The Glass Elevator: Chris Schlechty’s Path through Tech

Chris, a white man in a motorized wheelchair, at a cafe, smiling

Chris Schlechty, a Senior Software Engineer at Microsoft, makes his story of breaking into tech as a person with a disability sound rather easy. He visited the Microsoft campus as a student at a nearby high school, and there he learned about the “DO-IT program” (Disability Opportunities Internetworking Technology), run by the University of Washington, which helps people with disabilities secure careers in STEM. By his senior year of high school, he was already a participant with DO-IT and an intern at Microsoft. When he graduated college, he had an offer to come back to Microsoft full time and has remained with the company ever since.

His disability may, in fact, have given him a head start on his career success. He shared, “I’ve had a lot more personal experience with time management and planning than other people have. Being a wheelchair user, I have a lot of experience planning logistics, thinking how I’m going to get from point A to B, so it’s effectively a self-managing perspective. Doing extra planning, figuring out the schedules - it kinda blends into project development and being a manager of people. You already have a subset of those skills.”

At Microsoft, where he serves as his team’s accessibility expert, he has felt accepted and welcomed from day one. His accommodations as a wheelchair rider, namely a well-organized office and an accessible desk, have always been met, and he remarks that his accommodations are treated no differently than other nondisabled team members’ needs, like working from home or being able to leave at a set time to pick up their kids.

It’s outside his place of employment where he sometimes encounters negative perceptions of disability. “People always assume that since I’m in a wheelchair and young, people think I’m not working, living at home, and then they find out that ‘You work at Microsoft? Really?,’ that initial shock that you’re defying what they expected.”

While Chris’s path into tech was straightforward, the path forward for his career is murkier due to “the glass elevator,” (think “glass ceiling,” but a barrier that is more disability-specific). “You can only get so high up before you risk losing your benefits,” Chris explains, “There are a lot of strategies but it’s really hard to navigate, it’s a huge pain… I crossed the threshold and now rely on family for personal care which I know is not a long-term solution and I’m not entirely sure how I’ll navigate that moving forward.”

While the glass elevator is a problem in all employment positions, it’s particularly likely in the tech sector today.  Chris added, “The healthcare is great, but you have to be able to live and do stuff other than just going to the doctor.  It’s difficult because a lot of the tech jobs are in really expensive areas, so it’s the high cost of housing, and you’d be paying for at least two added personal care assistants. There’s so many extra expenses when you have to rely on other people.”

Chris’s story raises an important point that’s often forgotten when we discuss the need for more diversity in tech. Getting people like Chris, who has clearly been an asset to the company, to work in tech isn’t just about adding a disability page to a company’s website or asking recruiters to strive for more disability hires. It involves opening up the paths for disabled people in hiring, retention, and development, and sometimes, that might involve supporting social changes that go beyond the workplace.

Interested in more on disability in tech? You can watch our webinar “Beyond Diversity 101: Learning from the Perspectives of People with Disabilities in Tech” now  (with captioning and audio description). 

Read more from our Disability in Tech series here: