Every day around the world, people with a disability, chronic illness, or chronic pain are trying to live their lives amid a lack of support. The world is not designed to accommodate their day-to-day—whether they’re DeafBlind people who need interpreters to attend social events, runners with medical devices that refuse to stay put, or chronically ill workers trying to make it through their daily commutes or properly access a website.
When the stigma against many conditions is so heavy, and when too many people simply don’t realize the struggle of disabled individuals all around them, it becomes more difficult not only to navigate the world but also to disclose their disabilities in the workplace. These individuals often can’t know whether their requests for accommodation will be embraced or, more often, seen as a liability or an unnecessary lift.
But four Booth visionaries know that when we shift our mindsets to invention and advocate for greater accessibility, everyone benefits. Three alumni as well as a current student saw a problem in our world and knew they had to use their skills to make change, imagining a world in which disabled and chronically ill people have the tools they need to navigate our world with as much grace as anyone else. Through bold ideas, analytical attitudes, and hard work, they are taking it upon themselves to create a more inclusive workplace and society.
“Especially in a society where our identity and our value are so tied to what we do for a living, it’s tough to have these obstacles.”
Not to mention the impact of concerns that nondisabled people may not have to think about. When Fortini was considering her career path after getting her MBA, she had to take health insurance and stability into consideration not as bonuses but as must-haves. Everything from public-transportation access to housing to office layouts can be fraught issues for disabled people during their job searches.
“So much of the world is not built for us,” says Fortini. “So we are adaptable, flexible, and resilient. But we are going to have days where we don’t feel our best, and having to adapt is sometimes more taxing than the flare-up itself.”
Fortini landed at New York–based Citi, where she was vice president of global digital strategy and site design, and then cross-business marketing campaign lead. Her experiences motivated her to get involved internally in forging community and expanding awareness.
Fortini first joined Citi’s disability affinity group as a member, and then was elected marketing and communications lead. She started a membership drive, more regular programming, and a monthly newsletter that was more engaging. She highlighted specific disabilities and illnesses, and hosted panels with employees who felt comfortable disclosing, in order to make it feel more real for the nondisabled allies and managers in the organization.
“Building connection and communication matters because it feels rewarding to know that you’re not alone,” Fortini says. “And it’s important to use the talents that you have to elevate an issue or help others.”
It’s all too common for discrimination to pop up in hiring situations, or for accommodations to receive pushback or take months to institute. It can be difficult to communicate with people who already have stigmatizing and preformed views of what disability is and what accommodations should include. Particularly for employees with invisible disabilities, coworkers are also more likely to think that they’re getting preferential treatment, or malingering.
“I used to go home sick almost every single day pre-COVID,” Fortini says. “The amalgamation of these triggers just left me in a condition where I couldn’t do anything.” She uses the metaphor of a phone battery: you can plug in your phone until it charges to 100 percent and have the rest of the day to deplete the battery. But some of us start our day with a max power of 40 percent.
But if you want to retain talented individuals, you have to help them get the basic tools they need to work for you. And there is a long list of small, easy modifications that can have a huge impact for disabled employees—making dark-mode settings available, being flexible with office hours, letting an employee work with the lights down.
Fortini is now senior lifecycle marketing manager at San Francisco–based personal finance company and online bank SoFi. She continues to advocate and spread awareness, volunteering for Migraine@Work and teaching yoga and meditation at a local Ronald McDonald House.
“There’s a whole cohort of people who have the potential to be allies, but don’t have the awareness,” Fortini says. She’s hoping that her work can help empower more people to understand the issues at hand.
“Whenever you go to the hospital, everything’s so focused on function that it doesn’t consider looks or how it makes you feel.”
The process involved a lot of trial and error—he and his team learned as they went. They spent late nights consulting nurses during their 2 a.m. sleep shifts, asking about what products patients most needed.
