February 15, 2022
Amplify Inclusion Podcast
Welcome to Amplify Inclusion, a podcast where we share authentic stories of inclusion in action.
Matthew Shapiro, Founder and CEO of 6 Wheels Consulting, LLC, shares his experience and discusses his ongoing work to advance disability inclusion. Listen now or view the full transcript below.
This episode was co-produced and engineered by Subframe Sound with music courtesy of Nealle DiPaolo. This season is made possible thanks to generous support from the Fred J. Brunner Foundation and members of the Aspire community.
Welcome to Amplify Inclusion. I’m Clare from the nonprofit, Aspire. Thanks for joining us for stories and conversation about disability inclusion. Today, my guest is Matthew Shapiro, founder and CEO of Six Wheels Consulting, LLC based in Virginia. Matthew is an educator and leader of disability related issues, who works with clients in both the public and private sectors to help create more inclusive environments. Matthew is a national speaker and has served on numerous disability boards. He also co-hosts the Six Wheels Consulting Disability Podcast. Matthew and I recently spoke about his experience and his ongoing work to advance inclusion. Here’s our conversation. So Matthew, I’m really thrilled to have you with me today. Thank you for being here.
Hey, Clare, so excited to be here with you. I’m looking forward to a fun and engaging conversation.
I know that you are a super busy guy. Every time we chat, you’re kind of bouncing from one really exciting project to the next- so, let’s start there. Tell me what you’re working on right now.
I am very fortunate with the work that I do. To get to work on a lot of cool and different things. As we’re recording this we’re currently in legislative session in Virginia, where I’m born and bred. And so I am currently doing my legislative session where I lobby for an organization called the Virginia Association of People Supporting Employment First. So we want people with disabilities to work in competitive integrated employment settings, making good wages, you know, with opportunities for advancement. So working on legislative initiatives there- this is year number five, for me doing that work. I’m the biggest political nerd you will ever meet. And so, anytime I can be involved in the political process, you know, definitely all for that. In addition to that work, I am very excited to be diving into working with a lot of architect firms on physical space assessments, being kind of their ADA and inclusion expert. One project that I know I can confirm and talk about is- very fortunate to be working with architect firm in Virginia to rebuild the Virginia Supreme Court building. And in that project, again, I’m serving as the ADA and inclusion specialist. So very busy, very excited for what 2022 has to offer. It’s great because I get to stretch my brain in a million different ways, which is always really fun to think about.
I’m just curious, what is the lobbying experience look like? What is that like for you?
So do you want a traditional lobbying experience? Or do you want a COVID lobbying experience? They’re kind of, they’re kind of two different things. You know, in a traditional lobbying experience, when I am down at the General Assembly, I’m down there four days a week, you know, running from office to office, talking to legislative assistants, talking to them about bills, seeing where our bill currently stands. I’m handing out legislative agendas. I’m setting up meetings with aides and staffers. I love it. And and I think the other lobbyists are seeing me, right? They see me rolling down the halls, they see me in my wheelchair, they see me busting hump, you know, every day during session. And I’m hoping that my- my presence and my hustle, for lack of a better way of saying it, you know, sort of gives other lobbyists and other legislators perspective on like, okay, like, maybe we should be thinking about this law that protects
people with disabilities, or we should be doing something differently. For the last two years, I’ve been working from home, because I really was uncertain about what was going on with COVID. And so I’m doing the same thing. It’s not all that different, it is a little bit more challenging.
Is there a bill that you feel most proud of that you’ve contributed to in that process?
Yeah, so to give a little bit of background, Virginia for the last number of years had been under a mandate to try and increase employment of people with disabilities by 5% in state government agencies. And last summer, we got data from our Department of Human Resource Management that said, we were under 1%. And so my organization pushed for a bill that would essentially do what is done in the federal level with Schedule A, I don’t know if your listeners are familiar with Schedule A, but it basically is a way for people with disabilities to get their foot in the door in federal government jobs, have them sort of be on a trial basis. And then, you know, if they fulfill all the requirements of the trial basis, they that job can then shift into full time employment into the in federal government work. And so we sort of took that model with this legislation and implemented it on the state level to try and increase employment of folks with disabilities in state agencies. So that was a three year process for us to work on, and to finally get something done. That was definitely the biggest win I was able to orchestrate and definitely very, very proud of that.
