Talk to the hand!
Fight or flee. Sink or swim. Face the music or become a grocery clerk.
Every life has its moments of truth, and one of Jenny Lay-Flurrie’s came in her twenties. She was working for an Internet company, Energis and things were going very well. So well, in fact, that she was offered a promotion managing customer support call centers in Europe. She’d make more money, but it was more responsibility, including managing remote workers, which meant using a mobile phone. Her heart sank when she realized what this meant. She couldn’t take the promotion, because her ability to use a mobile phone was declining. And she couldn’t use a mobile phone because she’s been deaf nearly her whole life.
“I’ve finally done it,” she thought. “I’ve hit my wall.”
Feeling defeated, she walked to a nearby Safeway filled out a job application. Sparkling character that she is, the grocery store hired her immediately.
When she returned to give her resignation to her boss Ian Furness, he responded in a characteristically colorful, “northern English” manner.
In the weeks that followed, Furness launched into action to help accommodate his employee, arranging for an office accessibility study, classes to educate the company about hard of hearing and deafness and government aid from the United Kingdom to buy Lay-Flurrie top-of-the-line digital hearing aids (which cost roughly the same as a new motorcycle and matching sidecar).
“The digital hearing aids were the bomb,” she said, though even years later, she is visibly uncomfortable when she gets to this part of the story.
“No one wants to be considered a cost. I just kind of had to stand back and swallow while all of this happened,” she said. “We all have social stigmas, and at the time, one of mine was that there was always going to be a limit to what I could do as a person with deafness. Ian helped me snap out of that.”
Facing her truth to avoid a future stocking shelves was one of the most important moments in her life, but Lay-Flurrie would face a gauntlet of other personal and professional challenges before coming into her own. She’s taken to calling such challenges “brick-wall moments.”
“There will be more epiphany moments in my future,” Lay-Flurrie said. “I’m still very ‘deceptively deaf,’ as I have speech, I have an English accent, I’m smart, I read body language and together, it confuses people.”
She’s not the only one – 70 percent of disabilities are invisible, she said.
“However, all that may change. If you believe the doctors, I will lose my speech at some point, although they have been saying that for 20 years, and there will be other jobs that push and challenge me. My commitment is to face those brick wall moments head on and climb the bloody wall rather than trying to resign.”
Even in her difficult moment, Furness saw in his young employee many of the qualities that Lay-Flurrie’s managers and colleagues at Microsoft would later recognize – a “dynamic leader, a natural storyteller, an advocate for customers” and someone who is “competitive, courageous, grounded by purpose, and able to put people at ease and enlist hearts and minds.”
Lay-Flurrie is now senior director for accessibility, online safety and privacy at Microsoft.
With her Union Jack wristwatch and her “Keep Calm and Carry On” office decorations, she’s also a bit of a one-woman British embassy at the company’s Redmond, Wash., headquarters. Lay-Flurrie regularly incorporates phrases like “that’s pants” (British for “no good”) into conversation, which flows like the afternoon tea at The Ritz London because she’s also a gold-medal lip reader with perfect speech.
“The bee’s knees, taking the mickey out of people – my colleagues call them Jenny-isms, but I told them ‘That’s just boggins! They’re British-isms!’”
She is petite with a brown sugar-colored bob and an expressive, ivory face. Twin dimples give her an air of primness, but her eyes have an ever-present glint of mischief that – even behind her plum-colored glasses – hint at some spectacular prank on the horizon.
Add to all of this her wry sense of humor, her faux cantankerousness, her crisp accent, and she’s basically the Pacific Northwest’s answer to Emma Thompson.
The bee’s knees, taking the mickey out of people – my colleagues call them Jenny‑isms, but I told them ‘That’s just boggins! They’re British‑isms!’
As a toddler, she had measles followed by ear infection after ear infection. Each time her ear drums burst, her hearing became more damaged.
“All I remember is the spots,” she said. “I was pretty young – before immunizations.”
The daughter of two teachers, Lay-Flurrie said she had a “normal, suburban” upbringing in Birmingham, England, a city a couple of hours north of London.
“If you knew where I was from you’d say I don’t have an accent at all,” Lay-Flurrie jokes. (The Birmingham accent is notably thick, perhaps best demonstrated by a native son like Ozzy Osbourne.)
When she was young, her hearing loss was classified as “mild to moderate,” meaning she could hear sounds, but not whispers. Lay-Flurrie despised her hearing aids.
“They made me look different,” she said. “I used to ditch them. I put them in the wash more times than I could count.”
Her mother tried a different tactic. She sat for hours with her little girl in front of the mirror playing with lip movements, making sounds and practicing words. That relentless mirror time resulted in Lay-Flurrie’s crystal-clear speech and stellar lip-reading abilities, skills that would serve her well even as her hearing continued to decline.
Despite her hearing limitations, Lay-Flurrie always loved music. She grew up pounding out rhythms on sauce pans and watching Top of the Pops on Thursday nights (sitting right next to the speakers for full effect). As a toddler, her parents found her in front of the television playing the theme song from “Heidi” on the recorder. At nine, she took up the clarinet.
