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Room 250

Haraldur Thorleifsson, Ueno

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First, a quick intro. My name is Halli. I am the founder of an agency called Ueno. And I am in a wheelchair. These facts will be important later, I promise.

And now, the story.

Last August, we at Ueno had our third annual retreat. During the retreat all our offices come together to work and play for a week. This year we all went together to upstate New York.

We stayed at a hotel that was supposed to be accessible for wheelchairs. In theory it was. But as is often the case, it really wasn’t.

There were accessibility issues here and there that ranged from mildly annoying to semi enraging. But the biggest one, and the one that broke my heart, was a surprise to even me.

We had a couple of last-minute cancellations and because of that we had an empty room that we didn’t use for our employees—Room 250. Some of our people decided that this would be a great place to gather one night. People came to Room 250 that night to have fun, they laughed and drank and played and sang. By all accounts it was a great night.

But as I was making my way to the room, I quickly found out that there was no elevator up to the second floor. There were only stairs. And wheelchairs famously don’t go up stairs.

I didn’t tell anyone at the time because I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. I didn’t want to show my pain or break their fun.

To fully understand why this was a big thing for me you need to know my history.

You need to know about the time my friends went backpacking through Asia and I wanted to go so bad that it physically hurt. But I couldn’t because the hostels and trains were not accessible.

You need to know that I once went to Disneyland and after looking for a while I finally found a ride that I could take. Only to find out, after waiting for 30 minutes in line, that it actually wasn’t accessible. I had dared to think I could participate, and I was so devastated when I found out that I couldn’t that I broke down crying in front of my daughter. I was 37 years old.

And, you need to know that even though I try to push myself, sometimes I self-select out of situations if I think there is a possibility that the location isn’t accessible because it’s so hard to handle the disappointment and the anger. And this might sound weird, the humiliation.

But even if you know all of that, you still don’t know me. You don’t know about all the thousands of things that have happened to me. And you don’t know how all those things came flooding back when I couldn’t get to Room 250.

In isolation not getting to one room, one night, is not a big deal. But nothing happens in isolation.

At SoDA, we all work at places that have different people with different backgrounds and different stories. Some of their stories will be about how their gender or their identity was used against them. Some of them will be about how the color of their skin has been systematically used to push them down all their lives.

Their stories will most likely include a mix of a few deep cuts and hundreds or thousands of papercuts. Big and small interactions every day that constantly remind them of the limitations the world has created for them.

As leaders it’s our duty to understand that when someone speaks up about something that to us might in isolation not seem that big, they are coming from a place we might not fully understand. They are often coming from a place where that incident is just one in a long line of injustices.

When they do speak up, our first job is to listen. Our second job is to applaud them for speaking up, so we can create a culture where people know they will be heard and supported. Where all voices are included and welcomed.

We all have our Room 250. We all have pain in our lives that nobody else will ever fully understand. Talking about it won’t necessarily solve everything but from experience I can tell you that finding people that are willing to listen without judging or pitying is extremely validating.

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About the author: Haraldur “Halli” Thorleifsson is the founder and CEO of Ueno, a full-service digital agency with offices in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and Iceland. There he oversees all aspects of the creative process, including branding, visual and interactive design, motion and code.