Leading with Authenticity: LGBTQIA+ People with Disabilities in Employment

About This Episode

Actor, comedian, activist and policy advisor Andy Arias discusses best practices for supporting people with disabilities who identify as LGBTQIA+ in the workplace. He addresses binary assumptive language, the importance of respecting people’s pronouns, how to achieve workplace equity, the importance of diverse hiring and how to navigate these issues in public-facing roles where an employer can’t require respectful behavior.


A portrait of Andy Arias. He has thick, parted hair. He is wearing a striped shirt and a scarf and is griping the wheel of his wheel chair against an ancient brick wall. Andy Arias has been an advocacy professional for over seven years. He has worked as a System Change Advocate and Program Manager for Orange County & Los Angeles. He is member of many boards and commissions related to creating greater visibility and advancement for diverse communities, especially the disability community. Andy is often hired for speaking and training events at universities, high schools and before Congressional leaders on ADA compliance and the inclusion of people disabilities and others from diverse backgrounds and communities.

Andy’s experience and leadership gave him skills to develop and implement a youth programs that served over 150 young adults across southern California and among various county agencies, helping them reach their dreams for independence. Andy excels in teaching students that nothing can get in the way of their dreams, as long as they use their disabilities as an asset.

Andy advocates in the entertainment industry by creating visible pathways as an actor and stand-up comedian. As an actor, Andy has had the pleasure of working with Tom Hanks, Mark Ruffalo and Hilary Swank on projects. He is often asked to consult with producers and directors to create greater media visibility of people with disabilities. He has also produced several small projects that have brought attention to persons with disabilities and the LGBTQ to community.

Andy’s expertise extends to Federal government and corporate levels. His goal is to marry his policy work with his work in the entertainment industry to create a systemic lasting change.

A portrait of Donald Taylor, a man with a medium smile and a mob of curly dark hair in a black collared shirt against a pattern of a blue pained wrought-iron gateDonald Taylor has been with TASH since 2014, where he is the Manager of Membership & Communications, responsible for membership and chapters, data systems and communication, and collaborates closely with other staff to make sure TASH systems support their work. Donald comes from a background of data systems, operations and business analysis, going back to the 1990s. Donald came to the world of disability while pursuing a degree in history. The history profession is deeply interested in the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century and fellow students studying biomedical systems of oppression inspired in him the desire to make a contribution to this aspect of social justice.


Announcer: You are listening to the AOD Disability Employment Technical Assistance Center podcast, where we learn from people who are working to improve competitive integrated employment and economic outcomes for people with disabilities.

In today’s episode, we talk with Andy Arias. He is an actor advocate and policy advisor specializing in employment and financial planning. We talk with him about integrated employment, not just for people with disabilities, but also [LGBTQIA+]* people, gender non-conforming people and people of diverse races.

In this interview, specific words were used to illustrate outdated concepts and emphasize what should not be said. These terms were solely mentioned for illustrative purposes within the context of this interview.

[music plays]

Donald Taylor: Andy Arias, welcome to the DETAC podcast. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your experience in the disability field.

Andy Arias: Well, first of all, thank you for having me. I think this is awesome, what you guys are doing. My name is Andy Arias. I’m an actor, advocate subject matter policy expert on a national level. I work mostly with disability, employment and financial awareness, economic advancement policies, but also healthcare inequities for those with disabilities and those who happen to be [LGBTQIA+]. I go by he/him pronouns. I’m part of the [LGBTQIA+] community, and I’m also Latinx. So when you think of diversity and subject matter experts, I like to call myself a unicorn when it comes to disability policy.

Donald Taylor: Andy, can you please tell us about some best practices supporting people with disabilities that identify as [LGBTQIA+]? What are the practices and why are they important?

