This year’s theme for National Disability Employment Awareness Month, #InclusionWorks, has special meaning for Microsoft, and for me. Most everyone at some point in their career will face moments where you cannot “see the woods for the trees.” “Brick wall” moments that stop you from moving forward. They happen at work, at play and in everyday life and, boy, do they test us. These challenges can also bring out the best in our ability to problem solve. To think creatively. To stretch outside our comfort zones to open doors and find new solutions. I’ve learned to embrace those moments.
As a person with deafness, I believe that these challenges, while difficult and often overwhelming at the time, are what makes us incredible employees. Over the years, I’ve had to figure out how to work in a call center, how to manage call centers and be “on call” for my job when I couldn’t use a phone. Find a way to work across a region as big as Europe with a beautiful diversity of language and accent, and attend a meeting when there’s scheduling snafu and I’m without an American Sign Language interpreter. Ultimately, I’ve had to learn how to ask for what I needed to be successful and know it is ok to do so.
The turning point came in my 20s when a manager said that my disability was actually a strength for the company, bringing an invaluable perspective about a customer segment that they need to know more about and insights that advance our business and products for everyone.
Here, you see, inclusion works. Not just for employees with disabilities, but also for companies themselves. By equipping me with the tools I needed to thrive on the job, the company benefits. This knowledge helped me to see my disability through a different lens. Our differences are our strengths.
Today, I’m honored to serve as the Chief Accessibility Officer at Microsoft, where we work every day to deliver on the mission of the company to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more. Essential to this is a deep commitment to a diverse workforce and inclusive culture, one that welcomes different perspectives, and sees people with disabilities as vital talent for the company. Armed with this mindset, we’re approaching disability inclusion on multiple levels.
One example is our Autism Hiring Program, which recruits individuals on the autism spectrum to work as programmers and software engineers with dedicated hiring academies and mentors during their start at Microsoft. The initiative has helped us evolve our approach to diversity through an amazing untapped talent pool with skills we clearly need. We also host job fairs, offer annual scholarships for high school students, and partner with vendors and employment agencies to run a Supported Employment Program that creates opportunities for people with developmental disabilities.
In fact, we took all these programs and built an inclusive hiring website, so anyone can find out details of how we work at Microsoft. My favorite part is the video – not just because I narrated it, but because it speaks to why we’re doing this. Then there’s our disAbility Employee Resource Group, representing employees with conditions such as hearing loss, blindness, visual impairments, attention deficit disorder, mobility disabilities and dyslexia, to name a few. With more than 1,000 constituents, the group spearheads numerous efforts, including our annual Ability Summit, designed to facilitate innovative thinking related to accessible technology.
It feels good to promote these initiatives, of course. But there’s a more opportunistic reason we foster an inclusive workforce — it makes good business sense.
People with disabilities, like me, are a source of creativity and opportunity for Microsoft because we know how to face brick walls head on, and climb them. We infuse problem solving skills and unique thinking as a natural part of innovation at Microsoft. We have knowledge about accessibility not just because we’ve read it but because we live it. This is essential to our long-term success.
In order to build the best products for everyone, we need to have a diverse and inclusive workforce across all abilities. Our employees determine who we are as a company and give meaning to the culture we are building at Microsoft. Together, we are solving some of the most complex technology challenges of our time and live into our goal of empowering everyone.
Jenny Lay-Flurrie is the chief accessibility officer at Microsoft, and a contributor to the Labor Department-funded Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology.