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.

Autistic Employment Collateral #1

This is the first of a series of posts about the aspects of something I call “Autistic Employment Collateral” and its impact. I hope it’s useful and that the parents of AS young people and AS young people find it validating. I will examine three traits each post through my own experiences and offer the practical strategies I have learned to use.  *nb: all Autistic people are different, but hopefully some of my experience might help others with may have experienced similar.

The last five years I have shifted from denial to acceptance of who I am – and moved beyond the “collateral” that the world claimed from me. I have stress related illness (including blood pressure) from masking myself to make the world feel more comfortable with my autism and I am done with it.  I will do my best not to mask anymore, unless of course I don’t feel safe, and then it may come back up.

I have also recovered from a trauma and associated brain injury that means I have a complex set of challenges I manage daily. I am tired of not talking about it and the world bullying me into a being just a commodity and not a human being first.

Happy to be a human being and a commodity, but on my own terms.

I also need to say these are Autistic (AS) traits. They can’t be turned off but can be harnessed into skills, but they are not deficits.

Many AS people are tired of being “normalised” as though the “unicorn” of normal is what we are meant to be modelled against.  Unicorns are cute, but I don’t want to be one. I would wear unicorn slippers. Probably to work too. But I digress.

I am Jacqueline (Jacci or Jacqui), depending on what context you know me in.

I am autistic. Here’s an example of some the collaterals that the world has taken from me that I have tried to mask and now refuse to mask –

1. Eye contact drains me, and prolonged eye contact distresses me. Yet the western cultural world tells me to look people in the eyes. If I don’t use eye contact, people think I am being dishonest or shifty, when my senses are just overwhelmed and drained by looking at you in the eyes.

When I studied Anthropology, I was delighted to learn that not all cultures think eye contact is a good thing. I ended up being quite comfortable with working with Aboriginal Australians and having awesome conversations where little eye contact was had.  Without the aggression of forced eye contact, the conversations were so meaningful and rich. I dropped the eye contact mask and I now tell people that I am not good with eye contact.

What I say to people now is, “I may look at the floor, or over your shoulder when we talk. But I am listening to you. In fact this is how I listen to you best”.

2. I see the world and process information visually (in pictures), in 3D detail in my mind’s eye first, then I convert them into words. Yet people think my drawing and doodling is distraction or that I am being rude. In recent years my career has become about helping organisations to represent complex systems and charts and visual representations. That is my autistic superpower.

In the past I was given minute taking roles because people thought I was good with words.  There are people who are great at minutes, but I need to record the meeting and do it later.  I am good with words, words are my passion, but it doesn’t start with words. It starts by images and a lot of them. I sort them out using words, arrows, shapes and I process the relationships between the images and through the words I hear or read visually.

But the words don’t come first and often I have frustrated employers who don’t understand that I need to understand the relationships of things before I write and that I am not just a “scribbling monkey” for their own personal use. I need to walk, move, draw, map the ideas before I can write them.

I once was bullied by an employer because I needed to walk the hall and draw the work before I wrote. They thought I was wasting their time and that I didn’t want to work or that I was “slacking off”. When they forced me to stay in my office and “just write”, I nearly ended up hospitalised with mental health issues.

In recent years I have learned to say to employers and even at interview; “I am a visual thinker. I can break down systems into images and representations and words for you, like you have seen in my previous work, but in that order, not the other way around. I need to walk and draw and mind map before I write and design”.

3. I do amazingly well at detail and logic and can focus on tasks for long periods, but people think I am being harsh or critical or nit-picky or, in the extreme example, they “diagnose” me with depression or anxiety. I see the world in complex ways. This is not a problem. I can relax. I know how to relax. I just don’t need somebody who isn’t autistic telling me how to fit in with their way of seeing the world.

In fact, let me distil this down. When you try and force me to lose the detail, you are telling me I am less. You are turning me into a problem. I do then start to develop mental health problems – panic attacks primarily. These are such that I must withdraw from the world and take time off, which can put me at a financial disadvantage and have long term negative health impacts.

The other issue is like the one at #2 in that I get shoved into an office and get too much detail thrown at me, because I am good at it. But it takes its toll and I need to walk, draw and talk to people to stem the constant flow of information in my head – unless it gets too tiring. Think of the matrix, yet you can’t unplug without conscious effort and to seek quiet or nature or meditate or engage in a mind stilling exercise that best works for the individual concerned.

But my mental health problems are caused by the world insisting I should “dumb it down” and that my expression of detail is unwanted. It is a rejection of my very person, my very humanity. When I employed for my detailed analysis and supported, these mental health issues abate, and I operate far more efficiently.