Andy Arias: I feel like there’s a lot of practices that the [LGBTQIA+] community does when it comes to embracing equity embracing voices from marginalized communities. There’s a lot of efforts being done for transitional care for individuals that are on that journey of gender reaffirming care. And I think that the disability community can learn a lot from the networks and systems that the [LGBTQIA+] community have put in place. There’s a lot of free clinics and healthcare systems that the [LGBTQIA+] community has in every county and every state. They have systems of support and they also know how to do a lot of community organizing, grassroots movement that I feel that the disability community knows how to do, but sometimes it gets compartmentalized or siloed because we don’t reach out beyond our systems of care to really collaborate with other diverse communities such as black, brown, indigenous or [LGBTQIA+] communities.

Donald Taylor: And what are some of the unique needs of [LGBTQIA+] people with disabilities in employment that you’ve found and you work with employers to help understand?

Andy Arias: Well, I think when you work with someone who’s disabled and [LGBTQIA+] I, you know, I, I am putting a lot of the onus on individuals with disabilities or disability systems. But I feel that for a long time, employment systems or systems of policy have been through a white lens when it comes to disability. And I feel that when we’re looking at DEIA concepts in the workforce, we need to look at it broadly. So we can’t just say somebody with a disability needs employment: they need a career; they need opportunity to feel their voices are fully heard and implemented in the workforce wherever they go, and they need room for advancement. And when you’re dealing with someone who is also [LGBTQIA+], they need to feel that they are equal and also valued in that space. I feel that sometimes because I so dynamic, let’s just say or, or colorful sometimes that’s misconstrued as me being too nice but that’s not the case. I just know that compromise is a key factor in working in full-time employment. And when you’re somebody with a disability, this is a truth universally, when you’re somebody with a disability, you often have to work twice as hard as your non-disabled counterparts to be just as equal in the workforce. And that’s similar to those who are also [LGBTQIA+] to be taken in a more professional manner.

Donald Taylor: You mention that people with disabilities and people who are [LGBTQIA+] have to work twice as hard, and that’s, that’s equality, not equity. What can we do to mitigate that?

Andy Arias: So I feel that when you are hiring somebody who is disabled or – well, first of all, let’s start with every organization or every sector in the employment realm needs to start hiring individuals with disabilities from different backgrounds, right? Who are [LGBTQIA+], who are Latinx, who are black and indigenous or other ethnicities. Because I feel that if you hire somebody with a disability, the rate of those who are white and non non-Hispanic or non-black or non others aren’t in that workforce or aren’t in that setting. How you can mitigate that is by hiring more individuals from diverse communities. I feel like I have to compete as an individual in the workforce because typically I’m one of one, right, of somebody in the workforce at a higher level in leadership. So I really have to compete with my non-disabled counterparts to feel that I’m giving just as much or more.

And actually the reality of it is I’m always giving more, but because the perception is that disability people in the workforce are only capable of a certain amount of work, I feel like I always have to put a little extra in my workload to make it equitable for everybody else. And I think that’s a little bit of me being a workaholic and a little bit of me having the perception from my non-disabled counterparts to say like, can you do this? Are you capable? And they might not say it, but it’s perceived that way, right? Are you really capable of doing this on a national level? Is there capability there? And I’ve always had to overly prove myself to every single employer at every level in every job, regardless of what I was doing. So until that glass ceiling goes away for the disability community and more and [LGBTQIA+] community where we are able to get advancement without the struggle of: are you sure you’re capable of that? Or can you do that? Are you, is that okay? You know, cause again, it’s not said it’s perceived Or it’s the tone of the room when you walk into a room and you’re the only one of color and the only one with a disability. That’s the tone, that’s the vibe that people give you. So until that goes away, I think that’s the only way that it’s gonna be mitigated.

Donald Taylor: Andy, would you tell us what binary assumptive language is and what are some do’s and don’ts when it comes to binary assumptive language? What are some examples of gender inclusive language? What types of outdated terms are offensive and should be avoided?

