Russell Shaffer is the first to admit that his career has taken a lot of twists and turns, many of them unexpected and unconventional. But it certainly led him in the right direction because today he’s Executive Vice President of Strategy & Programs at Disability:IN.
The organization is “the leading nonprofit resource for business disability inclusion worldwide.” Disability:IN has a network of more than 500 corporations they work with to create more inclusive, equitable workplaces and create opportunities for people with disabilities. Russell also serves on APH’s Board of Trustees.
“I’m at Disability:IN because I believe in the transformative power of this organization,” he says. “I think our secret sauce is our team of passionate, committed subject-matter experts who are laser-focused on helping all our corporate partners advance their disability inclusion journey.”
Responding to a series of curveballs
If Russell hadn’t lost his vision in his late 20s due to retinitis pigmentosa (RP), his career might have taken a different trajectory. When he was first diagnosed at age 10, the doctors said he wouldn’t be blind until he was in his 40s or 50s.
It’s not that RP would have stopped Russell from the career he dreamed of: writing and communications. In his youth, he avidly read the newspaper over weekend breakfasts with his parents and worked on the student newspaper in high school. When he began college, Russell took an Intro to Communications course that led him to major in communications. Because he also enjoyed business and marketing, Russell ultimately graduated with honors with a double major in Business Administration and Communication Arts.
“What intrigued me more than anything was the question of how you tell a good story,” he says. “Whether I was going to be a journalist or work in public relations, I wanted to inform and influence people with words.”
When he graduated in August 2001, he was “ready to take the world by storm,” he says. But the next month, on September 11, the entire world changed.
“I found myself competing for entry-level jobs with people who had ten years’ worth of experience,” he says.
Still, Russell continued pursuing career opportunities. While working a retail job, he had what he calls a “glorified internship” in communications for a local nonprofit and then worked for an organization that served people who are blind or low vision.
In the meantime, he started a part-time job as a sports writer – the newspaper section he always read first in his youth – and decided maybe journalism was his calling. Someone contacted Russell about a job as a sports editor at a daily newspaper that barely paid a living wage.
“I wanted to find a career that would eventually allow me to support a family,” he says, “so I closed the book on journalism and shifted to corporate communications and PR.”
Finding opportunities in unexpected places
That turned out to be a very smart decision. Russell landed some communications and advertising copywriting jobs and eventually was hired by Walmart, where he spent seven years as a Communications Manager.
“I had just started working at Walmart when my vision started to crater – and I was about to become a father for the first time – and I did not have the skills from an orientation and mobility or assistive technology point of view,” Russell says. “I was very fortunate that Walmart has great employee assistance benefits, which allowed me to talk to a counselor and get some support.”
He admits he struggled with the emotional toll of losing his vision more than blindness itself. He also lost his confidence to speak for himself or others, which he found particularly troubling as a communicator. But through the services he received from Walmart, something remarkable happened.
“In the pursuit of finding support, I actually found what would become a pivot point in my career,” Russell says.
He got involved with Walmart’s disability employee resource group, which helped him regain his voice and the voice to advocate for others. The latter was especially true when he served as Chair of the group.
Russell also took the rather unconventional step of leaving Walmart in 2012 after seven years to be a stay-at-home dad when he and his wife had their second child. Plus, he knew he needed Orientation & Mobility (O&M) and assistive technology training to truly excel at work.
Russell returned to Walmart two years later and was promoted three times in four years. “I never would have been able to achieve that if I hadn’t sidelined myself,” he says.
Hitting new heights through hard work and authenticity
Russell returned to Walmart initially in a senior position in Corporate Affairs, managing Walmart’s corporate strategy and stakeholder outreach for people with disabilities and aging constituencies.
While in that position, Walmart hired a new Chief Diversity Officer, Ben Hasan. Over the next four years, Russell worked his way up to Senior Director – Global Culture, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” Russell says. “And my career really took off when I stopped trying to cover for my disability and leaned into my identity. That’s why I’m such a big proponent of disclosing your disability when the time is right for you.” (See the related story and Russell’s Employment Connections conversation here).
He adds that Ben’s mentorship was invaluable. “To have someone who helped me grow and gave me opportunities and believed in me really helped me unlock the full extent of my potential,” Russell says.
When Ben retired in 2022, Russell took stock of where he was in his career. He says there were many compelling reasons to stay at Walmart, but he also saw the chance to discover what else was out there.
That ultimately led him to Disability:IN – an organization he’d known about for years, having managed Walmart’s relationship with them.
“I consider it a great privilege to essentially continue the work I did at Walmart, trying to create more equitable and inclusive workspaces for everyone,” Russell says. “It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, and every day is a dream come true.”
Russell has even more to share about his career experiences. Join the APH ConnectCenter for a CareerConversation on September 7 at 6 p.m. Eastern as we interview Russell and provide time for the audience’s career-related questions! Register here.