Sheila Xu is deaf. Sheri Wells-Jensen is blind. Both women are accomplished professionals who work with AstroAccess, a nonprofit with a mission to make space exploration accessible to all.
So, they don’t want to hear any excuses from business leaders about why they can’t hire more people with disabilities. No room in the budget to make accommodations? Find the money. Don’t know how to communicate with a deaf or hard-of-hearing employee? Use text messages and email. Worried about preferential treatment for disabled workers? Save your worry for someone else because they don’t need it.
“A quarter of the people on the planet have some kind of disability. If you look around in your workplace and a quarter of those folks don’t have disabilities, that means that you have structured your workplace so that disabled people aren’t applying there, or disabled people can’t work there,” Wells-Jensen said.
“Put your money where your mouth is,” Xu added. “If you want to make it more accessible, and have more inclusive design, then you need to have the financial investment to make that happen.”
Changing Attitudes Around Accessibility in the Workplace
The women spoke about accessibility in the workplace during a recent episode of Leading Diversity at Work, a podcast series hosted by Wharton management professor Stephanie Creary. The episode, which is also available on video with closed captions, includes two interpreters: one who signs the conversation for Xu and the audience, and one off-camera who speaks for Xu. (A full transcript of the episode is included below.)
Wells-Jensen is a linguistics professor at Bowling Green State University and the 2023 NASA/Library of Congress chair in Astrobiology, Exploration, and Scientific Innovation. Xu is a researcher, pilot, and disabilities advocate who is enrolled in a dual-degree program to earn her MBA at Wharton and master’s in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School. She’s also a student in Creary’s classroom.
“This was certainly my first time teaching a student at the Wharton School who is deaf and who wants to be an astronaut,” Creary said. “I’ve come to understand so many interesting things about space that I was not even thinking about, just by engaging in communication with Sheila.”
She said Xu’s advocacy is a powerful reminder that accessibility is an integral part of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). “We’re talking about people who have rich and interesting lives and want to achieve many of the things that people who don’t have disabilities want to achieve. How can we make these opportunities more accessible to them?”
Xu and Wells-Jensen have some recommendations. First, if the system doesn’t work for people with disabilities, change the system instead of asking disabled people to change. Second, use technology and universal design to make the work environment more hospitable to people with disabilities. Third, stop making excuses.
When AstroAccess wanted 16 disabled people to conduct a zero-gravity flight, the organization was intentional about recruiting top-notch candidates and conducted a thorough search, Wells-Jensen said.
“The first thing we learned as an organization is all kinds of marvelous disabled people are out there, and it matters where you recruit,” she said. “This idea that as you go recruiting, you’re somehow compromising, is completely wrong. We got really strong people. We got Sheila.”
Ensuring Accessibility Across All Frontiers
Xu, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, was born deaf and received a cochlear implant when she was 3. The device helped her verbalize, so she didn’t use sign language until she was in college. She earned her bachelor’s degree at MIT, moved to Italy to study business ownership among deaf entrepreneurs, backpacked solo for a year and a half, and interned at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Xu said she’s now pursuing a public policy degree because being deaf and perceived as having a disability has taught her that policy changes are critical.
“I have noticed that policy and business strongly overlap,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of deaf business owners really struggle to raise capital and to grow their business. There’s a tremendous gap in equality there.”
Xu and Wells-Jenson have become friends through their work with AstroAccess, and they want to make sure that space doesn’t become the final frontier of accessibility. Humans will eventually be there — all kinds of humans. And they will need to know how to be safe and communicate with each other in an emergency. Inclusive flight safety is one of the objectives of the AstroAccess project.
Wells-Jensen said she always wanted to be a physicist and astronomer, but she internalized society’s message to disabled people to not do “things that seem too audacious.” She wants to erase those messages for herself and for future generations who may be traveling or even living in space.
“What you need to succeed is each other,” she said. “I think that is the way that we overcome the forces that tell us that we’re not needed, and that we are extra, or that we are too much trouble, and really it would just be better if we just all stayed home.”
To learn more, reach out to Sheila Xu (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Sheri Wells-Jensen (email@example.com).
Stephanie Creary: Hello, my name is Stephanie Creary, and I’m an Assistant Professor of Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. I’m delighted to welcome you to today’s episode of the Knowledge at Wharton Leading Diversity at Work podcast series, which is focused on disability access in the workplace. Joining me today are two very special guests. First we have Sheila Xu, who is a dual-degree Master of Business Administration degree candidate at the Wharton School, my home institution, and Master of Public Policy degree candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is a disabilities advocate and researcher and a pilot who recently participated in a zero-gravity flight experiment with AstroAccess. We’re going to hear more about this experiment and more about AstroAccess a little bit later. But AstroAccess is an organization dedicated to promoting disability inclusion in space exploration. Sheila is also deaf.
Next we have Dr. Sheri Wells-Jensen, who is NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology and an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. She is on the AstroAccess leadership team. Along with various aspects of astrobiology, Sheri’s research interests include social aspects of human colonization, disability, and the relationship between language, embodiment, and thought; language evolution and ways in which alternative sensory inputs could influence the evolution of scientific thought. Sheri is on the board of SACIA, which stands for Social and Conceptual Issues in Astrobiology and METI, Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence, International. Sheri is also a blind person who has been on a couple of zero-gravity flights, as well.
Welcome, Sheila and Sheri. Thank you so much for joining us today. I’m so honored to have you here with me on the podcast for a conversation about disability access in the workplace.
I want to start us off by just getting to know a little bit more about each of you, having you share a bit about yourselves, including your background on the topic of disability access in the workplace. And I also would love for you to share how you know each other. So I’d like to start with you, Sheila. Please share with us more about who you are, including your background, and we’d like to also hear about the work that you’re doing with AstroAccess.
Sheila Xu: Hello, everybody. Yes, my name is Sheila, and this is how I sign my name. Let me think for just a moment. In terms of disability access and the workplace, accommodations and accessibility are not always provided. It really can depend on the environment and the culture — what’s happening socially in the setting. Equality as well as equity, and how that’s being addressed. And what we need to succeed in the workplace.
We do have a law here in the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act, but attitudes are important, as well, when it comes to inclusion in many areas, not just in classroom settings or work settings, but opportunities for network and socializing — incidental learning opportunities, as well, that need to be accessible. For example, there are a lot of hearing people, who just by being in a space, have access to the communication happening in that space, where deaf people can lose out on a lot of that incidentally-learned information. How we resolve that is very important, in terms of creating equal access and opportunities for everyone in all situations.
And how that brings us to AstroAccess, I believe that space will be our future. Right now there are a lot of people who are really starting to think about the greater future, about going up into space. And if we are thinking about that, how do we think about including people with disabilities within those opportunities to go to space? I would also add that if we are looking at making the workplace and systems, as well as the space stations accessible, we’re really talking about universal design, which would not only benefit me and people like me, but it would benefit all peoples. If we look at universal design, it’s very similar to looking at ways to create more safe places, reducing risks for people. And space is a dangerous place, in and of itself. People will get hurt in space at some point. So how do we account for that? Well, to account for that, we need to look at people like ourselves. We are, and we set the gold standard, frankly, for design within any system, specifically looking at how we apply that to space.
Creary: Thank you, Sheila. Let me turn to you, Sheri. I would love to know more about who you are, your background. Also, can you tell us more about AstroAccess and certainly how you’ve come to get to know Sheila a bit better?
Sheri Wells-Jensen: Absolutely, thank you. Sheila said all the good study already, so I’m in a good position just to capitalize on what she has already said. So my training is in linguistics. It seems like a little bit of a jump all the way to astrobiology, but in essence we have to realize that everywhere we go, people are going to have to communicate, right? So every field that there is, from biology to business, all the way to the other end of the alphabet — zoology — I don’t know, whatever you want. All of those fields are going to be necessary in space. So having linguists and business majors involved in space is an excellent idea because we need everybody there.