Andy Arias: Oh, okay. So that’s a, that’s a loaded question. What I will say about binary assumptive language is just like in the disability world, do not assume what somebody’s pronouns are. Do not assume what they like to be termed as. There are ways to, in this virtual world that make it a little easier to be inclusive in that space. You can put someone’s pronouns in a chat window, just like I did with my name here. It’s Andy Arias, he/him pronouns. So what would be the most inclusive way to do it is in your emails or in the way that you sign your signatures to put your pronouns in there. Whenever you’re in a meeting, make sure your pronouns are, are predominantly either announced when you’re speaking for first off, or when you’re in a meeting, to put it in the chat box with your name.

Andy Arias: One of the things that I find that’s interesting is that this is a constant evolving space. So even though someone may have pronouns of he Kim today in a year or a couple months from now, they also might go by they them. And what we have to understand is just being flexible with it, right? Being flexible, being honorable, with whatever somebody wants to be called. Some of the terminologies that don’t fly anymore are just like in the disability world, we don’t use the R word. We don’t use terms like transsexual, or hermaphrodite. Those are very outdated terms, and so we use terms like intersex or gender fluid or other things like that. But, again, when you’re not part of those communities, it’s really – you take the lead from the individual. So you lead from the individual space and they direct you on how to use those terms. So if you don’t know, ask. And I would say ask in a private setting. Don’t be like in a meeting, “Hey Andy, what are your pronouns?” If you don’t know, I would leave that for a one-on-one discussion. I wouldn’t do it in a group setting.

Donald Taylor: And tell us about these issues in a job setting. As somebody who is a job coach, what do you tell employers when you are placing a person, an [LGBTQIA+] person with a disability in employment?

Andy Arias: Okay, so I will say this: I’ve assisted people getting jobs, but I’ve never been a job coach. So I don’t want people to think I’ve, I’ve done that role. But what I will say is: when I worked with youth to help them fill job gaps or help them find employment, I’ve alerted the HR and their bosses and them, if they are gender fluid that that is a discussion that they are going to probably have if they haven’t brought it up already. Again, though, it’s one of those things that you take the lead from the individual employee, right? Like I don’t have to disclose my disability to you, I don’t have to disclose my gender to you either. So an employer might ask, what are your pronouns? And they say, I go by whatever: I go by, he/him; I go by they/them. It’s really up to the individual. There is some policy that has been developed around pronoun affirming sort of in the implement space, but it’s really just like in the disability world, it’s really about implementation. So just because there’s policies in place for equity in the workforce, when it comes to genderfluidity and gender non-binary labels it’s really about the implementation of the individual employee and employer and not about there’s, you can’t sue really. You can’t just sue your employer if they call you, he/him, and you really go by they/them. It’s not something you can be like, “I was discriminated against”. From working in the field of disability and [LGBTQIA+], it’s really hard to prove a case of discrimination with an employer. Not that they don’t happen, I’m not saying they don’t exist. I’m saying to prove that legally is difficult, you basically have to catch an employer I in real time doing it in order to say like, this actually happened to me. So I’m just giving people a little bit of realism when it comes to that environment.

Donald Taylor: So dealing with like bosses and coworkers is one thing. That’s a much more controlled situation. What about situations that are customer-facing, in which, like, it’s not a situation that can be dealt with by like policy or training or whatnot?

Andy Arias: Mmm. So that’s always interesting. I feel that when you’re working with the public – I’ve worked with the public in several spaces: by public speaking, by, you know, by making presentations to HR, corporations or even customer service individuals who are looking for you know, something – they want a service or device or something. So when you’re presenting in a way and you know that they might not agree with what you’re saying or how you’re presenting, right, physically, or even verbally, they may not not agree with who, who inherently who you are. What I do with that is I lead with authenticity. One of the things that people don’t understand is that not everyone’s gonna agree with you. Not everyone is going to understand who you are at your core. And I’m not saying that that needs to be the case. That’s a goal, but that’s not always gonna be the case, especially when you’re work in a lot of the rural areas where policies and implementation of policies can be a little slower. So when you’re working on a national level and you’re working with those more conservative communities, you’ll have to understand that they might not understand pronouns and language and political correctness, let’s say, and you know, equity, right? So you have to meet people where they are without compromising your value. And the way I do that on a consistent basis is by leading with authenticity. ’cause People might not agree with you, but they’re not able to disagree with authenticity because authenticity is your truth. And even though it’s not their truth, they have to recognize your truth. They might not agree, but they will recognize it and they’ll respond in a more authentic way to you because of your authenticity.

