KR Liu on disability visibility and the workplace.

Having spent the past two decades championing the way companies develop inclusive modes of communication and being an unwavering advocate for the disabled community, Liu has launched some of the most innovative lifestyle tech brands on the market to date. She has made it her life’s work to create a more inclusive world, earning a multitude of awards such as a U.S. Congressional award, Silicon Valley’s Top 40 Under 40 and has been listed in the 2019 Top 50 Women Future Leaders as part of the INvolve Role Model HERoes list.

When it comes to disability diversity, Liu emphasises that visibility and representation in business is key to “unlocking the disability stigma”. The representation of other minority groups in the workplace is steadily improving yet for some reason, the representation of disabilities has been left out.

“For so long, disability has been seen as a negative,” she says. “Often, a response to disability would be in an ‘Oh, isn’t that so tragic?’ kind of tone, but that just isn’t the case. There’s so much talent out there that just isn’t being utilised, but first the opportunities and roles need to be created.”

It’s clear that the stigma around disability, visible or hidden, is keeping the disability employment gap wide. Liu says that once there is more representation at leadership levels, people will start to understand that they do have a path to get to these positions.

She continues, “Representation and seeing people just like you in the workplace, particularly at leadership and C-suite levels and throughout wider society, is incredibly important to having a real sense of belonging. Seeing people that have gone through similar experiences that you have paves the way for others to achieve and succeed.”

Speaking from first-hand experience, Liu emphasises the importance of amplifying all voices, from ethnic minorities and LGBTQ+ groups to the disability community. Towards the beginning of her career, she was hiding both her disability and her sexuality. “I was in a situation where I didn’t see anyone else like myself, but you can’t feel unsafe and lack the confidence to come out for the rest of your life.”

Therefore, companies and leaders have a responsibility to improve the representation of minority groups to open this array of opportunity across all industries and sectors. Progressive companies which create inclusive hiring processes and workplace environments will nurture this untapped potential – and those who fall behind will risk shutting out a vast and extremely valuable pool of talent.

“We as a disability community have already done so much for society,” Liu says. “We’ve innovated products, created technology and created new laws around accessibility which aren’t just beneficial to our community, but to everyone.”

Indeed, this article wouldn’t have been possible were it not for Vincent Cerf, the deaf pioneer who co-designed the internet so there could be a visual way of communication. The startling reality is that everyone at some point in their lifetime is going to experience disability, whether it’s a temporary broken arm or a permanent illness.

So, when it comes to creating these pathways, Liu says big brands and companies must lead by example. “As an organisation, you have a certain level of visibility and responsibility to do positive intent in the world. We have to show what’s possible, that it will be OK, and that they will be able to move forward.”

Liu has been instrumental in crafting campaigns, policies and new technology in her various roles at leading tech companies Amazon and Google and has used her platform to make a profound impact on the world with a focus on changing people’s perspectives and storytelling.

Her career has had two facets, she says; one of technology innovation, and the other of amplifying people’s stories. Her role at Google has revolved around communicating the stories of these new audiences.

“Google has an incredible platform which reaches billions of people so we can amplify people’s stories and show to the world through a different lens what disability really looks like. An example is this year’s Oscars ceremony. Those who are blind or with low vision were able to watch the live broadcast in real-time, and that’s really empowering.”

This year, for the first time in broadcast history, Google sponsored the closed-captioning and audio description of the 93rd Oscars ceremony. The response to this was overwhelmingly positive, Liu says, with people commending the efforts which made them “feel so seen and appreciated for the way [they] communicate”.

“My role at Google is to bring those voices in and give them a seat at the table.”

Companies, she says, particularly tech companies, should start with their hiring practices. Opening the door to a wider talent pool is mutually beneficial and breaks down the barriers to an array of possibility. In the UK, research has shown a 10 per cent increase in the employment rate amongst disabled adults would result in a £12 billion contribution to the economy. 

Liu suggests, “To create an inclusive hiring practice, open the net of who your candidates are. Then, focus on creating an inclusive workplace that allows them to thrive. Look at the ways to include disabled people in all different areas of business; there are disabled people in finance, HR, legal, policy, marketing, sales, you name it. So how can you create that pathway and help them succeed?”

One thing that the COVID-19 pandemic did for the disabled community was demonstrate that the working from home model can work, and brilliantly. Remote working has long been something the community has wanted, but was often seen as unrealistic or unproductive.

The ‘WFH experience’ will no doubt be here to stay, with more businesses across the globe favouring hybrid models of working as we emerge out of the post-pandemic era.

“The infrastructure [for remote working] had to be put in place really quickly and forced a new way of thinking and working upon us. This will only continue to evolve and work to include disabled people no matter where they are in the world.”

Still, there is work to be done once these opportunities have been created. The disability employment gap is very prevalent as is the gap in career progression. To have disabled people really be seen at high levels of organisation, accessibility, widening what disabled people can work on and how they progress needs to be considered.

Once the infrastructure starts to be established, how do you include them and help them succeed?

Liu reiterates that supporting career progression and creating inclusive workplaces with clear paths to success is paramount. This, she says, is a long-term learning process we must all support.

“We’re all on this journey together. We’re all looking at ways to include disabled people in different industries and areas of business through learning from one another and from other organisations. We’re still learning how to create these pathways to success, and we’re getting there.”

It all comes back to leading by example; leading brands and companies with the platforms and influence have the power to improve the representation of disabled people and shape the new world. But it’s not to be overlooked that we all have a responsibility as a society to do our bit.

“It’s so important that leadership cares about their employees,” she continues. “There is probably a lot more disability out there but because of the stigma around it, people just haven’t talked about it. Leaders who care about their people and reach out when something doesn’t seem right means people are free to be their whole self and succeed.”

When asked what advice she would give her younger self when starting out, she said she would simply say that “it will be OK”.

“So many times I felt like it wouldn’t be OK,” she says. “But you just have to trust in yourself that there will be moments in your life that will be hard, but you will get through it and later, you’ll learn why you had to experience it.”

In a position today where she doesn’t need to hide any aspect of herself, where she feels free to be her whole self and free to succeed, Liu has demonstrated the power of disability diversity and the wide-ranging, positive impact it can have on everybody.  

Liu sits on several boards such as the Consumer Technology Association Foundation, Deaf Kids Code and the American Association of People with Disabilities to drive disability inclusion in product design and culture.