MELINDA: Hello, everyone. I’m Melinda Briana Epler, Founder and CEO of Change Catalyst and author of How to Be an Ally. I’m your host of Leading With Empathy & AllyShip. Welcome!
Allyship is about learning, showing empathy, and taking action. That process often includes learning, unlearning, and relearning, then building empathy for people with different experiences, and above all, taking consistent action. So each week, we’ll learn from somebody new. Please be open to new ways of thinking and understanding. You can learn more about my work and sign up to join us for a live recording at ally.cc.
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Hello, everyone. Today, our guest is Sunday Parker, Access Technology Program Manager at Microsoft. Her work is part of Microsoft’s commitment to bridge the disability divide through access to technology, and connectivity that is accessible to people with disabilities. She also recently launched the Accessibility Nonprofit Tech Accelerator, aimed to support disability nonprofits with access to resources, grants, and software to accelerate their missions.
We’ll be talking today about Sunday’s story, her lifelong journey of advocacy, and the role that each of us plays in creating an accessible and inclusive world and community for people with disabilities, from physical and virtual spaces, to social media, and to our local communities as well.
So, Sunday, I’m really excited to have a conversation with you today. We have known each other, I guess over several years, starting with Tech Inclusion several years ago.
SUNDAY: Yeah. I’m not sure if you remember, but I’ll never forget the email that you sent to me before I was invited to speak on the panel. It really resonated with me on some of the thoughts I was having at the time about separate but equal access. You had sent an email just acknowledging the fact that when I would enter the building that Tech Inclusion was hosted at, I had to be escorted around to a back entrance. Which for any folks also in wheelchairs in San Francisco, or really anywhere, are probably very familiar with the concept of having to go in a different entrance. So I thought the way that you handled that, I just loved the way that you supported that and acknowledged the gap. I know we hadn’t even met in-person yet, but I already just really appreciated you and the work that you’re doing.
MELINDA: Oh, thank you. I do remember that. Because I remember, we didn’t know at the beginning. Yeah, a good and important thing for event organizers is to ask where the accessibility entrances are, and we did ask how accessible it was. But didn’t realize that the ramp in the front was not safe to use, and that the entrance was actually down the alley. But yeah, thanks for sharing that.
SUNDAY: Yeah, it’s been a long time. Now we’re meeting in this virtual world that we’re in now, I’m in a whole nother state. So a lot has changed.
MELINDA: Yeah, absolutely. The world has changed; we have changed. Well, so let’s start with your story. Let’s start with where you grew up, how you came to do the work that you do now today?
SUNDAY: Yeah. I mean, my life journey really truly starts with accessibility and disability. I was born with a rare neurological disease called spinal muscular atrophy. I was diagnosed at the age of two, and my earliest memories are truly about my coming to with my disability journey and personally accepting it from a young age. I will never forget, walking in on a conversation that was happening amongst adults, and they didn’t realize I was there, and talking about how I was never going to be like the other kids. Hearing that as a very young child, and not really knowing how to interpret that being the only person in my family at the time with a disability, I got into really this mode of wanting to fix myself and reaching that ambition of being like the other kids. Doctors, growing up, had very low expectations of what I would be able to accomplish in my life, and even if I was going to survive past early childhood. So a lot of those early years of diagnosis and working through that, both from within my family and personally with a disability, was something that was really challenging, to kind of flip into a mode that I am now of course into advocacy and accessibility. That journey really starts from where I grew up.
I grew up in a very small rural town with not a lot of resources. I was raised by a single mother that did not have the resources and the support to raise a child with complex mobility disability. I grew up in a house that was not accessible, because we could not afford to convert a non-accessible house to be accessible. Early on, my mother really leaned in to nonprofit organizations that supported me and my family, providing things like gas money to be able to get to a long-distance doctor’s appointments that were several hours away, to be able to see specialists that were familiar with my disease.
So to thread this in to what I’m doing now, I got into tech about six years ago. I will never say that that was a natural pathway for me. I was always the kid that loved being outdoors, and never ever imagined. But I spent so much of my life in front of a computer. But as I got older, and my disease progressed, I found that technology was really my pathway to be able to participate with my peers on equal footing. I was going to school, and there were really just a few options; there were sports, and there’s home economics, and there was computer class. Computer class was really the only time where I felt that I could really truly participate and access the same opportunities as all of my peers. So I did see technology, early on when I was in university, as being a good avenue for me to go into.
