On this episode of The Innovator’s Mic, Cheryl Gale, March co-founder and president, chatted with Sena Pottackal, a recent graduate from NYU’s Masters in PR and Corporate Comms program, now working on client experience, DEI and corporate comms at Current Global.

Cheryl was first inspired to talk to Sena at the PR Council’s Critical Issues Forum in 2019, where she watched Sena share her experience as a legally blind woman in the industry, how she advocated for greater accessibility options during her time working at NBC, and presented how PR can be used to do the same for people with disabilities across the industry.

In this conversation, Sena talks about her experience lobbying employers to reimagine workplace roles with more accessibility and inclusivity in mind, what’s missing from today’s industry conversations around inclusion, and what PR leaders and hiring managers need to know about in order to make accessibility more of a priority.

Episode transcript

Judy Beecher

This is The Innovator’s Mic, brought to you by March Communications.

March Communications is an award winning, technology-focused PR agency with offices in Boston and Atlanta. For over 15 years, we’ve helped tech companies bring their stories of innovation to life. To learn more about our agency, or our show, visit marchcomms.com. Now let’s hear from today’s innovators.

[Intro music]

Hey there, welcome back to the Innovator’s Mic. On today’s episode Cheryl Gale, March co-founder and president, chats with Sena Pottackal, a recent graduate from NYU’s Masters in PR and Corporate Comms program, now working on client experience, DEI and corporate comms at Current Global.

Cheryl was first inspired by Sena at the PR Council’s Critical Issues Forum in 2019, where Sena shared her experience as a legally blind woman in the industry, how she advocated for greater accessibility options during her time working at NBC, and presented how we can use PR to do the same for people with disabilities across our industry.

Over the last year at March we’ve been rethinking how to more firmly build diversity, equity, and inclusion into the foundation of our work. One element of that is thinking about how the PR industry can be more inclusive to people with differing abilities, both physical and mental. Sena not only speaks to this work from personal experience, it’s also a central focus of her own mission as a PR pro.

Cheryl asked Sena about her experience lobbying employers to reimagine traditional roles as more accessible and inclusive, what’s missing today from industry conversations around inclusion, and what PR leaders and hiring managers need to know about making accessibility more top of mind.

So now, let’s hear from Cheryl and Sena.

[Transition music]

Cheryl Gale (CG): So for today, Sena, I was thinking that we would talk a little bit about how physical and digital accessibility is often missing from the conversation around inclusion, how you personally lobby employers to reimagine roles around your accessibility, and the role that technology plays in bridging the accessibility gaps for those disabilities.

So I’m really happy to have you here today. And I thought that we could kick off by asking you to talk a little bit about your own story. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about jobs and other opportunities that you’ve landed, but also like how your blindness and your migraines have played into those processes.

Sena Pottackal (SP): So I became legally blind when I was 15 years old, due to a degenerative eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa. So that was when I was 15 years old. That summer of 2004. And the following summer, I had the opportunity to attend a networking program with professionals who are blind and working in different fields. And so during this experience, I spoke to someone and they told me about the reality of the situation.

They said, hey, it is very difficult to graduate from college, it is very difficult to obtain a job because back then, the statistics were very low. It was 12% of blind people have a bachelor’s degree or higher, and 20% of people with disabilities weren’t working. But okay, challenge accepted. Let’s do this.

CG: Good for you. That’s amazing. It’s amazing.

SP: That took me a little while to get to that point where I felt, hey, I can do this. I’m hard working person I can find a way.

CG: What were some of those things that you remember that you did at first, like how how did you overcome that? That challenge? So the first step was talking to people?

SP: Yeah, it was. And I was really lucky that my sister also is blind. Well, she had, she had low vision. And I became legally blind before she did. But having that support system within my family was and still is invaluable.

CG: I can see that.

SP: She she was in college at that point. And she was doing well and doing her classes and so I saw it firsthand. Okay, I can go to college. I just need to figure out what I want to do.

CG: Right.

