Gusto’s employment attorney Kevin Fritz (KF) has accomplished a ground-breaking career with the use of his brain, voice, and the mobility of a few fingers. In this interview, he discusses his personal experience as a disabled person with muscular dystrophy (MD), and provides some guidance for employers.
Muscular dystrophy (a cousin of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, aka ALS) is a genetic neurological disease that causes muscle weakness and decreased mobility, not just of arms and legs, but vital organs as well. With MD, everyday tasks progressively become extremely difficult to manage without assistance. Given the progression of the disease, many people with MD don’t survive into adulthood, which makes Kevin’s life and career that much more inspiring.
Q: What is it like to live with muscular dystrophy?
KF: Basically it means all the muscles in my body are weak. I use a power wheelchair to get around, and I can only really move a few fingers—one to drive my wheelchair and one to use the mouse on my computer. I cannot move much else, but I can feel everything. I hire people to take care of my physical needs so that I can maintain an independent life.
Q: How does having muscular dystrophy impact the way you engage with the world?
KF: My whole life, I’ve gotten the message from society that I can’t or shouldn’t do things because I have MD. It was never really my family, but the external world around me. You have to realize, when I was younger, the school system did not mainstream educate people with disabilities like it does today. Initially, administrators were actually hesitant to have me in mainstream classes, out of fear more than anything. Fear that other students would be confused about why I was there. Fear that I would not integrate well. But I learned—really from my parents—that fears are meant to be overcome. My family always fought for me to be included like everyone else. I was one of the first people to be in a mainstream class in my district.
Q: As a young person with a disability, how did you think about your future?
KF: I spent a lifetime in the hospital. A lifetime suffering, where my body was not proper and well, and there were a few moments where I was close to dying. By the time I turned 17, there was better technology to help me breathe and move and function. So as a teenager, I had to think about the reality that I’m not going to die. I was alive and was going to live. It was an amazing realization that I would have a future, but at the same time, it was also incredibly overwhelming because I had to decide what I was going to do about that.
Q: What did you decide?
KF: After seeing an article listing the top 10 universities for people with disabilities, I applied and was accepted to the University of Illinois. When I got in, one of my nurses was crying in the kitchen. Not with excitement, but because she thought I was going to die. See, I had lived my whole life being sheltered by nurses, and there would be no nurses at the university. I would be cared for by peers—which is very different. But I took the risk and went. There were a lot of learning experiences and a lot of firsts.
Q: What was it like attending university and living on campus?
KF: I noticed that even though I was very much a college kid, all the disabled students were separated from the rest of campus in terms of our living situation. I felt that was actually nice at first, but quickly realized that it was not realistic and not the right way for me to grow. So I picked the biggest club on campus, which was the student senate, and decided to give it a try. I ran for office and won, which was honestly very surprising to me because I did not think I had much of a shot. That was probably the first time that I realized people welcome and encourage diversity. Being different is not such a bad thing after all! It was really one of the first times that I felt empowered by my differences.
As a senator, I did a lot in the student senate to effectuate change and to bring together people that were not traditionally together. At that time, in 2007, I noticed that even in a diverse student environment, a lot of people had never had meaningful interactions with disabled people. I sure hope that has changed. I see change every day, which is a good sign. But we still have quite a long way to go.
Later, I was accepted into an internship in Washington where I worked in then-Senator Obama’s office. That was a very eye-opening opportunity for me on multiple levels. It was my first time working for money, my first time trying to manage my care away from the insulated dorm life in Illinois, and my first introduction to law and policy. I also connected with the disability community in D.C., which was a community of people with disabilities who had political affiliations—and power. The power was real and it meant something.
Q: How did that experience impact you?
KF: I met commissioners from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [EEOC]. I met senators who had disabilities. I met Representative Jim Langevin from Rhode Island, who, if you don’t know, is paralyzed from the neck down. He was my first hero, mentor, everything. I had never in my whole life seen somebody in a position of power that looked like me. I also met my second mentor, and friend, even to this day: Judy Heumann. If you know anything about the disability rights movement, you know her. I left that summer on the top of the world. I realized how much power there was in the law, and in policy. I knew I had to pursue something big.
Q: How has becoming an employment lawyer fulfilled that goal?
