Conversations with Accessibility Experts: Laila Chouinard
Laila W. Chouinard is the Employment Placement Specialist for Helen Keller National Center (HKNC) Southwest Region Community Program serving the state of California. A first generation American and daughter of civil war refugees, she was raised passionate and committed to increasing awareness of diversity and inclusion of all communities.
She now works to bring this awareness to workplaces and communities across California by demonstrating how business big or small can benefit from employing deaf-blind individuals. She brings to HKNC a well-rounded background that includes small business management and as a 14 year-owner of a medical safety business that she co-runs with her husband. As a business owner she promoted the licensure of first aid care to underserved latino communities and other refugees at no cost.
Laila is also is a polyglot who speaks French, Spanish, Arabic, American Sign Language, and English, and is a nationally certified interpreter who has worked to prevent human trafficking along with law enforcement agencies. She has done various presentations for companies on cultural sensitivity and deaf-blind awareness, regarding the importance of businesses' need to embrace inclusion, and has been featured in several media outlets as an example of how communities can improve diversity and accessibility one family at a time.
Laila is a world traveler and has set foot on 6 out of 7 continents on a personal journey she calls : The 7 Winds of Diversity.” We recently got a chance to talk to Laila about her role connecting deaf-blind individuals with meaningful work.
Tell us a little bit about your background and why accessibility is important to you. How did your passion lead you to the Helen Keller National Center?
I am the daughter of refugees who fled a civil war and became aware at a young age how the lack of access to services can marginalize a community even more if that is possible. Ranging from a simple doctor's visit, to employment choices, access to information can limit one’s health and ability to thrive.
I think this experience shaped my young mind and molded me into my own social warrior on a quest to seek and create an awareness of the need for accessibility for all marginalized communities. Funny how life is; you pick a path to walk in, it keeps you walking until you find the destination.
For me, my path continued on, and when I was in middle school I had my first encounter with a deaf-blind individual. My desire to communicate pushed me to learn American Sign Language and tactile sign language. Little did I know this would eventually lead me to where I am now: Helen Keller National Center.
How does the Helen Keller National Center impact the lives of people with disabilities, especially deaf-blind people?
Helen Keller National Center believes that deaf-blind individuals have a right to live in their place of choice and work in the best environment possible, and that these two factors together will push an individual to naturally thrive.
So here at HKNC, we empower the individual with not only practical skills, but also educate them on their possibilities and rights so that they themselves can take a stand to enter the workforce without fear, but with pride and confidence. We also work on building national partnerships that help companies diversify their talent pool and hire deaf-blind individuals.
What misconceptions do companies have about hiring deaf-blind people, and how can we change those?
Misconceptions come with being human. We are often a product of what we have heard or been told. Many companies or HR managers are just simply not aware of the immense professionalism, talent, and resilience found within the deaf-blind community. We can only change those misconceptions if we take the first step and open our companies to hiring from this talent pool.
Use organizations like HKNC to have that dialogue with your company to address concerns, questions, or misconceptions that need to be clarified. There is no misconception that cannot be rectified with a bit of dialogue and first hand observation. I say, “ Let’s Talk!”
How can employers better understand the needs of deaf-blind employees and create workspaces that are attractive and accessible for them?
We've all heard that communication is key to understanding. This is especially true when it comes to understanding the needs of the deaf-blind community. It is so important to communicate with deaf-blind individuals who are consultants and job coaches, as well as organizations like HKNC who are aware of the how simple modifications to a workspace can be equal accessibility.
Each individual is unique, however, as a whole you can gather a better understanding if we built workspaces that include accessibility. Sometimes it can be as easy as having the right lighting, accessible platforms, the right tablet, or even an interpreter when needed. In the counsel of many, success will be found.
What challenges do you currently face connecting people with meaningful work?
The challenges I face often can be as simple as a requirement to have a driver’s license. I have deaf-blind individuals who have Master's degrees, but cannot find employment because of a driver's license requirement, which the system automatically will disqualify the applicant from.
So often times it’s the initial job description requirement that can disqualify a very suitable candidate. In addition, many applications and interviews are being done online today. However, without the right IT accessibility on the employer side it can definitely mean the exclusion of the deaf-blind individual.
Hiring people with disabilities not only improves the life of the employee, but there are benefits for businesses too. Can you walk us through those?
The benefits are many, ranging from monetary tax credits, to higher productivity. Companies that diversify their talent pool in general have a more productive environment because the mindset of teamwork is alive.
Diversity in the workplace adds to a more comprehensive think-tank complete with various point of views that can add to a company’s brand. In the times we are in, and how the face of America is constantly changing, I think this is a great way to be able to provide a great service to customers. Your staff diversity leads to customer diversity and a greater reach.
Your work is highly personal - is there a story you can share that highlights the impact of the work the Helen Keller National Center is having on the lives of deaf-blind people?
I work at HKNC because I believe in how access to employment opportunities can empower and change lives. I have individuals who are deaf-blind who were unemployed for years who felt unqualified and frustrated. However, with HKNC support they were able to find employment and thrive.
I have a great success story of a deaf-blind man who landed his dream job with the Marines that was featured in various media outlets. I hope readers also take a look and meet just one of the many capable and talented deaf-blind individuals that have embodied our vision of LIVE-WORK-THRIVE.
Read Laila's success story here: https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/communities/san-diego/story/2020-11-03/deaf-and-blind-chef-lands-his-dream-job-at-marine-base
To learn more about Laila's work, follow the Helen Keller National Center on Twitter at @HKNC_news.