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Sometimes the din of the ubiquitous, chaotic, ambient noise of life surrounding us all is so loud that it is difficult to hear, it is hard to think, and challenging to see.  We all become so saturated by this ever-present racket that it easily overwhelms our senses.  But, what if some of your senses did not work?

Jim Lawrie hosted Alison Walker and I for a coffee meeting to discuss working at IBM with disabilities.

Jim works at IBM Canada’s Client Centre attached to the Markham Lab.  He also serves as the Co-chair of People Enablement Network Group.  The other Co-Chair is the delightful, Caroline Finlay.  The People Enablement Network Group (PENG) is the IBM Canada Persons with Disabilities Business Resource Group reaching out to help one another and promoting IBM’s leadership in the marketplace.

Jim graduated from the University of Waterloo with a baccalaureate degree in Math, Computer Science in 1986.  He joined IBM Canada in 1987, so he has enjoyed a stellar 33-year career with the company with more adventures to come.  Jim is a Certified Consulting Software and IT Specialist and he did this work for his first 20 years at IBM.  He followed with a role as a Product Manager for about 4 years, and for the past 8 years, he now serves IBM’s customers as a Client Briefing Consultant.

Jim understands working with disabilities at the highest level.  He was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1990.  The disease slowly, but decisively impacted his life.  First, he walked with a cane, next, with a walker, and now he uses a power chair and an amazing Services dog named Barnum.  Even with these life-altering hurtles, Jim has overcome most obstacles and is an equally productive member of the IBM team.

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Jim Lawrie

The cause of MS is still unknown. Scientists believe that a combination of environmental and genetic factors contribute to the risk of developing MS.

The progress, severity, and specific symptoms of MS in any one person cannot yet be predicted. Most people with MS are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, with at least two to three times more women than men being diagnosed with the disease.

Jim told us how IBM has always supported him.  At first, he said that he was shy to express his needs to the company.  He did not wish for his personal issues to bring any special attention to his disability.  Eventually he came to realize that some of the aids that he needed were also vitally important to other IBMers.  However, no one was speaking up.  So, Jim decided that it was not just about him and his needs, but for the good of the many other IBMers who also faced their own personal challenges with disabilities.

One of the first actions Jim took was to request door actuators with push buttons.  Management readily agreed and you see them today all over IBM facilities.  Jim was worried that the high costs of these aids would impact his department.  However, he learned that IBM has a separate budget for these essentials and is ready, willing, and able to make life easier for all employees by facilitating a fully accessible workplace.

IBM seeks to continuously improve its inclusion process and, therefore, one of the diversity areas of ​​focus is to provide support, both in infrastructure and in the workplace culture, for People with Disabilities (PwD) to ensure that there is equality of opportunity.

Jim uses a modified van for transportation to work, so he appreciates the accessible parking and shaped walkways that permit him to access the building. He uses a Dog Guide to help him open doors and retrieve items, and his Services dog, Barnum is welcome at IBM facilities too.

IBM responds to Jim’s needs for business travel and for time to address issues related to his disease, such as when he took three weeks to be trained with his Dog Guide.

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Jim with his Dog Guide, Barnum

While IBM has worked hard to advance the life of its workers with disabilities, the journey is never-ending.  For example, Alison shared that one of her colleagues has a sight disability.  He asked her to indicate which button on the coffee machine was for the hot chocolate?  With all of IBM’s world leading A.I. technology, you would think that something as basic as a coffee machine could be more accessible.

Jim told us that life outside of IBM has challenges too.  He talked of the fancy new TD Canada Trust ATMs that now permit you to select the denominations of the dispensed bills.  I responded that “I can never work those ATMs as my fat fingers never hit the right X-Y spot on the touch screen, so the ATM screams back at me like a barking seal telling all around that I am abusing it”.  It is so annoying.  Jim interjected to say, “Now, imagine if you have a sight disability, there is no tactile capabilities with these touch screens.  How can a sight impaired person operate these ATMs?”  Clearly the user design of the coffee machines and the ATMs could benefit from IBM’s Design Thinking process.

Jim offered a powerful piece of advice to all IBMers, not just those with disabilities.  He said, “Just ask!”  IBM has processes in place today to make everyone’s work life better.  So, if you see something that needs improvement, engage with your management to see it fixed.  IBM will respond.

If you are an IBM employee with a disability or are interested in IBM Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) workplace strategies, then please consider joining PENG.  As a PENG member, you will be a part of a collaborative team that supports the IBM accessibility and inclusion best practices in a smarter workplace.

Link to “Barnum the Superhero” Story – May 22, 2019

About the Author:

Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless and digital communications technologies.

He is a Senior Executive with IBM Canada’s Office of the CTO, Global Services. Over the past 14 years with IBM, he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He was previously a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX).

Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V). 

He serves as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology.

He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario.  For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section. 

He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has diplomas and certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology.