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Walking the Talk: Disability Inclusion and Crafting a Future of Belonging at Blue Shield

Patrice Bergman shares her journey from dedicated disability champion and ally, to experiencing a disability of her own.
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Patrice Bergman, vice president of Individual and Family Plans, Blue Shield

At Blue Shield of California, we are working toward a future where diversity is celebrated, equity is championed, inclusion is the norm, and belonging is felt by all — including those with disabilities. While some disabilities are visible and some are not, nearly everyone is likely to experience some form of disability, temporary or permanent, at some point in their life. People with disabilities represent a vast talent pool of skills and expertise and including them in our workforce at all levels ensures we are reflecting the diverse communities we serve.

We recently spoke with Patrice Bergman, vice president of Individual and Family Plans, and co-executive sponsor of Blue Shield’s Disability Inclusion Alliance employee resource group, about her personal journey and how Blue Shield is working to bring all voices to the table, including people with disabilities.

Could you share with us a bit about your professional journey?

I’ve always worked in the insurance industry. During the first half of my career, I worked for a disability carrier, focused on helping people with a disability continue working. After 15 years at Blue Shield, I seek to bring a greater health equity lens to the work we do in support of Blue Shield’s mission — building a health care system worthy of our family and friends.  I was an inaugural member of the Blue Shield Diversity Leadership Council six years ago, and I’ve been actively involved as both an advisor for our Elevating Women and an executive sponsor for our Disability Inclusion Alliance employee resource groups.

How did you get involved with the Disability Inclusion Alliance employee resource group?

I joined the Disability Inclusion Alliance a few years ago as an ally trying to help my family members navigate the mental health system. Now as co-executive sponsor, I also represent this group on the Diversity Leadership Council. The Disability Inclusion Alliance has over 600 members, both people with disabilities and allies, and it is a community united around a common cause, offering information, connection, development and support.

I was recently diagnosed with my own disability, partial hearing loss. The group has given me a sense of community, safety and acceptance, as well as helpful information and resources. When we bring our full selves to work, employee resource groups not only give us support, but also make us better coworkers and leaders, enabling us to be more empathetic and supportive of others around us. And as we are in the business of health care, it allows us to ultimately better serve our members.

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Disabilty Inclusion Alliance members with disability advocate and speaker Alycia Anderson

As a person and a leader, how has your perspective changed since becoming involved with the Disability Inclusion Alliance, as well as having a newly diagnosed disability?  

I definitely have felt empowered to take advantage of the tools and resources Blue Shield has available, and I can appreciate more fully something as simple as the availability of transcription in a video meeting. I can be more present and engaged in my work because I have these resources at my disposal. My experience has made me further aware of the diversity of experiences of people at Blue Shield. I am proactive about easy, systemic ways we can support and enable accommodations in our daily work, like setting standards for meetings and providing written materials in advance, enabling closed caption or sign language interpretation, and simply asking consistently about support needs — just being more comfortable and conversant about not everyone experiencing the world in the same way. I feel especially obligated as a people leader to ensure inclusion is part of the fabric of our organization.

Blue Shield recently received the National Organization on Disability’s (NOD) Leading Disability Employer seal for the third time. What is Blue Shield doing well, and where is there still room for improvement?

I am proud of the work happening at Blue Shield with disability inclusion. We’ve focused our efforts on creating sustainable, lasting means of educating our workforce and especially our people leaders about disability awareness and support, dismantling ableism and basic disability etiquette. Disability is not a bad word, nor should someone be defined by their disability. And this work has also carried over into how we design, create and communicate health care products, tools and support to our members.

Currently, 5% of our workforce is people with disabilities, which is on par with the eligible workforce in California. However, while we are proud of this recent recognition as a Leading Disability Employer, there is much work to be done. For example, what can we do to better support our talent acquisition teams in seeking diverse talent? How do we support our talent so that they have the tools they need to be successful? We’ve got a good start, and I’m looking forward to planned expansions of these programs in the year ahead.

Do you have any advice for Blue Shield employees living with a disability?

I understand that for many self-identifying is not comfortable. It’s very common to feel vulnerable or exposed, and to have fears about being seen as incapable, being excluded, or feeling “othered.” But my experience with self-identifying and being affiliated with our disability-focused employee resource group has been the definition of community, connection, acceptance and safety. I’ve also observed a sense of community may come from more than one employee resource group. As people, we rarely fit neatly into a single identity.  And as one in five people in America have a disability, it is factual that people with disabilities are represented in every race, ethnicity and identity group. You may be a gay Latino man with a disability, or perhaps a woman veteran with a disability. Recognizing that intersectionality is important.

Is there a message you would like to convey about the importance of embracing diversity, including disabilities, within the workplace and the broader professional world?

Yes, embracing diversity makes us a better workforce, provides us a better workplace, and positions us to better support our members in the marketplace. When there are more voices, we hear more perspectives. And disability has so many nuances – a person could be living with a life-long disability, or a newly acquired one. Their disability could be temporary or permanent, visible or non-visible. The more we understand about those around us and their unique and diverse experiences, the richer our ideas about what’s possible, and the better we can become for our teammates, friends, allies, and the members we serve. That’s certainly the future I’m working toward.

To learn more about our employee resource groups and more at Blue Shield, visit our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion page.

If you’d like to learn more about available career opportunities at Blue Shield, please check out our Careers page.