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. 

Social Models and Microaggressions

Disability microaggressions are like a death of a million papercuts.

The social model of disability has been around a while now.  Yet every so-called progressive workplace I have been in still hasn’t got the memo.

Some are better than others.  But the best is still a 6/10 average cooking competition score at best.  Lacking sauce, not enough seasoning and tinged with tokenism for disabled people instead of real recognition. I’m currently lucky to be in a good workplace with a decent score of 8.

I’d like to just look at a couple of microaggressions I have experienced on a regular basis in this post.  I manage invisible disabilities.  I have two chronic illnesses that require a concerted effort to manage.  I am Autistic and have a couple of titanium and stainless steel meccano sets in both my legs (that means pain and some occasional mobility issues).

My life is a life of workarounds, often silently.  My life has also been long stretches off work because of Autistic burnout (this article is awesome if you want to know what that is) and the mental health issues of all those paper cuts.  This is the price I pay for putting on my best normal (this study is also awesome).

Here’s some things in workplaces I would like to stop, as per the social model of disability relevant to my Autistic experience:

  1. Silencing an Autistic person trying to express the impact of a microaggression, because it makes the neurotypical person uncomfortable. 

This comes in a few ways.  Here’s one example.  I sometimes express concerns about things in the media I see that reinforces myths about Autism.  All I need in response is three minutes acknowledgement (or less), usually.  Often other conversations about media on topics of importance to the neurotypical person have been listened to by me.  But, when it’s about Autism…suddenly the conversation gets cut down.

“You’re upset, maybe you should just go home”. Umm.  No.  I don’t tell you to go home because you are annoyed about media about something important to you.  I’m not going to become violent, thank you (if that is the myth about an upset Autistic person I later find out they are buying into – which has happened).  If I went home with every microaggression in every workplace, I’d be home everyday.  I already work from home a lot because of accessibility issues. I can’t switch off my disability and I can’t switch off the world’s ignorance or the amount of emotional labour it expects me to do.

“These stereotypes will take a long time to shift, have you complained about it?”. Yes. Over and over to be deflected, denied and dismissed.  I’m trying to raise awareness now but you are deflecting the constant waves of crap I receive, because this conversation is making you uncomfortable this once.  My sincerest apologies for the inconvenience.

Experience enough sarcasm and passive aggression directed at you – you’ll learn how it feels and recognise it. My entire childhood taught me that and workplaces have people who use them because they can’t say what they mean or think they can’t (for whatever reason).

“Have you misinterpreted it?”.  No, I haven’t.  Autistic people may have communication disabilities, but not necessarily issues with interpreting facts.  We’re literal but news stories about anti-vaxxer conspiracy are not going to confuse us, they are going to righteously enrage us!

Pro tip: Listen, just for two minutes or less.  Maybe practice good communication techniques and say, “I hear this has upset you, I can listen for a little while, but I’ll have to go soon, tell me what has upset you”. 

It’s not rocket science, works for all people. 

2.  Cutting off an autistic person and being rude because they may talk too much, say the wrong thing or not be able to read the situation as quickly as others. Cause guess what, it’s not a communication choice for someone on the spectrum and they already know the world thinks they are less for this – so be kind. Firm but kind.

Then, when I’ve confronted someone about it, they say things like “but if you don’t have empathy, what does it matter?”.

We have empathy folks.  Large amounts of effective empathy.  We feel your discomfort and awkwardness because we’ve not read you right.  We may have difficulty with cognitive empathy, which means we take longer to process what the feels are – but we feel them. Often with great intensity.

Here’s an example of one experience I have had of this over and over.

Me pleasantly greeting someone with whom I’ve had a couple of longer impromptu chats in the past (usually about an Autistic interest and I may or may not have bored them): “Hi <insert name>, how are you?”.

Rudely: “Just came in here <insert task> and not talk thanks, had a big day”.  Or similar words.

They ‘ve usually been chatting to someone else just a moment earlier, cheerily.   Usually I’ve had a similar kind of day and would be happy with a one word reply.  For me, I have sensory issues that mean I will have to take disability measures in the evening – so I get the need for quiet.

