Ending the Cycle of Low Expectations

By: Danny Thomas Vang

A headshot of Nicole, who has long curly brown hair and is a white woman.
"A school counselor administered the Braille test to me at a different time and place than everyone else so that I could have more time. However, it was not even graded until after the winners had already been announced, and my parents asked how I had done. I can only assume that everyone thought I would not have been competitive. But after it was finally graded, I actually came in second."


How teachers and schools interact with students serves as a major indicator of future success; a negative outlook will stifle potential but a positive outlook can promote innovation and bring out the best in a student. Nicole Torcolini, a blind woman who is a computer programmer in the accessibility department at Google, spoke about how engagement with work readiness programs that outreach to people with disabilities can bridge the gap between a lackluster supportive environment for the disability community and tech relevant careers.  She is a proud Stanford graduate who loves to figure out how objects and items operate.

As shown by the opening quotation from Torcolini, low societal expectations of people with disabilities can limit students with disabilities trying to carve out a path in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).  Like Torcolini, many of the other interviewees we spoke with remembered being discouraged from STEM fields – labs tended to be inaccessible and chemistry and math made for more challenging translations to braille.

However, Torcolini was able to break this cycle of low expectations and pursue her dreams because of her supportive family as well as several programs aimed to support people with disabilities pursuing careers in tech: Youth Employment Solutions (YES); Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology (DO-IT); and camp sessions held by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB).

Torcolini expressed how the employment readiness programs gave her the chance to practice mock interviews, learn more about tech, engage in volunteer jobs, network with people in the field, and create relationships with mentors.  She argues that when hosting programs to encourage people to pursue a career in tech, employers should “reserve spots for people with disabilities or reach out to the community to find people to participate in existing programs” to ensure that diverse talent is brought to the workforce.  These programs will allow students with disabilities to decide for themselves whether tech is the correct path for them.

The benefits of these programs aren’t just for people with disabilities. Torcolini points out that “There is a misconception that if you have a disability, you cannot work and are going to cost the company a lot of money.  But people with disabilities contribute a lot of good ideas and perspectives to companies.  Even if they need equipment, people with disabilities still work and can be productive and an asset to the company.”

Torcolini demonstrates the need for people with disabilities in tech in her current role at Google, where she knows she’s making a difference. She explains, “Most people who work on accessibility have never used a screen reader before.  If they have, they have played with it.  But not actually used it.  By hiring me, they got someone who uses a screen reader and knows accessibility problems.”

To learn more about the contributions and perspectives of people with disabilities working in tech, watch our webinar (with audio description and captioning): https://longmoreinstitute.wordpress.com/2017/08/23/beyond-diversity-101-learning-from-the-perspectives-of-people-with-disabilities-in-tech-w-webinar-video/ 

Read more from our series on disability as #diversityintech: