human resources lead business technical analyst at Highmark Health, suffers from several chronic medical conditions that require her to take many different medications daily — including one particularly pricey prescription. A previous employer had denied coverage for this medication. But after moving to Highmark, she says, there were no issues.

“There were many reasons why I decided to make the move to Highmark,” says Elving. “But its commitment to people with disabilities was definitely a factor.”

So in 2012, when the company’s Diversity & Inclusion initiative was working to create a business resource group (BRG) for members of the Highmark community with disabilities, Elving immediately volunteered for a leadership role.

Close-up of a man in a wheelchair with his hand on a "push to open" button

A Culture of Confidence

“I was actually the only person who volunteered for a leadership role,“ says Elving, who remains chair of Highmark’s Abilities BRG. “Trying to get participation was difficult at first, since people who have a disability can suffer in their determination. Compared to the other BRGs, we’ve got a smaller population, and some are fearful of sharing their disability status.”

Addressing this fear of stepping forward to speak openly about one’s disability was one of the group’s primary challenges early on, says Elving. “I never really wanted to talk about my own medical issues before I got to Highmark. But at our very first meeting, I shared with the group what my own struggles have been.”

And so an important organizational impact of what would become known as the Abilities BRG emerged: Building a culture of confidence and candidness within Highmark’s disability community.

Willing and Able to Communicate

Business meeting that includes people with disabilitiesOver the next several years, Abilities developed an inclusive, accommodating and open environment for employees with disabilities and prospective employees — particularly promoting honest communication about disability, with a focus on ability. Participants soon became an internal focus group to each other and for the organization in providing accommodations, solutions and education. Through collaborations and presentations, the BRG promoted a better understanding of differing abilities and how to effectively communicate and work together across abilities.

When one employee and BRG participant developed a degenerative visual condition, she was reluctant to discuss it with her colleagues and supervisor. The group worked with the employee to help her develop the confidence she needed to talk about her visual challenges with her manager.

“She didn’t want to talk about her disability at first,” recalls Elving. “But our BRG became a safe place for her to talk about those issues.”

Improving Resources Throughout the Organization

In addition to providing support, the group also began providing input and collaboration on accommodations that employees or interviewees with disabilities might need. If a candidate who was deaf needed an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter for an interview, for example, Highmark would help provide one.

When Highmark hired Kelli King, an information technology and services professional who is hard of hearing, her nine-week training program accommodated her need for using a real-time, computer-aided transcription service called CART (communication access real-time translation.)

King, with the lead of the group’s clear communication committee, would later leverage her unique perspective and a collaboration with its ASL provider, SLIP, to envision and execute on incorporating ASL into David Holmberg’s “all employee” meetings, and ASL and CART services into select Highmark community events. This made a difference in clearly communicating the content and presentation at those meetings not only for persons who are deaf or hard of hearing but for hearing individuals as well. Previously, someone who communicated using ASL or needed captioning services would be unable to fully participate in these events or miss spoken parts of the presentation.

“With CART service at Highmark, I get more out of the meetings,” says King. “I’ve never had CART service at my previous employers.”

Sold on the benefits of offering CART service to employees, King and other Abilities BRG participants have also worked to make similar accommodations for other Highmark Health members and patients. The group recently offered input and resources to help provide more communication options to improve the patient experience of Allegheny Health Network hospital patients who are deaf or hard of hearing. As someone who is hard of hearing, King notes that having the right communication options available can ease the normal anxieties and improve the effectiveness of a stressful hospital visit.

“When I was in a bad car accident, I was taken to the emergency room,” she recalls. “The doctor would put his face very close to my face and speak loudly.” Having assistive devices would have made communication much clearer and that experience much more comfortable.

Today, across the Allegheny Health Network, patients who are deaf or hard of hearing have access to in-person ASL interpreters and on-demand video sign language interpretation.

“If you’re in the hospital, it’s probably going to be a stressful event,” says Elving. “If you’re a patient at the Allegheny Health Network, now there’s information from people who know best how to communicate and offer services in a way that can increase comfort and decrease stress.”

Student Outreach

Although the number-one priority for the Abilities BRG is Highmark Health employees with disabilities, Elving says that what she’s most proud of is the work the BRG does with students with disabilities. In fact, Elving’s dual role as a BRG leader and HR professional has led to a pipeline initiative that facilitates the hiring of people with disabilities.

In its first few years, the Abilities BRG has developed numerous outreach events and hosts several programs that offer work readiness training for students with disabilities. Its signature annual event, Disability Mentoring Day, takes place every October. Students with disabilities from Pittsburgh and Camp Hill, PA, meet at Highmark Health’s offices for a full day of career-related discussions with employees with disabilities, as well as mentoring and job shadowing, both one-on-one and in small groups.

The BRG also continues to host the Volunteers of America Pennsylvania Workforce Development Summer Youth Program: A day of mentoring and career-related learning activities for high school students with disabilities. “Highmark provides a capstone experience at the end of the program for students to apply everything that they have learned,” says Bonnie Rubin, Volunteers of America Pittsburgh programs administrator. “But more importantly, this experience plants the seed of hope for being part of the workplace in the future.”

The Abilities BRG also regularly works with students of the Bender Leadership Academy; an initiative of Bender Consulting Services, a Pittsburgh recruiting firm focused on hiring people with disabilities. The group has representation at many of Highmark’s annual community events, including its annual transition fair — an event geared toward preparing high school students for their next education or career phase.

Two graduates, Highmark Health VP Sara Oliver-Carter and Joyce Bender at the Bender Academy graduation event

At the Bender Leadership Academy graduation event, left to right: Martell Herriot; Highmark Health VP of diversity and inclusion Sara Oliver-Carter; Joyce Bender; and Jordan Russell

“We love supporting those kinds of activities,” says Elving. “It says, ‘You know what? If you work hard, you can have a successful career, even if you have a disability.’”

“Seeing people like themselves employed and prospering within the organization gives students a hope that both motivates and gives them confidence to enter the workforce,” adds Phyllis Rupert, senior diversity and inclusion consultant, corporate diversity, and advisor to the Abilities BRG. “Abilities BRG participants, some of whom are Bender Ambassadors, become the catalyst in assuring students that people with disabilities can make an important impact within an organization as well as a competitive wage. As Bender Consulting Services founder and CEO Joyce Bender often says, people with disabilities want ‘paychecks not pity.’ The academy creates that bridge for students.”

Continuing to Create Awareness and Opportunities

The Abilities BRG will soon refresh an allies campaign in support of Highmark Health’s self-identification of individuals with disabilities and individuals who are military veterans. The campaign’s VOICE program enlists people who are colleagues of employees with disability in inclusion. The goal is that all employees work to create an inclusive environment where people with disabilities feel confident in identifying as a person with a disability. This helps raise awareness of the contributions that employees with disabilities bring to the workplace, promotes open conversations, and encourages all employees to complete the Voluntary Self-Identification of Disability form required of employers by federal law.

“I’m so proud to work for Highmark because we really do so much to support people with disabilities,” says Elving. “We don’t want to give them a handout and help them through charity. It’s about giving people a real opportunity to shine within the organization.”