So I did that. I went into a role in retail, to start out when I graduated from college, and like many of us, don’t know what we want to do with our lives. Working at Apple retail, and that gave me the opportunity to get familiar with more technology, and work on the customer service aspect, and then move into a role that was in an office space, where I had access to a laptop. I worked at a company at the time that did not provide a lot of great accommodations. Everything was in-person at the time, and so working remotely had a lot of limitations, and the required travel that I was not able to do without a personal care attendant, and experiencing the discrimination that came from that when those requests were denied.
So my direction that I’ve moved into was wanting to find a company that lived up to my values. That is how I wound up at Salesforce, which ultimately turned into my first accessibility role, which started out in the employee resource group that was just being formed at the time, and eventually joining the leadership of the employee resource group for disability at Salesforce, and eventually forming what is now today the Office of Accessibility.
Now in my current role, I am, as you mentioned, leading our Access Technology Program at Microsoft. This is truly a dream come true and a full circle moment. The dream come true aspect of this is that as someone who has worked in accessibility for quite some time now, I have always admired Microsoft from afar and the incredible work that they have been doing over the last 25 years, and really having a lot of respect and admiration for the leadership at the Microsoft Accessibility Team. So this role really spoke to me from a personal standpoint. Because as I mentioned, I really relied on nonprofits and the community support that I grew up with. So this role gave me an opportunity to give back in a really unique way of, “Okay, how can I take all that I’ve learned in product accessibility and my lived experience, and bring it back into the work that I’m doing?” So it’s an incredible honor to get to work with our disability nonprofit communities and build that partnership and further accessibility in this role.
MELINDA: Thank you for sharing your story. Can you share what accessibility really means to you?
SUNDAY: Yeah, I love that question. This is something that has really changed for me over the years and evolved. As I mentioned, I grew up in a very small town, and there was not a lot of infrastructure in general, let alone any accessibility considerations. So as someone with a physical disability and has been in a wheelchair since the age of nine, I grew up thinking about accessibility as ramps, as sidewalks, as elevators into buildings. That simply did not exist, so that was normal to me for a very long time. Then I moved to San Francisco at the age of 17, and that was really the first time that I experienced what it is like to have accessibility be incorporated into the community that I lived in. That was truly a game changer for me, to be able to get from Point A to Point B on accessible public transportation, without having to rely on family or friends to get to places, like to go to school at the time, which is when I was going to college, and then eventually going to work. So I saw that accessibility really could be something that would transform my life from a physical accessibility standpoint.
However, when I started to work, and when I started to get involved with the employee resource group, and I started to get more exposure to different types of disabilities beyond my own, I had colleagues who were blind and deaf and were neuro-diverse, and I saw the different accessibility elements, and the way that technology, for me, it opened doors; this was my equal opportunity. But for people with different disability types, it was actually a barrier. Because technology posed these different unique challenges that I didn’t experience in my own lived experience. It was a moment for me where I felt very lucky to be able to have access to technology, because that broke down barriers for me. But at the same time, it’s like: “Okay, how can we make things more accessible, so that everyone feels like this and everyone has that same experience?” That is what I wanted, and eventually why I chose to go into digital accessibility at my time in Salesforce, and focus on creating awareness and training for the developers and designers to think about accessibility in the products that they’re creating. Because this is the way that we work, we live; everything is around technology.
It is so very important to think about accessibility beyond just for one, for me, for my own lived experience, it is not just ramps, it is not just elevators. But it is also accessible media, making sure that there are captions, making sure that like today, we have lovely interpreters who are able to provide that bridge so that everyone can access the content equally.
MELINDA: It’s really interesting. I think a lot of people, even people with disabilities, they can move through and navigate the world with their own disability, and then at a certain point, expand as you grow and learn about other disabilities and the unique experiences that people have. There’s this big umbrella of people with disabilities, and so many different unique experiences that happen beneath that, and also the intersectionality of some people with disabilities too.
Also, just to explain Sunday’s comment for those who are listening to the podcast, that we also have this on YouTube, where we do have ASL interpreters as well, to be more accessible for the deaf community in particular.
SUNDAY: And transcripts for the podcast.
MELINDA: Exactly. So we talked a bit about the physical space and the digital space. Let’s talk about the social media space, too. I have learned an incredible amount on social media, from disability activists and advocates. I’ve learned to recognize my own disabilities, and also, how to be a better ally for other people too, and to really understand people’s unique lived experiences. Can you share the importance of social media communities to you?