So we’re going to get shortly to talking about your business that you built, Six Wheels Consulting, but just from getting to know you a bit before our conversation today, I understand that your personal story and your journey is really a critical piece to helping us understand your career path now and the business that you’ve built. So I’m hoping we can go way back to the beginning. And I can learn a little bit more about Matthew Schapiro from the start.
So I was born January 22 1991. I was born 12 weeks premature, and spent seven weeks in the NICU unit because of being born premature, I was so premature, that and tiny, that my dad’s wedding ring fit on my wrist, like it was a bracelet. And my head was the size of an orange, you know, I was finally able to be brought home for the, I would say for the first number of years, you know, I was kind of your typical baby. And then probably around three or four is when I was diagnosed with CP cerebral palsy, and had to sort of learn to navigate, you know, being a person with disability, you know, had to had some surgeries when I was younger, had a rhizotomy to kind of help kind of cut some nerves in my back and stuff to work on spas- you know, to alleviate spasticity and different things like that. And then I would really say, you know, I think I had a pretty typical, I guess, youth upbringing, right? Like, I love sports and still love sports to this day, participated in buddy ball, participated in wheelchair basketball, did all kinds of stuff like that. And in elementary school, you know, I was the cute, adorable kid in the wheelchair. And recess was a fun time, because everyone was always trying to hang out with me and push me around in my manual chair. And then I got into middle school, and things got a little different. And I wasn’t really getting invited to parties, right? Because people didn’t really know well, “how do we get Matthew into my house?” and, you know, middle school and being in school was like my social outlet. And then pretty quickly thereafter, my family and I realized, like, our home needed to be the social place. So we needed to invite people to my house, we needed to have my friends come over and play video games, like, really make that effort. And that that really continued when I got into high school, right. And I got really active. You know, when- when I was a freshman, my brother was a senior. And before I started my freshman year, I asked my brother like, “Hey, do you have any advice for me as I’m getting ready to start this high school journey?” And he said, and these are words that I still sort of live by, even today at 31, he said, “get involved and stay involved.” And so I really took those words to heart and jumped Six Wheels in to my high school journey, right? I was the freshman class president. I was involved in leadership roles, you know, with Student Congress, I was on the student newspaper staff for four years, I was- I started out as a staff writer, then became the sports editor, then was the editor in chief for two years. I managed the boys varsity basketball team for four years, I managed football for a year. I just jumped into a
lot of different aspects of my high school career. And that’s really where I got that social outlet. It was also around that time, my junior year, my mom signed me up for a program called the Virginia Youth Leadership Forum, and didn’t tell me she was gonna sign me up for it. It was a- it was gonna be a summer program. And I got in. And originally when she told me I was, frankly, kind of PO’d, right? because I was like, well, I’m gonna miss a whole week of my summer, like, I’m gonna go and I’m gonna learn and like, I feel like I already know about being disabled. Like I, I understand that I have a disability. I know that my life is different. I’m cool with it. And I was I was mad. But to my mom’s credit, like that youth Youth Leadership Forum experience, literally changed my life. You know, up to that point, I thought I wanted to be a sports writer was, and still a huge lover of sports, was very active in journalism, as I sort of shared with my experience there, and thought I was gonna go down that path. And then I engaged with the Youth Leadership Forum. And my whole life changed. You know, that was the first time I was really around other people with disabilities. That was the first time I was away from my parents for more than a couple of hours where I had personal care attendants taking care of me, not my parents. And it was the first time I was around older people, people who were sort of my peers, but a little bit older than me, who were also people with disabilities, right? And we learned about how do you speak up for yourself? How do you feel confident in yourself? How do you think about your strengths and your weaknesses as an individual? And that’s really like, where I found my voice, I think, and by my voice, I literally mean my voice, right? My greatest strength is my ability to share a message and to be passionate about disability and inclusion in any aspect of the world. And I found my voice I found my leadership, I found my passion. And when my