Each time it’s when I wasn’t intending on “having a chat”, just greeting as I’ve trained myself to do. I do this because I can’t read a situation or faces that well and a script often helps. Sometimes it’s not the right script, but I do my best.

If this happens once, this person is having a bad day.  But often it repeats of the same over a couple of weeks or more, whenever I’ve greeted this person.  Always in very similar circumstances and always different to how they relate to others – that’s something other than their personality.

I don’t have an intellectual disability, but I do find people assume I do when they find out I’m Autistic.  Then the tone of voice changes and how they communicate changes, even when previously they’ve had no reason to make adjustments.

It’s interesting because I can interrupt people inappropriately (again cause I haven’t read a social situation well) and I’ve learned to apologise and do my best not to interrupt, but still can not always get it right.  I find the apology makes me feel good as well as the other person.  Whilst I don’t apologise for being Autistic, I feel an apology when needed means you actually care about the relationship, not just being right.  I care about other people and I’m always terrified of making a mistake, so I don’t have any problem with apologising when I do make a mistake.

So now, cause they’ve been rude, I get it.  But perhaps again just saying hello and actually saying that they don’t have long for me in a non patronising way would be nice.

Pro tip: Rude and dismissive still hurts and it isn’t the “directness” an Autistic person might need.  Couching it in a sweet tone of voice like your speaking to a child doesn’t help either.  We often complain neurotypical people don’t say what they mean – and this only goes to prove you don’t mean what you say.  But you don’t have to be mean to say what you mean either! If you are unsure what to do, say so. 

I’m not a child and I’ve had some pretty amazing life experiences that most people don’t achieve – at huge costs often, but it hasn’t stopped me.  I’m disabled, not a defective model of you. The world is not designed for me, but I am not broken, thank you very much.

Often going to work every day feels like high school never ended for me, even in better workplaces with people who claim to get it.  I’m the source of gossip still.  What’s sad is my sensory issues mean I hear more than most and am often acutely aware of hushed conversations about me.  Organisational gaslighting is alive and well when you know what you’ve heard and people ask if you are imagining things.  Again, Autistic people are easy targets for bullies (and sometimes experience it from people unintentionally).

I’m the often the mark for sarcastic remarks about talking too much (even when I’ve carefully measured how often people talk around me and tried really hard to not talk too much).  It’s usually because my topics are not the usual topics, they are Autistic interest topics.  People on the spectrum rarely do small talk and it makes us targets for sarcasm and passive aggression as again, we don’t always read when we’ve bored people.  I’m usually isolated after a while and I get used to it.

You know something, we can all say no and there are lots of ways to say no to a conversation, other than sickly sweet or short and dismissive.  These are the two ways that I know some people believe is all I deserve.  I am an imposition on their able bodied time, a burden.  Others don’t do this and these are the people I gravitate to.

In some workplaces, after a while I’ll avoid tea room talk as much as possible and avoid work functions – and I won’t really care because it’s better than feeling like an imposition on the abled.

I’ll schedule meetings formally as to not be an imposition and become too anxious too do informal chats with those who are always too busy.  I’m busy too.  We are all busy.

But maybe I wish people would stop verbally patting people with disabilities on the head and actually articulate want you need in a polite and friendly way.  If you have a bad day, own it and apologise for rudeness later.

Again, works for all people! 

And all this time I’m supposed to be the one with the communication disability? Whose doing all the emotional labour again?

The social model of disability and intersectional practice makes room for difference.  It makes room for non-patronising conversations.  It’s not obsessed with productivity.  It recognises the productivity that comes from an intersectional approach, which might seem to take longer, but the rewards are non-isolated and happier people and workplaces without diversity being alienated and excluded.  It’s a different kind of productivity and worth the effort.

I choose to disclose my Autism because camouflaging/masking is more damaging.  But in most workplaces I figure out pretty quickly who ascribes to the social model and who has pathologized me – and minimise contact the pathologisers as much as possible.

Don’t make assumptions about a disability you don’t understand. It’s not that hard, really.  How do I know this? Because disabled people are working around the able bodied world, non-stop, already. So a couple of concessions from the abled is not that big a deal really.

If you think we are an imposition on your precious time, what do you think of our time? What do you think of our worth? Maybe, just maybe, we have something to offer if you take a moment to really listen.