And speaking of needing everybody there, that’s what AstroAccess is all about. We don’t want to end up artificially limiting who can go. What we need in space are our best people, not our best people who happen to fit some kind of arbitrary rule about what your body is like and what your senses are like. So I met Sheila when she applied to be an AstroAccess ambassador, to fly on one of our zero-G flights. It was a wonderful, easy choice for us to select Sheila to go. She is exactly the kind of very alert, cheerful person with boundless energy and a real depth of knowledge. And so she was an easy choice for us when we were going to pick who was going to fly with us.
I met Sheila on our last zero-G flight, and we worked together to do some of the observations that we did aboard the flight. Sheila talked about universal design. That doesn’t just happen. You don’t automatically know how to make a new situation accessible, and space is a very new situation, right? We don’t automatically know what we’re going to need and how to make those accommodations happen.
So one of the things we do aboard the zero-G flights is we test out things. We wanted to know, for example, if you are signing in zero gravity, and one person — whoo! Goes upside down. How does that affect the understandability of what the other person said? So if Sheila is signing, and someone else is completely on the other side of the cabin spinning around or upside down, can they still understand one another? So it’s things like that that we just don’t know, so that’s why we need to do the investigations, and that’s why we need people like Sheila who are ready to go up and experience zero gravity for fun, sure, but also for science and to help us figure out what we need to know.
Creary: I’m going to sort of dive into this conversation a little bit more, particularly with Sheila, around your background. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Sheila over the last academic year because Sheila joined my Leading Diversity at Wharton’s MBA class that I teach at the Wharton School. This was certainly my first experience teaching a student at the Wharton School who is deaf, but certainly my first time teaching a student at the Wharton School who is deaf, who wants to be an astronaut. And so I’ve come to understand so many interesting things about space that I was not even thinking about, just by engaging in communication with Sheila.
So before we jump back into the space parts, Sheila, you are perhaps one of the most fascinating MBA students I’ve come to meet in my time at the Wharton School because of this work you are doing with space exploration. But I know that work started long before you got to us at the Wharton School. So can you say a little bit more about how you became interested in this topic, and just shed some light on how are you continuing to, I guess, think about your education relative to this broader interest? You’re pursuing both an MBA and a master’s in public policy at two different schools at the same time. So I would just love to know more about how you got to be here, where you are, and then how these degrees are fitting into this amazing future that I know you have in front of you.
Xu: Well, I was born deaf. My family is not deaf. They’re hearing. My parents were immigrants from China. So the first time they ever met a deaf person was when I was born. Now in China, they had never met a deaf person prior to my being born, so they were overwhelmed and trying to figure out what to do. Ultimately, they decided to get me a cochlear implant when I was three years old. So that would mean that I really used more of the spoken language, what we refer to as an “oral approach” in school. I didn’t begin to use sign language until I was 20 years old, and I was in college. I went to MIT for my undergraduate education. I was studying Earth atmospheric and planetary science. And also at the same time, my father was getting his Ph.D. in physics. So that had a big impact on my life, about what it means to be a scientist. How do you view the world from that lens of a scientist?
So at that time, again I was at MIT, and that was my dream top school that I wanted to attend, so I enrolled. I decided at that time to begin my studies of Earth sciences, as I just explained, and it just so happened that the Earth sciences class overlapped with a lot of space classes. I think that is where my interest in space began, because of those classes, because of my peers and the other students in those classes. So then in my freshman year, over the summer, I went to an internship for NASA, NASA JPL. I was primarily focused on science work, like building and predicting models — those types of things. And then I started working with the Department of Transportation in similar areas of developing models and the greenhouse gasses, those emissions coming from airplanes.
So those were my early years, where I was focused primarily on the science work. But I did notice something at the time. I realized that I just wasn’t enjoying just the physical work of sitting, like coding, like a monkey, if you will — just focusing and typing and working so solitary in my office. It just wasn’t for me. I wanted to get out. I wanted to meet people. I wanted to be more engaging with people in general. So that happened. And then I received my undergraduate degree, which required me to do quite a bit of writing for my senior thesis.