Since their first launch, Care+Wear has partnered with organizations including designer brand Oscar de la Renta and loungewear brand the Natori Company. But it has kept its focus on social purpose and community. It donates 10 percent of its profits, and a section of its website is dedicated to a community platform boosting the voices of disabled and chronically ill people who use the company’s products.
“From day one, I’ve wanted us to be bigger than we were,” Razdan says. “We don’t just want to provide our users with products; we want to help them talk to people going through similar things and struggles.”
Ultimately, Care+Wear’s products enable greater dignity and comfort for people both in and out of the hospital. The company sells innovative patient gowns, a postsurgical recovery bra, arm and chest access shirts, a new line of scrubs for nurses and doctors, and more. During the pandemic, it turned its efforts toward personal protective equipment for hospitals.
Razdan’s team continues to tweak old designs; gather feedback from hospitals, patients, and doctors; and integrate those notes into new production. They want their creations to fulfill a need in the medical space and be as specialized and thoughtful as possible.
“We want to be able to patent every single product we make,” says Razdan. “To me, it doesn’t make sense as a brand to put our name on it unless there’s something special or unique or proprietary about it.”
Razdan and the Care+Wear team take a lot of pride in seeing their products in use, helping people who are fighting day in and out. Through the years, Razdan has seen countless examples of his company’s products providing dignity during trying times.
One of Razdan’s most vivid memories is when his team was connected to a girl who wanted to find a PICC line cover to match her dress for senior prom. She was able to attend this milestone event with the comforting knowledge that her PICC line would stay securely in place—plus, the cover matched, blending into her larger look. It meant she could enjoy her senior prom without worrying about her PICC line.
Another time, he connected with a collegiate runner who was told she could not continue to compete because of her PICC line. The cover meant that she could keep running and competing without risk of her line being dislodged. It’s being able to help people avoid disruption to every aspect of their lives due to their illness that keeps Razdan’s team innovating and growing.
“What you’re wearing has an impact on your hospital experience,” he says. “With Care+Wear, we want you to feel just like yourself, and go back to living your life to the extent possible, without having to worry about what you’re wearing.”
“Accessibility and universal design help everybody. It helps to give people the space to live their lives in and out of the context of work.”
Dubey already knew some about the disability space and its issues through his wife, Sarah Geenen, AB ’90, a research professor of 25 years who creates community-based programs for foster-care youth with disabilities. Then, he suffered a severe accident and experienced a spinal cord injury. His initial prognosis: he may or may not make it 60 days, and if he makes it, he might experience permanent quadriplegia.
“By some grace, I was able to recover a good amount of my function,” he says. But he also discovered a new realm: invisible disability. Though it may not be evident to the casual observer, he experiences periods of neurological challenges including fatigue and dizziness. He needs to get enough sleep and be able to choreograph travel far in advance.
But there’s a strong stigma against disclosing disability, chronic illness, and mental-health challenges, particularly in industries that have a bias against showing “weakness.” That needs to change.
“If the leadership teams and boards of companies would be comfortable disclosing their disabilities, it sets up the foundation for a safe space for more people to be able to disclose their disability and ask for accommodation,” he says.
As companies look more and more at environmental, social, and governance concerns, Dubey wants to encourage them to include disability inclusion and accessibility in their efforts. He’s lobbying his broad, deep network of senior business leaders and investors to include people with disabilities on their boards.
A large part of this network comes from Booth. “All of my ecosystem of friends are UChicago people,” he says. His wife, sister, and nephew all went to the University of Chicago, and his son is there now. He served for two terms on the Alumni Board, which was a tremendous source of support through the time of his injury and recovery.
In 2021, Dubey and fellow board member Bjarne Tellmann, JD ’95, wrote a letter encouraging the general counsels of major companies to commit to increasing the number of people with disabilities within their law departments. Many signed on, including Medtronic, Unilever, Anglo American, and GSK. While there’s much to be done in D&I, Dubey knows the law profession is where he can have the most immediate impact.
