I always breathe a bit of a sigh of relief whenever BADD comes around, not because it’s an easy topic to address, but because it falls on May 1st, which means that April, aka, Autism Bewareness Month, is finally over.
Today I want to write a little bit about my experience in the workplace. I am a 36 year old college graduate. I hold a bachelor of arts degree in English with a minor in religion and in education from a fairly prestigious liberal arts university. With help from an impressively good disabilities department, I was able to graduate a single semester after I theoretically *should* have.
I am currently the cook in a childcare center.
Other jobs I have had include Language Arts teacher, English teacher, college level tutor in various subjects, barista, deli employee, craft store employee, grocery store cashier, and fast food manager.
I hear the words of every teacher and every parent and grandparent in my head on almost a daily basis – “she’s so smart! If only she would apply herself!” (I am not a she, but that doesn’t stop the voices in my head or change the content of the message itself.)
Some people might say that I’ve settled. I can’t even count the number of people who have told me that I’m better than the jobs that I’ve had (or currently have). I can’t even tell you how many people have stood with their teenage children, pointed to me, and said “look. That’s what happens when you don’t stay in school.” In those instances, I was tempted to carry a photocopy of my degree with me so I could tell them that I did stay in school, but that 80% (perhaps more) of disabled people are unemployed or underemployed.
I know it wouldn’t have helped.
I am an autistic person, a hard of hearing person, and a person who has ADHD. I face a number of barriers to an accessible workplace.
- I have difficulty focusing, especially when interrupted. This is my one biggest issue, because of what I do, I often have teachers/classrooms/etc ask me for individual items while I am trying to do other parts of my job. Getting myself back on task once I’ve prepared and delivered the item to the appropriate person is an enormous task, and sometimes I do look like a deer in the headlights.
- I cannot hear you, especially if you are behind me, I cannot see your lips, and once I tell you that I’ve not understood what you’ve said, you simply repeat it at the same level with the same intonation (which usually involves dropping your voice at the end of words or sentences). Please stop getting annoyed or offended if I tell you I still don’t understand you, and for goodness’ sake, please don’t tell me “never mind”, especially if it is something important (and relevant to my job).
- My accommodations aren’t an invitation to speak with me at length about why I do or do not deserve them. They aren’t for funsies, or because I’m getting special treatment. They’re because I literally cannot function without them. Yes, I know you have to deal with fire alarms on the fly, but I will literally throw myself under a table and curl into a ball and have a meltdown if I’m not warned.
- I had to fight tooth and nail to receive the most basic of accommodations, and that was only after I paid out of my own pocket to go see my doctor and had him write me a letter.
- I get through the day with lists. After almost a year and a half at the same workplace, with a predictable schedule and working within the same parameters, these are mostly in my head, but there are lists regardless.
- Timers also help. I sometimes use unconventional means of timing myself, but that’s neither here nor there (but sure does invite unnecessary and rude comments).
- I know what you’re saying about me and people like me, even if I can’t physically hear you. (Your disabled students know it too.)
- I cannot do small talk with you. You assume things about me because I stay quiet. But I have opinions about things, but you wouldn’t like them if I said them, and talking is distracting me from the work I have to do. It’s not a personal thing, but sometimes it is. Refer to the previous point about what you say about your disabled students. I see it, and I know, and nah, I don’t always want to talk to you about what you did last weekend because I just don’t care.
- Not everything is worth the emotional or mental energy. I’m not sorry about that.
- I go home every day exhausted.
- The kids – those ones you don’t really treat like real people – they’re the reason I keep coming back. They’re sometimes overly loud and noisy, but they’re loving and appreciative and soaking up everything you pour into them. They see how you treat people you consider lesser.
I wish all of this was unique to this one job, but I’ve seen it unfold in various ways in every single job I’ve had. The hearing difficulties have only developed over the past three years, so I’ve definitely seen an uptick in comments regarding that vs. my other slightly less obvious disabilities. I’ve had jobs that had no problem accommodating me. I’ve had other jobs that questioned me at every turn, and some who downright said “we can’t do that” when I asked for accommodations.
I keep wanting to celebrate the fact that April is finally over. I have so many good things happening in the upcoming months. But we have so very far to go in the fight for independence and equality. I want to do more, but sometimes? I’m just trying to survive.