Xbox leader for inclusive gaming opens up about her own hidden disability

Woman stands next to a wall

Katy Jo Wright has gotten to know the personal stories of many people with disabilities in her 24 years at Microsoft, first as a recruiter and now as the head of a global effort to make gaming more inclusive. She’s learned from gamers with limited mobility, engineers who have low vision, people who are neurodivergent and love puzzle games — and it’s helped her build more inclusive teams and products.

But the one story she has struggled to embrace is her own. She has been reluctant to widely share her experience with Lyme disease, even while encouraging people to “bring their authentic selves” to work. She didn’t categorize her bouts of crushing pain, fatigue, memory lapses and organ damage as an integral part of her identity. She didn’t think of herself as someone with a disability.

Wright has been shifting her mindset in recent years to acknowledge her disability and start sharing her story. She wants to help people with disabilities and chronic illnesses feel more connected and is speaking at this year’s Ability Summit, Microsoft’s annual public event highlighting disability inclusion and accessible technologies.

“Being open and honoring my truth helps me be in full integrity,” says Wright, senior director of Gaming For Everyone + Sustainability, Microsoft’s commitments to making Xbox gaming more inclusive, accessible, welcoming and sustainable.

“It gives people permission to not have to be 100% at the top of their game every day and to bring that human element that we’re all dealing with stuff. This just happens to be mine.”

Her complicated experience with Lyme began in 1996, when she got a tick bite at an outdoor college party in Montana. She had it removed, felt fine and forgot about it until 2017, when she was diagnosed with the bacterial, tick-borne, inflammatory disease.

By that time, she had been on a two-decade roller coaster of health conditions that came and went, including a collapsed lung, liver dysfunction, an intestinal disorder and pain so severe she often lay on the floor in tears between meetings. She was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, chronic Epstein-Barr virus and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, all likely related to Lyme.

Once a vibrant athlete who did triathlons, boxed and played soccer, she was incapacitated by exhaustion and body pain. She couldn’t recall words or names of familiar faces. She took two medical leaves. With no cure or clear path forward, she lived with anxiety and depression.

While dealing with her illness in 2015, Wright launched Gaming For Everyone, a prominent effort filled with momentum, travel and speaking engagements. She worked hard to shape inclusive work cultures and help build offerings that reduce barriers, like the Xbox Adaptive Controller and inclusivity features in Gears 5. The work often depleted her energy, and she spent weekends sleeping and recovering.

Because her symptoms were sporadic, she didn’t feel like she was a part of the community she served. She didn’t talk much about her condition beyond close friends because she didn’t want sympathy. She didn’t want to continually explain that Lyme exhaustion is not like sleep deprivation. Most of all, she was scared to acknowledge her condition and what it might mean.

“I didn’t want to accept the reality of my body,” she says, citing a Type A personality and an “Irish Taurus” stubbornness. “I was like, ‘It’s just temporary. I just need to do this treatment, and then I’m good.’”

But learning about work colleagues who decided to share about their own disabilities began to change her thinking. A respected human resources executive revealed he was living with multiple sclerosis. A brilliant product manager Wright worked with disclosed that she has a visual disability. Many of the details were new to her.

She bawled during a recent conference for people with chronic conditions, where a woman who also worked in tech spoke about her experience with lupus, an autoimmune disease with symptoms like Lyme.

“It was so profound for me, because I had this overwhelming sense of loneliness that I did not even know I had,” Wright says. “All of a sudden, I felt seen and validated, in which she was describing my experience exactly.”

It was a powerful catalyst for Wright to own her disability and share her story, especially with people living with Lyme, hidden disabilities and chronic illnesses. She knows the U.S. numbers are large, with an estimated 476,000 people diagnosed every year with Lyme and six in 10 adults living with a chronic disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“If there’s something I can do to connect with other people, it’s like one of my favorite quotes: ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world,’” she says. “At the end of the day, I want to be a human-led leader having human impact.”

These days, Wright is more open with coworkers when she joins a meeting on a “high pain day” and starts crying. She often brings her trademark humor and says things like, “We gotta work. Just keep talking through the tears.” She asks for grace when she needs it. She proudly wears a hoodie that supports the advocacy group Lyme Warrior.

She has also changed her definition of thriving. In the past, it meant a lot of high-energy activities, but now includes restorative things like taking a walk, painting and staying in with friends and family instead of going out. She has learned to find balance and pay attention to how she feels.

“I now think thriving is actually listening to the signal my body is giving me, which then allows me to  have the energy to do things that bring me a more authentic joy,” she says.

Wright has also cultivated a close network of friends, families and coworkers who support her on rough days, when even small gestures like a kind text message lift her energy. Her support system includes Dave McCarthy, chief operations officer for Microsoft Gaming and her manager of nine years.

She and McCarthy often check in on how they’re navigating the unpredictability of her disability, with him asking questions and her being open on what she needs. Wright says the flexibility in their thinking has been a big factor in her staying at Microsoft.

“We talk about what level of challenge I can take on to continue to grow my career, while staying healthy,” Wright says. “The one thing Dave and I did was to commit to going through this journey together and thinking of it as a journey. He’s been a phenomenal support from the very beginning.”

McCarthy says he has learned to create space for Wright’s unpredictable energy and pain levels. He often reminds her that their work is a “marathon, not a sprint.” When her calendar is packed with out-of-town events, he asks if she wants to consider skipping an event, knowing that travel is hard on her body.

The conversations help him mentor a tenacious, empathetic leader on his team, while her disclosure helps normalize conversations around disability and support voices essential for making gaming “fun for everyone,” he says.  

“It really shows her humanness and relatability, and it’s just another reason for people to love her even more,” McCarthy says. “My only reaction was, ‘How can I support you through this?’ I think when you invest in people, your job as a leader is to prop them up for them to succeed.”

Wright’s disclosure also resonates with Hannah Olson, a disability advocate and co-founder of a company that streamlines accommodations for employees with disabilities.

Olson says disclosure, always a personal decision, often leads to support and accommodations that facilitate an employee’s best work. It also reduces the “psychological exhaustion” of hiding a significant part of your identity, she says.

“As someone who has dealt with Lyme disease myself, I felt very hopeless back in the day and hoped for people like Katy Jo to talk about it, so I would feel more comfortable,” Olson says. “Her story shows people that you can have a future and succeed, and that your disability doesn’t limit your ability to reach your potential.”  

Ultimately, Wright now sees her disability as a strength that empowers her as an innovative, compassionate manager.

“I’ve recently come to realize my disability has turned out to be one of my greatest teachers,” she says. “It has delivered lessons I haven’t always wanted, but the lessons have always helped me be a more empathetic and open-minded leader and human.”

Top photo: Katy Jo Wright, senior director of Microsoft Gaming For Everyone + Sustainability (photo by Dan DeLong)