Dennis Billups: An Activist through the Disability Rights Movement, Two Tech Booms, and a Housing Crisis

By: Asa Arnold

The experiences of Dennis Billups reveal two things that are overlooked in today’s discussions of disabled people in tech: 1) we live in a second tech boom (the first was the “Dot-Com” era at the end of the 1990s) and 2) people with disabilities play important roles in tech that are completely unrelated to programming, development and access. Asa and Dennis stand in front of a wall covered in bright artwork. Dennis wears a plaid button up shirt and has gray hair. Interviewer Asa Arnold and Dennis Billups

As an African-American man with a visible disability, Dennis predated today’s discussions of diversity in tech by a generation. He worked in the dot-com era. Many times, when he took the train to his job in Silicon Valley he was given free fares because people found it so remarkable that a blind man was going to work at all. A participant in the 504 occupation of the San Francisco Federal Building in 1977, he has long been an activist who focuses on increasing economic power for disabled people [click to view our oral history interview with Dennis to learn more]. Since working as a telephone operator and information specialist for various Silicon Valley companies in the 1990s, he has first-hand experience with the effects of gentrification, the changing skillsets required in today’s tech world compared to thirty years ago, and ideas around people with disabilities. In each area, he finds both positives and negatives.

In the mid-80s, Dennis was looking for a job, but was unable to find one that would let him stay close to his wife who he had recently married. After a while, a representative from the Department of Rehab came to him about a job program in Silicon Valley and said, “We want you to become our poster child because you had a good speaking voice, you speak clearly, and you’re around a lot of people and a lot of people like you.” Dennis enrolled in the program and became a phone operator and information specialist at various computer chip companies in Silicon Valley. He describes his job as being “the person who did the calls, made sure packages got out, faxing in and remembering names of people and changing the phone list…letting people know what’s going on with the company.”

Dennis’ experience working in Silicon Valley during the Dot-Com boom was remarkably positive. This can partially be attributed to his job working well with his personality and skill set, but it was also due to supportive coworkers and workplace accommodations. He had documents provided in braille in addition to teachers who explained what he needed to do; his accommodations were “a natural thing.” Dennis also got on well with people in the office; for example, he would tease them when the lights went out, offering to guide them to the bathroom. One engineer and friend of Dennis’ would give him tours of the workplace, saying “you don’t need to be isolated at that desk all the time.”

With the money from his job and some struggle, Dennis and his wife bought a house in Bayview/Hunter’s Point, San Francisco in 1994 so they could settle down. He lived in the house for 20 years. In 2015, five years after his wife had died and 15 years after being laid off from his job, Dennis found himself being evicted due to failure to make monthly mortgage payments. Believing it unfair as he feels he was not given adequate time to prove he could make payments, having been receiving notification in print rather than braille, he has been challenging the decision. In general, Dennis is disappointed in how gentrification is sweeping San Francisco and pushing many (including disabled people like himself) out of their homes. He finds the trend “really uncomfortable, disheartening, maddening…Bayview and Hunter’s Point were the last community for African Americans.” Despite this, his goal is to return to his home and control some property to stop the gentrification and bring disabled people back into the neighborhood. Dennis says, “it’s never too late, as long as you can get one foothold you can get another one just like they do.”

Like many, Dennis lost his job when the dotcom bubble burst in 2000, in his case because many of his responsibilities as an operator were becoming automated. He recalls two good friends and coworkers warned him ahead of time, “Den, you’re going to get fired, and it has nothing to do with you, it’s a company thing.” He had an opportunity to retrain for working on the web which was just starting to take off, but he decided to stay at home to take care of his wife who had grown increasingly sick. He has been unemployed since then and now focuses on advocacy. Dennis believes “we have a chance to do something for disability, especially when it comes to economic chances.”

Having lived through a disability rights movement, two tech booms, and a housing crisis, Dennis is surprisingly upbeat. “We need all kinds of people and all kinds of opportunities,” he says. “That’s how change happens.”

Students for Access also sees the chance to do something for disability, and aims to improve the employment situation for people with disabilities in tech through our summer project. We thank Dennis for sharing his story with us. A young Dennis in 1970s-style clothing, including some fabulous large framed dark glasses. He wears an IAM button. Ron Washington, also a black disabled man, is in the background. Dennis Billups during the 1977 504 sit-in.