20 Questions for Disability-Inclusive Employers
We deserve better
We deserve the best
We deserve to get out of bed
We deserve to rest
We deserve to work
We deserve to retire
We deserve to be cared for
We deserve everything we desire
We deserve everything we desire
Audio of Aubrie singing Nomy Lamm’s song We Deserve Everything
One October day many years ago, I was getting lunch at Google, where I work. I noticed that another person kept looking at me. I introduced myself. Her name was Ada. She had seen my feature in an internal newsletter for October being National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), and she wanted to meet me. I rolled up to a table as she slowly ambled over in a way that reminded me of how I used to move. She had recently been diagnosed with ALS. Over lunch, we talked about the difficulties of getting help with personal care and about the subtleties of discrimination. “People don’t make fun of us anymore,” I said. She smiled and replied, “They just ignore us.”
Over the years, I and other disabled employees at Google have aspired to be the change we wish to see in the world, especially the tech world. I’ve been heartened by how much allies want to do the right thing, even when it means putting in real work, questioning what they thought was true, or recognizing their own privileges. I’ve encouraged people at all levels of the company to improve Disability inclusion, and when they listen and act, I can feel us pulling the future toward us.
After my community’s activism, Google now has more roles across the company dedicated to making Google’s systems and services Disability-inclusive. We’ve come so far since the days when Google first approved personal care services as an accommodation after a VP was moved by listening to Ada and me at his lunch & learn. It shouldn’t be revolutionary for someone to be able to use the bathroom when they need to, but for us, the personal care program was a critical milestone. Employees with low mobility who came after us said they could not thank us enough for making the program happen.
Most companies are not founded by people who are disabled (let alone who consider themselves Disabled and proud). Therefore, anyone like me who enters these worlds as an employee enters them as an outsider. This is simply the truth. But what doesn’t have to be true is the notion that disabled people must fight for access. The people making decisions about a company’s products, policies, and practices can decide to actually include disabled people, or they can decide to ignore us.
The Disability Alliance is an employee resource group for people who care about Disability inclusion. Recently members of the DA made their spirit of community & progress visible with a Google logo reflecting diverse aspects of Disability & accessibility→ https://t.co/hAT9lYTxI4 pic.twitter.com/SV3lob37Le
— Life at Google (@lifeatgoogle) October 4, 2021
For Disability Employment Awareness Month, I invite every employer, especially large corporations, to be transparent with their employees about their answers to these questions:
- Accessibility: Have you made your physical and virtual workplaces accessible before a disabled hire even arrives?
- Accommodations: How easily can a disabled employee get arrangements to make their work easier, or even possible? Can they choose the provider that works best for them? Are you approaching accommodations from a compliance perspective (I say that compliance is complacence), or are you appreciating them as investments in your people? Are you treating disabled employees as patients or as talent? What ways have you improved your accommodation request process so that it is not onerous or punitive to disabled employees?
- Culture: Can disabled employees access all perks and team social events as easily as abled employees can?
- Representation: How many disabled people do you have in leadership roles? How many of them are also people of color?
- Career: Are disabled employees getting promoted at the same rate as abled employees?
- Retention: How many disabled people are leaving your company, and why?
- Belonging: How do your teams prevent microaggressions towards disabled employees? How do you address them when they happen? How do you address ableism in the workplace?
- Partnerships: Are you building Disability inclusion into your contracts with other organizations, especially vendors whose employees work with yours?
- Diversity: Is “disability” named on every one of your diversity lists, and not at the end as an afterthought? (Try alphabetical order.) Are you focusing on intersectionality of marginalized groups, especially Disability and race?
- Data: Are you treating the laws that were meant to protect our privacy and civil rights as a barrier to collecting data on our inclusion? If so, how do you plan to overcome that barrier?
- Responsibility: When a disabled employee asks for something you haven’t done before, is your first response to take action towards change, or is it to say why you can’t do it? Too often, when we ask to change the status quo, we are met with the “status no”.
- Ratings: External indices aside, how would your own disabled employees score your company’s Disability inclusion? Is your score improving over time?
- Accountability: Whose compensation is on the line if your company isn’t Disability-inclusive?
- Planning: If you can’t fix everything now, what timeline will you commit to?
- Mission: Do you keep disabled people in the margins by saying that Disability inclusion is important because the curb cut effect helps people who are not disabled, and that “anyone might become disabled at any time”? Or are you aware that the point of Disability inclusion is to include people who are currently disabled?
- Messaging: When you tell stories featuring Disability, are you defaulting to telling those stories through an “abled gaze” (positioning abled people as the storyteller and primary audience), or are you leading with disabled people as your primary audience?
- Nothing about us without us: Do you ask abled allies or family members of a disabled person for input about Disability inclusion, or are you aware that they are not the voice of disabled people, just as non-trans parents of trans children are not the voice of trans people, and men are not the voice of women?
- Nothing about us without us: When you have Disability and accessibility leadership roles, are they filled by people who are not only disabled, but also advocate for cross-Disability access and are engaged in Disability community and culture?
- Nothing about us without us: When you make a product or launch a campaign related to disability, are you bringing the idea to your own disabled employees first for collaboration and critique? Are you granting them actual decision-making power over the project?
- Nothing without us at all: Can people with any kinds of disabilities assume that they can easily access any one of your products and programs? Is everything you do related to people also inclusive of Disabled people?
Fundamentally, how are you helping us freely work, retire, and achieve everything we desire?
My Disabled comrades and I work towards a future in which we don’t have to pay the triple tax of physical inaccessibility, social exclusion, and advocacy labor. But sometimes the present is too much to bear. My heart broke when a Disabled comrade of color said as they left, “I did my best, Aubrie. I just can’t take it anymore.”
In my time at Google, I’ve lost the ability to stand up from my chair. I’ve lost muscles in my hands that I used for typing emails instead of making my art. I’ve lost muscles in my mouth that I used for holding meetings instead of saving the strength to eat favorite foods. But when I reflect on the progress we have all made, I dare to believe my efforts are making a difference.
My Disabled elders and ancestors paved the way for me to go where they had never been allowed. Now that I’m here, I feel responsible for paving the furthest reaches of that path for the disabled people who will follow me. I’ve been touched by the notes of thanks I’ve received from new disabled employees. It’s why I am still here and I am still hopeful. As I tell my disabled comrades, I’m sad we have to be the ones making change—and at the same time, I’m glad we get to be the ones making change.
While most companies are focused on giving extra conveniences to abled people who can already get in a car or text their friends or read a food label, I want companies to use their power to make a 10x improvement in the lives of the more than 1 billion disabled people who have few or no options for accessing society and achieving autonomy. I have given Google my time, my self, my very muscles. And to make 1 billion lives 10 times better, I’ll keep giving more.
Dedicated to Ada Majorek
Aubrie Lee is a brand manager at Google and the President of Google’s Disability Alliance employee resource group. She is the honoree of the 15th annual ADCOLOR Change Agent award for enhancing corporate culture and creating a more inclusive environment. She is also an artist with an engineering degree from Stanford University, where she co-founded Stanford’s Disability student group. Her work has been featured in Yahoo News and Rooted in Rights. Two of her passions are 3D modeling, so that she can illustrate anything she can imagine, and fashion modeling, to challenge how society treats Disability and beauty as opposites. Follow her on Instagram (@aubrieality) and Twitter (@Aubrie_Lee) and learn more about her at aubrielee.com.
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