I don’t have the option to be shy

Gonçalo Mendes has always yearned for independence. His journey with cerebral palsy led him from relying on others for care to taking care of others.

Gonçalo portrait

Living with a disability since birth has given me a deep understanding of the world around me. Because of the challenges I’ve had to deal with since childhood, I know that many of our problems are interlinked.  

Much of the perspective that I carry with me comes from my mother, my father, and also my grandfather, who passed away last year. I was born with cerebral palsy due to a medical mistake during my birth, but I have always felt my family’s love and support. That’s been a safety net for me. I had the opportunity to grow up in a healthy and nurturing home, where integrity, commitment, transparency, and unity were key values.  

My academic journey proved to be more challenging. I only started reading in my third year of school, and two years later, I had to repeat the fourth year. Yet, I persevered and managed to excel, eventually reaching the university level studying journalism and communication and earning my Bachelor’s degree from the Technical University of Lisbon and my postgraduate degree from Lisbon University Institute. 

A greater sense of freedom  

Following university, I worked as a journalist for a couple of small publications. However, as the market became more competitive, I transitioned to customer care in the health-care field, working for one of Portugal’s largest private hospital groups. 

I am a member of the Salvador Association, which helps integrate people who have disabilities socially and professionally in Portugal. Microsoft collaborated with Salvador, and through that collaboration I was connected with a fantastic opportunity—I’ve felt blessed ever since.  

Joining a global tech company like Microsoft was a major turning point in my life. My role as a data annotation specialist involves correcting errors and building the accuracy of AI translation tools in Portuguese markets. For the first time in my professional career, I feel like I’m the owner of my own time. It’s a role that’s not only helped me grow professionally and financially, it has also helped me achieve my personal goals. One goal that’s especially meaningful was fulfilling a lifelong dream of purchasing my own home. It’s been a significant step for me to live independently. 

I work remotely because of an exception I received due to my disability. This allows me to manage my day effectively, especially when it comes to personal tasks. Since I’m remote, I do make a conscious effort to maintain collaboration with my team. For one, I contribute to our department newsletter each month. The accommodation has led to a huge shift in my mental health and has given me the sense that, despite my disability, I’m capable of managing myself. There’s a greater sense of freedom, and freedom is the most important feeling that one can have. 

A voice for accessibility 

I still encounter some challenges related to bias and perceptions from others, primarily because of my appearance and the association with my wheelchair. There are times when I feel that people see my wheelchair before they notice me, and it’s a struggle to be seen for who I am rather than my mobility aid. Socially, it sometimes seems that my condition is more important to others than my personality, feelings, or desires.  

Life has also taught me that I often need to exert extra effort, not just for my benefit but to prove my abilities to others. It’s not that I doubt my abilities, but the perception of others can make me question whether they see me as I believe I deserve to be seen. This feeling is common among those of us who have disabilities, and it can be challenging to manage and live with it.  

Amid these experiences and others, Microsoft’s Disability Employee Resource Group (ERG) offers me a safe space and a place to be within community. It helps me shed light on the importance of supporting people who have disabilities in Portugal and the issues that impact us.  

One such issue is accessibility; it’s one that is very close to my heart. Here in Lisbon, it’s really difficult and almost impossible to establish a daily routine outside of the home if you live with a disability like mine. From basic things like accessible restrooms to public transportation as I’m unable to drive, leaving the house affects my sense of safety. I feel stress in my body that’s difficult to explain. In my past work and school experiences, I relied on others for transportation, which made me less independent.  

One day recently, I was planning on taking the train to work and when I arrived, the lift wasn’t working. I turned around, went home, and tried to forget about it. These types of experiences have led me to speak up where I can. A year ago, I spoke at a Benfica meeting, one of Portugal’s sports teams, about improving accessibility so that all can feel welcome and included. I’ve been a Benfica fan from an early age because of my grandfather. I’m now a member and a season ticket holder, so it was an honor for me to speak about an issue that is crucial to so many. 

Speaking up for me started the moment I had to ask for help for the first time. The moment when you have to depend on others is when you learn you do not have the option to be shy. 

I never feel limited 

I’ve had plenty of practice in understanding others’ perspectives, and it’s essential for me. It’s an obligation for me to put myself in their shoes and understand their problems, which are often connected to mine. So, I don’t judge colleagues for their failures; everyone stumbles from time to time. Failure is part of the growth process, and if we all remember this, we can be happier in our personal and professional lives. 

I’m a dreamer at heart, and I can define myself as a dreamer because I never feel limited. I strive to be an inspiration to show that anything is possible. Working at Microsoft has been key in this regard, but there’s still room to grow. As for my future dreams, I’m on a journey toward a complete and inclusive society. I’d also like to be married and a father one day. We’ll see what happens.