Hidden no longer 

Toyia Blount’s journey of self-acceptance has helped her embrace her complexities, raise her voice, and tear down stereotypes.

Toyia portrait

I’m from a military family, although not the typical kind that moves around a lot. I was born in Germany to a Black dad, who was stationed there while in the US Army, and a white German mom. So, I’m biracial, identifying as a Black woman through and through. We lived in Frankfurt until I was in kindergarten, when my dad left active duty to join the US Army Reserve.  

My dad ended up being stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington state, and that was our home–my parents, me, my older brother, my younger brother, and my younger sister. My parents still live in Washington to this day; they saved up and bought a house in Lakewood, an hour south of Seattle, when I was in middle school. It’s our family home.  

My father grew up with very little in a very rough neighborhood in Washington, DC, and he was always insistent that he wanted us to grow up with more than he had—more safety and more opportunities. He worked hard to make that a reality for us, at one point even working multiple jobs.  

Making connections 

My first job was as a barista-turned-shift-supervisor at a coffee shop. Back then, I struggled to make ends meet. One day my car broke down and I couldn’t afford repairs. Knowing my situation, a friend who was a recruiter for Teksystems offered to help me get a new job and what would be my foot in the door of the tech industry. I started out doing contract work for Xbox in a password reset support role. I gradually moved up and eventually I was promoted to a team lead position. 

Networking played a crucial role in my growth. Getting to know people who have similar interests or goals as me could help me find opportunities and jobs in the future. I knew that being good at my job was important, but that didn’t matter if no one knew what I did and what I wanted to do next. Through networking, I was able to solidify myself as someone who was really interested in progressing. I started leading events as a vendor, and through that I got to attend full-time employee meetings. At one of those meetings, I met Steve Kerr, a software manager at Microsoft, and we struck up a conversation.  

A few months later, when my contract ended early, I was unemployed and stressed. Steve had been approved for several roles on his team and suggested I apply for one. I did, and here I am, a support engineer in Customer Support. Our team is on the front line of helping Microsoft customers and staff, and we test out tools. 

January will mark four years as a full-time employee, and going from password reset support to my current role is a massive change over what feels like a relatively short period of time. It’s still hard to believe that I went from not being able to afford to fix my car to working for one of the largest tech companies in the world.  

I knew I needed help  

When the pandemic lockdown began, I struggled with my mental health. I’ve battled anorexia for years, and I had established “safe foods,” the few things I can eat regardless of how I feel. When I couldn’t eat those anymore, I knew I needed help. I ended up having a breakdown that pushed me to open up about my struggles to my manager. I was tired of hiding and faking like I was doing okay when I wasn’t—that gets exhausting.  

With his support and the support of my team and Microsoft, I went on short-term disability and enrolled in treatment at an eating disorder clinic in Seattle.The treatment was covered through Microsoft’s disability compensation benefits, which meant I didn’t have to take a pay cut. I’d only been a full-time employee for seven months and typically other companies where I’ve worked require you to be on staff for at least a year to use health benefits, but Microsoft made an exception, which was huge for me.  

For three months, I spent about 32 hours a week in therapy, including group and individual therapy. Doctors, including dietitians, monitored me while eating. The treatment forced my vulnerabilities out. As we began sharing more in therapy sessions, it gave me insight into other people’s worlds. I saw that while we were all from different backgrounds, all of us were struggling with the same issues and doing the work to get better. It was an eye-opening, humbling experience.  

My therapist played a significant role in my recovery. She helped me realize that there might be other aspects that explain some of my behaviors. For example, I learned that part of my issue centered around not having a consistent breakfast routine. Growing up my family worked a lot, and there wasn’t always time to make sure we had regular meals or set dinner times. 

The reality was, I started making coffee and helping care for my siblings when I was in middle school, and that was normal for me. But others didn’t see it that way. Gradually, I began to understand why I struggled with breakfast as an adult. It was deeply ingrained, stemming from not having the time, resources, or access to typical breakfast options. Today, part of my treatment journey involves actively working on creating routines. 

Before joining Microsoft, I didn’t have medical coverage. I had stopped taking my medication because I could no longer afford it. I was in a situation where I earned too much to qualify for assistance but earned too little to afford health care. I have to take my medication, attend therapy, and see a psychiatrist because my brain doesn’t function properly without it. So, in more ways than one, Microsoft saved my life.  