mom came and picked me up that Friday, she like looked at the staff member who was running the program. She goes he’s a whole different kid, like what did you do to my kid for a week, right, like, a whole different kid. And then from that point forward, like I knew I wanted to get involved in disability advocacy, and leadership and all kinds of things moving forward. And like I craved all that. So any opportunity where I could engage with the board, join a state board, join other youth leadership programming, be it disability programming or not disability programming, right, where you’re just learning more about leadership and you were soaking that all up, I tried to do that. I quickly realized, like, I can be a voice for those that don’t have a voice. After I graduated from VCU, you know,
I went and got my Interdisciplinary Studies degree, got my sociology major got my minor. From that point forward, like I knew I wanted to work in the disability space in some form or fashion. And I did a bunch of job interviews, I interviewed for some places in DC, like I love DC. And so I did some interviews there, thought I did really well in interviews, and I love interviews, because I think they’re just conversations, I was doing internships I was getting a bunch of experience was, but was just not getting job offers. And so in December 2014, like I was laying in bed, I was like, holy moly, let me like start my own business around public speaking around, you know, consulting work, you know, so you have your policy experience, you have your speaking experience, you have your consulting experience, let’s try and take all that and throw it into a pot and start a business. And so that’s where 6 Wheels was born. So 6 Wheels consulting is a disability consulting organization that really challenges- wants to challenge the way people think about, talk about, and approach disability inclusion in a number of ways. We do consulting work, so we work on white papers, architect projects, webinar development, public speaking, and then lobbying work, and particularly lobbying work in the Virginia General Assembly. And all of that work is to, again, challenge the way we think about disability inclusion and sort of go above and beyond what’s required by the ADEA, and disability inclusion. And so I think that really encompasses everything that we try to do with six wheels and- and challenge really society as a whole, not just the disability community, but society as a whole, to think differently, and more positively about people with disabilities in the disability community.
I could see even the shift in you as you’re talking about that milestone in your life and how it transformed everything for you. So I’m hoping we can talk a little bit more about physical environments. As a wheelchair user, your perspective is front and center in thinking about navigating our public facilities. So let’s talk about that, you know, what’s top of mind for you when you’re thinking about what still needs work?
So one of the big catchphrases I use within all of my work is this idea of inclusion above compliance. Because something can be compliant by the standard of the ADA, but still
not be fully inclusive for everyone to have full access to everything that that space, that building, and it doesn’t even just have to be a physical space, right? It’s everything in society- how do we make everything in society more inclusive? I would love nothing more, one day- and this happens to me on a regular basis- I would love nothing more within one day than somebody not to come up to me and go, “I’m glad you’re out today.” Or come up to me and talk to me like I’m five when I’m 31 years old, and think that I’m not smart and I’m not intelligent. And so we have to shift that entire mindset, right? And that is really what I am trying to do with all of my work. My target audience and my work is not the disability community. We get it as a community, right? My target audience, really it’s the rest of society. How can we work with the rest of society, to get them to realize like, hey, let’s make our spaces more accessible. Let’s think about diversity inclusion, on a deeper level, not just from a race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation standpoint, but let’s throw disability into that conversation. Let’s make sure disability is part of everything that we’re doing on every level of every type of business that we’re doing, whether it’s government, whether it’s, you know, recreation, whether it’s community. How do we challenge the status quo? Like I said before, I’m tired of the status quo. I want to challenge the status quo to say like, what can we do to make our world better, right? I want a world one day where I don’t have to wake up every day and wonder, hey, can I get into that space? Hey, do I have to call ahead? Most of my life is I have to plan ahead. I am so tired of planning ahead. I can’t do anything spontaneously. I can’t be like, “Oh, I’m going to go to the beach today.” And I’m gonna just hop in my car and I’m gonna drive to Virginia Beach, which is an hour away. I can’t do that. I have to say- alright, is