Tiffany Yu on empowering people with disabilities in the workplace

Written by AJ Cortese Published on     5 mins read

Tiffany talks about reducing bias in the hiring process and how companies can better support people with disabilities.

Tiffany Yu is the CEO & Founder of Diversability, the Founder of the Awesome Foundation Disability Chapter, and the host of TIFFANY & YU. She also serves on the San Francisco Mayor’s Disability Council. Tiffany was also was a Co-Chair of the World Economic Forum Sustainable Development Impact Summit in 2020. She aims to increase intersectional disability representation and democratize visibility.

KrASIA (Kr): When it comes to people with disabilities and employment, how have things changed over the years?  

Tiffany Yu (TY): Back in the day, it was always about social good or the moral cause for hiring disabled people. In most companies, this would sit under a ‘corporate social responsibility’ category. I’m heartened to know that today, there is actually a business case for hiring disabled people.

I’ve seen an Accenture report highlighting the benefits of disability employment with real numbers. For companies that did prioritize disability inclusion, employment, and support, they had 28% higher revenue and even double the net income. So now we have the data to prove that it will make a positive impact on your bottom line. It’s a small but good start.

You can tune in alternatively here on Anchor.

KR: So what are the largest obstacles you continue to encounter? Would you say that larger enterprises are more rigid and less accepting of people with disabilities than startups? 

TY: I often ask, why is the unemployment rate for disabled individuals in the US still hovering at 60%? And why has it not changed over the decades? I think it’s because so many of the existing initiatives focus on upskilling and preparing disabled people to enter the workforce. But we really need to flip the script and take a critical look at what’s happening in the world.

Even with evidence to illustrate the benefits of hiring disabled individuals, hiring managers and human resources personnel don’t see it that way. We need to work with the recruitment side – to remove certain biases that they might be putting into their recruitment process.

Interestingly enough, I found that while startups and smaller organizations can be more agile, they actually face more difficulty in creating processes to prevent bias. Oftentimes I have conversations with entrepreneurs or startup founders and they tell me that when hiring someone disabled, they think about liability. And the additional access costs they’ll need to cover.

But to me, the concept of having a disability is so diverse, right? As someone with a paralyzed arm, I don’t actually use any assistive devices. So it’s important to adopt a more broad-based view of disability and the financial cost. In fact, any time you decide to hire someone new, you’re taking a little bit of a risk.

That’s why companies try as much as possible to retain employees, rather than think of switching and onboarding and recruitment costs when bringing on someone new. Perhaps it’s time to incorporate any of the risks that it takes to hire someone with a disability, into the recruitment process itself to create a fair employment scheme.

tiffany yu
Tiffany Yu, founder of Diversability.

KR: What initiatives or strategies have been effective in reducing the bias on the hiring side? 

TY: It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg issue. In order for disabled people to see the abundance of opportunity and be able to pursue their career dreams, we need to first see people who look like us in those roles. What that means for corporates is to hire disabled people, retain them, promote them, uplift and amplify them, and provide opportunities for your disabled employees to feel like they’re adding value.

I live in San Francisco and let’s just consider Silicon Valley. When I look at Microsoft, Salesforce, Google, and Facebook, these are large tech companies that have the processes in place. They tend to have a recruiter who focuses on disability inclusion, or a Chief Accessibility Officer who is disabled, or an awesome office of accessibility. It means something when I can name off disabled people working in these companies who are happy in their role, or the steps taken to build a more disability-inclusive space.

KR: Right. A lot of times empowering people is just giving them that bit of confidence that they couldn’t generate themselves. 

TY: That’s very true. As a full-timer at Goldman Sachs, I was doing a lot of interviews and sharing sessions for students with disabilities. They were curious about whether they could work at a place like Goldman or whether they could handle the workload or whether the office could accommodate their working needs.

Another interesting encounter at Goldman was that within my first month of being there, I received an ergonomic assessment of my workstation. They have someone at Goldman taking care of your accessibility needs – I was asked if I needed speech-to-text technology to reduce work for my paralyzed arm, or other things that would help me put less strain on one hand.

As someone with a disability, I’ve always tried to adapt or find ‘life hacks’ to make working environments adapted to myself. And the fact was this person at Goldman offered so many options to help make my space more adapted to me. It just made me feel welcome there.

KR: So what kind of impact do you think the pandemic-induced remote work revolution has had on employment for people with disabilities? 

TY: That’s a great question. I feel very hopeful because disabled people have been advocating for virtual work environments, remote work, and flexible hours for forever. And now we’re seeing it happen because of a pandemic. The most important part of remote or flexible work arrangements would be working around one another’s needs.

What I mean by that is, now whenever we go into a zoom call, we ask “Hey, is it going to be voice only? Or are we using video?” Access needs, in this case, could be disruptions from anyone at home – a parent in the background, a partner whose work also requires calls often, a pet dog barking, etc. And this concern about access needs would be particularly relevant and relatable for those with disabilities.

I know the economy is making things difficult for everyone. If it’s fragile for non-disabled persons, who don’t know whether they’ll be in the next round of layoffs, it’s even more fragile for disabled persons. But I’m still hopeful in the sense that I’m starting to see movement towards a more inclusive workplace, and disability questions with regard to access have become commonplace. Now that we’re seeing things from a ‘pandemic lens’, we tend to ask questions about people’s access needs and accommodate them.

Disclaimer: This article is part of our “Tuning In” series. All answers reflect the personal perspective of the interviewee herself, and not Oasis’s. If you’d like to nominate someone for our “Tuning In” series, you can recommend them here.


AJ Cortese


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