SUNDAY: Yeah, the virtual community is something that is so important to many people with disabilities, with different disability types for different reasons. From a mobility perspective, it can be hard to always get out into the community and have those connections one-on-one. Those are due to access barriers of the spaces that these gatherings happen. Also, with the ongoing concerns of COVID-19 and folks within the community being high-risk, the use of virtual spaces just became even more important in 2020. But even prior to then, that is where so many disabled activists and advocates were talking about disability and creating that community. From having a fairly uncommon disease, I was able to connect with people with my specific disease and be able to connect in that way over the virtual space, whether they be in my community or across the world, which is a really unique and an interesting time to be growing up with a disability that was different than when I was young. So being able to be an adult and have access to that virtual community is something that’s really important.
Right now, there’s a lot of uncertainty in the future of that. The platforms have made significant progress in incorporating accessibility. We’re able to have better auto-captions or edited captions within videos on social media; you’ve seen that on Instagram and Facebook. Being able to embed alternative text into images is a lot easier and a lot more celebrated. I really appreciated a few months ago when Twitter started actually showing if an image had alt text. Because as a visual user who prefers to share content that is in an accessible way, I would have to manually enable the screen reader and check if that content was accessible before sharing. Now, it’s just so much easier that the transparency is there of whether an image has alt text.
So a really great progress. But there’s also a lot of concerns with the future of those platforms. Many may have heard, the accessibility team from Twitter was let go very recently. For a platform that is that big, accessibility teams are incredibly vital to making sure that accessibility integrity is maintained, either due to regressions in the products or new features that come out. Without having a dedicated accessibility team, there are a lot of concerns around the community that’s happening around whether those platforms are going to remain accessible, and will still prioritize equal access to people with disabilities to be able to participate in those virtual spaces.
MELINDA: Yeah. Well, they kind of showed their prioritization by letting everyone go. So there’s hack implications, and then the community implications of that too. That Twitter is a very vibrant community where people with disabilities are very active, both in terms of advocating, and also for themselves, and really understanding how to do that, and also for raising awareness and understanding too.
SUNDAY: Yeah. For any folks who may have known me from when I lived in San Francisco many years ago, my advocacy started in the Bay Area with talking about public transportation. That was when I was working in retail at the time. I had to clock in, I had to be on time, and I had five elevators between my home and getting into work that day. So any number of them, two platform elevators per transit stop, if any of those were down or were being cleaned at the time, it was really hard to be able to commit to getting anywhere on time, whether it be work or a doctor’s appointment. Because there was just so many significant different variables that were at play there.
So when I was talking with colleagues at the time about how stressful it was for me, they were the ones who actually recommended it. They were like, you should go on Twitter and talk about this. I’m like, that’s not interesting for a lot of people. But I did start doing it. I started using photos and storytelling to talk about the accessibility barriers, photographing when those elevators were down, showing quite graphic, frankly, graphic images of elevators being used as bathrooms. It did resonate with folks in a way that I didn’t expect. It was because a lot of people just were not aware that there was a different experience for an everyday transit user and someone who was accessing transportation in a wheelchair.
Crowded subways are something that we’re all familiar with, kind of squeezing in those narrow aisles and not having a seat, but at least being able to get into a train. For me, that was not possible. So while the infrastructure was there, and while the transportation system was technically accessible, it was those external factors that come in after a transportation system has been stood up and isn’t able to support the demand, and the folks that are impacted the most are often people with disabilities. That is something that I think trickles through so much of our society, transportation just being one example. But how people with disabilities are very, very vulnerable in our society.
So taking it back to this example of Twitter, not having a dedicated accessibility team, who is advocating for these users that have accessibility considerations, that can have a really detrimental impact on the community and society. Because it is those people who are really at the forefront of making sure that we are considering accessibility and people with disabilities, within the products that we create, within our communities, within our transportation system. All of that requires having a plan for accessibility.
I know we’ll get to the actions later on. But if you are a person with a company or within an organization, really identifying who are those people who are advocating for accessibility, and seeing ways, in whatever capacity and whatever role that you have, ways to support those initiatives and support those people who are making sure that our society remains accessible and continues to advance on accessibility.
MELINDA: Yeah. I think I want to add something there, which is in terms of allyship, in terms of people learning, and then being understanding, and then being able to take action. I think we’re in a place now where we might lose Twitter; we might lose that community and that ability to raise awareness and disseminate information. In addition to it being a kind of platform, I think the accessibility of Twitter, and the team and the work that they did, really had ripple effects throughout the tech community, and without that, we would’ve lost that as well. And to lose that community too on top of it, and the storytelling, like we shared earlier, I think reduces our ability to understand and therefore take action, which could influence policy. It can influence so many different other decisions that have long-term implications. So as allies, recognizing that too, and finding information wherever you can, I think is really important, finding information elsewhere. Do you have any suggestions for other places for people to learn more?