If I could back up for just a moment, yes, I explained my major, but I also had a humanities major, as well, at the same time — science technology. It was called “STS” in society. So I had to write a senior thesis for that class, as well, but that wasn’t required for my other major. I started giving some thoughts about my research and the paper that I was going to write and what I wanted to talk about. It just so happened that I was Googling late in the evening one day. I was reading quite a lot of things, and I came upon deaf economics and deaf business owners. So I clicked on that, and I started to look further at that material, and there was a gentleman who had received a Ph.D. doctorate in deaf business ownership. I read further, and I contacted this person and had a lengthy discussion, and he told me that there really wasn’t a lot of research in this area. It was quite needed. This was back in 2012, I believe.
He really encouraged me to pursue this research and make that part of my senior thesis, which I adopted. So over the next two years, I began that research of deaf business owners here in the United States, as well as in Europe. There was a lot of travel over those two years, meeting with a lot of people, really improving my signing skills at the same time as a result. And then, after graduating from MIT, I realized that I really didn’t want to go into a typical safe job. I was looking for something more unique, something different. So I decided I would do a solo backpacking trip for one year-and-a-half.
At that point, afterwards, I decided to move to Italy because I knew that in Italy — this was nothing related to my science work — I just wanted to shift my focus for a while. I had received a reward to research deaf business owners in Italy, very similar to my senior thesis paper, but I was focused more specifically on Italy. While I was there, I was teaching ASL and deaf culture in the University of Venice at the same time. I was there for five years. And after five years in Italy and pursuing this work, I kind of maxed out in Italy, just because of the limitations of access that were provided, which was basically none for people who are deaf.
So I began to really think further about my career and what impact did I want to make when I looked at my own future? And that’s one of the big reasons that I decided to apply to this dual-degree program of public policy and the MBA here at Wharton. I have noticed that policy and business strongly overlap. So both of those things impact us as deaf people, as well as people who are not deaf in many, many areas of life. Policy changes have tremendous impacts on all of us and all of our benefits. But in the business area, I was interested in becoming an investor, specifically an impact investor. I’ve seen a lot of deaf business owners really struggle to raise capital and to grow their businesses. And counter, I see at MIT, my peers there, who are hearing and able-bodied have such an easier time of finding funds. There’s a tremendous gap in equality there.
So I thought, “Well, let me get this dual degree in policy and business, in order to pursue my interests.” In the future I would love to work at the intersection of space, policy, and business development or investing. Technology development, as well, possibly — or technology transferring. Of course accessibility and how that impacts those areas, as well. I have been thinking, I don’t think specifically about a job right now, but I am looking down into the future of possible job opportunities in those areas of my interest and the work experience that I can bring to it.
Creary: Thank you for sharing all of that. As I said, you’re one of the most fascinating MBA students that I’ve met in my time here, and I wanted our audience to get a sense of that, and what better way than to have you share the deep experiences and broad experiences that you’ve had in your background as a way, I think, for not only helping us to get to know who you are as a person, but as we begin to talk about the topic of disability access in the workplace, we’re talking about people who have rich and interesting lives and want to achieve many of the things that people who don’t have disabilities want to achieve. And how can we make these opportunities more accessible to them? I think you gave us a good understanding of you and your dreams — actually some of them are much bigger than mine. I will admit that. My dream was not space, but having dreams and wanting to fulfill them and making sure that the same access to these opportunities is afforded to all of us, regardless of what our abilities are.
Sheri, I can imagine that this conversation resonates with you and your own experiences. You have an equally fascinating background. You said it, linguistics and astrobiology seem far apart, from a lay person’s understanding, meaning mine. But certainly I think you have tackled some places literally where many of us could only dream to go. So I’m curious to know, when you reflect on what Sheila shared about her own background experiences, what resonated with you when you think about yours?
Wells-Jensen: First off, let me just say what everyone else in the room has said already, that the more I get to know you, Sheila, the cooler you become. I mean my friend, there are some things in there I didn’t know.
I think the thing that resonated with me in particular from Sheila’s story is how pervasive and sometimes very overt, and sometimes very subtle, the force on disabled people to go home, sit down, be quiet, don’t make trouble can be. That constant pressure to, “Oh, just sit down. I’ll fix you a plate.” And nobody really wants that in their lives. What everybody really wants is to be the person organizing the plate. We want to be the people who are making things happen, not the passive recipients of other people’s dreams and ingenuity and love of life.
So I think from my own experience, I intended to be a physicist and astronomer. That was my goal. But there are just a lot of very quiet, strong messages given to disabled people to not do those things that seem too audacious. If you’re going to go do an audacious thing, you need a certain amount of internal drive. But that’s not your magic, right? Everybody has internal drive. Everybody’s got some of that, right? What you need to succeed is each other.
So in Sheila’s work, figuring out what deaf business owners need, one of the things that is pretty clear from the story she was telling is that they need each other, and they need to learn to network. And as disabled people, we need those conversations in the hallway, right? We need those casual connections between friends and future friends and business opportunities that can only happen when people talk to one another. So I think that is the way that we overcome, I think, the forces that tell us that we’re not needed, and that we are extra, or that we are too much trouble, and really it would just be better if we just all stayed home.
One of the messages that I was really quite startled to hear expressed quite as openly as it was — Sheila and I were at a conference together a couple of months ago, I guess it was, and we heard people complaining over and over and over, “Oh, man, we don’t have enough people. We don’t have enough good employees. What are we going to do? There’s this lack of good employees.” And the guy actually said, “Well, I don’t know. You all will have to have more babies. And maybe we need to have robots do some of this work.” And Sheila and I and other disabled people were sitting right in the audience, and I thought, “Holy smokes, buddy. Think about this: A quarter of the people on the planet have some kind of disability.” So if you look around in your workplace, and a quarter of those folks don’t have disabilities, that means that you have structured your workplace so that disabled people aren’t applying there, or disabled people can’t work there. And that’s where your extra employees are. They are disabled people waiting, ready to do part of the work of getting humanity into space and following the dreams that everyone else has at the same time.
Creary: I love it; I love it. Sheila, I can imagine that this resonates with you, as well, because we’ve talked about these things quite frequently in our class, but certainly in our one-on-one conversations. And so as we begin to think about what disability access in the workplace would look like — specifically, Sheri, you just gave the example of let’s just say a quarter, which is a small number, a quarter of your workforce, let’s say now represents people who have various forms of disabilities. In order for that workplace to be accessible to them, what are the types of things — other than just giving people jobs, which is the first barrier, right? And opportunity. What are the types of things that employers should be thinking about? And I want to now relate that to perhaps what you learned through this space exploration experience with AstroAccess. Were there lessons learned about what you needed to have in order to be successful in space that we can transfer to thinking more broadly about what anyone, or people who are disabled, might need in the workplace to be successful?
Xu: Yes, you’re absolutely right. That big impact is the hiring process. And behind that are people’s attitudes and policy. First of all, we need to be aware of that, because when we’re looking at space, the space agencies on the government side, in the government sector, are not allowing people with disabilities to become astronauts. And that’s simply because of their system that they have created looking for people who, if you will, have the “right stuff.” They’re talking about people who are young and healthy, able-bodied. So if that’s the system, and what the system requires in addition, of being able to communicate through a radio transmission — that’s not accessible. I can’t access that type of system.
I think the better strategy is looking at changing the system to meet my needs, as opposed to a system that only allows for a very specific type of person to be selected. So for example, for myself, as a pilot, I’ve noticed that I very much prefer to read a text as a way of communicating. We already have that technology. It exists, but it’s just not really broadly out there. I’m hoping that we will see that that type of technology is out there and available to all people, not just very specific types of pilots.
