INTERVIEW WITH JESSICA RAMQUIST RAFUSE
By Valentina Dolciotti
A week later, but tied by an invisible thread, my conversation about D&I with Microsoft goes on and today I meet Jessica Ramquist Rafuse, Accessibility Leader and Director of Strategic Partnership and Policy.
Here in Milan I met Chris Capossela less than 7 days ago, and I really enjoyed talking with him!
…Oh wow! He’s done quite a bit for mental health at Microsoft, talking really openly about it and destigmatising it… so I just adore him. I love that he allows the story to be told from the individual who experiences mental illness (depression, anxiety…), he just creates a really open place to talk about it.
It’s also great because his job is focused on marketing but he cares so much about D&I and he sees the real connection between his job and these themes and that they aren’t two different paths.
He probably didn’t brag about the things that he’s done, but I think from an accessibility perspective, so technical, he recognises that it’s not only putting representation on the screen - so if I see someone with a disability I can aspire to become someone like that person. That’s one piece of it, but it’s also access to that imagery, so things like alternative text, things like making sure that any time you are engaging on social media, you are doing that in an inclusive way, captioning, so it’s really an holistic approach.
(Leafing through a copy of DiverCity magazine…)
I think there’s so much we can learn from other demographics also, so the LGBTQ+ community, they teach us so much about having pride for your identity and it that makes me really amazing at doing my job. A lot of things, a lot of traits and characteristics that I have are based in the real-life experience that I have as a wheelchair user, and that’s what the Pride community has taught us. And we try to share these best practices and bring each other along with us, I think that’s really important what you’re doing.
I think it’s really important too that disability is a part of that conversation because in so many cultures, including the United States, disability has been something that you hide. It’s not something that you’re proud of, but we’re really recognising that disability is a strength. It’s part of my identity, of who I am, it’s right up there with woman, mom, dog lover, person with a disability, all these things that make me who I am, and recognising that disability is a part of that and it’s a strength.
I have some questions for you. Where were you born, in what kind of family and what studies did you do? So, I can know you a little bit and discover how you get to this role!
I’m from Seattle. I played lots of sports as a kid. I have an older brother and we played together. Around the age of 6/7, my parents noticed I was running slower than the other kids and they brought me in to the doctor and said “Teach her how to run. Teach her how to run faster”. And that was the first introduction to muscular dystrophy, a whole new world. And I can really appreciate now, as a parent, how difficult that is when you get a diagnosis about your child. But my parents said “Ok, you’re going to do the same things as your brother, you’re going to lead the same life, we’re going to really try to help you assimilate to this world that is around you.” And so, I did all the things and went all the places and got my wheelchair when I went to the workplace. And I had been really hesitant to get a wheelchair because that just meant that…
It’s a symbol…
Yes, and I never had that community of people with disabilities to tell me “No, disability is a strength, the wheelchair is going to create access around the world for you”. And so now, as I think about my own kids, I think about how can I create a world where they recognise their diversity, everything about them makes them so uniquely who they are and that’s something we should embrace, not shy away from.
So, I went to university in Seattle, I studied in Spain and fell in love with the world, in doing that. And then actually while I was in Spain I was sitting on the banks of the Rio Guadalquivir drinking my tinto de verano and I was telling my roommate what a challenge that being in Spain had been, where in the US we have elevators, curb cuts (pram ramps, ndr)… and she said “Why don’t you do something about it?”.
And it changed my mind, my world. I was going to be an art history major but I thought “Well I can make a difference. I started to recognise that disability isn’t something that is wrong with me. It’s a mismatch between who I am and the world around me. I was no longer the problem but accessibility was the problem. Instead, I could be part of the solution. I was going to innovate solutions, ramps, to the whole world. So, I went to law school and said I want to help through disability rights and disability justice. So I began a judge for the US government. I then went to work for a tiny coffee shop in Seattle – Starbucks – doing employment law and, on my nights, my weekends, I was doing a lot of work around bringing together other people with disabilities at Starbucks. “But I was watching Microsoft and Microsoft was doing some pretty cool things. I started to work with Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Microsoft Chief Accessibility Officer who is deaf and she said “Why don’t you come over and do this work with me? Let’s try to change the world while we’re having a good time”. So we do, we have a lot of fun and we get to work with some really incredible people. I’ve been at Microsoft now for 6 years.
To my original question and your answer: It’s not common at all your parents’ attitude.
Yeah, my mum had very high expectations for me, I think that’s very important for parents of kids with disabilities. But there was always that safety net: I knew she was there to help, to catch.
And what about technology?
The risk and benefit of technology… Technology can be hugely empowering; it can level the playing field and give opportunity to everyone on the planet. But if we create inaccessible technology, it can be hugely disempowering, and Microsoft recognises the responsibility that we have and also how potentially harming it could be if we had technology and didn’t think about accessibility while we’re creating it.
Did you already knew there was a Company area called D&I, about inclusion or did you meet it in Microsoft? Or even in Starbucks there was something similar…?