Now, I have learned to say to employers, “I can process a lot of detail for long periods. I can then analyse and distill it down for various audiences very quickly. However it takes a toll on me and I need to break up my duties so it doesn’t exhaust me.  If I am allowed to do this, you will get large amounts of clear and precise work from me. So I am not ‘slacking off’, I am processing.”

Illustration of an isolated line art comic balloon with  a broken shieldFinally, let me conclude with this.

The mask is off. Women with autism have exemplary masking ability. That is because the world expects different standards of us as women to begin with and we are therefore better at it.

The mask is not a lie. The mask is a way of coping with a world that turns us into medical problems rather than see that our “issues” are superpowers when harnessed and valued correctly.

I will not put my mask back on. I have smashed it. It is gone.

Faster.

Faster.

Quicker.

Swifter.

But not necessarily better.

What? I hear some of you say!

“Haste means Waste” – somebody wise from the past.

Remember that time when you hurried because you thought you were going to be late and ended up later because you fumbled?

Sometimes slowing down and ordering your priorities is a better option. Maybe it’s better to arrive calm and smiling, in your third favourite earrings instead of your first.

Remember that time you decided the discomfort was not worth waiting a bit longer and took the next available opportunity only for it to be terrible over a long period?

Waiting is uncomfortable sometimes. But let’s face it – we are all sitting in life’s waiting room. Good things often take time.

Why rush something you can’t possibly control?

In my current situation, in a life circumstance of trying to establish myself in a new city, I’m consciously taking time out to take care of my “patience”, and feel okay about a period of joblessness. It’s making it a completely more joyful and pleasant circumstance, even though challenging.

Discomfort is part of every experience (whether you class that experience as good or bad). If you avoid it in an endless search for the comfortable or pleasant – sometimes you forget to stop and appreciate the little things. Little joys.

Cultivate little stops if need be, but rush and miss all those little joys, the choice is ours.

Monotonous Management, Mindfulness and Negative Solidarity

I’m finding looking for a new job monotonous and frustrating and I am having to work hard to be mindful to get through that monotony. As human beings sometimes we seem to punish each other for not being able to do monotony well and nowhere is this quite seen the most as at work.  It’s often referred to as negative solidarity.

“I had to go to meetings every day and be miserable, so should they”.
“I had to write 50 long selection criteria job applications to get a job, it’s just part of it”.

What a load of crock. When I have taught critical literacy or ways to optimise learning or practices (which is part of my expertise as an educator), I have not punished people for not wanting to do boring tasks; that’s counter intuitive.  Instead find a way to make a boring task more interesting and engaging.

Let’s take the traditional meeting for example.  Someone talks and we all listen.  Sometimes we brainstorm – but if we are just mainly talking, people will only take about 10% away from it.  Add visual content or genuine workshopping activities and that figure goes up to 65%.  Don’t believe me?

Check out what brain expert John Medina has to say about traditional meetings and how they don’t work for everyone (towards the end of this video).

The gab-fest meeting needs to die a rapid death and visual active meetings are more effective.

Every one of us is wired to process information differently and most of us know what works for us but the fact is the more visual a presentation the better everyone processes it. That old school educator idea about sitting still and listening in a meeting or a classroom is a defunct and potentially damaging concept.

Fuck negative solidarity. It is time we grew up, left a competitive high-school mindset behind and aimed to get the best out of each other and not diminish creativity or innovation by insisting on monotonous management processes.

I’m not saying that people don’t do the “boring” task. Not at all. I am just saying how we do it makes a difference. I’ve begun to look for more interesting ways I can do job applications – and I have started voice recording ideas for selection criteria and then writing them as I try to make the process a little more interesting.

I just wish modern corporate HR practice would catch up with what we know about human beings so that the selection criteria process might not end up excluding creative people. Just like boring meetings don’t do creativity or innovation any favours. Maybe that is okay if you are regulatory body and maintaining the status quo is what you want – but even then, you need some problem-solving ability and that doesn’t come from monotony.

Monotony vs. Mindfulness.

Let’s talk mindfulness. Mindfulness is about routine in a way, but it is about taking in the beauty of little tasks and finding joy in them. There is an aspect of monotony in the carrying out of a mindfully created task, but it is not the driving force. Mindfulness takes an everyday task and injects some joy into it.

One might pour the coffee slower and take delight in the shine of the coffee and the fall of the fluid, knowing full well that it will never be the same in any moment in time ever again. Mindfulness sees the beauty in the fact that no single task is ever identical, that life is filled with unexpected delights.

