Last weekend, I was on a panel at FogCon about invisible disabilities. I told this story for the first time.
After I’d been working at Apple for a while, I needed a handicap placard. I’ll go into why later.
Apple culture has had an “execs get a pass” culture as long as it’s been around. There’s a story (possibly apocryphal) that Jean-Louis Gassée once saw Steve Jobs park in a handicap space (long before SJ was seriously ill) and JLG quipped, “Being morally handicapped doesn’t count.”
Now, I knew that story before I started at Apple, but what I didn’t know was that more than just SJ got a pass.
At the time, I worked in Infinite Loop 3. There were 4 handicap spaces outside the building, and 3 underneath the building. For pretty much anyone handicapped, the spaces underneath the building were the better accommodation for reasons I’ll explain later.
An average of once every two weeks, there would be a car without a placard in one of those spaces. The first time it happened, I asked the building receptionist (at Apple, they are part of Security) what I should do. She said to give her the license plate #, so I did. In practice, it was easiest to do so by taking a photo on my phone. Over time, I got quite an iPhoto library of said license plates on one of my work computers.
If someone without a placard parked in the handicap space, there’s always the possibility it’s someone who actually needs the space (and the striped zone for a wheelchair)—and they’ve just managed to screw up somehow and forget to put their placard out. Anyone who’s had a placard for a long time has managed that once or twice. So, essentially, it means I was denied a space I was entitled to, and I didn’t know if I was denied for a good reason or a bad one.
Depressed that nothing was happening, I filed a complaint with HR about it.
It kept happening. I kept reporting it to the receptionist.
I go on vacation. Specifically, we go on a cruise. (April 2011, so Tim Cook was interim CEO)
When I come back, my manager pulls me into a meeting, but not a normal one-on-one kind of meeting. He says that while I was gone, some Apple exec got their car towed, and Scott Forstall was angry about it. The way my manager said it at first, I thought Forstall’s car had been towed. Maybe so.
I said, “I was in Morocco on that day. Would you like to see my passport?”
I was actually trying not to laugh at the whole situation, because, looking at it from the point of view of my frustration, it was pretty hilarious.
So I pointed out that there were three handicap spots under the building, and there were three handicapped people using those spaces every single day. Some days, one of us would have to use the outside spaces because another handicapped person was visiting our building.
My manager, I had noticed, was not at all clued into mobility issues. He bicycle commuted from Santa Cruz. Over the mountains. Hardcore stuff. That doesn’t prohibit understanding, of course, but it sure seemed to elude him.
My manager said, and I wish I were kidding, “Well, couldn’t you park in one of the handicap spots in another building?”
I was so gobsmacked, I couldn’t even form curse words in my head. What I wanted to say was, “Are you fucking kidding me?”
So, in order to protect the able-bodied special snowflakes and save them two minutes, I’m supposed to put myself at risk?
What I was aware was that I didn’t need to share the specific details of my disability, so I did not. What I did, however, was say how much accommodation I actually required. I pointed out that I wasn’t in a wheelchair, so I didn’t need the striped part of the space. So if they parked in the stripe zone next to my car (and not next to the car owned by the dude in a wheelchair or the person I didn’t know), I’d know the regular part of the handicap space was available for me.
Which started happening.
Instead of Apple accommodating the disabled properly, I accommodated the able-bodied.
My manager detailed a different way of reporting violations that cc’ed some honcho in facilities, but I never needed to use it. Not long after that, my group moved to City Center, where there were not only green parking spaces (which I could use), but there were also more handicap spaces.
There are a lot of reasons people get handicap placards, and mine is a fairly common reason. When I was shopping one day, my leg suddenly went numb. Terrified, I went to sit in my car (using a shopping cart for support to get there) while I waited for the others to finish shopping. As I sat, the numbness went away.
Turns out, I’ve had a defective lower back for some time, it’s just now gotten bad enough that that happens, and I never know when it’ll happen, how quickly or how fully numb my leg will become (sometimes it’s just slightly tingly), or how much time I have until I actually fall. Because it happens, it makes it unsafe for me to walk across traffic (which is why the outdoor spaces were a significantly worse accommodation, especially since drivers tended to speed around that end of the Infinite Loop oval).
On the other hand, continuing to walk really is my best long-term strategy.
I’m also significantly stiffer in the morning (every morning), and being that much closer really did make it easier to get into the office every single day. The accommodation was important.
In addition to falling, one of the other side effects is extreme pain if I stand too long on hard surfaces, and “too long” can be a minute or twenty. I don’t know until the pain hits. In this case, the pain flare usually precedes numbness, but again, I don’t know how long I have for that, either.
Which brings us neatly to the next section….
My third (and final) manager at Apple believed in the so-called stand-up meeting. For me, that’s an inherently problematic name to call a meeting when you have a mobility impaired person as a part of your staff, though I’m all for the concept of more frequent shorter meetings. It excluded me by its very title.
A good manager might actually come to the new staff member being transfered into the group (as I was) and ask if there’s any accommodation that needed to be made. Which didn’t happen.
A good manager might actually invite the mobility impaired person to the daily meeting. Which didn’t happen. Really.
Only quite a few weeks later did I hear about it from one of my coworkers, but I thought it was a new thing. Turns out it wasn’t, I was just forgotten. In a company where physical presence is as important as it is at Apple, that can cause huge perception issues.
Now, I will grant you: people are mobility impaired in different ways. Some people need to stand instead of sit, and regular meetings are hard for them, so a stand-up meeting better accommodates their needs. For those who need to stand, Apple provides standing desks as an ergonomic accomodation. And I did make a point of standing some every day at mine.
Still, if you’ve got meetings where most people stand, really try to make the person who has to sit comfortable and feel like they’re really a part of the team and not just some fucking afterthought. (Likewise, the reverse for the reverse situation.)
I don’t know how common the execs parking in handicap spaces problem is in other companies (I’d never encountered it before), but it’s surprising that it survived that long at Apple. Much as I liked Tim Cook’s statement about not comsidering the ROI of catering to blind users, it left me even angrier about my own treatment when I was at Apple.
When will people who can’t walk or have difficulty walking be as fully human to Apple?