The Big Picture: BAE Systems Cultivates Employee Growth via Disability Inclusion

Luke Solomon

As a Disability Inclusion Strategist, insight into company cultures is something I see daily. Over the many conversations I have, one thing is clear: the more inclusive the environment, the more the employees feel like they can be their full-true selves and do their best work - the ultimate diverse workplace culture catalyst. 

BAE Systems is a company that isn't simply checking a box on a diversity scorecard - they truly believe in a diverse workplace where all employees feel respected, valued, and able to achieve their full potential. Not only does this come out in every interaction I have with them, their employees speak with pride to be a part of this company. 

I recently sat down to chat with Daniel Hernandez, VP of Communications for BAE Systems ABLE ERG and Financial Representative, who has disclosed to having Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder ADHD, a disorder with common characteristics of impulsivity, inattention, and/or over-activity.  As disclosing a disability is a personal choice and experience, I wanted to get to know Daniel and his story, and why BAE Systems is the place he chose to grow his career.

Luke: Tell me about yourself, and a little bit of your background with your disability:

Daniel: I always had trouble in school - I was slower at everything, resulting in summer school as early as elementary level in order to keep up. English was my second language, so I had to pay extra attention in and out of school. I come from a Hispanic family, and historically there is a lot of stigma associated with mental disorders among my culture - which could be why I wasn't diagnosed until later in life. 

Once I got into a college, I was struggling a lot with the curriculum, studying was really difficult, and although I tried, I realized I was having a really hard time retaining anything. I sort of thought, well, I might as well not even go to school. Determined, I went to the University Counseling Center in hopes to get assistance with my struggles. After meeting with me they sent me to a testing center at the school - it didn't even occur to me that I might have a disability.

Luke: How was experience with testing and diagnosis?

Daniel: I went through an extensive two month testing period, and was frequently tested in 1-2 hour increments. My diagnoses came back that I had ADHD - and the amount of relief I felt was indescribable. I went through my entire life feeling different, slow, not quick to pick up on things - I'm a driven person and I learned to adapt in my own way - but being able to put the pieces together gave me a lot of clarity. Although my diagnosis has been a respite, I often deal with internal conflict and stigma. People like to say things like, "Oh, I have ADD/OCD' in a way discredits people with a disability who have been tested. I've often been told, "Oh ADHD, that's not real." I have come to terms with my disability and do not make it a part of who I am every single day. I would like to show the fact that my disability actually empowers me to try harder to achieve more and push the limits of what people perceive to be possible for people with disabilities. It’s astonishing what you can accomplish with a mindset like this.

I applied for the Workforce Recruitment Program (WRP) an organization that connects students with disabilities to employers and was offered an internship as a Human Resource Assistant on a military base. Through the WRP I was exposed to other organizations such as Disability:IN and its NextGen program. This is another organization that refers students with disabilities to employers on a national level. I decided to take my chances and went through the rigorous application process. I was honored to be in the top 90 out of 2200 applicants in 2019. Through this relationship, it provided me a gateway to discovering BAE Systems. 

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Luke: When did disability inclusion become important to you?

Daniel: After my experience with the WRP, I became a Disability:IN NextGen Leader and these opportunities really opened my eyes to see that people and companies do actually care about people with disabilities. I realized disability Inclusion is important because it empowers and openly welcomes current and new employees to fully embrace what they bring to an organization without any judgement.   It is a wonderful way to open up a conversation that allows people to be open about their disabilities and receive accommodations if necessary.

Luke: Why is it important for companies to make disability inclusion a priority and/or have disability inclusive workplaces?

Daniel: It is important to prioritize disability inclusion from a business perspective because it allows for more diverse teams and viewpoints. People with disabilities come from all walks of life and really provide a unique angle on the projects they tend to work on. It can also make for happier and more productive employees as it fosters conversations that would not normally happen in a lot of workplaces.

Luke: How is BAE Systems creating a more inclusive workplace for disability?

Daniel: BAE Systems is dedicated to its vision of disability inclusion by focusing on the abilities of those with disabilities in the workplace and increasing awareness for disability inclusion. The BAE Systems Employment Resource Group, Abilities Beyond Limits and Expectations (ABLE), focuses on increasing disability awareness through multiple channels such as newsletters, town hall forums, even coordinating interactive events for employees. BAE Systems was voted as one of the “2020 Best Places to Work for Disability Inclusion” by the American Association of People with Disabilities with a score of 100% on the Disability Equality Index.

Luke: How has BAE Systems supported you in your career?

Daniel: What I liked about BAE Systems and really separated them from other companies I was applying to is that they thought about my future and what I wanted my career trajectory to look like. While I had experience in business and was hired to work in a Finance role, I talked with my recruiter about my aspirations to work in Communications - as it really is my passion and was my major in college. I talked with the President of the ABLE ERG, and she mentioned that there was a Communications role opening up on the ERG board - and that it could really grow my experience in Communications, while simultaneously moving the needle on disability awareness and inclusivity. I spoke with the recruiter for my specific sector and she had explained that she had seen multiple employees who had moved on to different sites to do other things for the company as a way for demonstrating upward growth. It intrigued me and really got me thinking about how my long term goals intertwined with BAE Systems.

After six months with the company, I was encourage to apply for the VP of Communications role in the ABLE ERG, and was awarded the position. I was ecstatic as most other companies wouldn't consider a newer hire for this type of role, typically taking years to be able to reach such a position.

Because of the welcoming culture at BAE Systems, I immediately felt completely supported to request reasonable accommodations for my disability. In my department, there are multiple business units surrounding me - people moving around my desk a lot, a lot of collaboration that can be distracting for me. I requested noise cancelling headphones to help block out the distractions as well as a standing desk for my pent up energy. 

Luke: That's great, it sounds like you're lucky to have such a supportive environment. What advice do you have for others who are thinking of sharing their story/disclosing their disability?

Daniel: The advice I would give for others who are thinking of sharing their stories is that they should not feel intimated or scared about disclosing their disability. Revolutionary strides in awareness and openness are being made and this is the perfect time to share their story. People do not often realize that stories are powerful and that they can truly inspire others to share as well. You never really know how much you can help someone by giving them the courage to ask for accommodation for their job tasks if they need it. I hope my story encourages or helps someone in a similar situation. 

I am so thankful for BAE Systems as the organization allowed me to use my strengths in working towards the company’s vision of disability inclusion.