Building with a Disability

A sign reading “Accessible Entry” posted on a painted brick wall.

As I scrambled through a lengthy list of to-dos, I caught myself, midway, slipping into a self-sabotaging wonder of how much faster and better I could work and how much more I could accomplish if I didn’t have the disability I do.

Whenever my illness does not present a physical disability — pain and swelling preventing physical mobility — it is invisible. The unspoken expectations of those who do not have a visible disability have prevented me from receiving the appropriate workplace accommodations I need to succeed. There was always an assumption that because I didn’t appear physically disabled, I was not truly disabled and expected to carry on as any other non-disabled person.

Because of this frustrating experience, I often imagined that entrepreneurship would provide me with the flexibility to create and contribute. However, after listening to countless talks spewing ableist rhetoric on the best way to build a company, I soon realized that isn’t the case. I eventually became obsessed with living according to the expectations set by others with absurdly different privileges and experiences.

According to these expectations, I’m already failing. I’m moving too slow, prioritizing my health, and taking mental and physical breaks. I was ashamed of my illness, often uncorrected qualified professionals who referred to me as disabled, and drank too much of the hustle-hard juice the tech industry prescribes in droves. I wanted to be someone — something I was not.

Several surgeries and treatments later, I had to acknowledge I couldn’t continue this way, and I needed to change my attitude if I wanted to live my most fulfilling life without putting myself, my body at risk. This acknowledgment continues to require deep, intentional reflection of attitudes instilled in me — both from the workforce and my childhood.

“Of Idleness”

Whenever my parents caught my siblings or me lounging around or aimlessly roaming about the house, they’d tell us to pick up a chore or find something productive to do because “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop.” However, I was always intrigued by their idea of productivity, which centered on physical activity that must result in a tangible outcome.

Activities leading to intangible outcomes such as inspiration, imagination, or play were frowned upon by my family. Naps were a punishment, and reading had to fulfill a purpose like completing a summer reading list or a book report. According to them, there was no value in prioritizing rest because only the weak or lazy lounged.

This ingrained thinking surfaced anxiety in me as an adult every time I found myself with free time. I was worried I was becoming lazy. And on my journey to a proper medical diagnosis, I convinced myself I must be both weak and lazy during required moments of rest and recovery.

While I’m doing better at silencing these negative thoughts, a recent Twitter Spaces conversation on the topic of ambition brought me back to my parents’ philosophy rooted in the gospel of Colossians. We often conflate the desire to achieve and our success, or lack thereof. By doing this, we make experiencing ambition appear inaccessible to others who may lack resources or possess different abilities when describing levels of ambition and the types of goals to which we’ve attached them.

Then, there’s who is allowed to be ambitious. Some should possess ambition, and others shouldn’t, and some who do tout it as a blessed curse with enormously busy schedules, overachievement, and lack of self-care to manage them all at its culmination. This “peak of ambition” is described in a manner that leaves those who are ambitious but not experiencing the same side effects of workforce acquiescence, burnout, and bottomless yearning, wondering if they’re on the right pathway.

My issue isn’t the word; my issue is our obsession with what an ambitious person looks like and how they behave. Many founders I’ve spoken to describe long hours, missing critical life events, and being ready at a moment’s notice which is a problem for many across the disability spectrum. Some disabled founders cannot work long hours, miss critical life events, or be ready at a moment’s notice. I’d argue that no one should and that this is the problem with the startup space.

Non-inclusive, non-accommodating cultures and spaces prevent us from fostering productive environments for diverse and special needs individuals. Drowning yourself in work isn’t a sign of ambition; it’s a sign of poor prioritization and a lack of self-care. You can be ambitious and still say “no,” “not right now,” or “yes, but with some help.” You can be ambitious and still achieve your goals in ways that work best for you.

“I am who I am”

So, where does this leave ambitious disabled founders who require different pathways to achieving their goals? I don’t speak for the entire disabled community, so here are a few things I’m doing for myself as I build:

  1. First, I’m accepting that I am painfully human, and I’m not alone. I started learning to be kinder to myself. Say the encouraging things I’d say to someone else to myself because I deserve the positivity I give others.
  2. Second, keep going and mind my own business at a pace that works for me. While I don’t exhibit schadenfreude, I often wish non-disabled founders and investors could experience some of the challenges I do for much-needed enlightenment on their building and investing journeys. Keep the comparisons focused on product offerings and not the founders.
  3. Third, I’ve stopped preventing myself from seeing who I am. Working on this enabled me to learn to love myself, and all that makes me, well, me! After all, if we want to leave our marks on this world, we need those marks to be distinctive and not buried in the sameness of others. Live and build with intention and authenticity if I want to create something that can make a difference.
  4. Forth, but not finally, I’ve accepted my identity and am proactively working to find my tribe and allyship. If you identify as a founder with a disability, I’d love to learn more about how you navigate the startup space. I’ve recently gained the confidence to be open, and through my openness, enable others to share so that we may support and learn from each other.

To protect my mental well-being, I must suppress my uneven comparisons to cis White male founders and affirm that I am worthy of this journey. I am accomplishing something, setting an example, simply by occupying a space traditionally and continuously exclusive of my experience as a disabled, Black woman.

It isn’t to say that this affirmation comes without its daily struggles to feel truly worthy. I was previously just as guilty of perpetuating those same ableist viewpoints and expectations against myself even when I knew they couldn’t apply to me. I bent, twisted, turned, and forced molds that could never fit, and now I am tired — having learned that all those levels of ambition don’t correlate to productivity.

I may never rise to meteoric levels of fame, nor may I ever be grossly wealthy, but I can say I took ownership of and lived my life according to me. That is a level of power even some of the richest and most famous fail to attain.

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Tiffany Patterson

Tiffany Patterson

Data-driven solution & information experience designer creating impactful, diverse, & inclusive digital experiences. Proud first-generation Caribbean-American.