Jim Sinocchi

By Jim Sinocchi
Head of the Office of Disability Inclusion at JPMorgan Chase & Co. Head of the Office of Disability Inclusion

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A New Dawn for Disability Inclusion at JPMorgan Chase

"Disability inclusion is no longer about automatic doors, curb cuts, ramps, and legislation. These historic efforts were essential at the time and represented the thinking and necessary change required for people with disabilities in the 20th Century.

Today, the new era of disability inclusion is about “assimilation” – – hiring professionals with disabilities into the robust culture of the firm. Full assimilation requires a leadership team with the will, commitment and attitude to identify, train and groom professionals with disabilities for leadership positions at the firm as we do with mainstream employees."

Jim Sinocchi, Head of the Office of Disability Inclusion

I broke my neck body surfing on New Year's Eve while vacationing in Puerto Rico. The year was 1980, nearly 35 years ago. A month after my injury and two major surgeries, my employer had me flown home to New York on a Learjet ordered by then IBM Chairman John Opel.

After a nine-month recovery at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation in New York, I began my life anew as a C5-C6 quadriplegic using a power wheelchair.

When I returned to work at IBM in May 1982 -- 17 months after my surfing accident -- I really didn't know whether I could be a productive employee again. I don't believe the management at my new team knew either. But my former manager, John Perissi, had encouraged me to come back to work -- and my new management team was willing to give me a chance.

My greatest concerns had to do not with whether I could do the job, but with whether I would fall out of my wheelchair or suffer some other embarrassment in my office. I'm still concerned about that. But I now can handle the fear psychologically because my confidence improved.

Confidence. It was key to my comeback. As my confidence in myself grew, my performance at work -- and my capacity for work -- improved. I made new friends. I stopped being embarrassed at being in a wheelchair and began to sit up straight. When I talked to people, I started looking them in the eye again.

Managers monitored my progress and gradually increased my workload to the point where I became as productive as the able-bodied employees in my department. I've had full job responsibilities since 1982, and held more than 25 jobs during my 39-year career at IBM -- with more responsibility added in each successive role.

Getting Personal

I then lived as a bachelor, hiring nurses to lift me out of my wheelchair and into bed each night. And I continued to work full time. During this time, I achieved more independence than I thought possible. I drove everywhere by myself, including to job-related assignments, to family functions, and even dates.

I made new friends and socialized more than I had done immediately after my accident. But I never expected another romantic relationship, and never sought to develop one. I needed a wheelchair to make my way in life. I believed I had nothing to offer a woman. My focus was physical -- on my disability and on my wheelchair. Those two facts, I believed, determined who I was. My attitude could have been summed up in one sentence: Who would want a relationship with a quad?

I was wrong. At work, over two years, I became friends with Maggie. Our friendship turned into love, and I proposed to her in April of 1988. Many people advised us not to marry, for basically the same reason I was afraid to get involved in a relationship: Why would an able-bodied woman want a life-time commitment with a quad?

We discussed and argued to exhaustion the pros and cons of our relationship and possible future. We discussed my role as a husband. Could I provide for us, or would Maggie have to work? Would nurses still be required to care for my personal needs, or would Maggie assume part or all of my care? Could I protect the family? Would I be a good father if we had children? What would living with a quad be like?

We questioned everything. We were aware of the issues, and felt that our marriage would be difficult in some areas and easier in others. Nonetheless, we were married on Nov. 26, 1988.

Fast forward to today: We have raised two children, our daughter, an attorney, now lives in the Boston area and raising our two granddaughters, and our son, works in Washington, D.C. and serves our country at the Pentagon.

The Legislative and Awareness Era of Disability

In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law. During the 26 years since the ADA was enacted, I have seen positive steps taken on many levels when it comes to changing attitudes regarding people with disabilities.

The ADA put the spotlight on a severely underrepresented group in our nation. Because of the ADA, people with disabilities are a group with a voice; we are now a legitimate constituency that has come of age. The disability community is a constituency that votes, that works and pays taxes. Human beings, who were once invisible, are now visible and can no longer be ignored.

The second prominent change I've seen in the last 20 years centers around the attitude of the American people and how our nation now perceives leaders. For example, the glass ceiling was symbolically and continually broken when women began to take on numerous leadership roles previously held by men.

You know these women as well as I do. In politics, for example, regardless of political orientation, they include former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is now running for President of the United States, and former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, holding powerful jobs previously held by men.

In business, there's former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, Carly Fiorina, Ginni Rometti, the first woman to head 100-year-old IBM, and in our own firm there's Mary Erdoes, CEO, Asset Management and Thasunda Duckett, CEO of Auto Finance.

And, I would be remiss if I didn't mention another change in attitude many of us were witness to: the historic election of our first Black President, Barack Obama.

The New Era of Disability Inclusion is About “Assimilation”

Our society has evolved to be more inclusive than ever before, and this change impacted the way companies think about people with disabilities. A number of companies have come a long way—including JPMorgan Chase—first with women, then ethnic minorities, the LGBT community, veterans, and now, people with disabilities.

People with disabilities are living longer and more ably, thanks to medical advances and technology. We’re able to participate in the workforce in ways we weren’t able to 10 or 20 years ago. And, companies are starting to acknowledge that trend. They want their workforce to look like the people they serve – their clients, customers and shareholders, and want to make accommodations to help people with disabilities perform in their roles as fully as possible.

And by the way, being inclusive of people with disabilities is good for business too – when people see a company that reflects themselves, they’re more likely to purchase goods and services from that company.

The Four A’s

The mindset of companies 20 years ago was, “Let’s hire people with disabilities. Let’s give them jobs.” Today’s mindset – at forward-thinking companies – is, “Let’s hire people with disabilities, and let’s see who among them has leadership potential.” Stereotypes and attitudes have changed at some companies and people with disabilities are being promoted to middle and upper management roles. But people with disabilities continue to face barriers to equal opportunity.

I use the Four A’s as a roadmap – Attitude, Accommodations, Accessibility and Assimilation. If companies work on those four areas, they’ll become part of the new era of hiring people with disabilities and enabling them to contribute to the company and the country. Companies can teach people with disabilities how to be leaders as they do with able-bodied people. When people with disabilities are seen as C-suite leaders, accessibility and inclusiveness will enrich that enlightened company’s culture.

We can also teach managers and executives to recognize leadership potential in a person with a disability. Here’s a secret – it’s the same methodology used with an able-bodied person.

That acknowledgment alone will change paradigms and break the last glass ceiling for the employee with a disability. We’ve done it with gender, with orientation, with race, with religion – but we haven’t done it – yet – for people with disabilities.

Assimilation will be the real game changer – the mark of a great company. When people with disabilities can assimilate with their able-bodied colleagues, when people talk to a colleague with a disability and don’t think about their disability, we will know we’ve made a lasting difference.

What About JPMC?

JPMorgan Chase looks at the whole employee when they join the firm. We look first at what the individual can contribute to both our firm and clients. The firm makes it clear that we want people for their intellectual capacity and talent and we will do everything we can to accommodate them in a reasonable manner.

Our company has offices in more than 60 countries and reasonable accommodations are part of how we do business around the world. So, if a candidate has the talent and skills to do a job well, we want them. And, we will provide as many tools as we can to help them do their jobs to the best of their abilities.


About the Author:
Jim Sinocchi heads the office of disability inclusion at JPMorgan Chase. He works closely with senior leaders across the firm to establish consistent standards and processes to better support employees with disabilities and employees who care for disabled family members. Jim Sinocchi also authors the blog “JS View from the Chair.”

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