SUNDAY: Yeah. I think, definitely, looking at the local folks with disabilities who have the lived experience or talking about, and subscribing to content that is created by them. Supporting disabled authors and reading about their stories can be really impactful and eye-opening to what is happening within the community. Also, looking within your own local nonprofit organizations that are serving people with disabilities, and seeing what are some of the challenges that your community is facing when it comes to accessibility and disability. Talking with your policymakers about accessibility as well, and seeing what are ways that you can get more involved, or at least become more aware. That is really the first step there is understanding what gaps exist, and then taking some time to reflect on what is the best way as an ally for you to get involved. Because there are times where it is best to insert yourself into a situation and be that person that is being the voice or the main person that is supporting a certain initiative. But also, sometimes it’s just taking actually a step back and seeing how you can amplify another person who is leading that work. Because oftentimes, there are people with disabilities who are really trying to break through and become advocates within their community. But they may need support, they need amplification, they may need resources themselves and connections. So figuring out how you can elevate those voices when it is relevant, and also taking action yourself too.
MELINDA: Yeah. You have mentioned the word community a lot. I want to just take a pause here and ask you, what does community mean to you, and why is community important for you as somebody with a physical disability?
SUNDAY: Yeah, this has been really top of mind for me lately. I spent about a decade living in the Bay Area, going to college, getting my career started. Just before the pandemic, I decided to make a big move to Austin, Texas. Part of this was to get a little bit closer to family and what I was more familiar with growing up in Oklahoma. The other part of this is, I really struggled in the Bay Area to really develop a community. It is a very transitional type of a city and very fast-moving. I had so many different connections through work in my career that I was very grateful for. But there were some times where it felt that I really didn’t have a good support system, to really be able to feel that I could be comfortable living in a city like San Francisco for the long-term. I think when it came to policies and infrastructure, it was so wonderful. But then there were gaps in other areas. Like I mentioned that accessibility is more than just ramps and elevators, but it’s also about the community that you live in and how you support one another, and feeling comfortable in where you are. Living in Oklahoma as a disabled person, I never really felt safe, because I didn’t have the ability to do things independently at all. Even though I can get around independently using a wheelchair, I wasn’t able to use a power wheelchair because nothing was accessible. Then when I moved to the Bay Area, I had so much access to accessibility; I was able to get into a power wheelchair and navigate the world on my own. But I went into a mode of hyper-independence, as I like to call that period of my life, where I really wanted to do everything on my own.
But as I got older, and my own disability experience has changed a bit, I have learned the importance of interdependence and understanding that it is okay to ask for help, that it is okay to lean in on your community when you need it. And wanting to have not only a safe and accessible environment, and live in an accessible home, as I do now for the first time in my whole life. Because in the Bay Area, apartments are accessible from an access standpoint. But once you got inside, they were not accessible. Also, the affordability piece of being able to purchase a home and make the renovations and things, those were still burdens that were on people with disabilities. Even if you were able to access apartment that was built for being ready to be accessible, there was still that kind of last-mile of actually making the apartment accessible. So with my move to Austin, I am able to live in an accessible home. I have a city that is relatively walkable and has decent accessibility infrastructure. But I also have the community element as well, and feeling that I can build up that comfort level of being able to have interdependence within my community. That is something that I am looking forward to growing, as I live here longer, and connecting with local organizations and seeing how I can continue doing advocacy locally here.
MELINDA: For those who are listening or watching, and realizing that they may not be making themselves available to that interdependence, what would you suggest that they do or think about?
SUNDAY: I think for disabled folks, that’s something that is a personal journey. It can be difficult to navigate, and there are times where sometimes it’s a matter of just taking the time to really reflect on your own needs and what you need to feel comfortable. There are some people who love that complete independence and are able to get through the world in their own way. I don’t think there is any wrong way to be a disabled person in this country, quite frankly. To be very clear, I think that everyone is on their own journey and path with their disability. I think whatever way works for them, I am always fully supportive of, I want every disabled person to succeed. If they need help doing that, I’m there for them. But if they don’t, or they don’t need anyone, that’s great, too. But I think for the allies in the room who are looking at like, “Okay, how can I support more people within the disability community,” I think volunteering with a local organization is a good place to start, meeting more people with disabilities. If you have people with disabilities in your life, finding out what are the ways that you can support them. Sometimes, that’s just about listening, and other times, it could be just finding out what type of different support that they need and seeing what ways that that can happen. Also, supporting the initiatives that are happening within your local community that are tied to accessibility.