“The legal industry is behind in so many ways in inclusion—and accessibility writ large tends to be a footnote in any D&I conversation,” he says. “So I decided to focus where I have my network, where I am best able to influence the conversation.”
For example, what if the software vendors used by law firms could build accessibility into their software from day one? He’s an investor and strategic advisor for SenseIT, a company headquartered in Tel Aviv, Israel, that automates accessibility testing for companies developing software. “It makes it a lot easier for organizations and software companies to build in accessibility without a separate stream that they have to justify economically,” he says. “That can have an enormous impact in a concrete, tangible way.”
Dubey wants more business leaders to realize that accessibility doesn’t just benefit those who need accommodations. “Accessibility and universal design help everybody,” he says. “It helps to give people the space to live their lives in and out of the context of work.”
Expanding disclosure and accommodation will tell employees that it’s OK not to be OK—that they can take mental-health days, turn off their camera when they need to, leave early when they aren’t feeling well.
There are many capable, smart advocates in the disability space, and there’s a lot to be done. Change is not as impossible as it can sometimes feel, Dubey says.
“You can make real change, and it doesn’t have to be with a sledgehammer. You can use a scalpel approach instead—take a goal and move it a little bit forward,” he says. “Having those small wins along the way, in aggregate, will make a difference.”
“Mizaru isn’t just a product. It’s a way of helping people improve their everyday experience.”
It’s not that companies don’t care about disabled consumers and their ability to have a normal day. Most simply don’t have the awareness or knowledge to support them—so they shrug and send them away. It’s bad for the person. And it’s also bad for business: you’re sending away customers.
“Ultimately, we want every business to have a way to easily find support workers in order to help their customers, so that society can be much more equal,” he says. “We hear businesses talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion all the time, but with Mizaru, they can actually take action to make a difference.”
Corning has known his DeafBlind cofounder, JC, since 2012, before which he had no experience working with people with disabilities. JC taught Corning American Sign Language, and Corning went on to become a disability support worker for eight years. It was a large part of his inspiration behind Mizaru.
“Requesting support is time-consuming,” Corning says. “JC mostly relies on family and friends in this category. If I’m not available, if we’re not around, he just can’t find support. Mizaru makes that process easier. We’re building from the perspectives of people with disabilities who are struggling with this issue.”
Recently, the two of them went to Hawaii and wanted to swim with manta rays. They signed up and requested an interpreter. The company told them they didn’t know how to find one, and tried to get them to book something much more expensive instead. When they didn’t, the company canceled their reservation without notifying them.
It’s a common occurrence, and one that can impede access even to necessities such as health care. Recently JC had to sit for hours at the hospital with a rapidly worsening condition as medical staff struggled to find an interpreter.
“Mizaru isn’t just a product. It’s a way of helping people improve their everyday experience,” Corning says. While not everyone knows a DeafBlind person, they might know someone who needs accommodations. “Almost everyone knows someone who could use care or support work, but they don’t know how to find it. Mizaru provides that technology.”
Every time Mizaru pairs someone with a support worker, it means that a disabled person can go grocery shopping, attend a social function, take an architecture tour—anything. Mizaru helps businesses make their products and services more accessible—the foundation of a good customer experience.
Right now, Mizaru is fundraising and working through some operational challenges—but its launched platform (at mizaru.io) is already in demand.
“Mizaru created the binding for people to come together and find the support they need, to make society that much more inclusive and accessible for everyone,” Corning says. “I want to make sure that mentality is embedded in our company culture and emphasized in everything we deliver.”
Mizaru’s vision is not just about providing a product; it’s about behavior change. “If you can use our product to make your service more accessible for consumers, that’s a win for us,” he says.
Mizaru believes that by paying attention and doing the little things, we can make the world better and more accessible. “We believe we can create an inclusive world where accessibility and equity are not just slogans, but actions.”