What About People with Disabilities?

Posted on March 25, 2016

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak at Southeast Dreamin’. My talk focused on the importance of making authentic personal connections, and I encouraged everyone to widen their circles by “diversifying” who they go to coffee with. I spoke generally about Inclusion in Tech, but only gave examples of Blacks, Latina/os, and women. Not very inclusive, right?

Jane Grillo, Parent Mentor with the Georgia Parent Mentor Partnership, called me out after the talk (not during the talk – thank you, Jane!). She asked why I didn’t mention people with disabilities. I mumbled something like…

“Well, um, I don’t really know much about the issues facing people with disabilities in tech.”

Awkward statement for someone who just told a roomful of people to “just Google it” if there was something they didn’t understand about inclusion. Graciously, Jane agreed to give me a primer in disabilities and to let me share it with you.


Q&A with Jane Grillo

Me: People often ask me why I’m passionate about Inclusion in Tech. What drives you to be super passionate about inclusion for people with disabilities?

Jane: My son Joe has cerebral palsy. He drives everything I do to make his world more accessible to people with disabilities, and, hopefully, the rest of the world will follow along.

Me: My son has Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA). He and his college friends from MDA Camp have a vlog, Woods Inn Kids: F This Couch, to show other kids that they can succeed, too. I’d recommend it for your son, but only if he’s old enough for cursing and stories about alcohol…!

Me: There are many types of disabilities. In Diversify Your Feed Bingo, I break it into two categories: Cognitive and Physical. How do you view the scope of disabilities?

Jane: What is so interesting about the whole discussion of disability inclusion in the workplace is that you could put a person with a disability in every single one of your Bingo squares. You could probably make a Diversify Your Disability Feed Bingo. When you get into the specifics of how disability affects a person’s ability to function in the world, there are variations within even those the two (Cognitive and Physical) categories. People generally think of disability in terms of mobility. They immediately picture a person in a wheelchair.

Me: Yup. This is what I picture (my kids)…


Jane: In the Cognitive category, you can work with someone who has a learning disability which I would consider in the mild range. They have learned to cope by using the technology at work and you would never know it unless they told you. In the Physical category, it works the same way. You might have someone who wears an orthotic device and may have a slight limp, so they tend to work in jobs where they aren’t on their feet all day. You wouldn’t think twice seeing them at their desk every day.  There are people who have a wide range of hearing and visual impairments. And then there are people who have an event-related disability, such as a traumatic brain injury following an accident or a stroke.

There is also another category: Behavioral or Mental Health. That disability group can have very intense barriers to workplace inclusion due to the stigma associated with those challenges. I even count in Addiction because of its debilitating effects, and, frequently, dependency on medication use and the need to self-medicate creates problems in conjunction with other physical or mental health problems.

Me: I have seen the stigma around mental heath. A teen who had suffered from depression taught me to think about it as “Brain Health” because that removes the stigma. It reframes the disability as something caused by your brain chemistry, not something you can “fix” on your own.

Jane: And what is even more challenging about this whole topic is that often, because of the perceived or real stigma, people choose not to disclose they have a disability at all. Often, people with disabilities experience profound loneliness because they have traditionally been excluded. They are discouraged about asking you for coffee… it might depend on you to make that introduction.


Me: What are the barriers for people with disabilities?

Jane: The biggest barrier is the same as it is for anyone trying to merge into an environment where they will be the minority – fear. Specifically, people’s fear of approaching a person with a disability because they are afraid they will say or do the wrong thing. So, people with disabilities get left out before they even have a chance. Education is the cure for that.

Me: This is the same fear I hear from men about how to support women in tech – their fear of doing the wrong thing. 

Jane: Another barrier is people’s hesitation. The hesitation to invite a person with a disability to coffee is still very strong. You might be thinking, “Will I have to help them order?” “Will they need a straw?”  “There are steps to get into the coffee shop, how will we get him/her in the door?”  Welcome to my world. It helps to remember the person you are inviting knows what their challenges are. They can handle all those details. If they need help, they know how and when to ask for it.  Metaphorically speaking, you just need to open the door.

Me: I definitely have a hesitation. I recently saw someone in our office kitchen with a guide dog. I didn’t say hi…because, well, um…yeah. Next time, I will say hi, and maybe ask him to coffee!

Me: What should employees do to make the workplace more inclusive?

Jane: Allow the subject of disability to be part of the conversation. When planning events be aware of what some of the employee’s, client’s or guest’s challenges may be. Have discussions about how to work with customers who have a disability, or at least, have a strategy… like you would for someone who speaks a foreign language. If you know how to work for customers with disabilities, the needs at the workplace will just be a natural extension of those goals.

Me: Makes sense. Disability often doesn’t make it into the conversation – it will now!

Me: What can organizers do to make events more inclusive?


Dreamforce 2015 – Developer Zone

Jane: Include people with disabilities on your planning team. They can spot issues instantly because they encounter barriers and know what to look for. If you don’t know anyone, you can Google organizations who serve people with disabilities and they will be thrilled that you asked for input.

Me: Just Google it!

Me: What is the one thing you wish everyone would do?

Jane: I wish that everyone did what you did. Just be open to the conversation. That’s all. It’s like approaching anyone that doesn’t run in your regular circle. It requires pausing for a deep breath and being OK with your feeling of discomfort. Most people with obvious disabilities are used to how uncomfortable people can be. It is OK. This year the Cerebral Palsy Foundation created the Just Say Hi campaign. Most of the time, those connections we make, even if they are fleeting, turn out to be enriching in some way.

Me: Great campaign! I loved the Tim Cook video – just ask Siri! 😉 This campaign addresses the same challenge I’ve heard in the Black and Latino/a community – often people feel invisible because others don’t acknowledge them. The simple act of connecting with someone through eye contact, a nod, a smile, or just saying hi makes a big difference.

Me: Thank you, Jane, for sharing your expertise and your heart with us. My world, and my talks, will be more inclusive because of you!

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