Seeing her employees build successful careers is something Lynn Wehrmann of Minneapolis-based WeCo takes great pride in. We sat down with Lynn for a special episode of Small Business Matters to talk about disability inclusion and the profound impact it can have when people with disabilities are doing work with purpose and meaning.
WeCo specializes in providing high quality user experience testing focused on how individuals living with disabilities interact with electronic formats and the internet. Many of their employees are people living with visible and hidden disabilities. As you will hear in our interview, they provide their employees with career opportunities and work that offers purpose and meaning.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our interview.
Gary Stockton: Experian wants to shine a light on diversity, equity and inclusion. So in today’s Inclusion-Forward interview, we focus on inclusion for people with disabilities. We’re going to speak with a founder of a company that specializes in improving accessibility in the products we use. The company is WeCo.
For Weco’s founder, living with a disability is something Lynn Wehrman recognizes as expertise. She was born with and raised alongside four sisters who lived with cognitive disabilities. Being different and competing in a world that didn’t recognize invisible disabilities, she grew up to be keenly aware that being different abled doesn’t make a person incapable, and that people living with disabilities don’t have a level playing field in academics and employment. Lynn, can you share how your early career in this field evolved?
Lynn Wehrman: I have a degree in communications, English Liberal Arts, a minor in professional writing. And I’m one of the rare people that actually got to use my writing skills in my career. But I also, I had a very strong sales background, that was how I got through college.
And I kind of found myself on this sales treadmill in my early twenties. But, I was ill for a large part of my thirties where I was not able to work because of my disability. And when I went back to work, I landed a job selling transportation programs in downtown Minneapolis as part of a quazi at government group.
Gary Stockton: They say that, if you are pursuing work that you’re really passionate about it doesn’t feel like work, it doesn’t feel like a job. I’m sure you would agree with that working in this field now?
Lynn Wehrman: That is correct. In fact, when we have new people come on our team, we warn them that they are going to want to work all the time.
And we, we say, if you get a taste of the WeCo Kool-aid, you’re going to wanna work all the time and you can’t. So we have to work on work/life balance because the mission is intoxicating. There’s no other way to say it because it, and it even still surprises me, there is a lot of immediate gratification in this job where you can see someone that you hire is all of a sudden being listened to by clients, being asked for by clients. And you can see the impact that that has on their self-esteem and their confidence.
Gary Stockton: With so many unfilled jobs in the employment market. Do you think people with disabilities are being overlooked?
Lynn Wehrman: Absolutely. Without a doubt; and the why is something that I think could be debated until the end of time. Hopefully it won’t have to be, but from what I’ve experienced as being a professional who lives with a disability, even though mine is invisible. I have had to reveal my disability at work and know how that limited my ability to move up. But also encountering people that work with us that have advanced degrees that go to schools simply because they cannot find employment.
Gary Stockton: So why is accessibility and usability important in products that we use?
Lynn Wehrman: Accessibility as it’s been applied most recently to the digital world has to do with a set of legal standards that products need to include in order for there to be measurable accessibility. So for instance, the web content accessibility guidelines, or WCAG, a lot of people think that those are laws, but they’re not, they are simply a set of guidelines that were set forth by a group called the World Wide Web Consortium or W three C. And this is a group that got together to kind of solidify what web accessibility means. But WCAG has been applied to laws all over the world. So for instance, it has been aligned, applied to section 508 of the rehabilitation act of 1973. Which is the US law that says that everything that the government buys has to be accessible to people living with disabilities. So, understanding how the laws and the guidelines work together is an important part of understanding what measurable accessibility is. So when we talk about digital accessibility, we’re usually talking about WCAG web content accessibility guidelines.
Lynn Wehrman: Now you can have something meet all those guidelines, and have it not be very usable to someone who lives with a disability. So WCAG is like a checklist. It can make sure that you have alt tags on your images. Your headings are cleared, your links are labeled, but how the entire picture fits together is what usability is.
So can someone who is blind find a doctor on this medical website by using a search engine? Or can someone with a cognitive disability, are they able to sign up for a newsletter? And so that’s why we have a team of testers who do disability focused usability testing. So that, we’ve got our accessibility specialists who work on the standards with the clients, and then we have more usability testers that (ask) does it actually work when the rubber meets the road? So it needs to be something that individuals can actually understand. And put to use. So the web content, accessibility guidelines touch on this, and it is something that we also vet out in our usability testing.
Lynn Wehrman: But for instance, some basic guidance that we give people is don’t use a lot of jargon in your website. Think about who your audience is. Will they understand that jargon? Does it mean something to them? Use a lot of white space on your page. Don’t have it be lots and lots of dense text. Chances are someone without a disability isn’t going to read it anyway. And someone with a cognitive disability may be very frustrated and unable to get through it. Meaningful headings so that people understand what they’re going to read in the next paragraph. It’s very common sense editing, but it is an accessibility tool that’s very helpful, particularly for users who live with cognitive disabilities.
