We all have ability: Celebrating National Disability Employment Awareness Month

Did you know that 1 in 4 American adults lives with a disability, making it the largest minority group in the U.S. (CDC)? And that 1 in 6 people globally, roughly 16% of the world's population, experience a significant disability (WHO)? We’ve kept these stats top of mind at SoFi Technologies as we celebrated National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), which is observed every October in the U.S. and recognizes the many contributions of people with disabilities to America’s workplaces and economy. This month’s focus is recognizing the importance of ensuring all people should have equal opportunity to contribute their skills and talents. The celebration is extra special this year as it is the 50th anniversary of the first civil rights legislation that protected employment rights for people with disabilities.

As a co-lead for Ability@SoFi, an employee resource group dedicated to creating a voice for employees with disabilities and their caregivers, I’m especially proud of the ongoing conversations we had this October about the importance of ability in the workplace. In alignment with our core values, we want to embrace diversity in all forms and create a truly inclusive workplace. This requires embracing the wide range of unique abilities of our coworkers and constantly reminding ourselves that everyone can bring their unique abilities and experiences to our teams. 

This month, I was lucky to sit down with five SoFi Technologies employees who are active in our circle community to discuss what it means to live with a disability, be a caregiver, and be an ally, and the intersectionality between these experiences and other aspects of identity. 

To start, can you please introduce yourself and tell us what you do at SoFi Technologies? 

Judy: Hi, I am Judy Leon. I’m part of the SoFi Unidos circle leadership team, and I’m an ally to every circle. I work in the Center of Excellence Department, and I’m the Associate Manager for Remittance and Lending Support.

Dave: I am Dave Bergum, Technical Program Manager with EPD Foundations, working out of the Helena, Montana office representing the Vets@SoFi circle as one of their co-leads. 

Nancy: Hello! I am Nancy Yuen and am the Sr Director of SOX Governance representing the SNAP Circle, Women, Parents, and Ability circle. 

Alycia: My name is Alycia Glaude, and I’m a sales rep here at SoFi. I’m on the leadership team for the Ability circle, and I’m also a part of some of our other circle groups like SoulFi, SoFi Unidos, and Good Grief. 

Xavier: I am Xavier Summers, and I am the Director and Head of 1LOD Control Testing and Reporting. I am representing the Pride and SoulFi circles, but I’m also a member of all our circles.

Nancy, I’d love to start with you. How have you seen differences in ability celebrated in your life, whether that’s neurodiversity, mental health, a physical disability, or another type of difference in ability?

Nancy: When I was young, my differences were definitely not celebrated and I think it’s important to start my answer there. I grew up in a very traditional Chinese home where disabilities were hidden and swept under a rug. It was only once I was formally diagnosed with Asperger’s and OCD that I felt a sense of freedom in that I could put a name to my unique abilities. Later on—in university and in my career—these differences, like being hyper-focused, ended up being a good thing and were celebrated. My eye for detail was seen positively and this translated into my role now as an auditor, where I can focus on data and look at the details of things.  

Dave and Xavier, I’ll pass the next question to you. How has your experience with a difference in ability influenced your life or perception of self? 

Dave: My experiences have borne out the truth “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” I have come to realize that it’s okay to recognize that people with different abilities will have their own set of challenges through life. To me, it’s important to understand that the ultimate celebration of success is less important than the fact that there were myriad challenges that had to be overcome along the journey to success. 

Xavier: Through my own journey, I've learned the importance of not making assumptions and fostering an inclusive environment where possible. It's taught me to fully embrace my own differences and appreciate the value of connecting with people in unexpected ways. Just like we shouldn't assume someone's pronouns based on their appearance, we should also avoid assuming that someone may not have a disability. Navigating the complexities of both visible and hidden aspects of my intersecting identities has given me a deeper understanding and connection with people, a perspective that not everyone finds easy to grasp. This has genuinely shaped my life and who I am.

As our lives change, our identities often do too. Judy and Alycia, how has your ability and other aspects of your identity changed throughout your lifetime? How have other aspects of your identity or community influenced your perception of disabilities and caregiving?

Judy: Being a Latina, I grew up believing that speaking about disabilities was just something we didn't do. Having a child with a developmental delay was associated with embarrassment, rejection, and family burden. Autism is diagnosed on average 2.5 years later in Latino/a children than non-latino/a children in the US, and I believe it's due to the stigma and lack of understanding. 

I'm open about my children's autism to raise awareness, especially in the Latino/a community. When I found out that my oldest son had autism, I didn't know how to feel or what to think. All I knew was that I needed to learn everything about autism and find resources to support me and my child. My family has been very supportive and curious about ASD, though I feel they still need to learn so much, but that’s part of the journey. A large part of my identity is that I will always advocate for my boys and ensure they benefit from all available resources. One of my favorite quotes summarizing my feelings is, "autism doesn't come with a manual. It comes with a parent that never gives up."