SP: I knew that I was captivated by the experience of consuming and conveying stories. But I didn’t know anyone that was blind that was pursuing a career in communications. So I looked online, I Googled, I didn’t find anything. And so I applied to NYU for their media, culture and communications program and got rejected. And I thought maybe this might mean that I can’t do this. But luckily, my sister stepped in and told me, hey, girl, you got to melt, go to community college, learn how to use the talents that you have, and you’ll figure it out. And I did. And I took basically every communications class that they had, until I found PR, which enabled me to use my speaking skills, writing, competency, passion for business and critical thinking, to support a company. From there, I did a blind train program. And I was fortunate enough to meet a blind PR professional at one of their networking events. And so I asked him whether or not this is something I could do, but I lost the rest of my vision because I have a degenerative eye condition. And he told me that that’s not something I have to worry about. Because PR is essentially critical thinking, writing and relationship building. So I was able to move forward to pursue my bachelor’s without that fear of, Oh, can I do this? Right? Seeing that someone did, has done it before. And that person told me that they believe that I can do the same was helpful.

CG: Yeah, that’s pretty amazing.

SP: Yeah.

CG: When did you When did you get your first internship and where was that?

SP: My experience with trying to get internships was very difficult, um, I have applied during undergrad was not as successful. And I knew to other people who had different disabilities, and they had experienced the same struggle I did. We’re trying to find employment. So I decided to continue pursuing education hoping that that would give me a leg up and make myself more desirable. And during my time at NYU, I applied for the New York women in communications scholarship. And that scholarship also came with an internship at Weber Shandwick, and that’s how I broke into the industry.

CG: That’s fantastic. So tell me a little bit about, you know, what it was like? How did they work with you when before you started to make sure that they were going to be able to give you what you needed to succeed in their environment.

SP: I was so fortunate, because the person who brought me in was Weber Shanwick. ‘s vice president of diversity and inclusion, Judith Harrison, and she called me up and said, Hey, Sena, we want to make sure that you have everything you need to be successful here. What do you what do you need? How can we support you?

CG: That’s so great to hear.

SP: It was great. Being able to feel that I was able to tell them what I needed, and not feel worried about? Is it going to be okay for me to talk about what I would need to be able to bring the best version of myself to work to be the most productive professional, I could be for this amazing organization.

CG: Do you mind telling me what some of those things are so that other PR leaders can have a little bit of a deeper understanding of like, really practically, what that looks like for them?

SP: Absolutely. So since I’m blind, I use a screen reading software. It’s called JAWS (job access with speech). So I needed access to that on a computer. I also needed access to an optical character recognition software in case documents weren’t fully accessible. The software I use is called open book, which is made by the same manufacturer as JAWS. And the last piece of technology I needed was something called J-Say, which enables JAWS and Dragon which is a speech to text software to work together. So that I could effectively control my computer using my voice without being able to see it because due to my vertigo inducing migraines, it impacts my motor skills. So sometimes I can’t fully utilize my hands. So that is how at that point, I was navigating That challenge. And I told her all of this, and that I had the software on my computer, and they worked with it and got me hooked up to the server and enabled me to use all my technology on my computer on their server, which helped.

CG: That’s great. So you had this great conversation. And you felt Okay, they’ve set you up for success. Tell me what it was like in the sorts of initiatives or programs that you undertook, while you were there.

SP: I was working with the VP of internal communications, Chip Huffman, he was amazing. And so we had this really great conversation that enabled me to really hit the ground running, because one of the issues that people with disabilities often face is the stigma in which their capability and competency is questioned. And that was not my experience. Fortunately, Chip started this conversation and said, Hey, I am going to assume your competence, I’m going to assume that you are capable of doing things. And when you can’t do something, you let me know, and we will come up with a solution together. And if it’s something you can’t do, we will find something else you can do, because there’s so much that you can do.

CG: Is that is a typical approach that employers take, you know, with other experiences that you’ve had, have they been as open? And I don’t want to say understanding, I want to say equal, like they’re looking at you like okay, you’re you are incredibly competent. Here you are sitting with me, I’m going to assume that you can let me know if you can’t, I think that’s a great approach to take.

SP: I agree. I absolutely agree. It was a great approach.

CG: Do you find that it’s typical?

