Kristine Welker Of The Muscular Dystrophy Association On Making Accommodations For People With A Disability

Yitzi Weiner @ Authority Magazine
Authority Magazine
Steve Jobs said the moment you realize the world can be influenced by your actions, everything changes. I would like to inspire a Disability Disruption movement and motivate passionate, hardworking believers to come together to create meaningful change.

As we all know, over the past several years there has been a great deal of discussion about inclusion and diversity in the workplace. One aspect of inclusion that is not discussed enough, is how businesses can be inclusive of people with disabilities. We know that the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires businesses to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. What exactly does this look like in practice? What exactly are reasonable accommodations? Aside from what is legally required, what are some best practices that can make a business place feel more welcoming and inclusive of people with disabilities? To address these questions, we are talking to successful business leaders who can share stories and insights from their experience about the “How Businesses Make Accommodations For Customers and Employees Who Are Disabled “.

As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Muscular Dystrophy Association Chief of Staff Kristine Welker.

Kristine Welker is Chief of Staff of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, where she was previously a member of the Board of Directors and Interim CEO. Her role includes providing strategic, operational, and tactical oversight to enhance the effectiveness of the organization. Formerly, she was Principal and Chief Development Officer for Alternate Resources, a certified women-owned, full-service FF&E Purchasing and Design Firm specializing in hospitality. Welker spent nearly two decades at the Hearst Corporation leading high growth businesses and building profitable brands, serving as Publisher/Chief Revenue Officer of Hearst’s magazine collaboration with Dr. Mehmet Oz, launching Hearst Digital’s portfolio of branded websites and as Founding Publisher of CosmoGIRL!, one of the first fully integrated magazines to launch with website, mobile & experiential platform. She also served as former President of New York Women in Communications, Fashion Institute of Technology (F.I.T.) Advisory Board, Marymount Alumnae Board and currently serves on industry boards and is an adviser to start-up companies.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you ended up where you are?

When my son was young, he was diagnosed with Becker muscular dystrophy. The diagnosis profoundly changed my life, both personally and professionally. Although I was already on the Diversity Leadership Panel at work, I quickly realized that I rarely saw a person with a physical disability in the workplace, in the media or on the pages of our magazines. So even at the very beginning while my son was still young, I was determined that he would live a productive, independent life and achieve his full potential. I wanted him to have the same access to opportunities in life as anyone else. It soon became obvious to me that to make that a reality, I needed to play a role in creating a more inclusive world. After 25 years in the media, I decided to take a year off to focus on bringing disability is diversity into the national conversation. This means leveraging voices and platforms to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion, elevating the conversation around disability and working to ensure individuals living with disability have the same access to personal freedoms and independence. That journey led me to the Muscular Dystrophy Association, where I served on the board of directors and acted as interim CEO. These positions led to an opportunity to step into the organization as its first ever Chief of Staff. I knew I could put my passion, expertise, and entrepreneurial spirit toward supporting MDA’s mission to help people living with neuromuscular diseases. With that move, my life changed.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

In my first leadership role during a team building exercise, we were asked to write down three words to describe each person on the team. We received a note card with a list of character traits, which I still have. I was described at that time and over the years as being incredibly focused, fearless, and fair. What I find so ironic is that I do not see myself as being fearless but more fearful. Fearful that I might look back on something and regret not trying it or doing it. Personally, I was fearful of realizing there might have been one more thing I could have done to help my son or the neuromuscular community. Professionally, I found myself having to make difficult career decisions that were contrary to popular opinion. In the end, it’s important to think about what success looks like through your own lens. There have been many days that I have turned to our own community for perspective. One example that comes to mind is a published piece by individuals living with spinal muscular atrophy entitled “What some disabled people want you to know.” A few key areas of focus were on embracing their disabilities and proudly living life as their whole, authentic selves. They also emphasized the importance of tackling the real hardships of disability more boldly and effectively. Right now, I am focused on promoting fair and equitable opportunities in the workplace and demonstrating authentic leadership by both being transparent and encouraging the open sharing of information that makes room for others.

