Episode 271: How Apprenticeships Help People with Disabilities Find Work

More and more companies are discovering a proven strategy for building a highly-skilled workforce to grow and to thrive: apprenticeship programs. Combining classroom instruction with on-the-job training, apprenticeship programs can help your company bring new and more diverse talent into the workplace. 

Episode 271: How Apprenticeships Help People with Disabilities Find Work with Sassy Outwater-Wright (@SassyOutwater)

This episode of the Workology Podcast is part of a new podcast series powered by the Partnership on Inclusive Apprenticeship (PIA). PIA is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). In November, ODEP launched PIA to ensure all apprenticeship programs are inclusive and accessible to people with disabilities. 

PIA collaborates with employers and apprenticeship programs to help meet employer talent needs and enable people with disabilities to benefit from apprenticeships that increase their opportunities for lifelong access to high-growth, high-demand jobs.

I spoke to Sassy Outwater-Wright, executive director of the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (MABVI). Sassy lost her sight at age three due to retinoblastoma and has had several rounds of cancer since then. She is a passionate digital accessibility advocate, specializing in technology for people with multiple disabilities, and studying how intersectionality, artificial intelligence, and intersecting marginalizing factors affect people. 

I asked Sassy what led her to work as an advocate. “Realizing that people with disabilities, such as myself, need access to everyday items, from what’s on the store shelves to information. I knew that technology was going to be the creator of that access. I was always driven to explore the places where people can get their own autonomy.”

MABVI was started by Helen Keller and a group of her cohorts in 1903. “People with disabilities didn’t want to be held back by what others decided was right for them,” said Sassy. “They wanted sovereignty to make their own decisions. Today we combine medical support, social support, and technology in everything we do.” 

Accessibility is not a “nice to have.” It’s a necessity. “Accessibility has changed a lot for the better, but there is still a lot of work to be done, especially on the digital side. Employers are still beholden to outside systems and find out after the fact that the software isn’t accessible to people with disabilities. In my mind, accessibility in the workplace isn’t headline news; it’s what we should expect as a minimum. We need to treat digital accessibility the same way we treat physical accessibility.”

Having the Accessibility Conversation With Company Leaders

The key is intersectionality and injecting accessibility into conversations about diversity and inclusion. “We’re all willing to talk about marginalized communities, but somehow disabilities – which intersect with all other marginalized groups – are overlooked. We need to talk about accessibility with our colleagues, supervisors, CEOs. We’re working in a digital climate where accessibility is very attainable,” said Sassy. “We need to keep the D&I conversations going…and all of these groups have disabled persons among them, all of them need employment opportunities, and we need to add access to the D&I conversation.”

“Step one, thing one: Is your company accessible across the spectrum of people with disabilities?”- @SassyOutwater #WorkologyPodcast #PIA Click To Tweet

“As we do the work to include minority groups, we also need to make space for accessibility. Disability rights intersect with racism, they intersect with LGBTQ+, or with socioeconomic issues, because disabilities run through all of these groups.”

The PIA program launched to help employers collaborate with organizations that help them build a pipeline of PWD candidates. Partnering with inclusive apprenticeship programs gives employers access to an amazing group of people who are ready and able to take on work right away. “Employers that are willing to embrace the idea of accessibility and learn a new perspective gives people with disabilities the opportunity to find a home in a workplace,” said Sassy.

“There haven’t been enough ways that people with disabilities have been included. They’re struggling to access higher education, and institutions aren’t doing the best job of it. Apprenticeships can create a lifetime of job opportunities; people with disabilities can create a resume, get educated, credentialed, and the experience they need to work in their field.”

Sassy added that “bringing PWD into the high tech sector brings one game-changing aspect into the field. The more PWD we have working in tech, the more accessibility will be built into products before they go to market. It’s not headline news that a company is accessible; it’s news if they go above and beyond and build accessibility into all aspects of their business.”

When apprenticeship programs are inclusive of people with disabilities, the value of the on-the-job training model is magnified. That’s because disability is an important dimension of workforce diversity—and people with disabilities are an untapped talent pool. Thank you to Sassy for sharing her knowledge and perspective on the podcast.

Connect with Sassy Outwater.



Sassy Outwater on Twitter

Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired

Accenture Report – Business Case for Hiring PWD 

– CDC: Adults with Disabilities: Ethnicity and Race


Inclusive Apprenticeship Programs

Episode 264: Partnership on Inclusive Apprenticeship (PIA) with Vinz Koller

Episode Transcript


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Jessica Miller-Merrell

Learn more about Jessica Miller-Merrell, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, the founder of Workology, a workplace HR resource, and the host of the Workology Podcast. More of her blogs can be found here.


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