SP: That’s all I can speak to specifically my experiences. And I’m sure there are other people who have had other experiences where it hasn’t been as fortunate. And it’s, it’s all about the people and whether or not those people have the compassion or if the company invests the time in providing that training to develop empathy within their managers and associates.

CG: Absolutely an awareness of it. I can see that. So your other opportunity? Was NBC Universal?

SP: Yes.

CG: Happy to hear that, that you had a great experience there, too. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

SP: Absolutely. Yes. So I was able to secure that role through winning another scholarship, the AAPD, the American Association of People with Disabilities, NBC Universal Media Scholarship. So after winning, that I was put on this email list and informed about opportunities at NBC Universal. And so the experience for that was interesting, because I had to apply for this role. My internship at Weber, I did not need to apply for it, they brought me in, it was a privilege that I received from the scholarship. So I had to go through the application process and the interviewing. And the interviewing process was interesting, because it wasn’t accessible. And so I send out an email to the person who offered me a video interview to let them know that that platform wasn’t fully accessible. for me.

CG: That kind of brings us back to what we were just talking about, which is having the awareness and the training at an organization to understand how to be more inclusive, and how to be more inclusive environment, right, like right from the recruitment process. Tell me a little bit about how you overcame that and obviously got the, got the job. Got the internship.

SP: Yeah. So what happened was, I reached out to the person and told them that I would need to participate in the interview process as a phone conversation or video call and they accommodated. And then there was another interview and I got the role. And once again, I was contacted by the campus recruiter, and we talked about what software I would need to be successful. And fortunately, Comcast NBC Universal, they have a vice president of accessibility, accessible technology, who is blind. So it’s so important that there is someone in senior management that I can relate to that understands that I can be successful here. And that is just a matter of equipping me with the right technology to empower me.

CG: It must’ve been comforting to have someone like him there.

SP: Although I didn’t have the opportunity to interact with him directly, it was just great knowing that there was someone for me to reach out to in case I needed that additional support.

CG: Absolutely.

SP: The department was very accommodating as well, I told them about the same resources that I would need. Unfortunately, because of their system, they were not able to hook my computer up to their network. So it took a couple of weeks to get all the software I needed and get installed. But eventually, they got me up and running.

CG: Yeah, that’s great.

SP: Yeah.

CG: I think, yeah, it’s it’s often, you know, with really large organizations into their network, right.

SP: Yeah.

CG: I can see that that idea of bringing in your own computer and having to work, you know, might have challenges for a company of that size, where it sounds like Weber was able to do it pretty easily for you.

SP: Yeah, it was almost seamless.

CG: Yeah, that’s great. Maybe we could talk about some of the actual technologies, like even the hardware, you know, manufacturers, because that might be helpful to some PR leaders, understand what technologies are, are leading the way or companies are leading the way.

SP: Okay, yeah, of course, one of the big providers for accessibility is Freedom Scientific, which creates the screen reader and the optical character recognition, software I use. And so it’s, it’s a PC-based programs. And so by equipping my computer with that, I’m able to interact with all the different Microsoft programs.

CG: It’s integrated with Microsoft, that’s great.

SP: It works well because Microsoft is very dedicated to being a leader within disability inclusion and accessibility space, they have been doing so much in regards to trying to put disability inclusion at the forefront of their business. They’ve even worked to reengineer their recruitment process to employ people with autism, because they realized that the existing process was not something that would enable them to assess whether these individuals have the skills to be successful there. One of the tools that I use, it’s something called seeing AI. So it enables me to read small text, my I can place my phone up to a label, and I’ll read the short text.

CG: Ah, that’s great. So your phone sees it. And then there’s an audio piece that tells you what it says.

SP: Yes. So it’s the, I think the AI is using OCR, so optical character recognition.

CG: That’s great. That’s a great company. So tell me a little bit about you talk a little bit about Microsoft. So we talked about your phone, do you have an iPhone, an apple iPhone?

