For many of us, childhood is pivotal in the formation of our world view. We learn who we are, what we can be and how to relate to others and the world around us through interactions with our family, friends and community. It is in those environments where we learn a sense of right and wrong, justice and injustice, and how to be good neighbors to all people. As we recognize the disability community at Microsoft throughout December along with International Day of Persons with Disabilities on Dec. 3, I want to reflect on my personal journey of moving from awareness to allyship for people with disabilities.
My journey started when I was a child growing up in London. My next-door neighbor was deaf. Although I did not have a full understanding of what it meant to be deaf, I knew he was teased and excluded by the other children in the neighborhood simply because of his deafness. While I did not know as a child how to react to what I saw as a grave injustice, the experience introduced in me an awareness of the various challenges presented by a society that does not always consider the needs of those with deafness and disabilities.
Over the years, personal and professional experiences and relationships have helped me both deepen that awareness of the lived experiences of people with disabilities and understand how to take action. At Microsoft, I have the opportunity to serve as the executive co-sponsor of the global Disability at Microsoft employee resource group (ERG), and the work we do together as a community is critical to the inclusion of all employees. One of the key learnings for me has been how the conversation around disability must continue to evolve with speed so that we are all aware of the many dimensions of both visible and invisible disabilities.
Listen, learn and advocate
Coworkers who have shared their personal stories of having to cover their disabilities to fit in at work have helped me recognize how harmful covering can be in the workplace – and in all aspects of one’s life – and why it is so critical that we collectively create workplace environments where every person feels they can be their full selves. Connecting to people’s stories within and beyond Microsoft has also helped me learn to listen deeply, not make assumptions and seek to better understand their experiences with curiosity and empathy. Each conversation and encounter has moved me further on my journey from awareness to aspiring allyship.
Being trusted with those stories gave me a sense of responsibility to use my position as a leader to influence others and advocate for and create inclusive environments, especially in the workplace. As an advocate, and mentor, I supported Jenny Lay-Flurrie on her journey to become Microsoft’s Chief Accessibility Officer. Having her in the role opened a new chapter in our journey of accessibility and prioritized it in everything we do and deliver. I led the IT organization at the time and volunteered my team to pilot a program to increase accessibility in our products and services. That work impressed upon me the need to continue to learn about the lived experiences of people with disabilities, the types of disabilities people might have, how they manifest and the practices that directly impact the lives of people with disabilities.
As a result, I am mindful of the tangible things I can do to increase accessibility for my team. That includes making sure that all communications I send to my organization are accessible, providing ASL interpretation and captioning at org-wide meetings, and encouraging my teams to deepen their own knowledge through training and completion of our Accessibility badge. Setting the tone from the top is important, so I want to make sure my leadership team is equipped to lead teams with employees who have a range of experiences and backgrounds. I invited individuals who had both visible and invisible disabilities to conduct a lived experience learning session with my leaders to help us learn what it means to be an ally and advocate for people with disabilities.
Make inclusivity part of the culture
At Microsoft, we know that creating a more accessible and inclusive world begins inside our company. It is part of our day-to-day culture, from our approach to inclusive hiring; to inclusive and accessible best practices for technology and collaboration; to the Disability at Microsoft ERG which offers essential connection, support and learning opportunities for the disability community and aspiring allies. There are so many opportunities for us all to lean in, listen and learn about advocacy and allyship both at work and in our personal lives.
Something else I have learned to value on this journey is having a mentor. One of my most important mentors has been my cousin, who works as an American Sign Language interpreter. She has helped me grow my understanding of the challenges, unconscious biases and misinformation that can unfavorably impact the lives of people with disabilities by creating barriers to participation. Some of the work she does is so very important – being in the delivery room with a deaf mother in labor who needs an interpreter to communicate with her doctor as she brings new life into the world, or being in the classroom with a student who needs an interpreter to interact with classmates and participate in discussions – are reminders that we must all take action to ensure the more than 1 billion people in the world living with disabilities can do their best work and achieve all they are capable of doing.
International Day of Persons with Disabilities and our monthlong recognition of the disability community at Microsoft is an opportunity for all of us to think about the ways we can promote the rights and well-being of persons with disabilities in all spheres of society. Each of us can use our platforms and talents to help change the narrative of what it means to live with a disability, and to create systems that support people of all abilities.
My awareness and understanding have grown tremendously over the years. I consider it an honor and responsibility to continue to work at being an ally to the disability community and advocate globally for all people to be given the resources and support they need to fully thrive.