A milestone that deserves recognition: 25 years of the ADA

Twenty-five years ago a landmark piece of legislation became law in the U.S. and changed the face of disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was, and still is today, a pivotal law that for the first time recognized and mandated rights for persons with disabilities. Instead of (literally) crawling to get on a bus, there were ramps and lifts … an endless list of daily battles for people with disabilities were set aside and a new set of norms began to exist. People were recognized as people, regardless of disability. It started a movement in the U.S. that spread globally.

A milestone this significant deserves recognition and there’s definitely been a ton of that this week! It’s been beautiful to watch all the celebrations, blogs from the originators of the ADA, parades; a rally here in Seattle, and even a celebration event at the White House with the grass-roots advocates who were there 25 years ago along with those keeping advocacy alive since. I just loved this Wired article about Alice Wong, founder of the Disability Visibility Project who could not be there in person due to her disability, but was able to participate virtually and even have a conversation with President Obama thanks to the Beam Robot! Outstanding!

Our history with Disability@Microsoft is not quite 25 years long but it’s definitely been a journey and started with an advocate. Back in 2000, parent and development manager Eric Brechner formed the internal email group “autism” to bring together parents with autism. A parent himself with a recently diagnosed kid, he wanted and needed to connect. A couple of years later, a blind employee set up the group VIP (Visually Impaired Persons) and a deaf employee started “huddle.” Fifteen years later, Disability@Microsoft has over 12 groups covering disabilities ranging from autism to PTSD and ALS with over 1,000 participants talking and sharing best practices, ideas and connections. For the last five years, it has hosted the annual Ability Summit to drive for a more inclusive and accessible world with the theme of Build, Imagine and Enable. This year’s event had over 700 attendees and included a hackathon with 20+ projects and a career fair that brought together 14 companies from across Washington state here to Redmond.

One of the themes that comes up in our communities is technology – not surprising given where we work! But what is surprising is the power of the conversation. Recently Ted Hart (co-chair of Huddle) worked with the Skype Translator team to add Real Time Captioning into their latest release, changing the way he (and I!) communicate at work and at home. Check out the neat video (and try it yourself J). Three years ago, Amos Miller, a member of the VIP group came up with an idea to create a 3D Audio Soundscape to enable him to navigate across London to take his (then) 5-year-old daughter out for a day in the city. Cities Unlocked is in the middle of phase II prototype development and is working with partners in Reading UK as well as the non-profit GuideDogs on a rollout plan. Next week could generate a long list of possible new realities. That’s when we have our company hackathon and the largest-ever “Ability Hack” with over 40 projects focused on everything from the simple to the life-changing across the whole spectrum of disability, from tracking signs of PTSD to communicating with autism and cerebral palsy to gaming for veterans.

At the core of our work is the people who make it happen. The focus on employment at the Ability Summit this year was new, but hiring talented individuals with disabilities is not a new concept to Microsoft. Consider the powerful story of Greg Smith, a member of our mobility group who works in Microsoft Research and recently celebrated 21 years at Microsoft. He makes an impact at Microsoft every day (has a wicked sense of humor), and shows us what’s possible by the results he delivers. In the last few years we’ve focused more proactively on this space. The Supported Employment Program is a great example: over the last two years it has partnered with support vendors to hire nearly 165 people with developmental disabilities to work in our facilities, cafes and gardens with huge success (1 percent attrition!). As I type, we’re actively hiring program manager and developer positions into our product teams in Redmond, (resumes to [email protected]!). Earlier this year, we put out a small pilot program to hire people with autism into full time technical roles at Microsoft. That program is doing incredibly well and we are learning a huge amount about how to support the right inclusive environment for cognitive disabilities.

As we dig deep to deliver on our mission to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more, our focus here will continue to grow. Why? Because it just makes sense. Our customers are diverse – heck there are over a billion people with disabilities around the world and if we are to design inclusively and build great products and services, we need people with disabilities at Microsoft. As Brad Smith’s blog earlier this week so rightly states, “It enriches and opens our institutions to the very best and brightest talent and minds our country has to offer.” If you bubble that up to just the U.S., 86 percent of people with autism are out of work (yes, you read that right) and the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is double that of people without disabilities. That’s talent that’s being left on the table.

There’s a saying I use with my team: “Take time to smell the roses.” It’s hard sometimes to do that, especially when you’re on that hamster wheel of work, home and life. But it is important. Reflecting back on our journey and that of the ADA, it’s clear that we have a LOT to do to get more people into gainful employment, create technologies that empower and lead the future and change perceptions that sadly we know still exist in places today. The journey hasn’t been perfect. But we should still celebrate our successes and as I look back, we have a lot to smile about.

My fiancé jokes that I jump out of bed excited most mornings. Why? Because my job empowers me to make a difference and do that in partnership with some of the best people in the business. They ask tough questions, hit me constantly with ideas of how we could do better in our products, send over great resumes and ping me for urgent advice on a wicked idea they have to change the world (at least once a day :0)). Each one of them is an advocate, whether they know it or not, and will help to change the face of disability inclusion over the course of the next 25 years.

The future is unknown but exciting. We could see a disability unemployment rate that’s half what it is today – heck, maybe even equal to people without disabilities by the time we get to 2040. Technology-wise, of course, we’ll all be living in space and have super powers, with visors like Geordi LaForge. Wherever we land, it will be because of amazing people. Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Truer words were never spoken.

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