SP: I do. I have an iPhone, and I, I love my iPhone, it is my lifeline. It has absolutely transformed my life. And the seven years that I’ve had, it enabled me to access the internet and become more connected through social media. And there’s so many apps that are available that are specifically engineered for people who are blind or have other disabilities. And in one of our previous conversations, I had spoken about how I wished that there was a Apple accessibility feature that would enable me to control my phone and use the screen reader which is built in to that to all iPhones. Just like the software I have on my computer, I recently learned that they do have something similar called voice control. Okay. So it’s progress. It’s wonderful when you see that company’s products and services are thinking about how to include you in the conversation, and the user and employee experience.

CG: Yeah, I think that’s pretty. I love that we’ve come far. But when you consume those stats earlier, you know,the 12% and the 20%. It was quite shocking. Why do you think that is?

SP: There is so much learning that needs to be done. We need to generate more awareness and have these Crucial Conversations because there’s so many mistakes perceptions of how disability and ability and that there’s a lack of awareness about how much we have to offer an organization. There are so many stats. And there’s so much research that has been done that articulates that people with disabilities is a large segment of the population, one in four people have a disability. Surprisingly, many of us are absent from the workforce, although we are actively diligently seeking employment,

CG: How can we find you? and I’m being serious, how can we make sure that we are being are thinking about people with this advantage, when we’re looking to hire because someone like you who has experience in working in PR & comms, and you are incredibly passionate about it, you know, organizations, find people like you, I want the PR leaders out there to know, you know, that you’re there. Number one, but what about people like you too.

SP: So, um, in regards to finding entry level talent, one strategy that would be effective would be to build relationships with disability departments at top communication schools, and to build relationships with disability organizations, such as the American Association of People with Disabilities, or the National Federation of the Blind organizations such as that and trying to set up recruitment events or creating virtual job fairs, specifically for people with disabilities. And another thing is maybe even specifically trying to build development programs for people with disabilities that enable us to develop the skills and experience to become leaders within the organization, so that there will be people with disabilities that are higher up within the organization and able to impact change to expand the initiatives for inclusion.

CG: Yeah, I think that’s really important that it’s not just at the entry level. But bringing in leaders as well. And I like that idea of making sure that there is a development program so that entry level people can become leaders in those organizations. So I’d love to ask one last question. In general, what do you want PR leaders and our hiring managers to know about inclusion? You know, what, in your view would go a long way in making some lasting positive change that you’re just not seeing enough of today?

SP: One thing I noticed is, during my research for my thesis about the representation of people with disability and advertising, was that there is a lack of information about the representation of people with disabilities within the communications industry, I was able to find information in the Holmes Report conducted by the UK organization called the Public Relations and Communications Association, which identified that only 2% of professionals in VR in the UK identify as having a disability 2% 2%. And I wasn’t able to find a similar study in the US. We cannot manage what we do not measure. We need to conduct an expansive study throughout our various agencies within the United States to evaluate how many people with disabilities are working in our industry, and also cross reference it with people from other marginalized and underrepresented backgrounds to try and identify what are the inclusion gaps and to try and start conversations with these people based on their experiences about how to we improve inclusion? How do we empower them?

CG: I wonder if we can get the homes report to look at that in the US. You know, they’re the voice, one of the top voices in the in the PR industry, and I would love to talk to them about you know, maybe teaming up with maybe their teaming up with different agenices that have some representation really want to bring more awareness across, you know, the the entire industry. I think that’d be great. If we could make that happen. I think that’s a really good message to for the industry in general.

SP: Yeah. And I would I would love to work on something like that I would love to use my background and conducting PR research to work on something like that.

CG: Alright, there’s a call to action. Every one of you heard that? Sena it’s been so wonderful talking to you. Thank you for sharing your story, talking to us about the experiences that you’ve had, and the challenges that you’ve had, but also just your insights, and some great information for us to really think about and bring to our organizations, leaders about. Thank you so much.

SP: Thank you Cheryl. It was a pleasure and a privilege.

[Outro music]

Judy Beecher: Thanks so much for listening to The Innovators Mic! We hope you’ve enjoyed the show and that you’ll subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts. If you like what you heard leave us a review. To learn more about our agency, or our show, visit marchcomms.com – that’s march c-o-m-m-s dot com. And you can find us on social, also @marchcomms. I’m Judy Beecher, and on behalf of the March Communications production team, we thank you for listening.