Owning my hidden disabilities 

While in recovery for anorexia, I learned that I also have ADHD and borderline personality disorder (BPD). A big part of my journey with my hidden disabilities has been learning to be more forgiving of myself. I laugh things off when I make mistakes or forget something, which is common with my ADHD. For instance, if I walk up the stairs and forget why I’m there, I just go with the flow and make a joke about it like, “It’s leg day today.”  

With BPD, I had to confront my own personal biases when I was diagnosed. I decided to educate myself. I started following a YouTuber named Dr. K who discusses BPD and why dating someone with BPD can be challenging for some. One of the things he mentioned was that people with BPD have a heightened sensitivity to facial expressions, meaning we tend to sense emotions other people may not even realize they’re sharing. This heightened sensitivity can make us more receptive to people’s feelings and energy, but it can also lead to being overly concerned and asking if someone is okay because we can perceive what others can’t. 

One of the main challenges I face with having both ADHD and BPD is staying focused. I tend to be easily distracted and fidgety. I need certain things to help keep me on track. However, it can’t be too overwhelming, or I’ll get distracted by other things. For example, I’m very particular about my work setup. I use a mechanical keyboard that provides a tactile response to help me stay engaged. I use avatars when not on camera to have some form of movement on the screen. I’ve also realized that I learn best when I have information in multiple forms, such as hearing it and writing it down. I’ve even taken up calligraphy as a fun way to stay focused and remember information. 

It’s not all challenges–my hidden disabilities have given me some unique strengths, like being able to observe and advocate for others without projecting my own story onto them. At work, I’ve encouraged my teammates to embrace their quirks. I always mention my ADHD in interviews or when hosting events. I tell people that I might ramble or forget things, and it’s okay to stop me or ask for clarification. Many have told me they relate to this and appreciate my honesty. 

At work, my leadership knows me as someone who promotes inclusivity and offers reminders without judgment. It’s about helping people improve, not attacking them. I liken it to saying “Hey, your shoes are untied, and I don’t want you to fall.”  

Teaching disability etiquette 

I believe in the importance of having a safe space, no matter who you are and what you’re dealing with. If you can’t find a safe space, you should create it. That’s my approach at work and outside of work.  

Safety, to me, is the ability to exist as myself without fear or judgment. It means not worrying about the color of my skin, who I’m with, or how I look. It’s about embracing my identity, while also accepting others for who they are. It’s about being able to walk out the door and not have that fear.  

That’s something I’ve found as a member of Microsoft’s Disability Employee Resource Group (ERG). As one of the people that helps the ERG communicate about our progress , I work on our newsletter, collecting employee stories where they share their experiences with different conditions and disabilities. It’s been exciting to connect with these individuals, learn about their journeys, and witness how many of my work colleagues are now willing to open up and share. All of us are disabled in one way or the other; every single one of us is a member of our own community. 

As part of our ERG, I recently ran a training course that focused on accessibility and etiquette. It covered evolving language, respecting boundaries, and understanding how to interact with people who have disabilities. The training was received positively, and even senior employees found it valuable. The goal is to continue these kinds of training sessions in the future.  

In my role, my focus is also on facilitating connections. When I initiate conversations in team channels, for example, I keep them open-ended, encouraging people to share information and break the ice. I’m honest about what I may not know and often say so, which has allowed me to truly hear people’s stories and learn from their experiences with their disabilities, as opposed to researching it on WebMD.  

Why I talk about it  

I’ve had people share with me they wouldn’t have guessed I have BPD. That’s why I want to talk about it—to address these stereotypes and biases that are often based on unmedicated individuals who are not going through treatment or who haven’t sought out professional help. It’s like judging someone with diabetes based on their worst symptoms, rather than what they’re like when they’re on medication that helps them feel better and manage their condition. Through sharing what I’ve learned through my experiences with my disabilities, my goal is to prevent others from feeling stigmatized because of theirs. 

I used to avoid speaking up because I wasn’t given the space to do so, and sometimes my feelings were invalidated. As I’ve gotten older, I’m no longer concerned about what people think. I want people to understand that they can never truly know if someone has a hidden disability just by looking at them. Judging someone based on their appearance before you have all the facts is unnecessary and unhelpful. 

It’s been a terrifying journey. Initially, speaking up is like opening a floodgate, and everything just pours out. Once you start, you realize there’s a sense of fulfillment in knowing that by opening up, you potentially can provide an outlet or open a floodgate for someone else.