Beth Butler – VP, Wachovia Corp.

Beth Butler

Dialogue for Disability: Beth Butler, VP, Wachovia Corp., talks about how her disability fueled her passion to succeed.

By Susan Smith

Beth Butler’s career accomplishments make it easy to overlook that she has been legally blind since age 4.  But she’s never let her disability get in her way.  “I’ve always envisioned myself as an advocate,” she says. As vice president in employment compliance and disability and accommodations compliance consultant at Wachovia Corp., Butler educates leaders, managers and employees about disability issues and support options.

PINK talks with Butler about success, connecting the dots and creating a dialogue for disability in business organizations.

PINK: How did you become a disability and accommodations consultant?
Beth Butler: This is a new role recently created at Wachovia. As an individual with a disability and previous experience as a litigation specialist, I felt that I could make a difference educating Wachovia leaders, managers and employees about disability issues. It’s important that we recognize and appreciate the unique capabilities and contributions of all individuals.

PINK: We heard you once took a job at a cosmetics counter and your employers didn’t realize that you were blind.
B.B.: I had graduated from law school and was looking for an opportunity in the legal field for some time with no success, so I responded to an ad.  Most customers never knew I had a disability unless they saw me using my magnifying glass.  As confident as I am with my legal blindness, there was something about taking a sharp pencil in my hand and moving toward a customer’s eye that was quite unsettling.  So I simply used this as an opportunity to provide the customer with a personal makeup lesson.  I would hand them the eyeliner and begin instructing them on the “professional” application technique.  It worked every time!

PINK: What was it like growing up blind?
B.B.: I never viewed myself as different. I am forever grateful to Dr. J. Lawton Smith, who advised my parents, following my diagnosis, to take me home and treat me like they did my two older sisters (who are fully sighted).  My parents allowed me to play fast-pitch softball, ride my bicycle unassisted and do what I was comfortable doing, recognizing that if I felt unsafe I’d set my own limitations. I didn’t find limitations until later in life.

PINK: What challenges do you face?
B.B.: I can’t drive, and that’s a challenge at times. When I graduated from high school in Naples, Fla., a local paper interviewed me for a story about someone who has overcome a disability. When the story came out the headline read, “Legally Blind Graduates from High School.” I will never forget how it felt when my abilities and accomplishments took a backseat to my disability.  My disability made the headline, not my ability.

PINK: Why do you feel disability accommodations are important at work?
B.B.: At Wachovia diversity is a business imperative.  We are committed to being inclusive, where all people are recognized for their individuality, promoted based on performance and encouraged to reach their full potential.  One of our core values is respecting and valuing the individual. Creating an accommodating culture for employees impacted by disability issues supports our values.

PINK: How do companies incorporate accommodations for disabled employees?
B.B.: I don’t believe there’s a formulaic approach. Identifying key partners and developing trusted relationships is critical.  [So is] providing education and awareness training and other resources to managers.  Develop a task force, advisory group or employee resource group for a “pulse-check” on how policies impact employees with disabilities, and promote meaningful dialogue around disability issues at all levels of your organization.

PINK: Are employees receptive?
B.B.: I was amazed at the response to a story on our intranet website about a national award we received for promoting people with disabilities.  Employees openly disclosed their own disabilities, expressing how proud they were to be with Wachovia. One parent sought resources and information following their child’s recent diagnosis of an eye condition that would eventually leave him blind.

PINK: What is your perspective on balancing life and work?
B.B.:  [At Wachovia] I am entitled to four hours of paid community service time away each month.  I use this time to attend my son’s programs at school, volunteer to read to his class or simply take the time to eat lunch with him at school.  I also serve as the Southeast regional representative to the U.S. Business Leadership Network board of directors, a business-to-business network that promotes employing people with disabilities.

PINK: What inspires you?
B.B.: When I meet individuals who are passionate about their work. When someone [tells] me how they or someone close to them has been impacted by a disability and how that experience has transformed their thinking about individuals with disabilities. Or when a leader tells me how someone they have hired with a disability is an asset to the organization. They see the disabled individual as a person and a contributor, and it eliminates those attitudinal barriers.

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