Can you share a story about one of your greatest work related struggles? Can you share what you did to overcome it?

One of my greatest struggles and priorities at MDA was to find ways to close the gap between people living with disabilities and employers’ ability to connect with the largest untapped pipeline of talent in this country. As Chief of Staff, I am proud to have partnered with Inclusively, the technology-centered employment platform for job seekers to help organizations like MDA overcome challenges and cultivate employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Technology is the great enabler, and for people living with disability it is also the greatest equalizer. As employers begin to embrace that remote work is here to stay, they realize that the workplace is now infinitely more accessible to people with disabilities. Furthermore, showing a commitment to a diverse and accessible workplace is a selling point that can attract even more talent.

I am hopeful and optimistic that by raising consciousness around inclusion, equity, and diversity in all its forms, combined with the significant digital and technological advancements going on in our world today, we can provide a catalyst for change. I experienced early in my career how digital disruption can influence and change the fundamental expectations and behavior in a culture. At MDA, we are focused on ways to leverage technology disruption and digital technologies as catalysts for promoting equity and inclusion in the workplace, in living situations (including independent living) and in accessing everything the world has to offer so that every individual can participate in all aspects of community life. We look to partners and platforms like Inclusively so that together we can facilitate this culture shift, positively disrupt organizational mindset around disability and drive outcomes that are inclusive by design.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) and we are proud to join in the celebration and contribute to the Equity Equation. NDEAM is a great time for employers to do more to be inclusive, but it is also a time for the disability community to learn about programs and policies that are in place to help them get to work. This month, MDA announced educational programming, Quest Media content and DEI Coalition engagement, all aimed at disability disruption and amplification of the equity equation.

It’s exciting to leverage my two decades of media experience together with a passion for promoting social change to expand Quest Media into a one-of-a-kind adaptive lifestyle platform which includes a magazine, blog, podcast, and e-newsletter. Through the power of this platform, we use our collective voices to raise awareness by having important conversations with experts who are thought leaders and with members of our community about topics that matter to them. Our goal is to empower people living with disabilities and create more progress for the community. Throughout October, Quest Media will feature multiple pieces of content for NDEAM including Michael Lewis, MDA’s Director of Disability Policy, and Tiffany Meehan, Inclusively Vice President of Marketing for a Quest blog about knowing your rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) during the interview process. Our editor in chief, Mindy Henderson, will facilitate a series of thoughtful conversations around the approach to the entire hiring process with accommodations in mind.

Fantastic. Let’s now shift to our discussion about inclusion. Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

As previously mentioned, I found myself at an inflection point when I decided to pivot from a career in media to one that supports those living with disability and changes the narrative to one of living life without limits.

After serving on the board of directors for the Muscular Dystrophy Association and as interim CEO, I was thrilled to take on the newly established position as chief of staff. In this role, I try to build upon the profound wisdom of Mattie Stepanek, a young poet and peacemaker who battled neuromuscular disease himself, said it best:

“Unity is strength …. when there is teamwork and collaboration, wonderful things can be achieved.”

One of my first initiatives was to elevate our DEI work to a new level, forming a DEI Coalition that joined forces with other disability experts and advocates. Our goals are to elevate awareness and create an accessible world where every individual can participate in all aspects of community life; promote and deliver opportunities for dialogue that enhances understanding and emphasizes the lived experience of our community; provide education, programming, and resources aimed at overcoming barriers to accessing life’s milestones; and collaborate with other thought-leaders to ensure access and inclusion for all​.

As part of the work of the coalition, we host DEI roundtables and workshops to understand our community’s unique needs and interests, where they are in their personal journeys, and recognize the barriers and opportunities are not always the same for everyone. Most importantly, we emphasize the “human factor” by sharing real-world experiences to help visualize goals and create meaningful change.

Our next DEI Roundtable will focus on Disability Disruption and how to be inclusive by design. We will bring together companies, brands, and a diverse group of people with disabilities to discuss and discover ways to promote a more adaptive and accessible lifestyle.

