Boeing’s Bill Harkness keeps a large poster at work that maps out how to tackle problems ranging from the simple to the chaotic. He uses it as a leadership guide, as different types of opportunities require different types of leadership.
As Commercial Airplanes’ first Engineering Accessibility leader, Harkness draws on those leadership skills and applies what he knows. He brings to the role not only 18 years of engineering experience at Boeing but also the perspective of someone who has navigated his career as a deaf person in a world that was not designed for his ability.
In the following Q&A, Harkness discusses his experiences at Boeing and his vision for how to make sure accessibility is built into everything the company does.
Describe the Engineering Accessibility leadership role and its responsibilities.
I’m responsible for making sure accessibility is built into three specific areas: products, our hiring process and the working environment. How do I ensure that accessibility is built into the requirements of all products we design and build? How do I ensure we don’t exclude people with disabilities when recruiting and hiring? How do I create the best possible accessible environment for all our engineers?
This role requires tremendous dedication, humility and energy to be able to move the needle, and you have to have an activist mindset and a startup mentality that’s willing to fail forward.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as an employee with a disability?
As a deaf person, I’m the only one of my kind at the senior management level, and I don’t have any mentors above who are like me. I have to reach out to adjacent diverse spaces for support. How do I create an environment where people with disabilities are embraced and cherished at the leadership level and mentor others to continue their growth? This is why this position is so crucial to Boeing at so many levels.
How best can anyone at Boeing build accessibility into the way they work?
There are two ways Boeing can become more accessible: manually and systemically. No matter what role you have, you can make a difference by taking the time to ensure videos you post have captions or that presentations have the right features so that they can still be used by those who are blind or have visual impairments. Those are manual changes that make a difference but take individual commitment.
That’s why it’s important that as a Boeing team, we seek out systemic changes that remove barriers for employees with disabilities. Through my role, I’m finding the places where we can systemically change so that inclusion becomes a natural order of how we do things.
Why is it important for Boeing to build accessibility into its processes, products and work environments?
Accessibility helps us reframe how we do business. It’s my vision for Boeing to become the first aerospace company, if not the first company, in the world that focuses on the dignity of our passengers and employees, and that’s through breaking down the barriers that stand in the way for people with disabilities.
I genuinely believe accessibility is our competitive sauce for the future, as it understands and directly addresses the fundamental importance of human dignity, which must be protected at all costs. It’s the ultimate final frontier.
About Bill Harkness
As the Commercial Airplanes Engineering Accessibility Leader, Bill Harkness works across multiple engineering functions to create and lead the Commercial Airplanes Accessibility strategy and serve as a champion for inclusion, awareness, and impactful action within the greater aerospace ecosystem as well as across Boeing.
Harkness is also co-founder of the Boeing Employees Ability Awareness Association resource group, created the first External Technical Affiliation partnership with Disability:IN and co-produced the first official People with Disabilities (focusing on Deaf Awareness) training video working with Boeing's Creative & Digital and Accommodation teams.