Beyond Disability 101: Ian Smith’s Hopes for Tech

By Ellie Gordon, Students for Access Grad Assistant

Ian Smith understands that disability inclusion doesn’t mean much if you can’t get in the door. As a wheelchair user and Deaf software engineer, Ian has had to ask for physical access into his workplaces, companies that, while aware of ADA requirements, had never put them into practice or considered what may be needed beyond the basics.

Whereas in academia there is typically some kind of structure in place for students and faculty to ask for accommodations, the private sector can be wildly structure-less says Ian, an MIT grad, who majored in linguistics. Many companies have simply never faced accessibility requests before. In addition to their day jobs, people with disabilities are often tasked with the uncompensated labor of providing HR advice to get their workplaces up to code, and as a minority, serve as a representative of all disabled folks.

As a software engineer for PlanGrid in San Francisco, an architectural construction software platform of about 200 employees, Ian is one of two outwardly disabled-identified people at his job site. “There’s this trend in the industry of diversity and tech conversations either leaving out disability altogether or mentioning it as a bullet point but nobody knows yet what to do or where to go,” Ian says. “How do you do outreach to communities that aren’t typically reached?”  Diversity hiring practices can fall flat for two reasons. “On the one hand, if you say this is a grant program for a specific group of people…you miss limiting yourself. On the other hand, if you just say ‘people from underrepresented groups,’ how do you make sure people know ‘oh does this mean me?”

On top of tech’s fast-paced productivity standards, working with HR to take charge of one’s access needs can be draining. Ian has overseen workplace requests of door openers and accessible entrances - projects that can drag on for months. Getting compliance needs fulfilled is especially hard if you’re brand new at a company and you don’t have any social capital, Ian says.  In tech’s near future, Ian would like to see basic access information disclosed on employers websites, a topic on which Ian has done some advocacy. While many offices buildings claim they are ADA compliant, many co-worker meetups happen inside other office spaces that are not covered.

At PlanGrid, Ian is happy with his role as an engineer as well as with the ability he has to manage his own time.  With a flexible work schedule, Ian can avoid rush hour at BART, (very useful as a wheelchair user) as well as go to medical appointments. In the office, Ian says that it had been challenging to have coworkers become accustomed to his deafness, from how group meetings are conducted to how they simply grab his attention.  He uses spoken English and lip reading in smaller work meetings groups and uses a language interpreter in large groups and presentations he chooses himself through an interpreter hiring bidding system. Sporting purple hair and glasses, Ian Smith sits at his office typing on a laptop. Do his disabilities serve as strength to his software creation team? Not really, says Ian, who believes that people with disabilities are too often treated as tokenized figures of inspiration. Ian doesn’t believe his identity as a Deaf, wheelchair user on a team that creates construction software matters, but having a workforce that comes from a variety of backgrounds and experiences is beneficial to overall production and idea making.

Ian was a “nerdy kid from a young age.” His father was a software engineer and Ian grew up playing around on a gigantic desktop computer which led to computer science classes in middle school and eventually schooling at MIT. Along his journey into tech, Ian has found that structural frameworks, more than cultural perceptions have posed the biggest accessibility barriers. It begins with a first phone call, when he asks if the office has a wheelchair accessible ramp or a back entry. “And that shuts down a lot of conversations fast. I’ve never seen ‘you can’t do the work so we won’t make you an offer,” but I’ve often wondered ‘Hey, I thought that interview went pretty well, but I didn’t get an offer. I wonder what happened.”

Employment, Ian says, is stuck with a chicken and egg problem. People with disabilities are not represented in tech “because we’re not part of the conversation, but we’re not part of that because we’re not in the industry.”  Ian’s current employer now discusses disability on the same page as where they talk about gender neutral bathrooms. “It puts it within this context of not just ‘here’s this standoff one thing, but here’s an office that is more welcoming…there is more that people want to know than just salary, but is this a place that is going to be safe and comfortable?”

Along with his position at PlanGrid, Ian is also a co-founder for Project Alloy, a new, three-person-headed nonprofit that tackles tech inclusivity through sponsoring underrepresented techies early in their careers, including those with disabilities, to attend conferences. Conferences are important profession building hubs and networking sites, but they are often expensive, says Ian. Through grants, people who have less access to these spaces will be able to have their voice and ideas at the table.

Ian regularly speaks at conferences, including a “Deaf in Tech” panel at the Ability and Tech Summit hosted at the Ed Roberts Campus last May. The panel discussed how to bring people with hearing impairments into tech culture.  Ian says that similarly to women in tech who are commonly pigeon holed as only being able to talk about gender and tech, disabled people are often called on as public figures only to discuss disability advocacy.  “I value doing these [talks], they have a lot of value on the educational side, but I’d like to do more on the technical side…, moving beyond the disability 101 in tech conversation to [how] current changes in the economic structure affect the social structure and the changes we put out.”

We at Students for Access very much agree with Ian’s hope for the tech industry to move beyond “Disability 101.”  For more stimulating conversations, check out our other featured profiles of disabled people working and thriving in tech, coming to the blog in the coming weeks! Additionally, on Tuesday, August 22nd, from 2-3:30 pm PST the 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.