So all of those ideas, to borrow that in the space sector, to be able to create systems that work for us, not just as a deaf person specifically, but for all kinds of people with a variety of disabilities. And that’s where the concept of universal design really comes in. How are we able to step back, look at systems, products, and services that are accessible for all people? I think it’s very important in its next step to look at the problems within the systems, as well as changing attitudes and creating better policies that really show a greater commitment to pushing the ball forward for change.
When we look at leadership and management, at the top they also really need to be able to recognize and disseminate this type of information, to reach out to people further down the line in terms of their employees. I think you talked about this in your class previously, how important it is to really have the commitment from the top level.
I hope I answered your question.
Xu: Did I miss any part of your question?
Creary: No, you didn’t. What we’re going to do in just a minute — and I’ll give you a chance to think about that. I’m going to move to Sheri. What are two to three concrete, practical tips? Just like you and the students always hold me accountable to saying, what are two or three concrete, practical tips that you would share with employers who would be listening to this podcast about how to make people with disabilities have better access to the workplaces? I will also, because we’re talking about space today and your more recent experiences have been space-related, you can certainly target those to the space industry, as well. But we’re going to come back to you. I’m going to shift to Sheri for a second, sort of asking you some of the broader questions.
You’ve participated in a number of zero-gravity flight experiences. You’re a leader at this wonderful organization, AstroAccess, which is giving not only you and Sheila, but people from a variety of abled backgrounds and disabled backgrounds the opportunity to participate in these experiences that most people would even dream of, right? We can only dream that we would have access to space. I’m wondering about the lessons that you were learning, the implications of what you were learning for certainly disability access to space more broadly, but also to settings like workplaces. What have you come to learn and understand in your work that would give us some pointers that we can hang onto as we think about broadening the net of who gets to participate in the things that we have available to us?
Wells-Jensen: That’s a good question, and I think that the tangible suggestions are a good direction to go in. So the first thing that we learned, I think, as an organization is that all kinds of marvelous disabled people are out there, and it matters where you recruit, right? So if we had just said, “Hey, we need twelve people to go on a zero-G flight,” and took the first twelve people who walked in our door, we would have probably no disabled people on that flight, right? But what we wanted was to show the power and really the efficiency, the joy, the power of what diversity can bring to something like a zero-G flight. So we didn’t just take the first twelve people who walked in the door. We went on a search exactly for disabled people. We were very intentional about that kind of inclusion. The people we got were top-notch.
So this idea that as you go recruiting, you’re somehow compromising, is completely wrong. We got really strong people. We got Sheila. So it matters where you recruit. That’s one thing. And then when you’re looking — and we’re thinking now about how to make space stations accessible, how to advise people about the design of their space station. So one of the places we start with is this: If you’re looking around your work environment or your home environment, and you find something that just is kind of, I don’t know, it’s just terrible. It’s terrible, it’s inconvenient, it’s bothersome, it’s inconvenient for everyone. It’s a problem every day. You have to do this thing. Say you’ve got a lousy coffeemaker. Every day it happens. You use the coffeemaker. It’s always terrible.
So start with those things that are bothersome to everybody, and rethink them and redesign them so that they’re accessible. So get rid of the yucky coffeemaker and get one that doesn’t have the access problem. Like our coffeemaker might have had a touch screen, which makes it inaccessible for blind folks to use, right? That coffeemaker was a problem in the first place, and so we made everything better and make our morning workflow go better by getting rid of something that was a problem in the first place, that we just were living with. And so when we think about what’s already in our way, getting rid of that thing that’s a bother and redesigning it so that it is inclusive, and then everything gets better for everyone.
And I think the other thing that we think about — I mean, there’s a long list of things that we’re going to do when we’re thinking about outer space, but the other kind of thing that we look at to make an environment more accessible are things that you do every day. What are the little tiny things that you do every day? And if you can make one of those things better — because you do it all the time — you’ve made a big step forward. So I think Sheila’s example of communication by text messages, that’s a really cool idea. And it’s super easy. It’s a fix that we already know how to do. We communicate with people every day, and adding in a text message, which is accessible to deaf folks and blind folks, again makes everything easier for everyone, makes everything more accessible for everyone. And because we do it all the time, changing that one thing up buys us a lot. So I think those are the three places I would start. Things that you do every day — rethink those. How can you make those simple things better? Rethink the things that you already know are driving you nuts. I already know our problem. Fix those things, and then pay attention to where you go to look for your people. Where are you recruiting?