“I was all about the feel and sound of music, and at that point I could still pick some of it up,” she said.
When she was a teenager, trying to fit in by hiding her deafness whenever possible, the song “Push It” by Salt-n-Pepa was on Top of the Pops. Lip reading could only get her so far, and Lay-Flurrie wanted to be able to sing along with her friends. She memorized the liner notes so that when the song came on, she’d be prepared with the right words.
“Such a good song,” she said, wistfully.
While Lay-Flurrie had become a champion lip-reader, her younger sister (born with congenital hearing loss) preferred hearing aids. Growing up, the family relied on those tools for communicating. Her parents taught their daughters they could do anything.
“Their mantra, all the way through, was ‘You can do anything if you set your mind to it, the only thing stopping you is you,’” she said. “They just have this very optimistic and enthusiastic approach to everything I do.”
This is exactly how a girl with hearing loss (and her clarinet) enrolled in the University of Sheffield to pursue a bachelor’s degree in music. By that time, her hearing loss was medically classified as “moderate to severe.”
“People told me going into music was insane,” Lay-Flurrie said.
The sheet music was easy – she could read it like a book. She recorded lectures with a DVD recorder and had them transcribed. And her clarinet – it was an extension of her own voice.
“It resonates,” she said. “It’s a big piece of wood that gives off clear, distinct vibrations that I find very lyrical.”
Still, she struggled – deeply at times.
“I was the deaf girl in a hearing world, and at school I was verbal, but my hearing was already at a moderate loss. I’d often respond with ‘What? Huh?’” Lay-Flurrie said. “I was fiercely determined to not let my disability define me, but I wasn’t strong about it. It was something I felt I had to hide. Looking back, something wish I hadn’t hidden it.”
Along with music, college taught Lay-Flurrie that with enough perseverance, it was technically possible for her to blend seamlessly into the hearing world without attracting any attention to her disability. This approach, she would later find, would take an exhaustive personal toll.
It’s a Friday afternoon, and Lay-Flurrie is in her office at Microsoft examining proofs of a sticker she had custom-made for the back of her ski coat. It reads: “DEAF BRITISH BE WARNED”
“The punctuation needs work,” she said.
She was rattled by a recent incident on the ski hill when several people whizzed by angrily, thinking she’d been ignoring their calls from up-mountain. She wants to let people behind her know she can’t hear them, but doesn’t want to wear a neon orange safety vest like a little kid. Hence, the bumper sticker.
Lay-Flurrie has come a long way in talking about her deafness, whether it’s ski stickers, or the joke she sometimes makes when she doesn’t like a response she’s getting from someone (“I’m deaf to you”), or the purple “Talk to the Hand” t-shirts she had made for Microsoft’s annual Ability Summit.
The situation at Energis “changed her whole lens on life,” she said. For the first time, she had shared the severity of her hearing loss in the workplace. She moved to digital hearing aids and helped her colleagues understand deafness. With the help and tools she received, her career catapulted. She stayed in customer support at Energis for a few more years, then was recruited by T-Mobile.
“My hearing was sliding, and it was getting harder and harder every day. Even though my voicemail said ‘Please don’t call me, don’t leave a message,’ I would end the day with 20 voicemails on my phone and spend the evening translating those. It was burning me out, though I didn’t realize it at the time,” she said.
“In my head, deafness was still something I had to compensate for, something I had to prove I could operate around – not with.”
Then she got a call from Microsoft. She had long dreamed of working for the company, but was “convinced it was a pipe dream for a gal with a music degree from Birmingham.” She told the Microsoft recruiter she had some hearing loss, but didn’t want to make a big deal about it.
She went through a bevy of interviews – panel interviews, individual interviews, interviews conducted by fast-talking interviewers, interviews by people with thick, tough-to-lip-read accents. Like a game of high-stakes Mad Libs, she strained to pick up everything she could by watching their mouths move, then rapidly assembled context clues to fill in the rest.
“I literally fell of my chair when the offer from Microsoft came through,” Lay-Flurrie said. “I had met maybe 11 people without telling any of them that I couldn’t hear what they were saying and I was lip reading every word.”
Corporate meetings can be difficult for people with hearing loss, especially without tools such as captioning or sign language interpreting. There are people who talk loudly and interrupt liberally, a host of accents and speaking styles, a festival of jargon and acronyms, and all in rooms with long, rectangular tables. Lay-Flurrie’s first meeting at Microsoft was a doozy.
“It was maybe 40 people in a room with poor lighting because of a projector and scary-smart, passionate people who often walk as they talk. A deaf girl’s nightmare. I sat there lost for about five hours,” she said.
In 2006, Lay-Flurrie relocated to the United States to continue her work in online search advertising. Around this time she also got her hearing checked. It had slipped into “flipping terrible zone.” Even super-powered hearing aids weren’t going to cut it. The fake it ‘til you make it approach was not working. Or rather, it was working, but it was utterly grueling. She’d reached another brick wall.
