Jenny Lay-Flurrie leads an innovative technology team at Microsoft despite having been deaf almost her entire life. She was recently named one of the 2014 White House “Champions of Change.” She was recognized as “an example of someone who is not only able to accommodate her disability in the workplace, but was able to turn a disability into an asset.”
We featured Lay-Flurrie as ”Microsoft’s Voice of Accessibility” in Think Beyond the Label’s success stories in 2013. Her achievements exemplify the conviction at the core of TBTL’s vision – that labels get in the way, but disabilities rarely do.
“It was not always easy,” Lay-Flurrie told us. “There were definitely moments where I came across obstacles. But you just have to get over them.”
Lay-Flurrie, who grew up in the English city of Birmingham, developed hearing loss as a toddler as a result of having the measles. The lip reading her mother taught her helped her to always be a high achiever, and she stubbornly chose a music major in college, and graduating with a music degree – she still plays the clarinet.
Then realizing – as many young artists have done – that a more reliable career was necessary, she went to work for an Internet company, breaking into the tech sector, a field historically difficult for women to enter. The field had its challenges; she almost gave up as her hearing loss intensified to the stage where she could no longer use a mobile phone. But by this point, her company found her valuable enough to invest in state-of-the-art hearing aids, and her career actually picked up.
After working in IT tech support in the U.K. and Germany, she joined Microsoft in 2005 and soon moved to the U.S., where she initially worked in online search advertising. Her lip-reading and the skills she had developed at reading clues and context continued to serve her well.
But once again, it was actually the continued deterioration of her hearing that led to new achievements. Once she approached a surprised HR to reveal the degree of disability she had reached, not only were new, vigorous accommodations made for her, but the company also saw her in a new light – as a unique asset. She moved to a position where she was both advocating for people with disabilities and actively working with engineers and product strategists to improve inclusion and accessibility for both customers and people within the company.
It was so amazing for me to get to see her embrace her deafness and use it as a platform to educate the company about the masses of customers around the world that have all kinds of disabilities, and how we can shift our lens to deliver the services that meet their needs.
– Denise Rundle, Microsoft customer support manager
By leveraging her unique perspective to innovate the tech world, Lay-Flurrie has become a key employee at Microsoft – she is the software’s director of accessibility. Although much of her work takes place behind the scenes, her story exploded anew when her story was featured on the White House blog in advance of the Summit on Disability and Employment. The “Champions of Change” are ordinary Americans who are doing extraordinary things in their communities.
Here at HDA, we were excited to learn that the story of Jenny Lay-Flurrie, which so impressed us, is continuing to inspire persons with disabilities worldwide. But more importantly, as the White House blog noted, it is one more demonstration that people with disabilities are too important a resource to be left behind.
“In an increasingly global economy, we simply cannot afford to leave talent on the table. Individuals with disabilities possess the skills and talent to support themselves through meaningful employment and to make important contributions within America’s workplaces.”
– White House blog
Now a senior director at Microsoft, Jenny Lay-Flurrie leads the Trusted Experiences Team (TExT), which focuses on accessibility, privacy, and online safety. She has not only leveraged her disability to innovate information technology, she has also promoted workplace accessibility for future generations.