As we continue our journey of inclusivity our goal is to connect people with products and platforms that provide for independent living. We look forward to working alongside our brand partners to help fulfill this important unmet need.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have an inclusive work culture?

  • First, when inclusion and accessibility are prioritized at the beginning of every new process, project, or initiative, the culture of inclusion grows stronger.
  • Inclusion provides equal opportunity for the largest minority group in the country.
  • Inclusion contributes to a positive company reputation and improves morale.
  • Inclusion expands the talent pool, which can improve a company’s performance.
  • Inclusion improves productivity when disability inclusion is part of the talent strategy.

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires businesses to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. For the benefit of our readers, can you help explain what this looks like in practice? What exactly are reasonable accommodations? Can you please share a few examples?

According to the ADA, reasonable accommodation is a modification or adjustment to a job, the work environment, or the way things are usually done during the hiring process. These modifications enable an individual with a disability to have an equal opportunity not only to get a job, but successfully perform their job tasks to the same extent as people without disabilities. The ADA requires reasonable accommodations as they relate to three aspects of employment: 1) ensuring equal opportunity in the application process; 2) enabling a qualified individual with a disability to perform the essential functions of a job; and 3) making it possible for an employee with a disability to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment.

Examples of reasonable accommodations include making existing facilities accessible; job restructuring; part-time or modified work schedules; acquiring or modifying equipment; and providing qualified readers or interpreters.

Aside from what is legally required, what are some best practices that can make a business place feel more welcoming and inclusive of people with disabilities? If you can, please share a few examples.

The following are some best practices that help make a workplace more inclusive:

  • Understand disability inclusion in the workplace.
  • Set the stage for success with inclusive hiring practices.
  • Accept that we are all on this journey to learn and grow together!

Here are some ways we can implement these practices:

  • Understand our unconscious biases and misconceptions (ableism).
  • Think about accessibility as part of workplace success.
  • Employ active recruitment practices.
  • Consider company etiquette and language.
  • Highlight ways to be more inclusive for people with disabilities.

Can you share a few examples of ideas that were implemented at your workplace to help promote disability inclusion? Can you share with us how the work culture was impacted as a result?

At MDA we have implemented several ideas to promote disability inclusion. The first is our commitment to hiring people living with disabilities. To that end, MDA is leveraging our partner Inclusively to find talent for open positions. Inclusively uses its job matching technology to source candidates with jobs at MDA that align their experience and expertise to the needs of the organization.

MDA has successfully hired many talented individuals, including one who said:

Inclusively recommended that I apply to my current position at MDA. As someone with a neuromuscular disability myself, it is the honor of my lifetime to work at MDA to continue the effort of providing people across the NMD community effective access to healthcare. I do this not only because the work is important, but also because the people here at MDA care about people like me — not just as constituents, but as people. Our hiring practices are just one example of it.

Establishing a culture of inclusion also requires an open dialogue and environment where we all feel we can trust our leaders and teammates to respect our differences. At MDA we also have regular training, workshops, and discussions which help to make us a more inclusive organization and a more desirable workplace for people with disabilities.

Second, we learned through our DEI Round Table Series that employer and employee cultivation is a key component to creating a culture of inclusion. MDA is focused on workplace readiness through our advocacy, education, and employment initiatives.

To illustrate, in today’s workforce, careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are growing exponentially and more diversity in the field is needed to drive innovation. To that end MDA has partnered with General Motors (GM) to provide students from our community with access to working professionals to create the pathways that will lead to a successful entry into STEM careers. The first component of this program was an element of MDA Summer Camp, where we provided hands-on activities for kids and young adults living with neuromuscular disease to learn STEM concepts and explore STEM-based careers in a supportive environment. Each camper designed and built their own car, created a creature with adaptations to live in the wild, made a stylus to work with their cell phone, and engineered a boat to float in the water. The second element is a four-week mentoring program which provides participants ages 16–21 opportunities to connect with and learn from people who are thriving in STEM fields, including STEM professionals living with neuromuscular disease. Participants attend two video sessions each week, covering topics such as job exploration, self-advocacy, and obtaining accommodations at school, college, and work. Diversity drives innovation, and members of our community have a powerful contribution to make. This program is intended to continue MDA’s tradition of making what once may have seemed impossible possible and attainable.
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This is our signature question that we ask in many of our interviews. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started My Career”?

