Tactics: Dr. Jennifer Camota Luebke Wants to Change the Game for Disabled Workers

Jason E. Kaplan

The president and CEO of Relay Resources reflects on her new job, and how employers can put hiring people with disabilities front and center.

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“I always like to tell people that first and foremost, I’m a mom,” Dr. Jennifer Camota Luebke tells Oregon Business at the start of a Zoom call in April. She’s been advocating for people with disabilities for decades — her 25-year-old son has an intellectual disability and is a recent graduate of Georgia Institute of Technology through its EXCEL Program — but only in recent years has her paid work focused on disability issues. Previously, Camota Luebke worked for companies like Electronic Arts, Genentech and Juul Labs in a series of finance-centered roles. In 2016, she cofounded Ability Revolution, an organization that provides training and advocacy on disability justice, equity, diversity and inclusion and advocacy for students and companies. 

From 2021 to 2023, she served as the chief workforce inclusion officer at PRIDE Industries, a social enterprise organization that partners with large employers in sectors including health care, aerospace and renewable energy to place people with disabilities in new jobs. Last year Camota Luebke — a lifelong Californian — relocated to Portland to take the helm of Relay Resources, a social enterprise organization also focused on employment opportunities for people with disabilities. 

Currently, Relay has three lines of business, which employ 700 people altogether. The first is janitorial; the company has contracts throughout the state of Oregon, and some in Washington, to provide janitorial work, landscaping and floor care for clients that include the Portland Airport and Portland State University. The second line of business is document solutions, which involves digitizing and indexing paper documents. The third is supply-chain solutions, which includes light manufacturing, packing and shipping for clients that include Danner Boots, Oregon Soap and Bob’s Red Mill — which hires workers to put labels on products that are set to be shipped internationally. Relay also owns 19 different affordable-housing apartments, which are not necessarily for people with disabilities, though many residents are disabled. 

Camota Luebke spoke with OB about her first months on the job and how employers can make disability inclusion a priority rather than an afterthought — and rooting for the Blazers after a life of cheering for the Warriors. 

 This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve been in your current role for about nine months. How has that been?

It’s been great. It’s been exhilarating. It’s been challenging, but also has just been a lot of fun getting to know the Portland community, getting to know all the employees and what they do, and trying to solve problems and create a vision for the future. There are many nonprofit agencies that are very similar to Relay, and they run very similar programs. I’ve got a lot of creative ideas that I think will really leapfrog into the future. So what I’m really focused on is what is disability inclusion going to be like in employment in 20 years? 

The way that we do disability inclusion right now is very person-centered. You start with a person with a disability, you look at their strengths and their weaknesses and what their interests are, and then you try to help them find a job. All of that is really great, because we’re really taking the individual into consideration. The problem with this model, though, is that it’s incomplete. The problem with this model is that once that person with a disability has a new manager, or let’s say there’s a brand-new leadership model, or let’s say there are new products that they want to sell — if that organization isn’t committed to hiring people with disabilities and supporting them, it’s very easy to lose a job and then to have to start all over again. 

When it comes to changing employment for people with disabilities, what are you seeing in the landscape now? That idea of building the job around the person is one that I think makes a lot of sense to people, and I think that’s what a lot of people are familiar with. What are some of the other models that we could consider? 

The key thing here is to normalize disability inclusion in our communities. Many companies have programs, like an autism program or a neurodiversity program, and I think that that’s a great place to start. I really want to commend companies that are intentionally trying to create space for people with a variety of disabilities to be included. But true inclusion or belonging, that’s not a program. It’s got to be part of what you do on a normal basis. I think that companies are on the right track, but I really see in the future that it’s more than awareness, it’s more than a special program, it’s more than charity or nonprofit. It’s really, truly leveraging universal design to take into account all the voices — not just people with disabilities but people who are racial minorities, people who are in the LGBTQIA+ community, just looking at all of the needs of people. Because when we consider everyone, then we have a much better chance of building systems and processes that are truly inclusive and meant for everyone, building spaces where people truly feel like they belong. 

I think in the future we really need to think through universal design, to capture all those minoritized populations and make sure that we build spaces, employment spaces, schools, communities where people belong, and that we normalize disability. Disability is just a natural part of the human condition. Any one of us can be disabled at any time. When we think about it that way, it’s not this foreign thing where we’re afraid of it or scared it can happen to any one of us. I think the more we widen the doors to people who have a variety of differences, a variety of ways of being, I think we just have a better society altogether. 

When you talk about universal design, how would you define that term? And how does that play into creating better employment outcomes?

I think that if companies truly are using universal design, that’s not just for people with disabilities, it’s for really any minoritized population. One way to normalize disability is, in the interview or the onboarding process, to talk about all of the supports or different development that a company can provide or does provide already. That could be saying, “We have an EAP program, we have Excel classes, we have a sign-language interpreter for any employee who needs one, we have different computer equipment for people who need it.” You take away the stigma and say, “This is just a normal part of what we do, and here’s the list of things that we provide to employees.” If you phrase it in that way, you don’t make it this thing where employees have to self-disclose because they need an accommodation, right? 

Are there universal design principles that play out in the way that Relay Resources is run, or that you’re looking at implementing?

We are really in the beginning stages of expanding our employment. One of the things that we’re looking at is implementing universal design in everything we do. We’re also really looking at how can we be a place to convene for employers to get best practices — whether it’s in universal design or in any other type of approach to become more disability-inclusive. I’ve got some really cool ideas, one of which is to create an area where we have a simulation space. The best way to do this is not to simulate the disability — like putting a cloth over someone’s eyes to simulate blindness — to change the environment so that a nondisabled person feels like they don’t belong in that environment. So for example, if we were to have a space where the ceiling was five feet tall, the doors were maybe twice as wide as normal doors and there were no chairs in this space. That would be perfect for somebody in a wheelchair. But for someone like me — I’m 5-foot-8 — my back would start hurting, I’d be looking for a place to sit, it just would be very uncomfortable. So that’s a way to kind of drive the point home, about making spaces universally designed for a variety of people. I think creating spaces that typically abled, nondisabled people find uncomfortable can really help people understand that, for many people who identify with a disability, it’s not the disability that restricts them. It’s the environment and the attitude of people that is restrictive. So we’re looking to that to teach others what we do. 

What do you do when you’re not at work?

I love basketball. I’m adopting the Portland Trail Blazers as my basketball team, though I’ve been a Warriors fan my entire life. I’m getting more involved in soccer — I just love watching sporting events. I have a cat — it’s actually my son’s cat; his roommate is allergic. So I like to hang out with my son’s cat. My husband’s a special-ed teacher, and so we work with a lot of different families to really help them advocate the IEP process in schools. There are a lot of college programs for people with  intellectual disability. So we help a lot of families navigate that admissions process and the process of having their child, perhaps away from home for the first time, taking different classes. We do a lot because we love this population. We really take the work that we do seriously. But to have fun, I definitely watch sports. 

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