Creating disability ethics training that goes beyond compliance – Scholar Q&A with Edward Timke

June 12, 2024 • Jonathan McVerry

Ed Timke, a scholar from Michigan State University

Two Page Center scholars from Michigan State University are leading a study that addresses a gap in disability-focused ethics training in the public relations industry. They will study ethical dimensions of accessibility and accommodation within the industry, making it both compliant in its rules, but also genuinely empathetic in its culture. First-time Page Center scholar Edward Timke and three-time Center scholar Chuqing Dong hope in-depth interviews and focus groups will help them set the stage for other fields and industries to advance this type of training. The project is part of the Page Center’s 2024 research call on ethics training in public relations, journalism, advertising and strategic communication. In this Q&A, Dr. Timke provides an overview of the duo’s plan for their study, the gap in training opportunities and their mission to make accessibility the cultural standard.

What is the origin of your project, and what was your path to this research idea?

I'm working with Dr. Chuqing Dong. She is a PR scholar studying ethics in PR and corporate social responsibility. I straddle PR and advertising, and my focus is on disabilities. I've also done intercultural training, so I have a training background as well. When we saw the call, we put our heads together and asked how we could blend our areas of interest into something that would fit. I'm learning from her about important topics like ethics of care and stakeholder relationship management within and outside of an organization. She said that she's learning more about disabilities and communication. So, we thought, let’s make this happen.

In terms of identifying the issue, can you describe what ethics of care training is in PR?

It is awareness and it is comprehension, but it's also thinking of ways to strategize actions. What can people do with the knowledge they have? Folks in the DEI space know that people need to do their homework, especially when they’re working with historically marginalized communities. So, ethics of care and what ethics training is all about is defining roles and responsibilities, finding ways to inform ourselves and feeling OK asking questions. There’s a fine line, so I think that’s what we’re curious about. How does that take place among practitioners in different circumstances?

You have interviews and focus groups planned. Can you discuss how they’ll help you study these programs and identify gaps?

Part of the benefit of interviews and focus groups is that you can go in-depth. We can understand people's specific stories and experiences, and if they are a person with a disability, some of their identity may factor into what they're seeing or not seeing. The reason we’re doing focus groups is to get people reflecting, generating ideas and sharing experiences that they may not share individually. Given the exploratory nature of this purposeful study, qualitative insights from interviews and focus groups are valuable, and we believe such insights will set the foundation for surveys at a larger scale in the future. It will be strategic communication and PR right now, but we could expand to other fields as well.

Being compliant with regulations and building empathy seem like two different worlds. How will you address that in your study?

Compliance is something employers must do, and universities tend to be good at this. There's the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under that, in educational or employment settings, there are certain things you must do to make sure people with disabilities have the resources they need to educate themselves and work. In some organizational environments, it’s sort of just lawyers checking a box. It’s “HR is OK and the company is protected.” There are places that need to take a step beyond that. It’s great that they’re following the baseline metric for accessibility, but does it actually help create an inclusive culture for the organization? If folks with disabilities are navigating through life and work, and places treat disabilities as a compliance issue or just a box to check, that culture may not fit them.  For example, someone can get assistive technology, but if managers or colleagues are not treating them well or recognizing what their disability is all about because of their accommodation, then they may not feel welcome. A lot of advocates are pushing beyond compliance, and it’s not just for disabilities. Title IX is an example. You can have equal sports, but if women in sports are put in a different place without the same resources and scholarships, it doesn’t feel equitable.

Do you have a vision of what this type of training would look like in an organization?

We have big dreams. Decision-makers are often setting a cultural standard. How does an organization communicate about disabilities? What are the rules? Decision makers set that up, but how can you build a situation where people can communicate in ways that are accessible and inclusive? We also hope people become more eager and excited to make accessibility tools available. They don't have to be expensive or onerous to implement. They don't have to be complicated. It can be as simple as captions in a meeting or using ChatGPT to analyze images and create alt text that describes the image. We want to get folks who are setting the culture in PR workplaces to find ways to make people feel comfortable to talk about disabilities and accessibilities. We want them to ask and talk about accommodations and offer accommodations and accessibility. After what’s done internally is done well, we’d like PR practitioners to ask how they can share that positive culture outside the organization. Because if you can have really good things happening internally, the idea is that it’s also happening externally. Serving people with disabilities internally helps serve them externally, too.

Talk about the Page Center’s role in this project and in helping you achieve your research goals?

Supporting research through funding is huge. The intersection of strategic communication and disability is an area that is still growing, so I think the financial support says a lot. Second, getting feedback from board members and others who are doing their own projects will help us refine things before we dive in. And, I think just having a conversation like this interview and working with the Page Center will bring important exposure to others about the need for more disability inclusion. It’s the network and the support–getting funding for projects like this is challenging, as I’ve seen in other work I do on the history of advertising and PR. So, we're incredibly grateful that the Page Center is making this project happen and setting disability inclusion and accessibility as a top research priority.