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REI: Navigating Inclusion through Innovative Partnerships

Employer Case Study: Learn about the important role partnerships play in meeting workforce needs.

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Recreational Equipment, Inc., commonly known as REI, is an outdoor retailer that also offers classes, event and vacations through its Outdoor School. For the past few years, REI has taken steps to make the company, and by extension outdoor recreation, more inclusive for people with disabilities. 

According to REI’s 2018 Stewardship Report, disability is a key focus of the company’s diversity, equality, and inclusion efforts. To build a workforce that reflects the company’s desired customer base, REI partnered with the National Organization on Disability (NOD) on an initiative to recruit and hire people with disabilities to staff its distribution center in Goodyear, AZ.

From previous experience, REI knew that it can take time for managers to build competency supervising employees with disabilities. The company wanted to train employees of all levels to ensure a smooth transition and a welcoming environment for team members with disabilities. With this in mind, NOD developed training materials for REI’s leadership team, as well as a curriculum for staff members about disability etiquette and awareness. More than 30 regional managers and 120 staff members participated in the trainings, which “took out a lot of the guess work, a lot of the mystery, and a lot of the mystique” of working with people with disabilities, according to Emily Garcia, an HR Generalist for REI.

Staff members and managers quickly began to see changes in the facility’s culture, including a desire of staff members to be more inclusive and to improve accessibility for employees with disabilities. For example, one of the facility’s new employees who is deaf and uses American Sign Language (ASL) has been teaching coworkers basic signs, so they can communicate more efficiently with her. In turn, some employees have decided to take secondary education classes to further develop their signing skills.

NOD also conducted a comprehensive review of REI’s disability inclusion policies and provided recommendations for additional ways the company can advance their inclusion goals.

Of the experience, Chris Joyce, Director of Operations for REI, said, “This was a fantastic opportunity to connect with a population of people who truly want to work, who are interested in your success, that if you give them a shot, are just some of your most loyal employees that you’d ever want to work with.”

Another example of REI’s commitment to a disability-inclusive workplace is Outdoor School instructor Diedre Tanenberg. Tanenberg, who is deaf, is the first instructor at REI’s Outdoor School to teach classes in ASL, inspiring others who are deaf or hard of hearing to enjoy the great outdoors.

After graduating from college in 2012 with a degree in environmental studies and outdoor leadership, Tanenberg began working at REI as a sales associate. She worked her way up over the years and now teaches outdoor classes in California. She typically leads three to 15 people on hikes, teaching them the “Ten Essentials” for outdoor adventurers, orienteering, and ways to be a good steward to nature.

Tanenberg is a powerful example of the impact of inclusion and accessibility. She says she hopes other companies will work to become more welcoming to outdoor adventurers with disabilities.