Shakti — Part 2: A mother’s vision for the future.
A few thoughts on Mother’s Day 2022, on the 2nd anniversary of founding The Accidental Ally.
“Are you doing this work because you have a child with a disability?”,
I was speaking with a mother of a young woman with Autism. She was interested in my work with The Accidental Ally and wanted to know the reason behind my commitment to this work. I do not have a child with a disability. So she was quite interested in understanding why I had founded and self funded a business that is in service to people like her daughter. She was even more perplexed when I told her that the summer internship at The Accidental Ally was a paid internship.
“What would it cost us?”, she asked. “There is no cost to you”, I said.
I explained to her that The Accidental Ally summer internship is a paid internship program for young people with cognitive and intellectual disabilities. We have had great success with this approach where we bring a diverse group of individuals together for a few weeks, teach them new skills and do project based work with them. The interns get paid for their time with us which sends a very powerful message to them that they are employable, they can learn new skills and they can work collaboratively in a team.
She was in utter disbelief. “Not even state funding?”, she asked. Conversations like these are very common and I am hardly surprised by them anymore. Parents of young people with cognitive and intellectual disabilities have to constantly fight for access to high quality educational programs and work experiences for their children. They are used to dealing with people who show them great promise of great opportunities for their kids. These opportunities often cost a lot of money but deliver little to no impact in their child’s life.
People often ask me —
Why would you do something like this?
Why would you fund this work out of your own pocket?
Why would you spend your time and resources on helping our kids?
What’s in it for you?
I have had some time to think about these questions. I spent almost 18 months pondering the answers to these questions. And then I penned The Accidental Ally Manifesto where I have articulated ‘Why we do what we do’. If you don’t know much about our work, I suggest you read the manifesto. This document articulates ‘the why’ from my perspective as Gayatri, the Founder / CEO of The Accidental Ally.
Going back to Mother’s Day 2020
On Mother’s Day 2020, I founded The Accidental Ally (and launched it with a blog post Shakti: Part 1 — The Power Within) with a mission to help other product leaders like me embrace accessibility and build inclusive digital experiences from the ground up. My journey on accessibility had started by accident and I had to stumble through it to find my learnings. I wanted to make that experience better for my fellow product leaders. I strongly believed that most people want to do the right thing but often do not know how to go about it.
After spending about a year exploring the space and speaking to many different stakeholder groups, there was one burning question that kept me up at night.
“Why are there so few people with cognitive and intellectual disabilities in the workforce?”.
So I decided to find out by hiring them myself. I hired a group of people with Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy and Autism into a paid summer internship program. I wanted to find out what it would entail to hire and train this group of individuals. That was the beginning of our journey. That was when I met my soul family — The Dream Team of interns who kicked off our first ever internship program in the summer of 2021.
Based on our learnings and insights from the internship, in Jan 2022, we announced a pivot to focus wholeheartedly on our new mission,
“creating enriching and engaging work experiences to fuel the financial prosperity and wellbeing of people with cognitive and intellectual disabilities.”
You can read more about that in the manifesto.
Coming to Mother’s Day 2022
Today is Mother’s Day 2022. It is also the 2nd anniversary of founding The Accidental Ally. I am excited to say that we have come a long way in a short period of time. Today, I want to take the opportunity of sharing with you ‘the why’ from my perspective as Gayatri, a woman and a mother.
Shakti — It is identified as female energy because shakti is responsible for creation, as mothers are responsible for birth.
I strongly believe that my approach to my work is largely influenced by my own personal experience. I know how it feels to be underestimated, sidelined and invisible. People with cognitive and intellectual disabilities are intimately familiar with feeling unworthy and feeling like they are invisible. One of my colleagues, Rojene, talks about how she absolutely hates it when people speak to her mother instead of talking directly to her. She says that it has been happening since she was a very young child and has continued well into her 20s. She is a person with Cerebral Palsy but she has a mind of her own and is perfectly capable of speaking for herself. Now, she often steps into conversations to speak for herself and show the world that she is more than capable of holding her own in a conversation.
Here are reasons why I am doing what I am doing.
For Rohan. For The Dream Team.
Six months ago, shortly after concluding his summer internship with The Accidental Ally , Rohan reached out to me with his vision. He said,
“Dove(as he fondly calls me), You should keep the internship going”.
He didn’t ask if I would do it. He said that I should just do it. When I asked why, he said that he wasn’t done learning, there was more for him to do and he wanted to work in the field of accessibility, and he wanted me to find a way for him to accomplish this.
Six months later, we are a growing team of people with cognitive and intellectual disabilities who want more for themselves, who want to learn and to work, who want to contribute to the workforce and to making the world more inclusive. I am proud to call Rohan my friend and I wish that everyone is blessed with a friend like him in their lives. Rohan has not only changed the course of our work but he has changed the course of my life!
For my children, Riya and Rohan.
My children are an integral part of my work at The Accidental Ally. They are always helping me with ideas, are great friends with my team and are often eager to pitch in where help is needed. I am often told how much my work inspires them to do more for others. I believe we all need strong role models in our lives and my hope is that I am a strong role model for them. I am demonstrating to them what is possible when you lead with love and compassion. They see me as a nurturing, loving human but also a very strong, impact driven entrepreneur. My work, my life is a blueprint for them on what happens when you pursue your passion, when you risk being unconventional in your approach, when you are fearless, when you are not afraid to make mistakes, when you do something that seems impossible at the time and when you lead a social (for profit) enterprise rooted in love and compassion. I do this work to demonstrate to my kids that they too, some day, can and will make a difference in the world and contribute in their own special way to make this world a better place for EVERYONE.