Through the years, I have learned a few things along the way about entering a well-established organization as an intrapreneur and applying the start-up mentality to legacy organizations. Here are a few I would like to share — even though there are more than five.

  • Choose the right organization. Start by looking for a history of bold and unexpected innovations and advancements. Work with people who value curiosity and are open to the world of possibility. For example, at MDA we are proud to say we are making the impossible possible!
  • Create a culture of inclusion. Innovation requires the ability to look at things differently and bring unique viewpoints together to create breakthrough thinking. In today’s world, companies that do not innovate will not be able to survive. It is through diversity and inclusion that companies can benefit from the creativity that will drive innovation and allow it to thrive.
  • In the past I have commented that all too often, talented people feel like they need to leave to succeed. But in many cases, the next big thing may be working alongside of you. Thanks to technology, we are giving voice to millions of talented individuals and creating opportunities to work without distinction.
  • Know when to pivot. Once you have created something you can be proud of, it is okay to cross that next bridge. Know what drives you, find an environment you will thrive in, and do what you want to do — not want you think you must do. I have pivoted several times in my career.
  • Seize opportunities. This may require challenging the conventional wisdom of your mentors or managers. It is not about checking off a box or following a traditional career path. Think of it as a journey, your career narrative. What do you want it to say?
  • Focus on the journey. Oprah Winfrey once said to focus on working toward being significant and success will follow. I had the opportunity to do something meaningful with MDA while making a significant impact on people’s lives and the vitality of the organization. Think about what success looks like, through your own lens.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story about how that was relevant in your own life?

Mattie Stepanek, a young poet, and peacemaker who battled neuromuscular disease himself, said it best: “Unity is strength… when there is teamwork and collaboration, wonderful things can be achieved.” Mattie’s sentiments have inspired MDA’s mantra: “Strength in Unity. Strength in Community.”

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Steve Jobs said the moment you realize the world can be influenced by your actions, everything changes. I would like to inspire a Disability Disruption movement and motivate passionate, hardworking believers to come together to create meaningful change.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Please follow me on LinkedIn (

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

About the Interviewer: Eric L. Pines is a nationally recognized federal employment lawyer, mediator, and attorney business coach. He represents federal employees and acts as in-house counsel for over fifty thousand federal employees through his work as a federal employee labor union representative. A formal federal employee himself, Mr. Pines began his federal employment law career as in-house counsel for AFGE Local 1923 which is in Social Security Administration’s headquarters and is the largest federal union local in the world. He presently serves as AFGE 1923’s Chief Counsel as well as in-house counsel for all FEMA bargaining unit employees and numerous Department of Defense and Veteran Affairs unions.

While he and his firm specialize in representing federal employees from all federal agencies and in reference to virtually all federal employee matters, his firm has placed special attention on representing Veteran Affairs doctors and nurses hired under the authority of Title. He and his firm have a particular passion in representing disabled federal employees with their requests for medical and religious reasonable accommodations when those accommodations are warranted under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (ADA). He also represents them with their requests for Federal Employee Disability Retirement (OPM) when an accommodation would not be possible.

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Yitzi Weiner is a journalist, author, and the founder Authority Magazine. He is also the CEO of Authority Magazine's Thought Leader Incubator, which guides leaders to become prolific content creators. Yitzi is also the author of five books. In 2017, he created the popular, “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me” series that highlights the empowering lessons learned from the experiences of high-profile entrepreneurs and public figures. This series has inspired a mini-movement among writers, with scores of writers worldwide profiling inspiring people to share their positive, empowering, and actionable stories. A trained Rabbi, Yitzi is also a dynamic educator, teacher and orator. He currently lives in Maryland with his wife and children.

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