Gary Stockton: So in your work, do you hear people paying lip service to inclusion without necessarily walking the talk?
Lynn Wehrman: I think it’s really kind of an interesting dichotomy, because you’ll have people in one breath say “we absolutely wanna be employing people with disabilities, we wanna bring you to the table.” And then they will express discomfort about me talking about, for instance, my mental illness and how I deal with that in the workplace.
I’ve heard you should be keeping that to yourself.
Gary Stockton: Employees that have disabilities. How are they different? What, what are some of their characteristics?
Lynn Wehrman: So how are your employees different? What are their characteristics? It’s the same thing.
Gary Stockton: Same thing.
Lynn Wehrman: People who live with disabilities have to pick up kids from daycare. They’re really frustrated over the cost of their dry cleaning. They forget to bring the milk home. And they, I Sue Ann Rodriguez, the Director of Accessibility Services, who is blind is the biggest Minnesota Viking(s) fan you will ever find. It is football season, you will not be able to talk to Sue Ann on a Sunday. She is gone.
Lynn Wehrman: So they’re not really that different , it’s, you know, I have managed employees who, without the distinction of being disabled. And I think that the biggest difference that I find is that not true of all people who live with disabilities, but many people who live with disabilities have had to work so hard to prove themselves that they are squared away and professional. And it’s, it’s rare that I have to tell anyone twice it’s, you know, are they perfect employees? No. Have we, have I worked with people who live with disabilities who have not worked out? Absolutely. They have had things come up in their lives? Absolutely. But as a group, they’ve had so few options, we try really hard to make the employment experience at WeCo be very normal. And, you know, you live with a disability, guess what we all do. You’re not getting special treatment here, and most of our employees tell us that that’s what they love about the company is that I’m just another employee here.
Gary Stockton: I’d love to know some stories about employees that came to you, that made some personal progress in their lives working for WeCo.
Lynn Wehrman: Sure, probably my favorite one to tell is, about our brand new Principal Test Consultant, Nina. Nina is actually was on our beta test team. She tested our product, so she’s been with us the full 10 years and she has progressed up our. Our career path to a senior lead. And now she is one of our first principal testers, which is the top of the career.
But in addition to that, when I met Nina. When she interviewed for her certified test consultant position with us, it was really clear to see that she was phenomenally brilliant. She, she just is. She has what, what I would call practically a photographic memory. Nina is blind. I know she’s told her story publicly, so she won’t mind me sharing this, that she is, she is a young Asian woman, first generation American, and she went blind when she was 14. The coolest thing about, what happened in Nina’s story, we were working alongside a creative firm. It was, I often call this office space, the adult study hall, because we were all in an open space together.
Lynn Wehrman: And so we got to know this creative firm called Nika Creative. It is a inclusivity marketing firm and, the founder and I became friends. And she said, you know, I really need a project manager. And I said, you know, Nina needs something and she’s a trained administrator. She was one of our early administrators. But at that time we weren’t able to give her enough work. And so the owner of this company said, “well, you know, I’m really not sure if a blind person can do this work because it involves, you know, using project management, software, tracking several different projects that are going at once.” And, and I said, “I am telling you that Nina will let you know what she needs. I really think you should interview her and give, give her a chance.” And you know, the hesitation was there and I said look, you’re an inclusivity marketing firm. You really need to try to employ someone who lives with a disability. And it wasn’t two weeks in that the owner came back to me and said, I don’t know what we did without her.
Lynn Wehrman: And you were absolutely right. She knew what she needed. She had the software, we experimented with a couple of different project management systems, found one that worked with her screen reader. And now I cannot wrestle Nina back from this person if I wanted to. But she and I, the owner and I have been on a couple of different podcasts talking about what that journey was like for her, and last week I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Nina for advancement to her principal tester role. And she talked about how advancing on the WeCo career path, working with us as an administrator was the realization of a lifelong dream, and then to be connected with Nika, to be able to move to them and find permanent employment.
Lynn Wehrman: And it, I mean, it really touched my heart because I knew that we had. I knew we had created opportunities for Nina, but I didn’t know that it was that impactful on her.
Gary Stockton: How can people find out more about WeCo?
Lynn Wehrman: Just go to our website – theweco.com and we have a careers page. We’ve got information about our testing career. We have information about our services. You’ll see that we’ve always got some sort of event going. We also have a free accessibility library under our resource tab. Because we are a mission based for profit, we have a number of things that are available to people at no cost. So it’s a great way to be able to start learning about digital accessibility and accessibility employment.
Gary Stockton: Well, Lynn, I want to thank you very much for taking time out of your busy schedule to come on the Small Business Matters podcast and share about the great work that WeCo is doing.
Lynn Wehrman: It was a pleasure. Thank you so much for the opportunity.