Russell Shaffer on overcoming his own internalized bias

Industry leaders discuss business disability inclusion at the 2022 Disability:IN Conference
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At the age of 10, Russell Shaffer was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa.

Shaffer – who is now senior director of global culture, diversity, equity & inclusion at Walmart – sat down with WorkingNation at 2022 Disability:IN Conference in Dallas.

Shaffer and his parents were told that he would lose his sight by specialists in Massachusetts. He says, “What they were off on was the timeline. They told me that I would go blind in my forties or my fifties. Instead by my late twenties, I had lost pretty much all usable vision.”

He continues, “For me, the most disabling thing that ever happened was not losing the ability to see. It was what losing the ability to see did to me emotionally and psychologically. I think that gets discounted, particularly for people with acquired disabilities or progressive conditions like my own, is that there is an emotional and psychological piece to the physical or sensory disability that often gets discounted or doesn’t get treated.”

Shaffer says early in his career, he did not disclose his disability. “It was easier for me to be able to conceal the fact that I had a disability as I was losing my vision. I could go in for an interview and I could pass, so to speak, during that interview period.”

He adds, “And I frankly didn’t feel comfortable with disclosing that I had vision loss because I knew that there was stigma. I had internalized bias.”

In high school and college, Shaffer worked at Walmart to help pay expenses. Some years later, Shaffer and his wife were trying to determine next steps and decided to move to Bentonville – where Walmart is headquartered – to try to get new jobs.

“That was Memorial Day weekend of 2005. By January of 2006, I was working in benefits communications at the corporate office. Putting that experience – working in our stores when I was in college together with the degree that I had and the little bit of professional experience that I had up until that point as a communications professional – that was the start of Act 2 my Walmart career,” says Shaffer.

He credits resources provided by the company as an impactful point in his life. “There was really no greater impact on my life and my career than finding an associate resource group. There’s no greater starting point or potentially more directly impactful thing that a company can do on its inclusion journey than having resource groups that give people a chance to plug in, connect, belong, find themselves, and hopefully, find their voice.”

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