Closing the Doors of Opportunity: A First-Hand Account of Ableism in Tech

The following post is part of a series released by "Students for Access," a summer initiative to capture and share disability experiences from inside Silicon Valley. This account of discrimination, an unfortunate reality for many, is provided anonymously due to the risks of exposing such information. 

By: Danny Thomas Vang

"It went from making threats, then I called them out on those threats, then the managers told the company that they never threatened me and here is how much of a horrible worker I am, and then I caught them in the lie. The atmosphere was thick with tension and there was complete silence in the office.  After months of dialogue about the discrimination present in my work environment and the inaction of human resources, I rolled into the room and sat across from representatives of the company and their legal counsel.  A check was slid across the table and it dawned upon me that it was their intent to purchase my silence…”

A silhouette of a long-haired anonymous figureJane Doe, who has a physical, visibly-apparent disability, shared past experiences that illustrate some of the challenges disabled employees can face. While reminiscing about her experiences at her former organization Widgets4U, Doe concluded that there are champions of inclusion in tech companies and there are also people who still adopt the negative stigma of disability.

Before Doe started at Widgets4U, the recruiter helping fill the position Doe was pursuing felt the need to give the manager of the team an advance warning that Doe had a disability, not provided for thinking about access, but rather as a warning to “prepare yourself!” Fortunately, the manager scolded the recruiter and even walked him over to HR to arrange a meeting for more education.

Thanks to this manager who understood that disability should not be a mark against a future employee, Doe went into the interview and was able to display her confidence and talent, getting the job. Doe is grateful to the manager who spoke up and later confided in her about this incident, a true advocate for people with disabilities.

But Doe eventually lost this supportive manager, replaced by a new manager who was aggressive and impatient because they did not know what to expect of an employee with a disability or how to handle accommodations in the workplace.  “I said that I cannot do the new schedule he was asking of me because it will throw off my medical needs and that is not going to work.”  The manager, distrusting Doe, asked for documentation from a medical professional, but Doe advocated that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act protected her right to keep her medical information private. She said, “If this position is changing from what I initially agreed upon and what I could do, I am now informing you that I cannot do it because of the new changes that are being made.  The reasonable accommodation is that we make the role work with my needs or put me in an equal level role that I can do.”

With little interest in having an open dialogue about accommodations, the manager would halt the conversation by throwing his hand in Jane's face and would leave the premises. After no progress with the manager and no alternative avenues, Doe went to human resources and was informed that all would be well, but they simply gave the manager a slap on the wrist. Doe found this inadequate and did not feel comfortable working with this manager because she thought that their animosity and unwillingness to converse about accommodations would influence the collaborative nature of the team. She sought to transfer to a different team, but found that the manager was actively working to hurt her reputation with the other department. Eventually, Doe was set on a performance plan because there was “confusion” about her performance as the manager told the company that she was not a competent worker. Doe was able to prove otherwise, having fortunately made her own copies of all her earlier performance metrics and reviews.

In the end, Doe left Widgets4U, exhausted by the hostile work environment she was now forced to work in. She hopes that the progress in inclusion that other tech companies are modeling will prompt Widgets4U to follow suit.

Despite Widgets4U bringing their legal team in and asking Doe to take a check to sign papers saying this never happened, she refused to sign and left Widgets4U's doors for the last time, having already decided she would never file suit. Doe recognizes how a discoverable lawsuit will negatively impact her future career since she is already stereotyped as a liability. Just recovering from what happened has taken some time, including checking into a psych program for PTSD, and she is now on anxiety medications indefinitely.

After reading a draft of this post, Doe asked that we add what she described as her "weird thing":

I still deeply care for the company. I understand their inexperienced team backed themselves into a corner by improperly handling two managers' poor behavior. They took their word over mine and  were stuck when I provided proof. I want this organization to be successful. Naïve as it may sound, I dream of peacefully returning to their HQ to organize a workshop & help them be allies for their existing minority employees. I think that's why I did this article. Not just to help other disabled employees but to help employers know we're not a liability if they don't make us one. We're allies, and in many cases, willing to educate.

With a mission of collecting and sharing insightful experiences of people with disabilities in tech, the Longmore Institute on Disability appreciates Doe for sharing her story, which reminds us that there’s more to inclusion than just hiring people with disabilities. Companies need to build a culture of support and educate managers about the rights of people with disabilities to accommodations.

For more stimulating conversations, check out our other featured profiles of disabled people working and thriving in tech, coming to our blog in the coming weeks! Additionally, on Tuesday, August 22nd, from 2-3:30 pm PST, Students for Access will be hosting a free webinar “Beyond Diversity 101: Learning from the Perspectives of People with Disabilities in Tech.” To join us, please RSVP. Captioning will be provided.