Tech in Advertising with Invisible Disabilities

Earlier this summer, Natasha Walton was asking for disabled people who work in tech who might be interested in blogging for her Tech Disability Project during October, which is National Disability Employment Awareness Month in the USA. I found out about Natasha’s project when she posted on the Disabled in Tech Slack. If you’re looking for community and would like to join, you can sign up at bit.ly/disabledintech

Owen (middle) chatting with the Samsung Internet Developers team at Mozilla Festival 2016. (Image shows 3 men chatting in the foreground with other people out of focus in the background.)

I’m a technologist in advertising. While I used to be a coder, these days I create the technical design of client projects and lead developers in building those solutions. My job involves thinking up the structure of a technical thing — a piece of website functionality or a digital tool, for example — along with supervising developers and removing roadblocks to meet the client’s needs within the deadline and budget.

I have several invisible disabilities. My mental health can be quite up and down, both with getting panicky and with depression; also very variable can be my stomach. One thing that’s helpful about living in the age of the Internet, though, (apart from that literally being my job 😊) is that a lot of my work doesn’t require me to be in the office.

If I’m having a day where I can’t travel into London, it’s really useful that I can work from home and stay in touch with colleagues through email, conference calls and Slack. In the UK we’re fortunate that our Equality Act requires employers to make “reasonable adjustments” for disabled staff and the act has a very inclusive definition of disability.

While my mental and physical health might mean that I can’t work at all some days, having the option to work from home means that I can still be a useful part of the team, no matter the reason why — even if it’s something as simple as delays on the trains or that I just can’t be all that far from the toilet today. (And I know I’m not the only person who’s experiencing increased depression with everything happening in the Global North over the last 2 or 3 years.)

The amount that panic attacks trouble me has varied a lot over time. I had to take a year out of university because I couldn’t get the bus to campus in late 1995, but by 1997 I was comfortable enough to take a big step into the unknown and move city after graduating. By mid-2005, though, long commute journeys were becoming a really big problem for me and I spent a good week working from home — occasionally is fine, but an unexpected continuous block is inconvenient for everyone concerned.

My line manager at the time was really supportive. After a meeting with him and our HR head before I had a week of staycation booked, he suggested I try to do something that would push my boundaries, but in a way where I knew I could take a break and freak out in the privacy of a toilet cubicle if I needed to. So I spent a day just riding unfamiliar parts of London’s public transport network and shared on Flickr pictures of all the Tube roundels to prove I’d been there. It wasn’t some amazing breakthrough, but it certainly helped boost my confidence.

Of course, not everyone is always cool about things. A couple of jobs ago, when I was looking to move on, I interviewed for a job as Deputy CTO for another agency. I got on really well with them: they liked me and I liked them. But then, in conversation with the CTO over the phone to firm up some details, it came up that I get panic attacks.

Within 10 minutes I had a call from the recruitment agent and the company had withdrawn the job offer. I even called my trades union and was told there was no chance of successfully taking them to a tribunal — it would be my word against theirs. Mental health problems can lead to feelings of shame and embarrassment all on their own; we don’t need employers’ ignorance and lack of understanding putting extra limits on what we can do.

Thankfully, my employers are very understanding about the things I sometimes need — they know that I can’t as easily go work on-site with a client or travel abroad for a meeting, that I can’t work late on evenings when I have therapy, that I have medical appointments more often than many of my colleagues and that sometimes I just need to take a few minutes to myself.

But they also know that this doesn’t mean I’m slacking off; I do work hard and I’m good at what I do. And I’m definitely grateful that I work somewhere where I can bring my whole self to the office — I don’t need to hide these parts of myself, just the same as I don’t hide that I’m queer.

No one with a disability is living their life in clover, but we’re also not fighting through our lives as some kind of inspiration for other people to look up to. And, just like everyone else, we get through life with the support of people who care about us — including communities like the Disabled in Tech Slack and the LGBTQ in Tech Slack; follow those links if you want to sign up.

Read Next: Working With My Mental Illnesses, Not Against Them


Owen Blacker is a technologist in advertising by day and volunteers to help run nonprofits mySociety and the Open Rights Group in the bits of his spare time where he’s not contributing to Wikipedia or being distracted by needy but adorable cats. He can be found on Twitter at @owenblacker, where he’s probably ranting about politics or talking about whatever music he’s using to drown out the open-plan office today.

The photo used at the top of the article is from the Mozilla Festival Flickr account, taken by Paul Clarke and licensed CC BY-NC-SA 2·0. This article is dedicated to the public domain under the terms of the Creative Commons Zero licence. Please translate, copy, excerpt, share, disseminate and otherwise spread it far and wide. You don’t need to ask me, you don’t need to tell me. Just do it!

Sign up for our mailing list to receive weekly content updates.

And follow Tech Disability Project to stay up to date with our daily content! ⬇