Creary: Absolutely wonderful. And when I think about leaders who I’ve talked to from other industries, and people who I’ve had on this podcast previously, you are saying the same things that they are saying. So whether we are talking about other groups — women or people from various racial or ethnic minority groups, like Black people. Or whether we’re talking about people who are coming from different socioeconomic classes, to me the lessons that you just laid out, the key takeaways, Sheri, are the same things that they are asking for, as well, which leads me to believe that these are the things that we all want as citizens, as participants in any economy, and certainly as workers. How do we ensure that all of us — and when we begin to look at our data and our group by our differences — how do we ensure that we are all getting these things, if it’s the case that we all want them? Thank you, Sheri.
Sheila, so turning to you, based on certainly the experiences that you’ve shared with us today, your experiences with AstroAccess, what key takeaways or calls to action/concrete tips do you have for our audience?
Xu: Well, first I would say if you are committed to accessibility and inclusion, that’s very important. Put your money where your mouth is. So if you have a private space company, and you have built this space company, and just like we were talking about this a moment ago, about this space station Sheri was just sharing. If you want to make that more accessible, have more inclusive design, then you need to have the financial investment to make that happen. Not just the space station, but so many things. The hiring process. Adding a line there, a line item for your budget, for example, in your hiring process. I, for example, would need a sign language interpreter for communication. And all companies need to add that accessibility line item in their budget, as opposed to saying, “So sorry, we don’t have that in our budget.” If you say that, that means you’re not really valuing me, my thoughts, what I can bring to the table if you can’t communicate with me. So I think that’s really important, to have the money behind whatever it is, whatever impact you’re talking about to make your company inclusive.
Number two, I’d say, policy changes. Policy changes are critical. When it comes to policy, that establishes the rules. We have laws, of course, but when it comes to the rules, the social norms, both formal and informal — both of these environments in societies.
Number three, I would say from what I see looking at the government sector, they are very risk-averse. They still really don’t want to accept astronauts with disabilities. But if you look at the private sector, that’s where we’ll see growth. That’s where we see people willing to assume risk. We need to look to the private sector. Many, however, do contract with the government and are looking for government monies, where they will then assume the risks. So I do believe that’s a great opportunity for all of us to look to the private sector, where we really are able to find the monies, where contracts exist with the government for accessibility specifically into space.
I would say if you’re interested in really supporting our work, in supporting AstroAccess, then please feel free to contact any one of us. We have plenty of ideas. We’re ready to speak with you at any time, and we’re looking forward to those conversations.
Creary: Thank you, Sheila. I really appreciate you being here today. I also want to say Sheri and Sheila, I think it is so important that you are willing to participate in these types of engagements and podcasts, and you’re showing up to conferences. Because I think the more that your presence is felt, and the more that your thoughts are shared, and the more that people begin to understand your backgrounds, the less I would say puzzling it feels for people to include you in what they are already doing. So thank you for joining my platform and engagement today and helping people to understand how you include someone who is blind and someone who is deaf in the same podcast episode. I think this will go a long way towards inviting other people who run podcasts to consider broadening the base of guests that they include as part of these really important platforms, as well. As you know, podcasts have become a thing for every topic imaginable under the sun. And so I think the more that we can — as people who host these things — diversify who we are including, and also make sure that people who access the platform or who communicate in various ways, who sign, are included. I think we will be putting our money where our mouth is, as well.
So thanks to both of you, Sheila and Sheri, for joining me today. Thank you for sharing our insights and your expertise with us. I truly, truly appreciate you for being here. Thank you to the audience for being here and for listening to this episode or watching this episode of the Knowledge at Wharton Leading Diversity at Work podcast series. I look forward to sharing more with you again in the future. Bye for now.