MELINDA: Awesome! Then in the workplace, anything in particular that people can think about in the workplace too, and what actions that they can take?
SUNDAY: Yeah, certainly. Employee resource groups are the perfect place to start there, and that is a network of employees with disabilities and allies. That often has discussions around what is happening within your company around accessibility, and what initiatives that you can get involved in to support accessibility in your company. But oftentimes, those employee resource groups are also networking within their community and giving back to the community that they live in. A really great opportunity to volunteer or connect with more people with disabilities, and support those local initiatives within your company and within the community that the chapter is located within.
MELINDA: So let’s talk a little bit about the role of nonprofits too, because I know that is related to something you just launched; the Accelerator you just launched. What is the role of nonprofits? Feel free to also talk about, specifically, the work you’re doing now.
SUNDAY: Yeah. I mean, just from a personal standpoint, nonprofits were really vital to contribute the resources that were given to me, as I would not simply be here today in the capacity of working in technology. I feel very humbled and grateful to have the opportunity to do this work, and I very much contribute a lot of that to the resources that myself and my family received as I was growing up. One example of that is, my first computer was actually donated from a nonprofit organization. So kind of going back to that equal footing that technology gives me, and it really inspired me to consider technology as a career path.
But nonprofits are really at the forefront of the accessibility opportunities and challenges that the community is facing. Obviously, accessibility is something that needs to be considered in industry, it needs to be considered in the policies we create on a local and national level. But there’s also these last-mile sort of gaps that exist within the space of disability, and nonprofits do an incredible job of providing that bridge to resources very much on the grassroots level, which is so very important. Because we talk about accessibility within industry and on a national level. But what’s really happening on the local level is also something that is incredibly important and is vital to the success of not just lifting up some people with disabilities, but truly being able to support all people with disabilities within their community, wherever they are. That is from an economic standpoint as well. These resources that, not just disability nonprofits specifically, but non-profit organizations that are serving local individuals within their community oftentimes are catering to people with disabilities inherently, just because of the economic status as well, and the intersectionality of the multitude of challenges that people with disabilities face. The work that nonprofits are doing are very vital to realizing accessibility.
In my role at Microsoft, I have the incredible privilege of working with many disability nonprofit partners. Microsoft has been committed to accessibility for a long time. In 2021, we renewed that accessibility commitment with solving what the World Bank coins as the “disability divide.” That is a global approach to how we can support more people with disabilities, and get access to work together to really create a more inclusive world. So this program, that is the next iteration of how I am incorporating that commitment back into the work that I’m doing, is aimed at supporting nonprofit organizations with their technology journey, and providing enablement support resources. So that organizations can better serve their disability constituents, and to operate more efficiently, and to be able to focus on their mission and their values and the initiatives that are serving people with disabilities, and using technology to uplevel that work.
So we have a new grant program that has a launching early in 2023, which iterates on a pilot to be able to support a small subset of diverse disability nonprofits who are working on this within their communities, and figuring out a way that we can partner with them on providing technology resources and grants to be able to incorporate back into their mission.
MELINDA: Awesome. If I’m listening or watching, how can somebody learn more, either to amplify that project so that more nonprofits hear about it? Or if they are a nonprofit leader, how can you learn more about it?
SUNDAY: Yeah, we’ll provide the links in the transcript as well. But that’s AKA.ms/AccessibilityNTA.
MELINDA: Okay, and we’ll definitely provide that, exactly, in our show notes, so that you all have that at hand. Is there anywhere else that people can learn more about you and your work?
SUNDAY: Yeah, I would love to build more connections on LinkedIn, Sunday Parker. Always love to hear ideas, especially if you are a nonprofit organization that would like to connect, in particular. But all people that are willing to or wanting to learn about accessibility and disability, I’m always happy to have those conversations. So you can connect with me on LinkedIn, and also other social media platforms of your choosing.
MELINDA: Awesome. Thank you, Sunday. Thank you for this conversation, and appreciate all the work that you do
SUNDAY: Yeah, it was great. Thank you so much for having me.
MELINDA: Absolutely. All right, everyone. Make sure that you do take action as a result of listening or watching to this episode and the amazing experience that somebody has shared, and we will be back next week.
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Leading With Empathy & AllyShip is a show by Change Catalyst, where we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting, and events. You can learn more about us at change catalyst.co. So let’s keep building allyship across our communities and around the world.
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