Slower? Ack! You might say that you don’t have time for slower. But haste invariably means waste. The mindful coffee pourer spills less, smiles more and spends less time cleaning up. Sometimes slower is better and more useful than you might think.

Mindfulness can be used to focus on monotonous tasks. A friend of mine knits during meetings.

In a world filled with meetings that we are often required to take part in regardless of their usefulness to our work, you might find yourself doodling on a note pad. Oddly the little side task can help you get through monotony and focus on what is important in a long meeting. Others secretly look at mobile phones on their laps. But my friend uses the mindfulness of knitting to listen better.

Yep, you read that right, she knits to listen better.

Not all of us have the same learning or communication style and all our brains are wired to process information differently.

The idea of a meeting where everyone talks does not meet everyone’s communication style and a lot of us find them difficult to concentrate in. In fact, I would argue that some meetings are indeed, completely pointless.

Some of us need to “do or see” as we listen to be able to synthesise the information. That might mean doodling, writing notes (that are often incoherent at the end of the meeting but might have served a different purpose to help us focus, so this matters not). For some people this is viewed as disrespectful to the speaker during the meeting.  I would argue that the monotonous manager insisting everyone sit still and listen is disrespectful to…well…just about everyone.

No-one has only one learning or information processing style (like hearing) and meetings that focus on talk are counter-productive wastes of time.  We may like to listen as a primary way of receiving information, but that is just one way of processing, not the be all and end all.

I have a visual learning style first and foremost and for me, just listening is not enough.

My knitting friend has a kinaesthetic or tactile learning style. That means she learns and adapts information through moving or touching.

I’m a doodler. I discovered my doodling pissed off teachers and colleagues, so I wrote  notes and diagrams instead. When things get interesting in a meeting I will often draw a diagram about what is being spoken about. At no point did I not take in what was said in the meeting, in fact I take in it better if I’m drawing or writing the words I hear while listening. It’s how my mind maps the information in a way that’s meaningful for me.

Often I am now asked to reproduce the diagrams I draw in a meeting as visual demonstrations of model or idea or concept.

For my friend who processes things tactilely, as she knits she is pausing through the rhythmic movement and focusing on information that is important and not losing interest in the meeting.  She is mindfully processing what she hears and making it tangible to her learning style through knitting while listening.  She’s knitting the words into her mind.

Monotony is often confused for mindfulness or good management, which it is neither. Monotony is people doing mindless routine tasks, over and over the same way (whether they work for us or not) because they think it will bring peace to their lives. Or order. Or control. Or wealth.

The monotonous manager is the manager who thinks there is only one way to do a task and inflicts that on everyone else – because they relate it to efficiency.

But monotony often has the reverse effect. It can create a grumbling discontent and a need to for the malcontent manager to pick at the scabs of their life and the lives of others and create hostile work environments. They become the people who are so bored with their lives they pick on everyone else’s methods for living to make themselves feel better. I am always surprised when someone can go to a special and unnecessary efforts to instruct me that the way I do a task should be done another way – although I achieve the task with the same efficiency as they do. These are the people that are annoyed by someone doing something differently because of rigid views of right and wrong based only on their own world view. I’m writing about this not to pick on them, but because it’s obvious they are stuck in the rut of monotony.

Let me be clear. Routine can be very important. But a life filled with mindless routine in the pursuit of things like feelings of power over a team can equate to a long slow death to any modicum of workplace happiness. There are buckets of books on this subject. Yet we still find people, largely in the workplace insisting “we’ve always done it this way” and accusing others of unprofessionalism if they do things differently.

It’s time to honour diversity and see it as useful, not punish people for having different wiring.

Why are we still practicing meeting structures that we know don’t work? Organisations that use co-design and workshop things (with physical and visual activities) are far more innovative.

I look at the selection criteria process and think it’s just another monotonous process that doesn’t guarantee anything except that someone can write to the criteria.

I have seen some good examples of alternative recruitment processes and I am part of one this coming week. I will be part of a pre-screening process that means the organisation gets to know me through a recruiting professional first. They will get to know my motivations and ways of operating and I hope I will be matched to a role and organisation that honours that diversity.

I’ve been asked to answer two broad questions and then go for coffee with a recruitment specialist.  Then an interview process that will include tasks.

It will be interesting. I still can’t believe that, considering all the information we have about people and diversity, we still think selection criteria answers are a good enough reflection of a human being. Cause they are simply not.

It’s like the boring meeting of recruiting.

Now, I am going back to writing selection criteria. Maybe I will try a video version and put the hyperlinks to video selection criteria?