This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). For generations, the disability rights movement has fought for equality and accessibility. Throughout history, people with disabilities have turned their dreams into reality to shape the world around us.
Robert Shumate, a Wells Fargo branch manager, knows first-hand the value and impact people with disabilities can bring to an organization and the community at large. Read more about how Shumate’s own experience inspired him to launch a Diverse Ability resource group that’s creating a greater awareness of people with disabilities at every level at Wells Fargo:
DM: Tell us more about your hearing loss and the impact it has had on your life?
Shumate: My hearing loss has been part of my every day, my entire life. I have otosclerosis, a degenerative ear bone disease that causes chronic ear infections resulting in scar tissue on the eardrum and throughout the ear canal. When I was born, I only had about 20 percent of my hearing. My parents didn’t understand the full extent of my condition until the 2nd grade when a teacher realized I couldn’t read. From then, my parents quickly jumped into action. I was fortunate to enroll in a private school that fully supported my needs to get me back on track.
Otosclerosis had the biggest impact on my life during my school years. In college, I recorded lectures so that I could revisit and take notes. A few teachers pushed back and one teacher forbid that I record lectures until I obtained a medical note and involved the school dean. I also underwent numerous surgeries that restored partial hearing. Today, I have about 50-60 percent of my hearing.
DM: How did you get started at Wells Fargo? What have been your keys to success?
Shumate: I got started with Wells Fargo in 2005 when I joined the phone bank. A friend encouraged me to apply because they thought it would be more accessible. Sometime later, I transitioned to consumer banking branches. In the branches, it was harder for me to focus – there are many sounds and conversations happening at once.
Throughout my career, I have worked with amazing managers whose leadership and support allowed me to be open and honest about my disability. They took a personal interest in my professional growth and development, and eliminated my fear of me speaking up.
The turning point in my personal success happened when I began asking questions and advocating for myself.
DM: What do you enjoy most about being a branch manager?
Shumate: What I enjoy the most about being a manager, over the last five years, is the opportunity to make a difference for my team. I love taking on the responsibility of helping team members grow in their careers.
In fact, one of my team members, who has a disability, had many challenges navigating the workplace. Fortunately, I was able to provide mentorship and support throughout the accommodations management process. Now, that person is one of the top performers on my team. Team members are eligible for work accommodations if they have a medical condition or disability that affects their ability to perform their regular job duties or enjoy other benefits and opportunities of employment. The most common type of accommodation is intermittent absences; with the second most common type is sit/stand workstations.
DM: Why did you decide to launch the Diverse Ability resource group?
Shumate: I was on the board for the Wells Fargo Orange County Volunteer Chapter and received an invitation to learn about volunteer opportunities within the Diverse Abilities Team Member Network (DATMN), an employee resource group. I was already a member of the DATMN virtual chapter so I was excited to introduce myself to the enterprise/national DATMN leadership, and learn more because I have a personal connection.
After several discussions, the enterprise DATMN leadership asked if I would be interested in starting a local chapter. I shared the opportunity with my local network and discovered there was a need in my community. Quickly, I recruited a board, 25 members and we got started.
The goal is to educate, increase awareness, and help develop a workplace where people of all abilities can reach their full potential. Wells Fargo has 20 Diverse Abilities chapters with more than 7,000 team members.
DM: What impact have you personally seen this resource group have on your company?
Shumate: It is important to be able to connect personally with people in the workplace. Having a local employee resource group has created a positive and accepting cultural shift directly tied to increased awareness.
Through the employee resource group, we have recruited many volunteers to attend events like the Diverse Abilities Expo and Special Olympics, and collaborated with numerous nonprofits including the Speech and Language Development Center. Thanks to these opportunities, team members in my community feel more comfortable asking for help when they have a need and self-identifying their disabilities, which allows us to provide resources that are more effective in allowing them to do their jobs.
Each year, the company reaches out to self-identified team members with disabilities to share information about Wells Fargo’s career development process, tools, and resources. More than 10,000 people have self-identified throughout the organization.
DM: Do you feel it’s important for other companies to have a similar resource group of their own? Why?
Shumate: Yes, employee resource groups play a key role in serving customers with diverse abilities and create a welcoming environment to hire, develop and retain diverse team members. It also encourages team members to value and respect each other for their differences.
For me, sharing my story with my managers and having them be open and supportive kept me from leaving the company. It really turned my career around and I know our employee resource group can have the same impact for others.
DM: What advice would you give others who have a disability?
Shumate: Don’t be afraid to share your story. It will help your managers become more aware of what your needs are and how they can better support you. You never know whom you can inspire. Learn your rights and utilize available resources.