the hotel accessible? Can I get my hoyer lift under the bed? Can I get a room with a roll-in shower, because I need a room with the roll-in shower. I do it because that’s my life. But do you also realize how exhausting it is on a day-to-day basis? And that- this is not me complaining about that. But it’s- it’s me saying like, I would love nothing more than to not have to wonder if those barriers are going to be in place. And how do we do that? Well, we make our world more accessible and inclusive for everybody. We think about diversity inclusion on a deeper level. We have all people think about disability in a unique way, right? A lot of times the only people that are really thinking about disability right now are those that are affected by it. But we truthfully we really all need to be thinking about disability, because one, disability is the only minority
group that any of us can join in the blink of an eye, and it’s the only minority group that we’re all gonna eventually join, because we’re all gonna age and need different accommodations and accessibility features as we get older. So like, why aren’t we as a as a broader society, like, doing more to like guarantee that our world is more accessible and inclusive for all people? That’s what motivates me, that’s what drives me every day to do the work that I’m doing is we really have to change the way we think about, talk about, and approach disability and disability inclusion.
Yeah, I hear you. And I mean, it makes the point that the result of people making disability inclusion an afterthought, is that you have to put all of this forethought in.
Yes, yes. Here’s the greatest example, right, when we talked about difference typically would start about is people of color, you know, LGBTQIA+. How rare is it, that disability is actually lumped into those kinds of conversations? Now, we’re getting better at it, where disability is often included in those lists, and thought about, but like, it’s still not all the way there. And it’s still not immediately present a lot of times, to your point, it’s an afterthought. And I want to get to the point where it’s not an afterthought. That’s always on our list of things we’re thinking about. We’re always thinking about accessibility, we’re always thinking about accommodations, we’re always thinking about CART services and ASL interpreters. And are we in facilities that have ramps that actually work? And is this actually accessible? We’re making progress, but we’re not, we’re not there yet.
What have you observed in your work with clients in the community to be the most central sort of first step? When we’re thinking about getting people on board getting communities on board to make progress?
A lot of times I think people think there’s a magic pill, right, that we can give them and say, like, alright, if you do all this stuff, or if you, if you come to my seminar, and you hear me talk about XYZ, like, it’s gonna happen through osmosis, right? It doesn’t. You, as an organization, have to put in the work to say, alright, if I’m going to think about DEI & Inclusion, right, if I’m going to think about disability, you as an organization need to put in the time, effort and work, you need to get a committee together, that includes people with disabilities in your workplace, that includes literally everyone from the janitor up to the CEO, of sitting down at the table and say, alright, we really want to do more around DEI. And DEI as a whole, not even just the DEI in disability, but DEI as a whole. How can we bring everyone to the table? And how can we develop a plan where we actually have things that we can implement within the plan, we’re not just developing the plan to develop the plan. And then the plan goes and sits on the shelf and we say, hey, look, we developed this DEI plan, aren’t we great? And then didn’t do anything with it. What can you develop and then actually implement some of the strategies that you say you’re going to, to do to incorporate DEI into the workplace, businesses always talk about how they want people who think outside of the box, how they think creatively, to be in the workplace. Well, hello- that is people with disabilities on a minute-by-minute basis of every day of their life. We have to think about how am I going to get from point A to point B to day, how am I going to how am I going to work in a world that’s not necessarily fully accommodating to me? We are assets in the workplace. So hire us and bring us in because we are assets. Do you have ways for people with disabilities to move up the corporate ladder, right? Like, why do we not see more CEOs of businesses being people with disabilities? Why do we not see more people with disabilities in management roles? Do we have structures that allow somebody to start off in an organization and if they have a desire and want to move up in the world. I would argue that we don’t, because we don’t see a lot of people with actual disabilities in upper level management positions. There’s a lot a lot, a lot of work that we can still do, particularly in the workplace, to really make sure disability was fully included.
