Challenge the status quo and reinvent the future of disability employment

By Jessica Rafuse, NGO Program Manager, Microsoft 

In celebration of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, Microsoft recently invited Seattle-area businesses, agencies, and NGO representatives for transparent conversations on the benefits, challenges and potential solutions regarding disability employment. The goal of the gathering was to bring together the community of people with disabilities and employers to challenge the status quo and reinvent the future of disability employment. Together, we have the power to make a difference to an unemployment rate that hasn’t materially changed in nearly 30 years.

Jenny Lay-Flurrie, chief accessibility officer at Microsoft, welcomes the audience.

As an employment attorney by trade and former administrative judge, I have seen the worst of employment discrimination. As a person who uses a wheelchair, I have experienced the same biases, stigma, and misconceptions that feed the national epidemic of disability unemployment and underemployment. Yet, this often inaccessible world has made people with disabilities determined, adaptable, diverse, and excited to collaborate with employers to reinvent the future of disability employment. What if we all make a conscious effort to view disability as a strength that makes us the very best candidates for the job?

Microsoft Chief Accessibility Officer, Jenny Lay-Flurrie, kicked off the day with a high-energy account of our own journey at the company. Jenny candidly shared the history of disability inclusion and accessibility at Microsoft, including our stumbles along the way, as well as the successes that make us proud. Many of those moments are now captured in the Microsoft Disability Inclusion Journey, a Sway presentation outlining our programmatic approach to disability inclusion. 

Drive, determination, empathy and adaptability

The opening panel, comprised of business leaders with both apparent and non-apparent disabilities, highlighted the drive, determination, empathy, and adaptability that each panelist has developed because of their disabilities. The conversation was a celebration of disability as a strength and a sharing of individual experiences in the workplace. As Katherine Schomer, VP Research of Edelman Intelligence clearly articulated, “My disability has taught me to succeed.”

Woman in wheelchair speaking to audience
Katherine Schomer, VP Research of Edelman Intelligence, shares her thoughts during the opening panel.

The panelists concluded the conversation with a challenge to the employers, that they discuss with their employees early and often on how and when to support. Relevant advice for both employees with and without disabilities. The panelists remind us that managers of people with disabilities often develop the leadership skills that make them better managers to every employee.

Recruitment, Accommodations, and Employee Resource Groups

At the heart of the symposium, we responded to the need for more knowledge on how organizations are moving the needle in disability employment. As such, the breakout sessions proved to be a rich learning opportunity in Recruitment, Accommodations, and Employee Resource Groups (ERGs).

The key learnings we want to share with those looking to hire and retain people with disabilities are broken down by category below.


  • Partner with the community. If you’re unsure where to start, the best first step we can advise is to ask. There are nonprofits and agencies who can help you begin to find talent to build a pipeline of candidates. Another excellent resource is the team you already have: encourage people to reach out to their network and alert them to your company’s recruiting efforts.
  • Train your Talent Acquisition Team. Having a process in place and a list of resources will make the interview and onboarding processes for potential candidates go much more smoothly. But how about preparing your talent acquisition team? By providing the team with the resources, training and other relevant guidance, they will be able to offer accommodations and excellent customer service to candidates with disabilities.
  • Branding matters. Including people with disabilities in your marketing efforts will attract talent with disabilities. From words to images to how accessible your website is, including people of all abilities will attract a wider spectrum of candidates.


  • Ask the experts. Employers should tap into the expertise of employees with disabilities when evaluating the onboarding process, benefits, facilities, and corporate culture.
  • Be loud. Companies should share their policies and practices often, so that employees know where to go for accommodations and feel welcome disclosing their disabilities.
  • Design inclusively. Go beyond thinking about accommodations as programmatic solutions for an individual. Design your businesses inclusively from the start to benefit every person.

Employee Resource Groups

  • Align your strategy. Supporting the business in achieving its goals through the lens of disability inclusion will solidify the ERG’s role as a value-added partner to the business.
  • Build Accessibility Ambassadors. Encourage ERG members across the spectrum of disability to share best practices for disability inclusion, including physical and digital accessibility for all.
  • Gather the Community. Celebrate successes and explore solutions for challenges through meetings, webinars, and events.
Three woman speaking on panel
Liz Taub (center), Executive Vice President of USBLN, speaks on a panel.

Liz Taub of USBLN summarized, “When people feel valued and can bring their whole selves to work, they have permission to innovate. Some of the most popular and lucrative inventions have been started by people with disabilities.”

A man in a suit speaks to audience
Kenneth Price, Director of Aircraft Valuation at Boeing, shares his personal journey with a disability.

Our day of learning wrapped with a keynote speech from Kenneth Price, Director of Aircraft Valuation at Boeing, who shared his personal experience with both an apparent and non-apparent disability. Kenneth emphasized the importance of having the support of senior executives when building an inclusive corporate culture.

For employers and organizations looking to learn more about disability employment at your company, you can reach out to USBLN to connect with other companies engaged in the effort. Find out more about our efforts at Microsoft Inclusive Hiring or within the new Microsoft Disability Inclusion Journey.

Even though the symposium was a cause for celebration, there is still much work to be done. At Microsoft, we are excited to work together to have a positive impact on the unemployment and underemployment rates for people with disabilities.

Happy NDEAM Everyone!