My initial introduction to D&I I think would have been from a legal perspective, so in law school learning about the laws that were created in the US about all rights. So, the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
1964 is a long time ago.
The Americans with Disabilities Act didn’t come around until 1990. So, it’s really not that old. That’s the work that I did, affirmative action work. And it was about opening up opportunities for people who may not otherwise experience them. So, when we would post a job, people who have access would know we were hiring for that job. But people without access, people who are marginalised, would not know that that job was available. So, for me affirmative action is really about casting this broad net and making sure that our population reflects that candidate pool, the people who want the job, and that is reflecting the people who we are hiring and that’s good for business too.
In practice, especially when it comes to designing technology – having a curb cut is great, but if there’s a car parked in front of that, how am I going to access the pavement? …which gives you a little insight into my run here from the Duomo, even a police car parked in front of the ramps…
Oh no. They make me feel ashamed.
No, it’s part of the adventure.
Well, it’s a little bit of the chicken and the egg. People with disabilities might not be as visible today because the city is not as accessible to them. Does the city fix itself first or do people with disabilities have to be the risk-takers and engage in a city that’s not accessible to them? I think it’s important to take the burden off of the individual with the disability and ask society to create a space that’s more inclusive.
And technology is the same?
Some people may only interact with their PC using one hand. If we design the technology for someone who has an amputated arm so that they can engage with their computer using one hand, we’re also designing a technology that works great for someone who breaks their arm, someone who’s holding a baby in one hand.
Moms love those curb cuts that were designed for people with wheelchairs. That’s the beauty of inclusive design is that it truly can extend to everyone. Why, in your opinion, does Microsoft choose to deal with inclusion matters?
I’ll speak specifically about disability but this extends to other demographics maybe. There’s a few reasons. 1. We want to create innovative technologies, so we need diverse perspectives. 2. We want talent in the Company to make the Company a better place, so when we create a space where they can bring their whole selves and there isn’t stigma, we create a space that is better for the talent. 3. The customer: we want to create technologies for our customers that reflect who they are. Only three reasons? There’s got to be more!
I’m sure! Do you think there is a difference in the Microsoft approach to physical disabilities and to others, for example mental health?
We know that there are over a billion people with disabilities in the world, and that could be physical, it could be hearing, it could be vision, it could be mental health. We know that people who had Covid are often experiencing long Covid conditions. They come and join this group of people with disabilities. We also see stress, anxiety and depression that people are feeling on a scale that I think we haven’t recognised in the past. People had all this leave but they weren’t taking but everyone was feeling this burnout. So Microsoft said “We’ll give you some more, but we’ll call it something different, so it was called Health and Wellness Days.” And people started not to take a vacation, but to need a wellness day, a Friday afternoon off, a book to grab and to sit under a tree in their backyard and rest and take care of them.
And I think that is the silver lining, or the unexpected beauty of what we’ve learned through he pandemic.
It’s the power of the words because they can change the stigma.
Because words matter!
They do. You talk so often about community, it’s great because I think it’s all about communities: without them you can’t feel represented and see in others what you are.
Yeah, shared experiences are so important to learn from. We’re all experiencing a different set of understandings of how our minds and bodies work and people who don’t think they have a disability now, at some point in their lives they’re going to say: I’m a part of this group too.
So, I feel very fortunate that I have been able to build that community and see mentors who have paved the way for me.
And a goal for the near future?
An accessible future. A place where everyone is thinking about accessibility in everything that they do. The type of future that removes those barriers that we were talking about, so that drivers - before they park in front of the ramp - they think “Oh, this is not an accessible option”.
One last question. I have always thought that “the dominant group” (white men, hetero, wealthy, no disabilities, etc.) ruled the world and made it in general non-accessible. Nowadays, however, there are many communities that raise their voices asking for equity and rights for all, and it is difficult not to hear them. Yet that privileged group still exists. Why?
That’s a great question. In my experience I think it is often about awareness, and less often about choice. So, if I think of leaders in any Corporation when they think about disability they say “Not me, this is something else, something othering”. But when we help them to understand that it’s about the glasses that you’re wearing, your child who needs a little extra help with their Math homework, your grandparents… it relates to them. It could be a favourite uncle with diabetes. But I think it is letting them know that they have this role to play, and it is relatable to them, rather than othering. There are also people who it is more of a choice, in fact they ask “What’s the percentage of people that this will impact?” and it’s not about awareness. But we have to sit down and understand their perspective first. But helping them to see that this isn’t about someone else, this is about them.
So… it is more about awareness.
Ok, so it’s a positive vision.
Yeah, I do think so. Like a lot of people with disabilities, I have absolutely been excluded. I was told I would never be promoted because I couldn’t travel independently and here I am. You spend some time with me and I think that an empathy-building is absolutely possible.
So, it’s up to us, again.
You have a great responsiblity and opportunity. It’s pretty cool what you’re doing.
I also think that Governments have to stop thinking of D&I issues as something specific and particular, and create inclusive and large laws, because even the rules change the culture.
We’ll fix this, right?
Of course we will.
We have to fight.
We have to fight.