How My Company Is Fostering a More Inclusive Work Environment For People With Disabilities

Sponsored by Toyota North America

Kerry Holt

Photo courtesy of Toyota North America.

Toyota North America
Toyota North America
April 14, 2024 at 1:26AM UTC

Held every October, National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) is an opportunity to recognize the vital role and countless contributions of people with disabilities in the workforce, while also raising awareness of supportive, inclusive employment policies and practices that help foster a more inclusive work environment for those with disabilities. 

At Toyota North America, the company’s “Respect for People” culture extends to everyone, regardless of ability… or disability. Key to Toyota’s commitment to advancing inclusivity and mobility for all is ToyotAbility, the company’s team-member-led business partnering group, which embraces people with physical, non-visible, temporary, and permanent disabilities as well as neurodiversity and their families. 

In recognition of NDEAM, we sat down with Kerry Holt, a 15-year veteran of the company and communications chair for her ToyotAbility chapter, to learn more about her personal experience facing a disability in her family and why she’s passionate about working for a company that is committed to advancing opportunities for people with disabilities.

Can you share more about your career journey and role at Toyota?

I’ve always known I wanted to do something in communications. I began my career as a producer in television news and later went to work for the state government, serving as the press secretary for the Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky then the press officer for several other cabinets, including Natural Resources and Environmental Protection and Fish and Wildlife Resources. 

In 2007, I joined the external communications team at the Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky (TMMK) in Georgetown, Kentucky and then worked in internal communications to support our nearly 10,000 team members at the plant. I recently had the opportunity to work for TMMK's Medical Group to support wellness communications. Today, my title is East Regional Health Services Analyst for Toyota Motor North America, where I’m responsible for the plant’s onsite medical clinics, COVID-19 testing, health and wellness initiatives, and the StartWell wellness program. I just celebrated my 15th anniversary with the company earlier this summer!

Can you share more about Toyota’s transformation into a mobility company and how this aligns with the company’s commitment to advancing inclusivity and mobility for all?

There’s no doubt that the auto industry is facing “once-in-a-century” changes. In the years ahead, vehicles that are connected, automated, shared, and electrified will radically reshape mobility in ways that will have a profound impact on people and communities across the world.  

Today, Toyota is accelerating its evolution into a mobility company by investing in emerging technologies, launching new ventures, and entering partnerships to develop new products, experiences, and services that will continue to put our customers first. Mobility is essential to the human experience, and Toyota is at the forefront of innovation in this area. Our goal is ambitious: to help everyone get where they want and need to be, whether we’re building great cars and trucks, introducing new services, or developing automated vehicles and robotic technology for everyday use

While we will proudly continue making great cars and trucks, which are, of course, mobility products themselves, looking ahead, technology is broadening the scope of what is possible for human mobility. For example, Toyota Research Institute (TRI) is making advances in robotics aimed at assisting humans in their homes. TRI’s focus is on home-based assistance to address our aging population. This research can provide options to address these challenges with advanced human-assist robots to help people age in place with dignity. For consumers with disabilities, the Accessible Sienna, equipped with modifications such as ramps and wheelchair lifts, has become a lifeline. The vehicle has provided over 20,000 people with the freedom to move, granting them greater independence and the ability to accomplish their goals. 

Tell us more about Toyota’s business partnering group (BPG), ToyotAbility, and your role within this group. 

ToyotAbility underscores the company’s commitment to “mobility for all” by raising awareness about individuals with disabilities and promoting representation and allyship. Our goal is to enable people with disabilities to reach their full potential by providing a more welcoming and inclusive environment. The BPG started in 2012 in Torrance, California, and has since grown to more than 1,300 members in nine chapters across North America. 

I serve as the communications chair for the ToyotAbility Georgetown chapter, which is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year. In this role, I write and publish our monthly newsletter and our weekly Digital Newsbreak, which highlights current events and educational tips related to individuals with disabilities. I also promote volunteering activities and the company’s disability awareness and unconscious bias trainings.

ToyotAbility also serves as a focus group to offer the perspective of those with disabilities in product design and marketing. We also provide support for team members who have loved ones with disabilities, which is an area I’m especially passionate about.

Today, with one in four Americans living with a disability (Source: CDC), the inclusion of people with disabilities is an important element of an engaged workforce and a must for any diversity and inclusion initiative. What advice do you have for other companies seeking to recruit, retain, and advance people with disabilities in their organization?

I’d say to employers: What are you waiting for? Think of the potential workforce that is untapped and aching to work in meaningful jobs. Companies should absolutely put resources behind looking at alternative hiring pools and invest not only in recruiting but retaining and advancing people with disabilities — I promise, the payoff is ten-fold! Through my role with ToyotAbility, I’ve had the opportunity to profile a number of team members with disabilities, all of whom are the most incredibly loyal and hard-working employees.

