I grinned as the taxi raced through the busy streets of a bustling Middle Eastern city in the middle of the night with my 200-lb. electric wheelchair strapped to the back with bungee cords. There were moments like this throughout my 10-year career as a CIA officer that reminded me how incredible it was that I had made it to the agency as a woman with a disability. I had always wanted to work for the CIA, having been long intrigued by its mission to accomplish what others cannot accomplish and to go where others cannot go. I learned quickly, however, that that creative, can-do spirit of the agency did not extend to employees with disabilities.
Through a series of national security legislation, the CIA is exempt from doing things it decides would jeopardize national security. On disability issues, they wear those exemptions as both sword and shield—something I watched play out throughout my entire career.
My first job there as an intelligence analyst was everything I hoped it would be—exciting, fast-paced, and important, covering issues I loved but had only ever studied in text books. However, there was not an accessible restroom near my office and it took six months for the agency to install an automatic door opener for me. Each time I went in and out of the office, I had to ring the doorbell for someone to open the door. I had been warned on my very first day that my reputation mattered almost more than anything else in the tight-knit agency community and I worried that my dependence on other people would quickly label me a nuisance.
The few fellow employees with disabilities I met in those early days confirmed my fear, warning me that I needed to downplay my very visible disability if I did not want it to affect what we at CIA call my “hall file.” Best to ask for as little help as possible, they advised, or else be seen as a problem-child. This became a theme in my career. I could either speak up or have a successful career, but not both.
I had a goal of rising quickly through the ranks. I was one of only a handful of female military analysts and I threw myself into the job with every ounce of energy I had, even as my health suffered for it. An international crisis began almost as soon as I started and my boss did not even hesitate before throwing me right into the middle of covering it, which is exactly where I wanted to be. But as the crisis dragged on and the early mornings and late nights did not stop, my disability fought back. I was in constant pain. I needed a break. Fresh out of graduate school, I was worried if I spoke up, my boss would think I was weak and take me out of the center of activity when all I really needed was the same thing an able-bodied person would need, a break in the schedule to rest.
While I could—rightly or wrongly—downplay my disability, I could not ignore the lack of equal access employees with disabilities faced every day. I watched people unable to contribute their best because of barriers at work. People with hidden disabilities often had managers who did not believe they had a disability simply because they couldn’t see it. Others needed treatment for mental health issues, such as PTSD, but were reluctant to seek treatment in case it would jeopardize their security clearances. Colleagues who became disabled mid-career discovered very quickly the harsh reality of the lack of resources and support available to employees. These people had to manage not just figuring out how to live with a disability in their personal life, but how to continue doing their jobs without adequate support from the organization to which they had devoted their lives.
Early on in my career, I volunteered to be the chair of the CIA’s employee resource group for people with disabilities, a position I retained for most of my career on top of my regular day job. I developed a strategic plan to improve conditions for employees with disabilities, built a network of allies across the agency, and set about briefing our proposed solutions to senior leaders. I was convinced that if I did things in the proper way, using official channels, presenting a business case for greater inclusion and accessibility, the agency would have no choice but to do the right thing.
I was wrong. Most of those meetings, I felt like I was on trial. “Why does it matter if someone in a wheelchair can’t access one of our buildings overseas? They just won’t go there, then,” one senior asked me in a particularly tense meeting. I would swallow back my anger and explain that it was how to best protect our country and preventing a regional expert with a disability from working in their region of expertise was not the way to do it. Other times, I’d schedule a meeting with a senior, only to show up to a room full of lawyers with their agency-approved talking points on why they were not legally obligated to make certain accommodations for employees with disabilities.
It is not that the agency could not do more. It was choosing not to and armed itself with lawyers to defend that choice. One CIA lawyer early on in my career warned me privately that his office was there to protect the agency from employees, not the employees from the agency. He gave me an apologetic look and sent me on my way.
Despite this, my career moved rapidly upward. In fact, I made it in to the senior ranks faster than anyone else I ever worked with in my 10-year career. I served as an intelligence briefer to the White House and later, became a manager in the Directorate of Analysis, where analysts produce intelligence assessments and briefings to inform policymakers, to include the president, on global events. But I know much of my success was because for most of my career, I downplayed my disability and only ever requested what were considered easier accommodations, like having the height of my desk adjusted. But over and over again those early warnings I had received about the consequences of being “too vocal” proved true for some of my colleagues with disabilities. For those who spoke up too loudly or went around the chain of command to fight back when they did not receive appropriate accommodations, their careers went stagnant. None of them were asking for anything special—simply that the agency remove the barriers that prevented them from doing their jobs.
