Tech disability community meets for conversation and connection

 

Two years ago, Natasha Walton — then a product manager at Adobe — helped found AccessAdobe, a resource group for Adobe employees with disabilities. But when Walton looked for a broader advocacy group for people with disabilities working in technology, she couldn’t find one.

“It turned out that there wasn’t a single organization, initiative, fund or community dedicated to disability in the industry,” said Walton via email. “I was stunned.”

So last year — just in time for National Disability Awareness Month in 2018 — she launched Tech Disability Project, a platform for people in tech with disabilities to share their personal stories as Medium posts. On Oct. 7, the Project hosted its first in-person panel discussion and mixer in partnership with Adobe in San Francisco.

An estimated 15 percent of the world’s population live with disabilities, making them the world’s largest minority and the only minority group that any person can join at any time. Yet, employment opportunities in the US for the working population with disabilities has consistently lagged behind that of non-disabled people. According to a 2018 report by The Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire, the employment-to-population ratio for people with disabilities in the US is less than 40 percent, compared to the employment-to-population ratio of over 75 percent for people without disabilities.

Since Google released its first Diversity Annual Report in 2014, the technology industry has focused on increasing racial and gender diversity within its ranks. Major technology companies — including Apple, GitHub, Google and Facebook — now have resource groups for people of color, women and LGBTQ employees.

But the same outreach has been slower for tech workers with disabilities. Demographic data on employees who self-identify as having a disability is often some of the last to be added to diversity reports. And some major tech firms still lack resource groups focused on disability.

The Tech Disability Project’s first in-person gathering provided a space for tech workers with disabilities to meet, share their experiences, and discuss their hopes for disability advocacy in the tech industry.

PODCAST TRANSCRIPT HERE

Audience members with assistive technologies listen to panelist moderator Natasha Walton and panelists Govind Balakrishnan, Iris McLeary, Sunday Parker and Srin Madipalli. The panel was hosted by Tech Disability Project at Adobe headquarters in San Francisco on Monday, October 7, 2019. (Irena Fischer-Hwang/Peninsula Press)

When panelist and software engineer Iris McLeary joined Mixpanel, she eagerly signed up for their disability resource group, Mixability.

It turned be a group of one.

As the first member of Mixability, McLeary automatically took on the role of lead for the group. Under McLeary’s direction, over the last year and a half Mixability has become one of Mixpanel’s most visible employee resource groups.

Mixability’s message is simple: all tech workers, including those with disabilities and those who are non-disabled, deserve access to resources that allow them to perform optimally. McLeary —  who has bipolar disorder and ADHD — believes that a more expansive understanding of different working styles is crucial for pushing back against a “tech bro culture” that normalizes all-nighters and unreasonable working hours.

“We all bring something different to work, and we all need different accommodations to do our best,” said McLeary. “Everyone deserves access to that.”

For McLeary, accommodation means working with her manager to customize work schedules in order to manage her mental illness.

The most fundamental level of accommodation is physical. The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law in 1990, and requires businesses to make “reasonable modifications” to serve people with disabilities. However, often-overlooked details like table height, office layout and even the weight of cafeteria dishware can make workplaces difficult to navigate for people with physical accessibility needs.

These details can make choosing when and whether to disclose disability status feel like a fraught decision, even from the start.

Sunday Parker, the accessibility outreach program manager at Salesforce, shared her own experience in disclosing disability status. Parker, who uses a wheelchair, tends to disclose her need for physical accommodations when they become necessary, for instance during an on-site interview but not during a phone interview.

Disclosing her requirements for physical accommodations allows recruiters to plan accordingly. More importantly, it “takes the stress off of your shoulder as a candidate to [not have to] be thinking about one more thing,” said Parker.

Based on her own experience, Parker also cautioned against accepting an employment offer without getting written verification that the employer will honor requests for reasonable accommodations.

“In the past [I] have accepted a job offer without requesting the accommodations, and when I did come on day one…I then asked for those accommodations and did not receive them,” Parker said.

Sometimes, accommodations are denied simply due to a lack of familiarity with disability rights.

Alexis Alvarez, Senior Staff Attorney for the Disability Rights Program of Legal Aid at Work, has found this to be especially true of small startups — the fixtures of Silicon Valley — which often lack personnel with training in disability awareness.<

“Sometimes the initial reaction from an employer is, ‘Oh, no, no, we can’t do that.’” said Alvarez. “And it’s not for any reason other than, you know, ‘this is the first time I’m encountering something like this.’”

Yet there is a real incentive for tech companies to create more accessible workplaces. According to a 2018 Accenture report published in partnership with the American Association of People with Disabilities, disability hiring and inclusion significantly increases shareholder returns, not to mention the well-being of employees.

Govind Balakrishnan, vice president of Creative Cloud Product and Services at Adobe, and executive sponsor for the AccessAdobe, recognizes this benefit. At Adobe — which specializes in creativity tools — disability inclusion is both a business advantage as well as a moral imperative.

“You have to make sure that you’re also working with the community,” said Balakrishnan. “What if we could try to help [customers with disabilities] learn how to use a product so that they can find avenues to express their creativity more seamlessly and easily?” Balakrishnan said.

This is why Adobe products are carefully designed to have interfaces that are high contrast, visually simple, and usable by color blind customers.

Given the power that the technology industry has on modern society, Walton hopes that her work in increasing attention to accessibility in tech products is just a starting point.

“I want to continue increasing disability representation, not only in the tech industry, but in mainstream culture as well.”