How the Son of a Polio Survivor Became an Accommodations Manager in Tech
I haven’t personally asked for an accommodation at work. But in my previous position, I managed accommodation requests and all things disability for a large tech company.
A little about me: I’m one of four kids raised by a Mom with one functioning arm. Mom was one of the last people to contract polio — the vaccine was out but hadn’t made it to her yet. So she had a left arm we affectionately called her “paw”, and a right arm seemingly made of steel. I’ve yet to meet another human with the one-armed grip strength to redirect a misbehaving child or wash dishes in water as hot as the sun.
Maybe you’re thinking, aha, that’s how this guy got into disabilities work. But nope.
Mom didn’t steer me into disabilities work, but she taught me the importance of working my ass off and helping others along the way. I remember her telling me about the teacher at her all-girls school who showed her how to type with one hand. When Mom wasn’t allowed to be in school musicals because they were too embarrassed to put a disabled kid on stage, she became a soloist at church. My Mom ended up being the only kid in her family to go to college, get a Master’s Degree, and leave Milwaukee. Mom didn’t teach me about disability — she taught me how to live.
With those lessons, I graduated college and law school. I went into Employment Law because it seemed like an area where I could make an immediate impact on people’s lives. Five years in, a supervisor assigned me to be the office’s Americans with Disabilities Act expert. I went on to give countless ADA trainings and litigate hundreds of ADA cases on the management side.
After 16 years of practicing law and litigating, I called it quits. I was sick of fighting over things that happened years ago — by the time we went to court, the damage was done and lives were negatively impacted. I left my public sector job and joined one of the world’s largest tech companies, responsible for creating the accommodations process and managing accommodations requests for over 15,000 employees across the United States and Canada.
Given my experience, I thought this would be a piece of cake, but I was wrong. As a lawyer, I usually dealt with other attorneys. I wasn’t used to getting calls from a real human who needed help and was often afraid of the consequences for asking. What I did know, however, was that how I responded could profoundly impact this person’s life and my employer.
So an advocate was reborn. This time I wasn’t advocating for one side or another, I was advocating for the correct result. I put all my skills to work, teaching the employee and manager about the accommodations process along the way, so that each person was empowered with knowledge, empathy, and an ability to continue in what was often a lengthy interactive process.
I got a lot of people mad at me: managers resisting change, or employees who needed change faster. In the back of my mind was Mom, knowing that one little boost was all she needed to succeed. I knew that, if given the tools and the opportunity, my employer would have an amazing employee — dedicated, empowered, and, most importantly, someone who felt valued.
This kept me going during rough days. I ran headfirst into a lot of brick walls, including my manager who thought I wasn’t patient enough, and who eventually drove me out when I advocated for a company-wide accessibility strategy. But I left that company knowing I had done the right thing.
Today, I’m a private consultant. I went on to become a Certified Access Specialist (CASp), number 812 in California. And I help employers and events with their accessibility and accommodations questions. I’ve gone through many professional iterations, but at the end of the day, it comes back to what Mom taught me: this isn’t about disability, this is about living. And sometimes the most powerful way of doing that is being a professionally trained ally willing to stick one’s neck out for what is right. It makes a difference. Many of the people I helped at that tech company are still there, and many of them are watering the seeds I planted: in 2018, accessibility is part of the company-wide goals.
It takes a village. Some days we do the asking, other days we are the ones with something to give. Go out there and be a better ally. You never know, that person you help could be someone’s Mom.
Josh Klipp is an attorney, Certified Access Specialist and founder of Made Welcome, a consultancy specializing in access strategies for workplaces and events.
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