Like in many places in the private sector, there’s a culture of “everyone is replaceable” that is at the core of personnel management at CIA—and no more so than in how its managers its employees with disabilities. It’s a questionable practice for an agency that prides itself on hiring the “best and the brightest” in the country and spends thousands of dollars on security clearances and training just to bring them in. Like the rest of its officers, people with disabilities work all across the CIA in everything from intelligence collection to support for operations. Some colleagues with disabilities went to work very successfully at other government agencies or in the private sector where they were given the accommodations they could not get at CIA. They could have been successful at the CIA, too, in a way that contributed to national security if they had only received the right tools.
As a lifelong disability rights advocate, at different points in my career I had to stop and ask myself if I could continue to work for an organization that so openly discriminates.
The turning point came half-way through my career. I was selected for one of the more high-profile overseas positions to a country I had been to and worked in many times before. I was months away from deploying, when an official from another organization who ultimately had the final say rejected my deployment. It took years to get the official to admit it was because I was in a wheelchair. To be clear, I was not medically disqualified and I was chosen because I was the most qualified person for the job. I considered legal action, but was told quite candidly by several seniors at CIA that I would jeopardize our relationship with that organization if I did. Later, in a meeting with the Office of Equal Employment Opportunity, I was warned that the “7th floor” would probably decide not to help me if I insisted on “stirring the pot.”
I didn’t want to stir the pot. I simply wanted to be able to do the job for which I was selected, like everyone else. In the years since, I have learned that agency seniors did little more than politely ask the other organization to reconsider their position. I was never allowed to fulfill my assignment.
In 2013, CIA Director John Brennan commissioned the Diversity in Leadership Study (DLS) to identify the barriers employees from diverse backgrounds face at the agency. It was no surprise to any of us living through it that the study found employees with disabilities face significant roadblocks at every stage of employment at CIA—recruitment, retention, advancement, and career development. As the study noted, “The underrepresentation of… officers with a disability at the senior ranks is not a recent problem and speaks to unresolved cultural, organizational, and unconscious bias issues.” After the study, Director Brennan made a public pledge that the agency would become the Employer of Choice for people with disabilities.
Even when the study was released in 2014, however, its findings were still regarded with skepticism by many, and it only led to cosmetic changes to CIA’s inclusion efforts.
Any progress we might have made on disability issues at CIA took a major step back with the new administration. I was in a meeting with members of the CIA’s 7th floor even before Brennan was replaced with Mike Pompeo, discussing a proposal to increase investment in assistive technology for employees who are blind in a way that would make technology accessibility a permanent reality. Agency Information Technology systems are highly customized, which means standard software, such as screen readers for people who are blind/low-vision, are not naturally compatible and must be altered. The funding we proposed was a mere drop in the bucket for the agency and yet, seniors were pushing back.
Why fix it now, one senior argued, when technology 10 years down the road will fix all our problems anyway? That was not the worst statement made in that meeting. Toward the end, one of the CIA’s most senior leaders said that perhaps it was time to admit the agency just couldn’t have blind employees. I was floored.
The officers we were talking about worked in different parts of the CIA—from operations to analysis. Some of them had critical language capabilities we needed. Others had caught terrorists and many were talented and experienced intelligence briefers. Most of them had multiple degrees from some of our best universities. A few of them had served in the military before losing their vision and all of them had years of CIA experience and skills needed to protect our country that she was suggesting we should simply throw away. Her proposal wouldn’t just close the door on them, it would close the door to highly skilled new hires and on anyone who could lose their vision at any time in their career, including herself.
There was a reasonable solution that would accommodate current and future employees, a solution the CIA could afford simply by canceling a few holiday parties. We were talking about losing highly skilled employees simply because the CIA did not want to go to the effort of accommodating them. After I got over my initial shock, I asked her about Director Brennan’s pledge to make the CIA an employer of choice for people with disabilities—a pledge she herself had repeated to me personally before.
“That was always more of an aspiration than an actual plan,” she said. The new administration had not even come into office yet, and already we were taking a step back.
I was there at Mike Pompeo’s first meeting with CIA employees in which he became visibly angry when multiple employees asked him to continue Brennan’s diversity and inclusion. “We’ll hire the best people, okay? What do you want me to say?” he huffed.
I was not willing to go backwards. I resigned from the CIA about six months later.
Since I have left, I am told routinely by former colleagues with disabilities who are still there that the circumstances remain the same. They are regularly denied opportunities and given inadequate resources to do their job, and their careers are suffering for it. As of my writing this article, another talented colleague with a disability has decided to leave the CIA.
I loved my career and I was good at my job. I know that my work helped protect our country and resigning was the hardest decision I have ever made in my life, but I could not stay and continue to watch blatant discrimination play out day-after-day. The men and women with disabilities who show up every day to protect our country, despite the barriers the agency actively places in front of them, are some of the most dedicated public servants in government, and this country needs them and their expertise.