“I was lost for what to do. I didn’t want to admit that I couldn’t keep up, but I couldn’t keep up. My boss was super happy, my performance was great but I was totally having to do double time to get anything done – borrow people’s notes, do one-on-ones after meetings to catch up, and so on. I felt very defeated,” she said.
This time, instead of walking to a nearby grocery store to apply for a job, she asked for help from human resources and her managers. The severity of Lay-Flurrie’s hearing loss came as a surprise to those working closest to her, including Denise Rundle, general manager of Microsoft Customer Support.
“I do remember being shocked. It was definitely at least a year of me knowing Jenny that I had no idea that she was deaf. Jenny had not disclosed that, and she could absolutely perform well with it being a secret. I actually felt so guilty that we’d all been going down our merry way – that nothing tipped me off,” Rundle said. “By her being more transparent she’s gotten help on things that have made an enormous difference for her.”
Lay-Flurrie only had to ask for help once, and the company’s inclusion team “went gangbusters.” They connected her with interpreters available on a full-time basis, urged her to try new technology such as online and on-site captioning and adapted her office with light notifications. “Now, Bel is my technology. Bel and closed captions.”
Bel is Belinda Bradley, the black-clad woman sitting across from her. Bradley finishes signing the last sentence to Lay-Flurrie and grins. An IT interpreter for more than 14 years, she has been working with Lay-Flurrie for nearly five.
With such support at the ready, the energy Lay-Flurrie once spent on fitting in is now spent on advocating for people with disabilities. She joined the company’s internal community for people with deafness, and went on to create and lead the DisAbility Employee Resource Group. She started helping with the company’s Ability Summit, which brings together people with disabilities, parents of children with disabilities, engineers and accessibility-focused specialists to imagine, build and enable services and devices to enable people around the world.
“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,” Rundle said.
She became so successful at her volunteer work that she was basically doing two jobs. After chatting with her managers about where she could make the biggest difference for the company, Lay-Flurrie moved into Microsoft’s Customer and Partner Advocacy group to advocate for millions of worldwide customers with disabilities.
Her day-to-day job is now a vast mix of getting feedback from customers, meeting with engineering groups, thinking about people, design and technology, planning conferences and events (like the April 24th Ability Summit), chatting with employees about how to drive inclusion and improve accessibility inside the company as well, and championing projects she think can make a difference.
One she’s particularly excited about is Guide Dogs, a mobile technology service to enable people who are blind to confidently navigate trains, buses and getting to and fro around a city using sound and GPS. Unemployment rates are something like 70 percent for people who are blind, she said, and “that’s just nuts.”
“It took me a long time to figure out my disability is a strength. We are born problem solvers, loyal, and driven. I wouldn’t change my journey for the world – it’s made me who I am – but there is a smarter way to do this,” Lay-Flurrie says. “There is so much that I can do to help others personally and in my role at Microsoft. There are a billion people with disabilities in the world. We’ve got to get it right for them.”
It’s a quiet Sunday afternoon, and Lay-Flurrie has just made tea (PG Tips) and set out some biscuits (Digestives) in the airy, wooded home she shares with Tom McCleery, her partner, and Fira, her precocious 6-year-old daughter.
Lay-Flurrie starts playing her 100-year-old Boudoir grand piano.
Though she can no longer hear the sound (nearby speakers help her feel the vibrations), playing the piano is still her yoga, her punching bag, her long walk. After a tough day at work, she’ll come home and pound out some Sting or Paul Simon and before you know it, she’s more bridge and less troubled waters. Racket be damned.
“I’m sure the neighbors just think I’m crazy,” said Lay-Flurrie. “I find it very soothing. I just love toodling away – as long as no one can hear me.”
On this blustery February Sunday she covers some serious ground — Dave Brubeck, Bach, the theme song from “Winnie the Pooh.” She plays barefoot just like her hero Evelyn Glennie, the renowned Scottish percussionist who lost her hearing at age 12 and speaks extensively about how to “truly” listen to music.
She’s had the piano, a mahogany old dame, since she was a teenager. “It’s not valuable. It’s actually pretty cranky,” she said. “But it’s beautiful and it has great tone and personality.”
Personality: It’s a trait she shares with her piano, and one she’s also apparently passed on to her daughter. Recently, young Fira came to her mother and McCleery and explained, in her boisterous 6-year-old language (and accompanied by her impatient 6-year-old sign language) that the family’s black cat Marmite wanted to go outside.
“Then let her out,” they said.
Time passed. Quite a bit of time. They heard strange noises coming from downstairs. Finally, McCleery went to check on the little girl.
“You’re never going to believe this,” he told her mother when he returned.
Fira hadn’t been able to work the door lock. But the black cat was insistent — she wanted out – and Fira had to liberate her. She fetched scissors from the kitchen and used them to remove each screw from the door lock. If she couldn’t get the door unlocked, she’d just remove the deadbolt entirely.
They may never choose the easy climb, but Lay-Flurrie women don’t stand behind brick walls.Photos by Brian Smale / © Microsoft