Championing People with Different Abilities

Andrea Carlos 缩略图
Andrea Carlos
Published May 23, 2024

As someone with dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Stu Shader has been a long-time advocate for neurodivergent employees and the accommodations they need in the workplace.  He’s served as a board member for several organizations focused on dyslexia, and he’s championed neurodiversity in previous jobs.  

So when his company NGINX was purchased by F5 in 2019, he jumped on the idea of starting an employee inclusion group (EIG) that creates a more inclusive culture for F5ers with visible and invisible disabilities.

“I saw how powerful the other EIGs are at F5,” says Shader, who works as Team Lead of NGINX Alliances. “And I saw the opportunity to create a place where people can learn from each other and share their challenges about neurological and physical differences.”

A commitment to mental well-being

Today, F5 Ability has grown to include more than 450 members across the globe ranging from the U.S. and Europe to India and Latin America. The EIG is currently led by Global Co-Chairs Mariela Castillo and Bryn Spears, who oversee a variety of programs aimed at providing support and resources for F5ers with different neurological and physical abilities. 

Thanks to the COVID pandemic, a large focus of the EIG has been on mental illness. “When COVID started, all of a sudden people were staying at home, many people were feeling depressed and anxious, and many were dealing with loss,” says Castillo. “It was really a tipping point because suddenly everyone realized the importance of mental health.”

EIG ability logo

To help F5ers cope with increased psychological distress, F5 Ability started a consultant-led Wellness Warriors Mental Health roundtable covering topics ranging from burnout to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to toxic relationships. It also created Mental Health First Aiders, a team of F5ers trained and certified to assist employees with mental health challenges.

Each year, F5 Ability holds special events in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month in May. This year, the EIG is holding a conversation open to all F5ers centering on “How to Support Each Other at Work.” In past years, leaders have organized fireside chats aimed at breaking down mental health stigmas. They have also hosted prominent speakers including Judith Heumann, widely regarded as the “mother of the disability rights movement” and Steve Silberman, author of the New York Times best-selling book, NeuroTribes.

The EIG also champions neurodiversity, holding speaking events to educate managers and employees about the strengths and weaknesses of people with different neurotypes such as dyslexia, autism, ADHD, dyspraxia, and the workplace accommodations that are needed. 

“For example, people with autism can’t always read social cues—so they may not be smiling or responding or looking you in the eye during a job interview,” says Shader. “So to reduce bias and create a more comfortable interview, it may be better to do the interview with the Zoom camera off.”

Helping each other thrive

Spears, who is autistic and has ADHD, says he’s worked for a variety of managers over his 27-year career—some who’ve been accommodating and helped him thrive and others who’ve driven him to tears because they didn’t understand how he works. 

A solution architect, Spears says F5 Ability offers a place where people can talk about their challenges and get the advice and support they need. “A lot of times it’s just about creating that safe space for people to share what they’re going through—whether they’re experiencing a challenge themselves or wanting to support someone else who’s struggling,” he says. “I’ve struggled a lot with depression and anxiety in my own career, and I want others to get the support they need so they don’t have to go through the same thing.”

Castillo says that she, too, is motivated by the opportunity to help others. A program manager, Castillo for years masked the fact that she was struggling mentally. But when COVID hit and she found herself spending a lot of time alone, she realized she needed to deal with it. Since then Castillo has been diagnosed with ADHD and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)—and she’s decided to be open about her challenges to create a safe space for others.

“Yes, it’s a struggle, but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Castillo says. “I love how my brain works and what I bring to the table. And I will always stand my ground to create safe spaces for other people so they can be vulnerable and openly share when they’re not doing well either.”

Bringing different perspectives to the table

In the coming years, Castillo and Spears say they’re planning to broaden the focus of F5 Ability to include more support for people with physical disabilities. And already, the EIG has attracted employees eager to share their perspectives. 

Alex Gomez, a former global chair, lost his left eye in an accident as a teenager and spent years afterward on Internet forums to learn how others coped with the same condition. As he navigated his pre-F5 career, he says he was constantly overlooked for promotions—and that it wasn’t until he had a prosthetic in place that he began to advance professionally. 

A Manager of End User Services, Gomez says he joined F5 Ability, in part, “so others who identify with my story can find inspiration and those who aren’t familiar with living with a disability learn more about those who experience life differently.”

At the same time, hearing other people’s stories has made him a more compassionate leader with a greater appreciation for individual differences. “Getting to know people and finding commonalities has helped me be more empathetic,” he says. “The reality is that each of us has our own closet full of demons that we conquer every single day—and knowing that makes me respect and love my co-workers.”

By supporting an EIG that empowers people with diverse abilities, Castillo says F5 is making itself a stronger and more innovative company. “We all think differently,” she says. “And by bringing different perspectives and experiences to the table and accommodating different ways of being, it makes our company more successful.” 

Spears agrees. “In a utopian world, we wouldn’t need employee inclusion groups because we’d already fully understand one another,” he says. “But we’re striving toward that world—so seeing people like you in leadership positions who are standing up and advocating for your needs is just incredibly important.”

To learn more about F5’s EIGs, please see our Allyship at F5 webpage.