The Many Ways and Many Whys of Speaking Up: How We Can All Take a Lesson from Tim Cook

Last week, Apple’s Tim Cook publicly acknowledged that he was gay.  As Mr. Cook’s words clearly demonstrate, he didn’t come out, because he hadn’t been in a closet. Said Mr. Cook, in an article that he wrote entitled “Tim Cook Speaks up”, Mr. Cook points out that, for years, he has been “open with many people about my sexual orientation. Plenty of colleagues at Apple know I’m gay,” But, as Mr. Cook said, he didn’t publicly acknowledge it.  He didn’t, in his words, speak up.

His reasons strike me as easy to understand.  He says

“Privacy remains important to me, and I’d like to hold on to a small amount of it. I’ve made Apple my life’s work, and I will continue to spend virtually all of my waking time focused on being the best CEO I can be. . .  I’m an engineer, an uncle, a nature lover, a fitness nut, a son of the South, a sports fanatic, and many other things. I hope that people will respect my desire to focus on the things I’m best suited for and the work that brings me joy.”

In a way, this parallels my own journey around disability.

Obviously, my disability was never a secret.  I travel through the world in a power wheelchair, among other things.

And yet, there was a time in my life when it was critical to me that I be identified with my varsity academic team skills and my Hillel leadership, and pulled sharply away from identifying with the disability movement.  It wasn’t until directly confronted with a specific need that I was the only one able to fill that I first took on a disability related role.

Like Mr. Cook, I realized that I had to speak up.

15 years after my first public disability leadership role and having recently completed a term in one of the highest profile disability offices in the federal government, I still wrestle with this issue.  I still tend to apply to jobs were my primary value is my legal prowess or my business acumen, even if I apply it in a disability context, and I ask people to recognize that I am more wonk than activist.

Equally important, I try to make clear that, though I am a straight white person with a disability, I am extraordinarily passionate on questions of justice and equality for people of color and the LGBTQ community.

Very few people are one-dimensional, and I think it is very natural to want to be identified by your talents rather than your minority status.  And yet, says Mr. Cook, that desire for privacy, which reads like a desire not to be labeled was holding him back from making a difference.  He says,

“I realize how much I’ve benefited from the sacrifice of others. So if hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is, or bring comfort to anyone who feels alone, or inspire people to insist on their equality, then it’s worth the trade-off with my own privacy.”

Even as it was important for Mr. Cook to continue to be identified with the incredible talents that he brings to Apple, he recognized that, by the very fact that he was the CEO of Apple, he had a certain role to play in the quest for equality, if he embraced it.  I like to think that my own embrace of disability as a cause was motivated by something similar.

Unlike Mr. Cook, I am now an intentional activist, but, even when I’m wearing my corporate lawyer hat, I tried to live in a way that publicly embraces that I’m a corporate lawyer with a disability.  I speak to bar associations and groups of children.  I serve on diversity committees, and try to help my legal employers when they seek the disability perspective.  I embrace both roles because I know that to do so is a way to make a difference.

And I do believe that it needs to be an intentional choice.  We have become a polite society.  For better or worse, despite my very visible disability, very few people are going to approach men disability issues unless I open the door.  I think that’s a good thing, I think it should be a choice.

It should be a choice because everyone has their own circumstances to deal with, but I encourage those who can to speak up.

If you are a person with a disability who does not feel the need to hide that disability because of a high risk of discrimination, even if you don’t think of yourself as an activist, think about publicly embracing the label.  Embrace it to become an example to the searching for role models, a living example to your coworkers that people with disabilities are just like them.  Don’t drop your life and become an activist unless you really want to, but think about how you might do as Mr. Cook is done and turn the life that you are leading into your own form of activism by speaking up.