Alycia: ​​When I was younger, before my chronic pain became completely widespread, I felt like I was invincible, as many of us tend to. As the pain that I once felt sporadically became more constant, I've had to learn to adjust to this "new" me. My strength used to be one of my natural badges of honor, but I'm no longer as physically strong as I used to be. I've had to reframe the idea that my strengths are not necessarily tied to what I can only do physically. There are so many other strengths that I recognize now within myself that I didn't before. 

This next question is for anyone, so feel free to jump in. Have you experienced a time when you did not show up as your authentic self–and if so, what led you there, and what did you learn from it?

I have been in positions at previous companies where I wasn’t comfortable mentioning that I had chronic back pain issues, back when that was all I thought it was, and I tried my best to grin and bear it. Growing up, I had always been taught that mentioning my pain would cause me to not get the job/promotion and to keep quiet about it until necessary, which I hated. I learned that is not something that I want for myself and that I need to be honest about what is going on with me physically because my pain and my neurodivergence don't make me any less of an employee or person. I feel it actually speaks to my strengths now, as I am able to handle a lot.

Nancy: Being female and Asian, for me, there was always this unsaid expectation to be obedient, dainty, and quiet, none of which apply to me naturally or particularly as someone with Asperger’s! I would mask my differences at home and later at work, and I never felt authentic, which impacted my mental health. At SoFi, I can be my authentic self, and with the support of my manager and team, this led to a high-functioning and happy me! 

When it comes to ability or being a caregiver, what has support looked like for you? What makes a good ally?

Xavier: As a person who lives at the intersection of being neurodiverse, a person of color, and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I've learned that extraordinary allies are those who fully embrace the intricate layers of my identity. They offer understanding and acceptance without judgment, all while acknowledging the additional challenges that arise from these intersecting aspects of who I am. Creating a safe space for open dialogue, they are willing to both listen and learn.

Engaging in conversations that might feel uncomfortable and being uncertain about what to say is a part of the process, and that's perfectly okay. It's important to recognize that each person's journey is unique, and there's no one-size-fits-all approach. In my life, my allies have provided unwavering support and inclusivity. They make me feel valued and understood in a world where systemic inequities and discrimination can compound the challenges I face.

Alycia: When you are a caregiver or have one, I think it is important that one is able to be patient (with themselves and with the person they are caring for) and has the ability to listen, be empathetic, and understand that things can change from day-to-day, and that is OK.

Judy Leon: Having two boys on the spectrum has been a challenging journey filled with unknowns, something I knew nothing about. Getting support has been a battle for my boys between IEP (Individual Education Plan) meetings, assessments, evaluations, pandemic closures, and a lack of stable resources. I've had to be my son's advocate and speak up for them on many occasions to get their needed support. 

My youngest son is four and is non-verbal, and getting him the required speech therapy has been very challenging due to the pandemic and the shortage of speech pathologists. It's very frustrating; I've taken courses on speech therapy and worked with my son, but it's hard not to get upset and think of how much farther he would be if he had adequate resources to help him since he was an infant. I sometimes feel like I'm failing him as a mother. In these moments, my husband, family, son's ABA (applied behavior analysis) Team, their schools, and staff are my support system. They’ve shown me that a good ally is someone who can be there to provide emotional support and social support—not someone who thinks they have the answers. Sometimes, all I need is someone who will listen to me and hear my frustrations.

One of our values is to “Remember to Smile” - Is there any part of your journey with ability or caregiving that makes you proud or makes you smile? 

Seeing my child succeed and hit milestones is the best feeling in the world! 

Nancy: Enjoying life and living authentically. Having joy and a purpose makes me smile! Being in a world and at SoFi where we are open to talking about mental health makes me smile too!

Alycia: I think one thing that makes me proud and makes me smile about my journey is my ability to look at everything and understand that, while this is not “ideal,” it is what I was born with, and I have to make the most of what I have, and I do. It may not always be in the way that I pictured, but ultimately, the things that I do have within my control, I try to make the most of. 

Dave: Recognizing ability is a spectrum. I smile each and every time I see someone on that spectrum succeed in the face of the sometimes monumental challenges their differing ability confronts them with.  

Thank you for sharing Nancy, Judy, Xavier, Alycia, and Dave! I appreciate your vulnerability in sharing and for helping our readers understand the importance of discussing ability within our communities, including at work. Your answers are a great reminder that an inclusive workplace requires embracing the wide range of unique abilities of our coworkers and creating space for everyone to bring their unique abilities and experiences to our teams. 

(World Health Organization, 2023)
(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2023)

The individuals featured are SoFi employees. 
Their personal experiences, obviously, do not take into account your own specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. Results will vary.

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Chloe Lombardo, Talent Brand @ SoFi