Equity Highlight | Leah Lobato, Governor’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities & Business Relations

cloayza Stories

By: Claudia Loayza

There is impactful work to expand opportunity going on in state government! So much so that the Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs has been inspired to create regular Equity Highlights to be featured on our blog to create a platform for leaders, organizations, and state partners to share their vision of a more inclusive, thriving, and opportunity-filled Utah. Have an equity leader in mind or are you the leader and would like your story told? Email us with details to be featured!

This blog Equity Highlight is on Leah Lobato, Director of the Governor’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities and Business Relations with the Utah State Office of Rehabilitation, a division of the Department of Workforce Services. 

Director Lobato’s mission is to help promote the employment and retention of individuals with disabilities in competitive employment by promoting public and private partnerships and efforts. She networks, connects with and trains state, regional and national employers to better understand, prioritize, and operationalize accessibility in the workplace and beyond. 

Her educational and professional track record is expansive. She has a BS degree from the University of Utah, is a Certified Public Manager, and serves and participates on multiple boards and committees.

Accessibility is the focus and passion of her work, and she emulates a “Nothing About Us Without Us” mentality. This slogan was coined during the Disability Rights Movement in the 1960s and relies on the principle of participation and active involvement from all members of society. She continues this legacy with her team in Utah to inform universal design frameworks and service-delivery in business and state that puts people and their potential at the forefront. 

Get to Know Leah Lobato & Utah’s Accessibility Efforts

Q&A conducted by staff at Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs. 

Q: Let’s start with the basics. How would you define accessibility and why is it important in our businesses, organizations, and daily life? What other key definitions are important to know?  

First, let’s define disability. Disability is a physical or mental condition that substantially limits one or more of life’s major functions (working, walking, speaking, breathing, seeing, hearing, learning, self-care, interacting with others, learning, writing, doing manual tasks). Disability impacts 1 in 4 Americans and is the only minority group any one of us could enter into or exit out of at any point in our lives.  Disability is a human condition, 1 in 3 of us has a family member with a disability. 

I could give an incredibly long and complex definition of accessibility that discusses all the technical aspects. I would rather share a simple definition of the term, ultimately, accessibility is ease of access to all aspects of everyday life for individuals. Creating accessibility involves addressing processes, attitudes, technologies, etc. that create barriers to participating in living a full life. Accessibility allows people with disabilities to access all areas of life from education, transportation, community activities, public and private spaces and ultimately work, as easily and readily as those who do not currently have a disability. 

Q: As a lifelong Utahn, what direction do you want our state to go in to better serve people with disabilities?

As I mentioned above, disability is a human condition, we will all be impacted by disability at some point in our life. In my utopia, we would get to a place where universal design is not an afterthought and is incorporated in all planning and development of communities. I would love to get to a place where individuals with disabilities feel comfortable and confident to share their disability without fear of stigma or judgment. Really being able to bring their whole selves to the table.

Q: What advice would you give to organizations who want to start making accessibility a strategic priority? What habits would you recommend for individuals? 

  1. Start small, find ways to begin the discussion on disability inclusion. 
  2. Creating a plan that has buy-in from top level leadership and mid level management is incredibly important. 
  3. Make sure your diversity statement includes disability. 
  4. Begin with training on attitude, culture and sharing supports and services that assist with disability related issues. This will alleviate fear that often surrounds the discussion of recruiting, hiring and retaining individuals with disabilities.  
  5. Giving decision makers tools to feel more confident in the disability space creates disability friendly spaces.  
  6. Work on creating an accommodation budget, separate from departmental budgets so when needs arise around disability accommodation it doesn’t feel like a budgetary hit that is detrimental to a particular team. 

For individual disability advocates, start with people-first language, putting the person first and the disability second. Once you establish a relationship with an individual with a disability, have conversations about how an individual wants to have their disability talked about or referred to. Some individuals prefer the people-first language approach, others have moved to identity-first language where their disability is shared more freely as an integral part of their identity (see more here).

Q: What mindset shifts do you feel need to be made in order for accessibility and universal design for all ages and abilities  to influence how organizations serve?

The taxable disposable income of individuals with disabilities is approximately $500 billion.  When you think about the marketing and outreach that occurs for other segments of the population, businesses are missing out on a huge market share by leaving out accessible access to all their products and services. On a more humanitarian and less capitalistic view, the longer we live, the more likely we will be the individual with a disability.  If nothing else, by being universal design champions in our workspaces and our community we are creating a livable disability-friendly environment that will positively impact our family, friends, colleagues and ourselves. 

Continue Your Learning Journey
Upcoming Events to Engage with Accessibility Efforts
  • August 27 –  National Ability Center Summit Challenge
  • September 13 – Utah State Office of Rehabilitation Employer Workshop 
    • Great opportunity for hiring managers, supervisors, diversity coordinators, etc. to learn more about how to recruit, hire and retain individuals with disabilities. Limited to 70 participants, register ASAP to attend.
  • September 29 – Disability:IN Utah Summit and 48th Annual Golden Keys 
    • Day long event with a variety of break out sessions, keynote speaker and the 48th Annual Golden Key Awards, held at the National Ability Center in Park City.  Sponsorship information can be found here. 
  • October 4 – Utah State Office of Rehabilitation Work Ability Career Fair – For Individuals with Disabilities
  • October – National Disability Employment Awareness Month
    • Join the celebration and awareness-building! Posters and materials to be released soon.