Career Advice, Executive Feature

P&G’s Accessibility Leader On Being Blind & Working for Change

sam latif proctor and gamble

By the time Sam Latif transitioned from Procter and Gamble’s IT division to become the company’s first Accessibility Leader, she had already been working to advance disability inclusion for 15 years at P&G. And in fact, as a blind woman, she’s been working on that cause for her entire life.

Latif faced struggles in the workplace since taking her first job at age 16, in a call center in her native Scotland that sold windows. She didn’t know it was incumbent on her employer to accommodate her, and she couldn’t read the written phone numbers she was charged with calling. So instead she paid someone the same amount she was making—5 pounds per hour—to record the numbers onto cassette.

“I was determined to work, because when you get paid you get independence,” says Latif, who spoke with Glassdoor ahead of the United Nations’ International Day of Persons with Disabilities on December 3. “And at the time, I thought any kind of assistance was charity. I didn’t want that.”

So Latif faced struggles in the job interview process after she completed her schooling; even getting to the interviews was a challenge. Potential employers would often fly her from Glasgow to London, which meant she had to navigate getting on the right flight and beg taxi drivers to leave their cars and help her get into the buildings for her interviews.

She excelled in those interviews, which often ended with laughing with and even hugging. But many companies came back and said: We like you a lot, but we don’t think you’d fit here. A recruitment firm told Latif it didn’t want to put her name forward because she would have to use Microsoft Office and other apps.

“I would say, ‘But wait, you’re not even giving me a chance!’” Latif says.

In the end, it was a chance meeting with Arnold Clark, the billionaire owner of a car dealership company that became the largest private firm in Scotland, that led to Latif’s first job. She created for herself a marketing analyst role, where she stayed for about a year and a half.

Then it was P&G that opened up her career. She sat for three interviews in early 2000—which included hiring an agency that could describe the charts and graphs on a hiring test to her—and joined as an IT project manager in the company’s fine fragrances division.

“I did the interviews not realizing that the usual folks didn’t feel comfortable, so they elevated it to senior people,” Latif says. “They offered me the job while I was there, and I didn’t know until later that that wasn’t normal—or that P&G hadn’t actively recruited disabled people. They didn’t discriminate, but they didn’t go out explicitly looking.”

Latif was excited about the job, but her early days were a challenge. The screen-reader device she planned to use didn’t work as well as she’d hoped, and she found herself struggling to locate information like names and phone numbers in the company’s online directory as well as key data she needed for projects.

But then, Latif advocated to get herself one-on-one IT support with a person who helped solve her problems. Immediately she began to thrive, working her way up the IT ladder to roles including Europe IT portfolio leader.

Along the way, Latif had also begun working on the side to help make P&G more inclusive of and accessible for people with disabilities. Among other initiatives, she helped run a Disability Challenge, which puts able people in the shoes of someone with disabilities, and the exercise grabbed the attention of a high-ranking executive who called her to his office to ask about what she would like to do.

Latif gave him an earful: She felt she could make a huge impact if she were able to work full-time on making P&G’s offices, products, packaging, and advertising more inclusive. A week later, her manager’s boss called and said, “How about you work on making P&G the most accessible company in the world?”

As Accessibility Leader and a consultant for inclusive design, Latif has spearheaded major changes at P&G including its consumer-facing products and ads. These include Herbal Essences’ new sensory-enhanced bottles, which feature tactile stripes on shampoo and circles on conditioner. Another recent project is Be My Eyes, an app that allows people to video call a Clearblue advisor to read the results of a pregnancy test (inspired by Latif’s own struggles, as she detailed on LinkedIn). And all P&G ads in the U.K., U.S., and Spain include audio descriptions of what’s happening on screen.

“All of a sudden I’m not one person championing inclusion,” Latif says. “It spreads to others, who spread it further, and the culture changes as a result.”

Latif shared her advice for finding companies that celebrate your own values—and how to find ways to craft your work around your passion points.

During the job search: Does this company champion inclusion?

When researching potential future employers, Latif recommends reading all you can about companies’ corporate responsibility and inclusion activities.

“Whether it’s about people or the planet, there should be great examples and case studies out there…to show what kind of people work in the organization,” Latif says.

These values should also be reflected in financial results, products and services launched, and advertising spots, she adds.

“The company might not be perfect, but you can find out during the recruitment process whether you can influence change,” Latif explains. “Ask the interview about things that matter to you: ‘Disability inclusion is close to my heart. Can you tell me about the company’s [activities in this area?’”

Asking for concrete examples of people, teams, or projects can be of dual benefit, she says: The answers help you determine if the company’s values are aligned, and it also serves as a kind of icebreaker for the interviewer to spend time chatting about the company.

But if your interviewer isn’t knowledgeable about inclusion efforts, don’t necessarily take that as confirmation that it isn’t a core value for the company: “They’re one person, and you can easily say, ‘I’m interested in XYZ—is there someone you can connect me with to help me better understand?’ Being able to speak with people [internally] is for me the most important thing,” Latif says.

Working from within: Carving out your own career path—with your values first

“We all spend a lot of time at work, so it’s really important to be happy and ambitious in the work you do,” Latif says. “Life’s too short to be doing work you’re not enjoying.”

But if that’s the position where you find yourself, think about your own core values and how you can start working in small ways to advance your passion within the company. In Latif’s case, of course, the cause was disability inclusion. Whatever yours may be, identify people across the company who are working on related efforts and express your interest in helping.

“It’s a step-by-step process,” Latif says. “As you become more of an expert you have the ability to go back to management and explain that you’re passionate about doing this on the side—and it makes you even more passionate about doing your main job.”

It’s “a kind of a zig-zag approach,” says Latif, who explains it’s quite possible there isn’t a clear path from your existing job to working full-time on your passion point.

“I had been doing accessibility work for 15 years [at P&G] before I officially” got a title in that space, Latif says. “The important thing is not your official title, but doing what you’re passionate about in some kind of capacity. The rest follows.”

 

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