Donald Taylor: Why is it important to honor a person’s pronouns? What does that mean to a person, and why is it important in a job setting?

Andy Arias: So pronouns are important because they’re really, they’re the next frontier of, of an authentic pers – of authenticity, right? So someone’s pronouns are who they are. Just like if I said I’m a Latinx individual or I’m a black individual, or I’m an indigenous individual. Pronouns are that important. So when you don’t acknowledge someone’s pronouns, it really puts them in a space where you don’t see them, you don’t acknowledge who they are, you don’t understand what they bring to your table in a work setting. Pronouns really have been used as a divisive tool in our political climate, but really in the work setting, they are essential to making an employee feel value, heard and get them to give you their best work, their best performance, right? If you’re calling me the wrong pronoun, it’s such a disrespectful way of addressing my value or addressing me as an individual. So it’s as important, I believe, as your ethnicity or as your individual representation of who you are.

Donald Taylor: Is there anything that I’m not asking you about that you would like to talk about?

Andy Arias: Okay. Well, I think you’ve touched on a lot. I think one thing that I would like your audience to take away from this conversation is to recognize that there are a lot of people in the [LGBTQIA+] disability marginalized community world that have capability, that have the ability to work at a high level, that have ability to be leaders. I, I think leadership comes at every level of the workforce. And if you’re not identifying those people in your workspace, there’s a problem, right? There’s an inherent problem with your way of doing business if you’re not identifying people with disabilities who are [LGBTQIA+] from other communities that can lead your work. And people often look at me as an anomaly, and I’m not. I mean, my voice has been at a table or I’ve created my own table because no one wanted to invite me to their table. But many people with disabilities from the [LGBTQIA+] or other communities are ready to work, are ready to be leaders. They just need to be given the opportunity to do so. And I wanna live in a world where I don’t need a non-disabled white individual or cisgendered person to open a door for me in order to have an opportunity. I wanna live in a world where I open my own doors and then I hold the door open for others to be able to roll or walk through when they’re ready.

Donald Taylor: Andy Arias, where can people find you?

Andy Arias: So the easiest place to find me is on Instagram. I use this Instagram tag all the time. It’s @AndysWheelz with a “z” on the “wheels”. And for those Gen Xers, I am @theAndyArias on TikTok. So if you get bored and wanna find me on TikTok, go ahead.

Donald Taylor: Andy Arias, thank you for taking the time to talk with us today about employment for multiple marginalized people.

Andy Arias: Thank you.

Announcer: Today we spoke with Andy Arias about supporting the employment of multiple marginalized people, especially [LGBTQIA+], and gender non-binary people. To learn more about Andy and his work, you can find him on IMDB or on Instagram and TikTok as AndysWheelz with “wheels” ending in a “z”.

The AOD Disability, Employment Technical Assistance Center, or DETAC, is a project of the Lewin Group and TASH, created by a grant from the Administration for Community Living to provide evidence based training and technical assistance to Administration on Disabilities grantees aimed at improving competitive integrated employment and economic outcomes for individuals with disabilities across the nation. To learn more about DETAC, visit AoDDisabilityEmploymentTACenter.com for news and alerts about upcoming webinars and podcasts. You can follow us on Facebook and X.

Music for the DETAC Podcast is an original composition and performance by Sunny Cefaratti, the co-director and autistic self-advocacy mentor at the Musical Autist. You can learn more about the Musical Autist at www.themusicalautist.org.

We’ll have another episode on competitive integrated employment for you in the near future.

[music plays]

This discussion was originally recorded on January 3, 2024.

This audio recording and transcript has been lightly edited for content and clarity.

* We recorded this interview saying LGBTQ. Afterwards, Andy e-mailed to say we should have said LGBTQIA+. The transcript has been modified to reflect his suggestion.

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