Accessible Workplace Attitudes

This is a continuation of a previous posts about autism, accessibility and employability.

Accessibility in a workplace isn’t just the physical infrastructure.

It’s an attitude.

For Autistic people we will push on trying to fit with your inaccessible attitudes. Often to our breaking points.

In recent years I’ve learned to walk away from inaccessible workplaces, but it’s always a difficult and physically and emotionally expensive exercise. And honestly, this is 2019, not 1919 and ableist attitudes belong in the past.

In my case I will ask lots of questions and require conversations about your priorities. I am not asking for much – just for you to be clear about your expectations.

It’s strange that workplaces often complain about people not asking questions. But when Autistic people ask questions for clarity – suddenly it’s our disability.

In every job I’ve had where people have invested a morning 15 minute conversation with me for the first two to three weeks (it’s not more than that usually), has seen me produce quality (and quantity) work beyond expectations.

In fact, my last few jobs have harnessed my ability to spot where systems need to be clearer as a skill. I’m proud to say I’ve been part of some pretty cool process improvement initiatives – where my ability to help find clarity within a team is appreciated. Other workplaces have got offended by me saying “there’s no workflow clarity” and behaved like spoiled toddlers (and these are the ones I run from now).

Neurotypical communication is all about hints and perceived politeness. Asking questions is our way of understanding these unspoken cues.

So don’t punish anyone (Autistic or not) for asking questions because you can’t be bothered doing something that everyone (Autistic or not) needs – providing job role clarity and clear work protocols and processes.

When we spectrum folk ask you to be direct, don’t be cruel. We can tell the difference despite whatever myth you have bought into about our “emotions”.

Another thing I’ve experienced with inaccessible attitudes: the false equivalence defensiveness.

This is where you say “but I’m the parent/partner/friend of a disabled/autistic person”.

We are not all the same – you are not an expert in each and every one of us, because you know or care for one of us. You are not more of an expert in our condition than we are.

If we need a variation to distribution of tasks, it’s not because we are difficult. It’s because we know enough about ourselves to know what works.

Some of us have been “able” to work in fields that are difficult just like anyone else. Some won’t be in that category and that doesn’t mean they are less either. The reason high/functioning labels have been tossed in the bin is simply because expectations are either too high or too low – and ability and impairment are not binaries.

Asking for a desk near a window or away from flickering lights or fluro tube lighting is no big deal.

And if I hear the “we can’t change everything for one person” crap one more time – I’ll vomit. The fact is the most productive workplaces are flexible ones where people are treated as individuals and not drones. You want slaves? Go back in time and become a Roman overlord!

In the case of the inaccessible workplace – we are not an accessibility problem, you’re attitude to us is.

I have had a career where people appreciate my skills and just accomodate my “inoffensive quirkiness”. Cause honestly, in workplaces not dominated by adults behaving like toddlers, that is accessibility.

I think I’ll end with following three thoughts:

  • The need for accessibility is not a choice – we don’t get up in the morning just to frustrated and annoy you by being different to you. But being an asshole about accessibility is a choice.
  • Discrimination is the choice to be an asshole about accessibility.

Don’t be an accessibility asshole.

Accessibility is not expensive, it’s priceless.

So I am really fortunate at the moment.  I have a workplace where you can actually talk accessibility and they make an effort.  This is totz awesome.

They recognise the value like they recognise any other workplace well being issue.  Which is marvellous.

Lack of workplace accessibility is not a neutral act. It says loud and clear that people with disabilities are not welcome. It is an act of ableism.

Some previous workplaces were filled with comments like…

“Oh it’s too expensive for one person”

“We can’t tailor to everyone’s needs”

In the second example you come to learn that everyone is not everyone, it’s just you – the disabled (every)one.

In the past I’ve had to take time off, lose all the fun things in my life to deal with lack of accessibility issues.  My disabilities have relatively easier fixes than some (lighting, sound, access to quiet, room to stim),  but they can be expensive too. But like most people with disabilities I’ve had to pay a greater price so to speak, in loss of independence and constant discrimination.

It can be much worse for wheelchair users and people who use mobility aids and I am aware I am privileged in comparison.  So I am using this privilege to advocate for accessibility for all, not just me.

Other people I know constantly pay the price in not being able to access a workplace at all, even if they have the skill to work in it.

A study in the UK found that people with disabilities spend more money on general living costs than most people just to do things other people take for granted. Key findings were:

  • On average disabled people face extra costs of £583 a month
  • On average, a disabled person’s extra costs are equivalent to almost half of their income (not including housing costs)
  • 1 in 5 disabled people face extra costs of more than £1,000 a month
  • Disabled people’s money doesn’t tend to go as far. On average, £100 for a non-disabled person is equivalent to just £68 for a disabled person.

Emerging research shows this is a global phenomenon and it certainly reflections my experience.  More than 60% of my wage goes in necessary measures to keep myself working.

I can’t just live anywhere in a house cause I like it – there are certain features I need to live and stay well enough to work.

The ultimate price many disabled people face is homelessness and/or welfare dependence and you know how the bean counters of the world view the costs of welfare and it’s not positive (which is completely unfair of course).

The people complaining about the cost of disability pensions are usually the same people whining about the cost of accessibility modifications.  Yet they fail to see that this economic rationalism is ableist structural inequality at it’s best.

So…the consequences are…

Can’t access an accessible workplace, can’t work, end up on a pension. The pension is inadequate and can result in worsening poverty, homelessness and poorer health outcomes.

Can work but workplace is inaccessible and leads to long periods off work, lower productivity and periods of poverty and homelessness while you recover.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Yet I got to tell you that stairs suck for all of us at some point in our life (even for the ableds).  With an aging workforce and later retirement ages, stairs are a false economy. Inaccessibility is a false economy.

The fact is our environments are often disabled, not us.

The fact is accessible environments are often better for everyone.

The costs of making a space accessible are short term costs, the costs of inaccessibility are permanent and a burden on everyone – the person with the disability is not the burden.

The fact is that accessibility and working with someone to achieve it, is not expensive, it is priceless.

Accessibility benefits everyone (and I mean everyone).

*I have used “people with disabilities” and “disabled people” interchangeably to reflect different ways that people in the community prefer to be referred to.