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What it’s like having a hidden disability in Silicon Valley

I hid my learning disability for years at work, but it’s important to talk about the toll that hiding it can take—and why disclosing can be so hard.

What it’s like having a hidden disability in Silicon Valley
[Source image: FlashMovie/iStock]
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I have always related to Wile E. Coyote. Afternoons in front of the TV after school served as a sort of game tape of my time spent hiding at the back of classrooms, dreading the little disasters that seemed to hide around every corner. Regardless of the hours I spent planning and organizing, grinding through my homework, and reading directions that I could never retain, I always knew that no matter how hard I tried, or carefully I planned, there would always be a train in the tunnel or a cliff around the next curve. That little blue bastard was going to get away again.

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As someone with a hidden disability, I’ve always fallen off that cliff, which is why I love that mangy old coyote. He always got up. He knows the pain of having a goal at the tip of his claws only to have it yanked away at the last minute on a technicality, by someone who made it all just look so damned easy, so “normal.” It’s exhausting. 

Even though I’m grown now, I still identify with Wile E. Coyote. 

I have a learning disability, meaning that I learn differently from other people. I live and work in Silicon Valley, the natural habitat of road runners. I’ve spent my professional life as one of those worker bees who creates the widgets and doodads that make life a little easier. For the sake of this story—and my employability—let’s just call my company Acme Co.

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Acme Co. can feel like a lonely place when you’re surrounded by road runners. You have to work four times harder to achieve the same output in a workplace that moves at those speeds. For a long time, no one was aware of the effort I put into organizing and planning my life so I could pass as “normal.”

I’m going to share two examples that illustrate what it’s like navigating the workforce with this sort of hidden disability. The first one shows what it can be like when people are unaware of your disability—as most of my coworkers have been throughout my career—and the second shows what can happen when you do make the decision to disclose. It doesn’t always go well. (I’ve changed a few identifying details because of privacy concerns, but otherwise things happened as I describe.)

Example 1: Partial disclosure

Several years ago, I had a job where I did production work. One day, I was sitting in a meeting, discussing a new project. No one in the room knew that I was hiding the fact that I learn differently, though I had previously told my manager (who was in the meeting) that I was a visual learner who learned differently than others. 

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For a long time, no one was aware of the effort I put into organizing and planning my life so I could pass as “normal.”

There were eight people in this meeting talking about dates, figures, corrections, and everything in rapid succession and all at the same time. It was a tornado of information, and I was scribbling down notes as fast as I could decipher what was being said.

I asked a few times if I could recap what they were saying. I interrupted again with a request to give a recap for clarity. They continued to talk over me. At my final request, I spoke up a little more aggressively and asked if I could just recap a few dates. They still did not listen and continued with their conversations. The meeting finally ended, and I asked one of the project managers if they could stay behind to compare notes. I was concerned that I had put the wrong number of weeks down for the project deadline. The project manager stayed behind and verified that my timeline was off by two weeks.  

Heading out of the room, I saw my manager talking to another coworker. Not making an effort to hide what he was saying, I heard him gently remind her that we would never be on the project together. He said that I should stay in my own lane—meaning that I shouldn’t have spoken up like that in the meeting, and that he didn’t see me taking on a substantial role on this project. I felt discouraged. My own lane! He thought he knew what I was able to handle. 

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That wasn’t the only time that I experienced a feeling of being pigeonholed, like they didn’t trust me to do anything, and didn’t want to take the time to nurture my abilities or share information in a more accessible way so I could contribute. After several more months of enduring this type of treatment, I knew it was time to find a new job if I wanted to keep growing professionally. 

Example 2: Full disclosure

Part of the reason I didn’t fully disclose in this job was because of the experience I’d had at previous jobs when I did tell a manager about my learning disability. Several years before, I had a job working as a visual designer. Every month, I was tasked with designing a brochure that went out to our clients. I had a system where I would proofread the document and make sure everything was entered correctly, and because the priority of these brochures was so high, the manager and I had come up with a plan to have him and two other coworkers also proofread the entire document. 

After receiving his blessing, the final proof was sent off to the printer’s. Once the brochure came back from the printer’s, my manager picked up a brochure and held it to my face. “What’s wrong with this?” he asked, with a stern expression, the brochure wavering in front of my eyes.      

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I took the brochure from his hand and gave it a quick look over. I could feel the pressure caving in. I thought, “oh god, did I miss something?”

My manager scolded, “well? We have over 10 boxes of them!” I knew that I and a team of people (including my manager) had checked the document for errors.

“I don’t see anything; I don’t!” I said, taking an even closer look. After a few moments of confusion, I looked up at him.

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“Guess what?” he asked.

“What?” 

“There is nothing . . . I just wanted to see how you would react,” he sneered before walking away, smiling.

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“I’m happy to make your day a better day,” I said, envisioning giving him a Muay Thai kick to the head.   

It especially stung that he would act this way after I had disclosed my disability to him, and when he knew that proofreading was a source of anxiety for me. It wasn’t the only time he pulled this stunt either. For many months following, I endured his jokes at my expense. When the time was right, I left the company and found another job. 

Deciding to disclose

I’m not alone in having these sorts of experiences in the workplace. According to a study by the Center for Talent Innovation, 30% of the workforce has a disability and 62% of those individuals said their disabilities were invisible, meaning they would have to disclose the condition for other people to know they have a disability. Invisible disabilities include many things, from ADHD, to diabetes, to mental health conditions like depression. 

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You ask yourself: ‘Will this change how people look at me? Will my manager think I’m lazy or not capable of finishing a task?’

Working to conceal a disability can be exhausting. You live in fear of being discovered. But confiding in coworkers, managers, and/or HR can also be risky, as my second example illustrates. You ask yourself: “Will this change how people look at me? Will my manager think I’m lazy or not capable of finishing a task? How will it affect my career development? Could it be the end of my career—or will nothing happen?” 

I hid my disability for around 10 years. It took me a long time to be proud of it. But now the mask is off, and I’m okay with that. I am telling my story to you now, even though it can be uncomfortable, because I hope it will bring greater awareness, and make it easier for me and others to get the resources they need. 

If you have a hidden disability, I want you to know that you don’t have to live in fear like I did. You have the law on your side, and you can find support systems and resources, like the Learning Disability Association, or Lindamood-Bell, an organization that gave me a ton of confidence.

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If we don’t speak up, future companies won’t understand what they’re missing. Once your coworkers and managers are aware that you have a disability, they may understand why you might not be good at task A, but you excel at task B. They need to find that sweet spot where your integration adds strength to the team. My disability has made me a hard worker and taught me to develop creative workarounds. Like Wile E. Coyote, I’ve been pushed off those cliffs, and each time I’ve come back stronger.


Terri Rodriguez-Hong is a UX/UI designer in Silicon Valley who helps run a podcast called Ramblings of a Designer. She wholeheartedly believes accessibility is everything and loves to connect the dots between the company and the end-user.