For more than a decade, Marty Cookson has been Premera’s go-to IT professional for anyone who needs assistance with Citrix technology. But software skills aren’t the only thing Marty contributes to the company. He also draws from his experience as a person with a physical disability to help Premera make its workspaces more accessible and inclusive.
In the latest installment of our Premera Perspectives series, Marty talks about Premera’s Disability Workgroup, his own lived experience, and how individuals and organizations can better support people with disabilities.
Q: Please tell us about your role at Premera.
A: I have been at Premera for almost 16 years. I work in IT as a Citrix engineer, meaning I work on the systems that provide virtual desktops for contractors, consultants, and some of our employees. We also use them for testing and other purposes. Basically, I’m the Citrix guru. It’s an interesting job. Technology is always changing, so I’m always learning something new and growing.
Q: You’re part of the Disability Workgroup at Premera. Can you tell us a bit about that?
A: You can’t tell when I’m sitting on a video call, but I’m 4’9” and have what some people would call a disability or some physical impairments. I have a genetic bone disease. My brother has it too—we’re the third generation in our family to have it. It causes us to have issues with our bones, especially as we’re growing. I had a bunch of surgeries to straighten my legs as a kid. When I was younger, I didn’t have quite as many problems getting around, but as I got older, I started experiencing more mobility issues. When I worked on the Premera campus I used a scooter to get from one building to another and a rolling walker or a cane to get around the building I worked in.
The Disability Workgroup started when Premera began its campus redesign. They were looking for people to provide input on accessibility. There weren’t many employees on the campus with mobility issues, so I thought I could be helpful, as someone with that experience, in giving feedback and making recommendations. In fact, after about six months on the new campus Premera’s CEO came in and listened to the whole workgroup give feedback about how to continue to make things more accessible.
There are 8-10 people in the group now. We meet regularly to discuss accessibility issues or ideas and work with other Premera teams to raise concerns or implement solutions.
Q: What are some things companies should consider for more inclusive workspaces?
A: Premera has done a good job of making our work environment function for people with disabilities. For example, when I first started working in my building, there were only a few accessible parking spaces in the front of the building – fewer than the number of people who needed them. Our CIO saw me out of her window, walking into the building from where I’d parked in a visitor spot, since all the accessible spots were full. Within a month they had doubled the number of accessible parking spots. They also put in automatic door openers.
When I started, they gave me a chair that’s lower than the standard chair and offered to adjust my desk to make it more ergonomic. In fact, any employee at Premera can request an ergonomic assessment for their workspace.
Another example is employee events. Premera sometimes brings food trucks to campus for events. Food truck windows are very high—they’re almost too high for me when I’m standing, and when I’m in my scooter it’s impossible to reach them. Also, if lines get long there’s nowhere to sit for people who can’t stand for long periods of time. Knowing these issues, Premera has chairs for people to sit in while they’re waiting, and other people are available to help grab stuff from the food truck windows for those who can’t reach them. They’ve really thought about how they can be more accommodating.
All of these are good examples of ways to make workspaces more accessible.
Q: What is something you wish more people understood about their coworkers with disabilities?
A: I encourage people to be open-minded, ask questions, and listen to others to understand how you can help them do their job better. Some people who have a cane, wheelchair, or walker don’t always want assistance. If someone in a wheelchair drops their pen, I’m not immediately going to reach for it and give it to them. I’m going to ask them if they’d like me to get it for them. They may not need my help. If I drop something, sometimes I’ll ask somebody to get it for me if I can’t get it easily, but sometimes I’m fully capable of getting it myself. Some people feel like when others do something for them without asking, they’re taking their power.
Q: What are some ways people can be better allies?
A: Don’t make assumptions. Some people have invisible disabilities. For example, when I’m on a virtual meeting, people often can’t tell that I have a disability. If someone parks in an accessible parking spot and you can’t see that they have disability, don’t assume they’re just parking there because they’re lazy and don’t want to walk. Maybe they had a hip replacement three months ago and can’t walk that far; maybe they have a heart issue. There are a million reasons why someone might need an accessible parking spot, so avoid jumping to conclusions.
Q: How can healthcare organizations better support patients with disabilities?
A: When people are designing work campuses or facilities, I’d like to see the decision-makers go through the facility on a scooter to find out for themselves whether the new design is accessible. Are the hallways wide enough? Can you get through all the doorways? Are the restrooms accessible? Can you wash your hands easily? Then they can make improvements based on what they experience.
The other important thing is to get people from the disability community involved in making adjustments, improvements, and changes. That’s probably the best thing they can do.