So Matthew, one of the ideas that we talk about a lot at Aspire is the idea of belonging. And I think, you know, we’re talking a lot about that right now without saying it. So how
all of these things that we can see, create this internal experience and how that influences not just someone’s self-confidence, and you know, their ability to communicate, but their ability to be successful and participate in a space. So I just wanted to get your take on that concept of belonging and how you think that does or doesn’t play a role in thinking about your success and the work that you do also.
Yeah, so I mean, I think I’m always sort of without actually saying it to your point, like all the work I’m doing is trying to bring about a sense of belonging for anyone that comes into the new space that I’m working in. And how much more comfortable would I be, if I walked into that space as a potential new employee, and I saw somebody that looked like me? I am more likely to want to work in a place if I go on the website and I see somebody with a disability. That is a genuine authentic person with a disability. I am more likely to want to apply there because I know I’m not going to be the guinea pig, right? I’m not going to be the first of something to walk into that workspace, and have to tear down all the barriers and to do all the work. And so yeah, imagery matters, right? To your point a minute ago of like, feeling like I see myself and feeling like I belong, that matters.
I’d love to hear you talk a little bit more about your hopes for the future. What are you really working towards when you think about your personal and professional goals?
That’s a great question. So I think long, I mean, immediate is like doing good for my clients, right? And hitting homeruns for my clients so that they’ll want to come back for more and they’ll spread my name to other people and say, “Hey, we had the privilege of working with Matthew, he’s timely, he does great work. He is responsive, He is funny, he’s fun to be around. And he has unique ways of solving problems.” That’s my immediate need is making sure my clients are happy making sure, you know, when I do speeches, I connect to people. If I speak to an audience of 500 people and I reach one person, then I’ve done my job, I don’t need to reach all 500 people when I’m doing a
speech. If I have one person come up to me and say like, “what you just said, changed my life.” That’s all that matters to me. I don’t do any of this work for me, I do it for the community. Again, I’m tired of the status quo, I really want to see significant change. The last time we saw a significant change was 1991. That was the year I was born, it is time for us to go to the next level to take that next step. I want to see the disability community come together as a whole and not be so segmented, not be like, Oh, I’m only in it for autism, or I’m only in it for CP or no, we all have the same issues of lack of transportation of lack of job opportunities of lack of relationships and lack of people thinking that we are valuable people. Let’s all come together, right and be a unit and kind of work in the same direction to become a more forceful group of people to say like if decision makers are not going to do what we need them to do, we’re going to hold them accountable. Other future long term goals is I want to be a thought leader, a national and international thought leader, I want to be an employer of people with disabilities to help do speeches to help work on the great projects I get to work on. Yeah, and just sort of be a bigger resource and voice for disability inclusion and be like a go to voice for disability inclusion in a number of different ways. I would definitely say those are kind of my long term goals for sure.
Well, I’m so excited to see what you accomplish, Matthew. I’m really glad that we’ve been able to connect, I know that, you know, we keep brainstorming ways that we’re going to team up one of these days and, you know, bring our powers together. And I’m excited for future collaborations with you. And I just feel really honored to have this time to learn more about you as a person. So thank you for spending this time with me.
Yeah, no, absolutely. I’m trying and thank you for, for all the work that you and your team do at Aspire, you know, we need more wonderful organizations like Aspire to continue to do that work. And if I can help in any way, shape, fashion, or form, you
know, let me know, and we all need to be fighting the same fight and rowing the boat in the same direction.
Thank you to my guest, Matthew Shapiro. Check out the links in the episode description to learn more about Six Wheels Consulting. Join us next time for my conversation with author and fellow podcaster, Diana Pastora Carson. Until then, stay connected with us at AspireChicago.com and be a part of the inclusive movement by writing and subscribing to Amplify Inclusion. This episode was co-produced and engineered by Subframe Sound. This season is made possible thanks to generous support from the Fred J. Brunner Foundation and members of the Aspire community.
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