KF: I was driven towards employment law because I was attracted to the power of the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA]. I knew it had power but I didn’t really know where the power lied. So on my first day of law school I told the professor about this and she immediately directed me to employment law. Honestly, I never looked back. I found a path that allowed me to advocate for the law, but also to guide businesses to do the right thing.
I considered being a plaintiff side lawyer, representing those who were allegedly mistreated by businesses or their employers. I even worked one summer at the EEOC, where I thought about employment issues that employees fight every day, but from a policy perspective. Ultimately, however, I felt that I would have more influence at the table with the employer—as opposed to fighting with the employer or business all the time. Plus, once again, I didn’t know of any private practice disabled attorneys with significant disabilities. And I thought it was important that there be representation on that side of the aisle as well. In true “Kevin fashion” I did it big. I applied to work at a huge firm in Chicago that specializes in employment law. It was a whirlwind experience when I got the job, and I worked there for nearly 10 years as a defense attorney representing companies.
Q: Was it hard to make inroads in law as a disabled attorney?
KF: Everything is harder, but I never let that stop me. I was the only attorney in a wheelchair ever to work at that firm. And it turns out that I am, to this date, one of the only attorneys with a significant physical disability to work for an American Law top 50 firm. There are other disabled attorneys, of course. But I’m talking about a significant physical disability. My disability is such that I can’t even touch my face. It’s very significant.
Q: What kind of work do you do as an employment attorney?
KF: Early in my career, I found a niche of ADA defense work which is primarily based on title III of the ADA—not title II or title I. When we think of disability, we typically think of title I, which is employment, but title III is public accommodation. I got involved in various ways to help businesses navigate accessibility issues, so a lot of it dealt with physical spaces—hotels, baseball stadiums, supermarkets, to name a few. Are they accessible? Are their bathrooms accessible? Is the toilet in the right place? Is the bed height correct? That was really a cool thing because it was very technical and the regulations are extreme. And it mattered to me on a personal level. I also cared about accessibility because I was a patron of these places myself. I think that my unique position as a disabled person who had studied those regulations made me an illustrative candidate for work in that area. The work I did was always plentiful because at the time not many attorneys had expertise in that area.
Q: You mentioned “public accommodation.” How does that designation impact different types of businesses?
KF: A workplace may or may not be open to the public, so you have to evaluate it on different levels. Goods and services don’t have to be physical. That’s a bit more of a nuanced area of the law because there are not as many laws or regulations around accessibility of a website, for example.
I learned these things through my practice and at Gusto. I partner with our product folks around accessibility from a variety of stances.
Q: What can employers do to adequately meet the needs of disabled employees?
KF: It’s always important to have a robust accommodation process in place that’s presented at the time of hire—and even before hire. It is crucial that a company considers requests for reasonable accommodations, if needed. Employees need to know how to reach out, and people in management roles need to be trained, too. If somebody says, “Oh, my back hurts. I wish I had a different chair,” did you know that that alone could trigger a reasonable accommodation process? That means the employer is obligated to interact with the employee to see if an accommodation would be appropriate. It’s important to train managers to hear these things.
Prior to onboarding, I would recommend that employers ensure the business presents opportunities for disabled candidates to speak up and say, “In order for me to onboard properly, I need these accommodations.” Onboarding also should be inclusive and holistic in a general sense, so that even if you didn’t receive or address accommodations, and you are disabled, you could still participate. For example, remote onboarding is very popular now, just like remote interviewing, because everyone has a fair shot in that sense. It’s a bit of an equalizer. Of course, no scenario will be 100% perfect, but I like to think that we as a society are getting there.
Q: Speaking of a fair shot, how would you advise employers to approach interviewing disabled applicants?
KF: I always encourage companies to address accommodations right in the application because accommodations are applicable at all stages of the employee life cycle—before and after hire. When you apply, the company should say, “Hey, we love candidates to apply regardless of their ability. Please let us know if we can do anything to accommodate you so that we can consider it.”
Employees with disabilities are an important part of equity and diversity. For more information about how to support your employees, check out the Department of Labor’s initiatives, policies, resources, and social media kit. And stay tuned to Talk Shop for more guidance from Kevin, including common technology and tools employers can use to accommodate employees with a range of abilities.