Disability is our strength

UN International Persons with Disability Day is a great opportunity to reflect, especially when the theme is “Inclusion Matters: access and empowerment for people of all abilities.” I wrote a blog just over a year ago called “Disability is my Strength,” which told my personal journey from being very secretive about my disability to being open about it. This included asking for the American Sign Language interpreters and captioning I needed to be successful and ultimately realizing that my disability was actually my super power, helping me connect with our customers and create better products and services that meet the needs of all people. It’s a journey that many have travelled before and after me, and an important one to take. Since then, the team at Microsoft has been focused on making that journey easier.

Allow me to share some of our progress with you!

Serving our customers. We have begun to expand our customer service offerings as well. The Disability Answer Desk is now available to customers with disabilities using Microsoft Windows and Office in French and Spanish, as well as in 11 English markets – and this year, we also launched a direct video channel in American Sign Language to improve offering for deaf customers. This is all part of living our mission – to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more.

Supporting our employees. We are making access to services and accommodations like interpreting, captioning, devices or software more readily available. These services are also paid for by Microsoft, which is great.

Piloting new approaches to hiring. We are also taking a deeper look at how to expand and grow the number of people with disabilities at Microsoft. We’ve always had a focus on hiring great talent, including people with disabilities, and have a very strong employee community at Microsoft.  This is a different approach, though – aimed at answering the question, “What could we do to programmatically get talent into the business?” We started small, with a few pilot programs to gauge the business response, and also that of applicants. We started off with a lot of questions: Would we find enough great talent to fill the roles we were about to open? Would applicants have the mad skills needed to work on some of our coolest spaces like Azure, Visual Studio, Office and more? Would others see people with disabilities as talent and strength in their organization?

I think you can guess the overall answer (hint, yes of course!), but some of the results were surprising. The Autism Pilot launched in April with one blog and a small speech at Autism Awareness Day. From that one blog, we received over 1,000 email responses and 700 resumes to msautism@microsoft.com within just a few weeks. The resumes were humbling; some applicants had Ph.D.s, master’s degrees, and bachelor’s degrees in engineering or computer science, but were doing minimum wage work.

Eight months later, we’ve hired two classes of people with autism into full-time roles in Microsoft in areas such as Windows, IT, Support, Xbox and more, with plans to launch phase three of the program in the new calendar year. Just this week, I met with one of the hiring managers, who shared that his employee has such a keen detail focus and laser precision to his work, that it is making the whole team work harder! In addition, this employee being part of the program has helped his team to think more inclusively, resulting in a more cohesive team, working better together on tough problems.

Expanding our pipeline of talent. We’re also focused on building a pipeline of talent for developer, support, technical program manager and accessibility roles. Accessibility is such a core part of what we do at Microsoft and we’ve discovered that there is no better judge of our software than a person with empathy, an understanding of disabilities or a person with a disability. Who is the first person to say if a video is missing captions? A member of Huddle (our deaf community). The first to shout about usability of a screen reader experience? Someone who uses Narrator, Jaws, NVDA or Window Eyes. I hired Anne Taylor earlier this year for just that reason. In her six months at the company, she has run over 60 sessions with people across the company on how to improve their products and services and is making a huge impact.

To be successful, we need people at Microsoft with disabilities. So we’ve been working with vocational rehabilitation, NGOs and community groups to share open positions and encourage applicants to send resumes to dcareers@microsoft.com. We have a Microsoft Disability Talent Broker who reviews resumes and ensures the right accommodations are in place for interview, and that each and every hiring manager has been trained on disability 101. Currently, there are open roles in Office and Marketing – check out the job descriptions and if this is you, send us a mail!

Building an inclusive culture. Disability isn’t just my strength. It is our strength. By having people with disabilities at the core of Microsoft, we can and we will do amazing things to improve our products, our features and accessibility, drive new innovation and ensure our teams excel. Don’t just take my word for it – check out some of my friends and colleagues from the Microsoft disability community: Eric Brechner, August de los Reyes and Swetha Machanavajhala, who has been working on an internal project to improve technology for the deaf. They tell the story far better than I ever could.

Disability is a journey of empowerment, by realizing your own strength, and working in a company that recognizes that strength – well, let’s see what happens. It’s going to be a great journey.

One additional note. Disability is also something that unites us as humans. As I sat down to write this blog, my phone started vibrating with news alerts about a shooting in California. I sighed at the prospect of another terrible shooting, put my phone in my bag and tried to put the news at the back of my mind. I wrote some, and then went to a meeting. Forty-five minutes later, as I came out of that meeting, I checked my phone again. It had lit up with text messages and more emails than I could count. It slowly dawned that this shooting must have impacted our community of disabilities around the States and around the globe. It had it was at a center for people with developmental disabilities, apparently while they were having a holiday party. Folks contacting me were asking if I knew, sharing their confusion, tears and anger that tragedy could hit a community that is so close-knit – some going to the place (even while it was unfolding) asking how we could help people impacted. While we don’t yet know why this event took place, something that I’m sure will come to light in coming days, what I saw and witnessed from those messages and texts is why I’m so proud to be a part of this community. We care. Our hearts and thoughts are with everyone impacted by this tragedy. This is one disability community – we stand with you.