I would recommend that companies form strong alliances with state and local agencies that specialize in job placement, using their connections and networks with the differently abled community— their endorsement goes a long way to building trust. Also, take advantage of their input when forming training and onboarding practices— their specialty is knowing accommodations inside and out, and that can guide you when developing extended or blended training approaches.

How did you first get involved with ToyotAbility? And can you share more about your passion for supporting and building awareness for those with disabilities?

My son was diagnosed with a severe hearing deficit at 14-years-old. It was totally unexpected and wasn’t present at birth. Now, all of sudden, doctors are talking to me about fitting my son with hearing aids. It was head spinning to say the least!  While my amazing friends, colleagues, and family were there for support, no one could really relate to my experience, and I found available resources were few and far between. Turns out, my son had a form of arthritis that had slowly eroded away one of the bones inside his ear. When the bones don’t connect, sound won’t conduct. Luckily, it was surgically repaired, and he now sports an anvil, or innermost bone of the ear, made out of titanium. In total, the whole ordeal lasted about 14 months.

It's very scary thinking that all the plans you had for your child may not materialize. It’s even scarier not having anyone to talk to about it. That experience is what made me want to know more about ToyotAbility and what encouraged me to become a member. I wanted to learn more about disabilities, advocate, and promote awareness, while being a resource and shoulder to lean on for others going through similar experiences. 

How have you seen the work you have done with ToyotAbility impact the organization?

I believe my education efforts help normalize being different. Most importantly, I hope that the topics I communicate or the events I organize show team members that disabilities aren’t always apparent. Sometimes you see them, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes people are open about them, sometimes they aren’t.

Can you share more about Toyota’s active support of Paralympic athletes and adaptive sports and how the company is using the power of sport to advance inclusivity and mobility for all?

Toyota serves as the official worldwide mobility partner of the Olympic and Paralympic Committees and is proud partner of Team USA and several Paralympic National Governing Bodies (NGBs) and Paralympic national teams. And, just last year, the company created the Toyota U.S. Paralympic Fund to offer support to all eligible Paralympic athletes in pursuit of their competitive dreams.

I had the pleasure of visiting the U.S. Olympic and Paralympian Training Center in Colorado Springs as part of the “Go for the Gold” campaign that Toyota launched a few years back. Each athlete that I met there shared that without Toyota’s support they would not be on the path that they are today. The company’s support of these athletes helps shine a spotlight on adaptive sports, and these inspiring individuals are a powerful reminder to us all of what’s possible when we think broadly and inclusively, cultivate our strengths, work as a team, and reach for our dreams.

How is ToyotAbility recognizing National Disability Employment Awareness Month this October?

We are pulling out all the stops for NDEAM this year. Our Georgetown chapter will be hosting U.S. Paralympian swimmer Jessica Long for a live Q&A that will be broadcast across the company. You might remember Jessica from our tearjerker Superbowl ad last year called “Upstream” that depicted her life from birth, adoption, and domination in Paralympic swimming. She’s incredibly inspiring, and I know our team members will benefit from hearing her story.

I recently created a disability awareness campaign for our ToyotAbility chapters across North America. It celebrates famous people with disabilities — actors, rock stars, scientists, and more — but also acknowledges that everyone can move the needle on disability awareness. We’re encouraging team members to share their personal stories, like the one about me and my son. These engagement activities help to break down barriers and make our experiences relatable

Be on the lookout for spotlights on our Life at Toyota social media channels, highlighting some of our team members and allies, who will be sharing their disability stories and passion for advancing inclusivity.

What other initiatives does your chapter of ToyotAbility have planned this year?

This holiday season, our ToyotAbility chapter in Georgetown will be hosting our very popular Sensory Santa event. It’s our third year hosting, but the first since COVID-19. Sensory Santa allows neurodiverse children the chance to meet with Santa, something many of these children may have never been able to do. We’ll have low-stress craft projects available, the lights are dimmed, and Christmas movies will be playing on the monitors with the sounds off and captions on. Good old’ Saint Nick is there for the whole family to get a group photo and spend as long as they like. There’s no rushing. No lines. And everyone is very supportive and understands that things might take a little longer. 

My favorite part of the day is the therapy dogs that come to the plant — we supply the cuddles and pets! It really sets the mood, and kids just let their guard down when they see animals. I mean, who doesn’t like bringing their dog to work?

What makes you proud to work at Toyota?

Even though we are a huge company, we have not lost what makes it feel like a community. Despite the challenges of COVID-19, and even in the midst of our transformation from an automotive to a mobility company, we have kept care for others close at heart. At Toyota, it’s what we call “mendomi,” which is a Japanese phrase meaning treating your employees like family. It’s all about checking on others, and I have been very lucky to have supervisors that truly practiced this. And my hope is that through my role in ToyotAbilty, I have been an example of “mendomi” to others as well. 

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