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26 July 2022

Creating a Safe Space for People With Disabilities: A Conversation With Microsoft Software Engineer Meenakshi Das

Equal representation of underrepresented communities in computing is essential to innovation in IT. At CMD-IT, we are committed to ensuring that underrepresented communities – African Americans/Blacks, Hispanics/Latinx, Native Americans/Indigenous People and People with Disabilities –  are engaged in computing. This July, we’re celebrating National Disability Pride Month by speaking with Meenakshi Das, a software engineer at Microsoft, about her experience creating a safe space for people with disabilities. She also provides her insights on the challenges people with disabilities face in tech and how to be a better ally.

Meenakshi Das on Accessibility in Tech, Allyship, and Supporting People With Disabilities

Tell me about yourself and your current role at Microsoft?

I am a software engineer working on front-end experiences at Microsoft. I am also an accessibility champion  on the team and advise on creating accessible and usable experiences for customers.

Can you please share more about your support group ‘Working with Disabilities’ and why you felt the need to create it?

‘Working with Disabilities’ is a worldwide group that any person with disabilities can join to discuss topics related to working with a disability. We post about jobs and opportunities daily that are catered to the disabled audience. People discuss topics such as disability accommodations and discrimination they have faced in the workplace. They can also get advice from each other. It fosters a sense of support and encouragement among people with disabilities.

I created this community because I wanted to create a safe space for people with disabilities to share their thoughts with each other. There are a lot of communities for women and other minorities–but not for people with disabilities. I wanted to focus solely on work because I wanted people with disabilities to find meaningful work. However, recently, we have been also focusing on educating our members about digital accessibility by providing strategies and best practices.

What are the greatest challenges people with disabilities are now facing in tech?

One of the challenges is inaccessible tech. Not all the tech used by developers is accessible. If a blind person who uses a screen reader wants to use a tool and it’s not accessible, that deters them from choosing the tech field. I’d also say another challenge is ableism and the notion companies may have that disabled people are not smart enough to be in tech. 

Companies need to understand that with the right accommodations, people with disabilities can pursue tech careers too. This has improved due to COVID-19 because remote work provides great flexibility for people with disabilities. Tech companies should keep on offering remote work. I would say it all starts at the education level–be it at school or at boot camp. If the coding course curriculum is not accessible, then people with disabilities will likely not pursue it. 

What does allyship mean to you? Can people be better allies?

To be a better ally, I believe it is important to listen to people with disabilities. Believe them and understand their needs without judgment. Allyship comes in various forms, whether it be making sure you run the accessibility checker before sending out a word document at work, adding image descriptions to your social media posts, or speaking up for someone who you see is being discriminated against.

How do you learn and grow with sensitivity in this space and be a better ally, especially knowing you’ll make mistakes?

It is totally okay to make mistakes. The important thing is to have good intentions and be willing to learn from your mistakes. For example, when Twitter first came out with audio tweets, the feature had no captions. They listened to the backlash and corrected their mistake, which was great. But maybe they could have prevented that if they designed the feature with accessibility in mind. That could have been done by hiring more employees with disabilities to provide feedback and investing in accessibility learning and resources. 

So the greatest advice I would give to companies is to invest in people with disabilities and their talents. Build an accessibility pipeline and understand that accessibility is more than compliance. Embed principles of inclusive design and empathy while developing products and services. Another tangible way to grow with sensitivity would be to follow disabled creators on social media. Instagram has so many of them and they do such a great job of educating people. 

What does National Disability Pride Month mean to you?

It’s definitely a month of pride for me. Growing up, I was ashamed of the way I spoke and my speech disability, but now I take pride in it. I am grateful for the experiences and the outlook on life I have had due to my speech disability. To me personally, disabled pride is not about pushing myself to do something despite my disability but instead about acknowledging my weaknesses and the accommodations I require to succeed.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I would ask whoever is reading this–whether it be computer science professors, a company representative, or content creators–what is one thing you can do today to make your content or program accessible? What can you do to make your course, company, or hiring practices more accessible so that software engineers and tech persons with disabilities can enter the workforce in the future?

Check out CMD-IT.org for more information on how you can foster innovation through inclusion.