Creating Adobe’s Employee Network for People with Disabilities
At 11:30 on a Monday morning in early 2017, I reported to the main thoroughfare of Adobe’s San Francisco office with a knot in my stomach. Over the lunch hour, we were hosting Adobe’s inaugural Community Fair to showcase the various clubs and communities that employees could join.
I would be representing AccessAdobe, the company-sanctioned Employee Network for people with disabilities. An employee in Ottawa had advocated for the group’s existence, yet there were no meetings, no email list, and no awareness activity. A few weeks prior, when the Community Fair was first broadcasted, AccessAdobe wasn’t even on the list.
I knew that if I didn’t sign up to represent AccessAdobe at the fair, no one would. But if I needed this group to exist, surely others did, too.
All weekend, I had been mentally preparing to publicly disclose as a person with disabilities in my workplace for the first time. Would this decision have negative consequences for my career? I couldn’t be sure. I hoped not. People with disabilities are a protected class, I reminded myself. Adobe wants to support employees with disabilities. I practiced pitching the group until I could do it without shedding any tears.
I put on my t-shirt and took my place next to a friend who thankfully volunteered to recruit for AccessAdobe as well. We were in this together.
Over the course of two hours, plenty of people stopped by our table, each with a different story, a different interest. Some signed up for our email list, some didn’t. My teammates waved and smiled as they walked by. No one gave us weird looks or asked awkward questions. My worst fears were not realized that day. But my greatest hope was — other employees wanted to start this group together.
Within a few months, we were up and running. Employees from across North America would dial in for monthly meetings, including folks who experienced illness or disability, who were caregivers, and who worked on the accessibility team. We shared our stories, our questions and our knowledge about how to navigate the company’s benefit system and accommodations process. I learned many deep lessons about managing a disability at work during these meetings.
Our experiences were incredibly disparate, but our goal was the same — to create a safe and accessible workplace for everyone.
As Disability Awareness Month approached, we shifted gears to discuss how we could make disability visible across the company’s offices. Everyone rallied together to host films, discussions and booths to raise awareness for our group and our cause.
It’s not surprising that the disability community was one of the last to be organized at my former employer. For many of us, managing all of our work on top of appointments, paperwork, emotional labor and physical pain is difficult enough. Having bandwidth to even think about advancing our careers, much less to participate in an affinity group, isn’t always an available option.
Finding common language to discuss our identities is another challenge I see in our community, along with the issue of disclosure. Many people who fall under the definition of disability do not necessarily identify with the word, and many people who do identify choose not to disclose at work.
For all of the reasons above, disability representation at the executive level is all too rare. Even at a company like Adobe, we were one of the only Employee Networks without an executive sponsor. This lack of leadership from the top further entrenches the notion that employees should hide their disabilities to the degree they are able.
And quite unfortunately, not all employers want their employees to disclose a disability, either. Recently, I’ve heard stories from multiple sources about companies creating diversity and inclusion programs that specifically exclude people with disabilities.
Which is why I believe Employee Networks (otherwise know as Employee Resource Groups, or ERGs) remain incredibly important when it comes to building more inclusive company cultures. Though companies tout ERGs for developing future leaders, generating innovative ideas and increasing employee engagement, I think they play an even more important role. These forums offer the chance for underrepresented employees to not feel underrepresented at work — if only for an hour at a time.
Going through the workday as one of the only — if not the only — person with a given identity is utterly exhausting. Simply trying to complete our work in a culture that has not taken our needs and experiences into account can leave many of us feeling drained, invisible and demoralized. Having the chance to sit in a room with others who share our identity provides a needed respite from the act many of us put on all day. The concept is simple, yet the impact is profound.
Though ERGs are intended to resource employees who participate, because the groups are “employee led”, the onus to create and run these groups falls on the shoulders of employees who are often underpaid and already underrepresented at work. I would love to see companies invest in underrepresented employees by providing more funding and personnel support for ERGs.
While building AccessAdobe, I discovered that I enjoy doing diversity and inclusion work even more than my former day job of product management. This experience encouraged me to pivot my career to focus on D+I. I’m so grateful to have worked for an employer who prioritized diversity and inclusion and gave me the chance to represent people with disabilities in our workplace with pride.
Thank you to L, D + K for your partnership in creating AccessAdobe.