Kettering University graduate leading GM’s People With Disabilities Employee Resource Group

Renee Arrington-Johnson ‘82, a senior industrial engineer who is legally blind, leads GM’s People With Disabilities Employee Resource Group.

Renee Arrington-Johnson ‘82 doesn’t let her disability slow her down. In fact, she embraces it while also encouraging and empowering others with disabilities in the engineering industry.

The work that she’s done has an impact far beyond herself.

Arrington-Johnson was nationally recognized on March 31 by CAREERS & the disABLED Magazine for her work in advocating for people with disabilities at General Motors. Each year only a handful of people are selected by the publication, which is the nation’s first and only career-guidance and recruitment magazine for professionals with disabilities.

Arrington-Johnson, a senior industrial engineer who is legally blind, leads GM’s People With Disabilities Employee Resource Group. Through her leadership, GM has made a range of significant improvements that have benefited people with disabilities from HR inclusive policies to input into new product features.

Her work has helped GM rank among the top disability-friendly employers in the country.

“It’s always nice for people to recognize you when you’re doing something over and above your normal work. But the real good thing out of it is the good that it does to bring awareness for the people in the company that need someone to talk to about their disability,” Arrington-Johnson said.

She wants employees to know there are people who can help them, there are things companies can do to make themselves more inclusive.

It’s important to make sure a company embraces all people, those with disabilities and those without.

“No matter what your background, we want your talent,” Arrington-Johnson said. “There is a talent pool out there, and we don’t want to lose that talent to someone else. A lot of people with disabilities are very skilled and very highly qualified.”

Arrington-Johnson was born with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disorder that affects the retina’s ability to respond to light and consequently causes gradual vision loss. Her parents discovered the eye disorder at age 13 after noticing that their daughter constantly walked into doors and walls. Today, her peripheral vision is less than 5 degrees.

She was told by doctors that her vision would continue to get worse as time went along.

“I was counseled to pick a career that I didn’t need my vision. I’m glad I didn’t listen,” Arrington-Johnson said.   

Engineering was something she knew she wanted to pursue. With math and science always being something she liked, it was a natural fit for her.

Arrington-Johnson chose Kettering for the engineering program and for the co-op opportunity.

“I liked the fact that I got to work right away,” she said. “Kettering was a great environment when I was in school. I loved the work, the school and the balance between the two. It was great to be around like-minded people.”

Kettering students were there to work and learn. They knew it wasn’t easy, but they got in teams and got things done, she said.

“It was a great experience for me. One of the things that I liked about Kettering was the accessibility of everyone -- professors, deans, everyone,” Arrington-Johnson said.

Following her passion

She started at GM as a co-op student in 1977 and became full time in 1982.

Her job assignments at GM have changed over the years. She’s been in the plant, designed equipment for assembling parts, worked in the corporate world and now looks at performance metrics to assess safety, quality, cost and energy.

“The one common thread through all of those things is that I deal with a lot of different people who start out with a goal and you are working cross functionally to accomplish something,” Arrington-Johnson said. “I keep things moving, keep things on budget and work on deadlines. That’s something I love. I like working with people.”

Throughout her career, Arrington-Johnson has made adjustments at work to make it possible for her to do her job. She uses a screen reader or screen enlarger, sometimes works from home and usually rides to work with her husband.

She doesn’t let any of that stop her from doing the job she loves.

While leading GM’s People With Disabilities Employee Resource Group, Arrington-Johnson has helped bring a lot of improvements to the company. Some of those improvements include installing ramps and handicap doors, along with other facility changes, special lighting and ways to request facility updates.

Now an accommodation request is treated with the same importance as a safety request.

“It lets people know it’s important and it allows it to be tracked,” she said.

Being inclusive is important not only in the workplace but in life is important, Arrington-Johnson said.

She has never let her disability slow her down and she encourages others with disabilities to pursue their passions.

“When you have a disability you’ve already met some of life’s challenges as far as problem solving. Those kinds of skills are transferable to a lot of different things,” Arrington-Johnson said. “You know your capabilities. There’s more than one way to get things done.”

And that’s something to remember for all students, she said.

“Your path might not take you down the road you thought it would, but it’s the direction for you,” Arrington-Johnson said.