Have you ever gotten the call?
You know, the call that heralds a seismic shift in the life of someone you love, or even yourself.
Last year, I received the call from my panicked mother, and she told me that my father had gotten into a serious bicycle accident, and because of the severe spinal cord injury (SCI) he sustained, had lost the use of his arms and his legs.
My father had become quadriplegic.
I immediately booked a flight back to my childhood home in Calgary, Canada and spent the following weeks with my father in the intensive care unit, reading up on SCIs, helping my mom around the house, trying to take over the day-to-day financial affairs of the family and finding accessible tech solutions for my father (did you know you can control your iPad with only your eyes?). I was a complete mess, and definitely not my best self.
I wrote a couple short emails to my manager and team leads and they were all incredibly supportive. “Take all the time you need,” was their collective answer. And I felt as though they truly meant it.
Walking along the Great Wall with my father in 2015.
Dad’s recovery was going well, and after several weeks of being away, I felt comfortable coming back to work. To be honest, having a little bit of routine back in my life was nice, and coming into the office was a welcome distraction. I was once again inundated with support, and had to convince everyone that I was back at work not because I felt like I needed to show face, or prove my commitment to the company, but because I felt comfortable with my father’s recovery. Because of HubSpot’s commitment to remote work, even in a pre-COVID world, flexible work arrangements were available to me so I could spend time with my father. I also had the HubSpot Employee Assistance Program at my fingertips, which offers a multitude of services including counseling.
Lessons learned the hard way
As I returned to work, I had a whole new lens on the issue of accessibility in technology. Here are a couple of the lessons I took away from the experience.
You might not see the accessibility gap until you’re tripping over it
Accessibility is one of those things that is invisible, until all of a sudden it isn’t. Human nature is often to ignore the things that aren’t directly relevant to you. I hope that through my father’s story, we can all become better at spotting accessibility-related issues and bring them to the attention of our companies and communities. The social model of disability defines ‘disability’ as a mismatched interaction between a person’s abilities and their environment, and around 70% of disabilities are not visible at the surface.
It could be very difficult for my dad to find a job now and to use many tech products. My father is an ideal job candidate: he’s incredibly smart, received his bachelor’s degree in engineering as well as a master’s degree in business, and founded several small businesses. I fear, however, that many employers would look at him and their first impression would be based on his disability, not his accomplishments. Furthermore, I’ve realized that he would have trouble using most devices and apps. Strides are being made, though: this video from Apple about Voice Control for Mac and iOS is a great example.
Treating people like people engenders loyalty
At the time of my father’s accident, I had been working at HubSpot for a mere four weeks.
Company leadership treated me with respect and empathy during a very difficult period, making me feel very grateful that I had chosen to work here. HubSpot’s Culture Code states “Life is short. Always be kind and compassionate,” and we can all embody that spirit no matter our role — whether it’s welcoming a new parent back from parental leave with more empathy, or creating space for someone who is dealing with a family emergency.
I also learned that everyone has the ability to improve accessibility in your company or your product, no matter your title or role, and that even if you yourself do not have a disability, there are key steps you can take to ally yourself with people with disabilities.
So, what can you do to help?
Spot accessibility gaps
Observe and bring attention to accessibility gaps in the world before something happens to someone in your life. As Microsoft’s Christi Olson said in her INBOUND19 talk, “think about accessibility by design, not as an afterthought.” Think about accessibility gaps in your physical workspace as well as in your product and listen empathetically for concerns raised by your customers, partners, and prospects.
Get involved in accessibility initiatives. At HubSpot, our Accessibility Task Force aims to make our product more inclusive and accessible to everyone. I’ve joined the group, and my new personal mission is to help people like my father get the most from our platform. Regardless of which company you work for, Microsoft’s Inclusive Design, WebAIM and the Web Accessibility Initiative resources are world-class for recognizing accessibility gaps and designing with accessibility in mind.
Recruit a diverse team
Actively recruit and hire people who live with temporary or permanent disabilities. Not only is this the right thing to do, but research shows that diverse teams outperform homogeneous ones. If someone you know is looking to join a company that embodies these values, HubSpot is hiring.
Full accessibility should be what all of us in the tech industry are striving for. Even if you’re not there yet, now is the time to start. As a leader in your company, think about how you can start implementing these changes throughout your team, your workspace, and your product. As an individual contributor, be diligent about spotting gaps and bring them to the attention of your team, and think about starting an employee resource group dedicated to accessibility issues. You can make a difference — no matter how small it may seem on the surface, it has the power to change someone’s life. Someone like my father.