For the moms.
and dads, siblings, family and friends of people with cognitive and intellectual disabilities and to anyone who wants a better future for people with disabilities. Many of the moms have told me how much our work means to them. It has been a source of hope, that their child can have a better future. They can finally feel some of the pressure lifting off their shoulders. We are happy to be able to support our amazing moms with our work and we thank you for your support and guidance!
For my colleagues in tech.
I know that there are many tech professionals out there, who like me, want their work in tech to be in service to humanity. We want our intelligence, our hard work, our contribution to matter. I am so deeply heartened and touched by so many of my friends and colleagues who have and continue to pitch in to help with our mission. We are incredibly grateful for your support and for recognizing the impact of our mission. Above all, we are grateful to those who have (and continue) to connect to people, resources to help us deliver impact!
This is what a friend wrote to me when I asked him for some help,
I cannot take compensation for what you and your organization is doing. Your compensation is the hope you bring for my son and our family. Hope that he can someday live a life on his own, and it be what he truly wants: just another normal person in the world.
For the naysayers.
“It requires a lot of hand holding. It can’t be done. No one is going to sign up to do it”
This is what I often hear from my colleagues in the accessibility profession. Well, you are wrong. We have and will continue to prove you wrong!
For the future of the accessibility profession.
I have written about The Hypocrisy of the Accessibility Profession, calling on my colleagues in the accessibility professional to take a more active role in making the world inclusive. The future of the accessibility profession really depends on our ability to train and create opportunities for people with disabilities so that they can actively lead, participate in the conversations and drive the next wave of innovation in the digital world. We need to think beyond simply leveraging them for testing, research purposes. Most accessibility product and services businesses today do not hire people with cognitive and intellectual disabilities. A lot of time is spent on drawing attention to advocates while the real self advocates are pushed into the shadows. We want to change that. We want to shine a light on the self advocates with disabilities. We believe they can speak for themselves and work towards building a more inclusive world for themselves and for others like them. They only need us to create the opportunities for them to learn and work. It is our responsibility to create the right environment for this to happen and then we need to step aside!
To ultimately become obsolete.
I often say that I want The Accidental Ally to become obsolete. If we do our work well, in the next few years, there will be no need for us. We are here to demonstrate the possibilities to the world.
My dear friend, Rustam said to me,
“You have to scale this idea before someone steals it”.
I told him that’s exactly what I am hoping for. For EVERYONE to steal this idea. For EVERYONE to be inspired by our work and to take action. For EVERYONE to use their resources, to reproduce what we have been able to do in such a short period of time. It is not rocket science. It is hard work but it is totally doable and very much an achievable goal!
Anything is possible.
A woman founded, woman owned, self funded start up, with one employee, operating on a shoe string budget, with zero sales or marketing spend, has managed to train, up skill and prepare a team of young people with cognitive and intellectual disabilities for work experiences in tech. This team has managed to connect with 2 large tech companies who are sponsoring work programs for these individuals this summer. This team has managed to accomplish this in less than 6 months. This team has managed to up skill a team of young individuals ages 18–25 years, who are people with Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, Autism and prepare them for work experiences in tech. We were told this can’t be done. That this group of individuals CANNOT and WILL NOT be able to accomplish this.
All we can say now is that WE HAVE DONE IT and WE WILL CONTINUE TO DO THE IMPOSSIBLE!
Now imagine IF companies like Microsoft, Apple, Walmart, Amazon, Google — to name a few tech giants, were to take a little inspiration from our work and deploy their immense resources towards creating training programs, work experiences and work environments where people with cognitive and intellectual disabilities would thrive.
Imagine the impact that would have on the workforce, on innovation, on our community?
We have, with our limited resources, managed to deliver a significant impact to the individuals and the families of these young people with disabilities. We have given them hope, we have restored their sense of worthiness, we have made their dreams come true.
Rohan, Rojene and Sabrina, who came to me a year ago, had no idea what Web Accessibility was. They had no idea what it meant to be a working professional. They didn’t have any faith in their aspirations when it came to their professional life because they had been conditioned to believe that there is not much for them to do, that they simply cannot access the work experiences available to everyone else, that they would never be able to earn a paycheck and live an independent life.
Rohan, Rojene and Sabrina are making history this month. In just a few weeks, they will be the first people with Down Syndrome and with Cerebral Palsy to be hired by the tech companies they will be working for. They will start their first every summer internship program with work experiences in the Digital Web Marketing, Demand Gen, and Web Accessibility space. All thanks to the men and women at these incredible companies who believe that change starts with them, who believe that they don’t need an ROI to prove that this is a game changer for their team, AND for their business.
Back to the question, Why am I doing this?
I am a woman and a mother. When I see the faces of these young people on my team, I see the disability but I am also able to see beyond the disability to find that there is so much hidden ability that is just waiting to be discovered. I see immense potential in each and every one of them. I see that glimmer of hope in their eyes and I hear that excitement in their voices when we learn new things. I am reminded of the child in me that felt that same excitement when I got a chance to learn and experience new things.
The biggest motivation for my work today is that The Dream Team has restored my childlike curiosity, my yearning for new experiences, and for the joy I feel when I discover new experiences. They have brought back to life the kid in me.
Together, we spend our days learning, exploring and having fun!
and when you do that every day, all you do is sing,
‘here comes the sun, here comes the sun, and I say, it’s alright!’
and that’s my vision, a mother’s vision for the future!