The Employment Dilemma for Trans + Disabled People

Featured image description: The default featured image for Trans Autistic Feminist blogposts, with a pink background on the left and blog logo on the right. The white text on the left says the blog title “The Employment Dilemma for Trans + Disabled People”.

Content warning: ableism, transphobia, masking, ABA mention

Hi all, 

I’ve had a lot to process regarding employment as of late, so I will be writing a bit about what’s on my mind so other people can understand the dilemmas of disabled and/or trans people entering employment. Despite having the time and willpower to work, it’s a lot easier said than done. 

As a disabled person, I have to ensure whatever career move I take next is suitable for me. While I’m not sure of the exact area I want to work in, I am pretty open to anything as long as it’s accessible for me. So, in other words, an office job I can do from home at least part-time and where I don’t have to talk to people much.

Note that the disability angle will mainly focus on autism as that is my lived experience, but there will be a lot of overlap with other disabilities and mental illnesses.

To disclose or not to disclose? 

This is the first issue. This question can be broken down even more to the following sub-questions:

  • Is the workplace safe to be openly trans and/or autistic?
  • How much does somebody have to disclose to employers to be able to work the job? 
  • How much is OK to share in general? 

More specifically, when it comes to disability, the main issue is accommodations. The more somebody can conceal their support needs, the fewer problems at work they may have to deal with (including being fired and/or not hired). This can also include coping with trauma and mental health triggers, which will often have negative consequences for the person’s career – even if they don’t harm anyone. 

A lot of disabled people hide their disabilities from employers as a result and advise others do the same – as employers can quickly get away with being ableist, despite initiatives. For example, the UK’s Disability Confident scheme is widely discredited in the disability community, partially because the guarantee of an interview to all disabled people who meet the criteria isn’t enforced. Additionally, all a company has to do if they don’t want to hire a disabled person is to claim that “they’ve found somebody who is a better cultural fit” and move on. 

If a disabled person does try to hold their employer to account – whether during recruitment or unfair dismissal – the odds are stacked against them. This is partially due to a lack of legal aid, but also because it risks them being blacklisted from other firms. Employers don’t want people that they think would cause them hassle, and sharing too much is not a good idea, as it can be used against them later. 

Of course, hiding disabilities is only really possible for those with invisible disabilities – as, for people with visible disabilities who need aids, this isn’t an option for them. 

Work relationships vs personal relationships boundaries: 

This is something else I have also struggled to understand. What is appropriate for what relationship? When is it OK to move people from colleagues to friends? How do you deal with social media? What is “professionalism?” 

There are no fixed rules regarding this that people follow aside from vague generalisations that depend on culture and industry contexts. There are also general business expectations of behaviour (like relying on Outlook) that employees are expected to instinctively pick up, which is impossible for any autistic people to do (I will return to this later). 

The other expectation is for people that can act as neurotypical as possible (aka so they see you as pleasant and can collaborate with them). All of this can be very difficult for autistic people to pick up. Likewise, things like networking and people to avoid working with are usually found out via the grapevine (especially for abusers). The grapevine is something autistic people find difficult to access. I started to learn some of these things myself before being let go from my last internship, even though a lot of this stuff (in hindsight) feels like things all autistic people should directly be told years before starting work. 

I say this from the perspective of somebody who has unintentionally self-sabotaged career opportunities due to not knowing social rules or accidentally blundering when trying to talk to people regarding work opportunities. The fear I have about this is that I feel I risk being blacklisted by others on ableist grounds then not finding out why until many months later – if at all. Even then, once a person or organisation is blacklisted, it’s very likely the blacklisting will not be reversed for years if at all as there is often no chance of appeal. 

Yet, nobody has ever been able to offer advice for dealing with this, so the only conclusion I could think of is to strictly partition work relationships from personal relationships unless certain circumstances mean it’s a good idea to cross them over. For example, if a personal friend helps someone get a job, they start a business venture together, or somebody makes a genuine friend at work that they get along with over a sustained period. This includes social media.

The minefield of inclusivity 

While there are genuinely inclusive and supportive employers out there, the reality is that it is a minefield and often the most challenging part of employment is sustaining it, not getting it. There is no real way for disabled employees to know which employers genuinely care about inclusivity and diversity – or only get the credentials for PR purposes (such as the very organisers of the Disability Confident scheme themselves). Hence, many disabled people go freelance and/or unemployed, so they can work while also accommodating their support needs as best as they can. 

A lot of inclusivity issues also stem from not understanding how mainstream office culture can cause problems for autistic people. For example, I saw this article today (“Will young workers be the victims of the decline in the office?” 13/09/2020) in The Independent, which discusses whether young people will be the victims of the declining office. It’s an article that argues yes, but completely omits the experiences of disabled adults. 

One example is the following belief, something that is impossible for many autistic and other neurodivergent people to do without direct communication: 

“There are also lots of benefits to informal interaction – something a prearranged video call cannot replicate,” he says, pointing to the ability of new employees in an office to directly observe how colleagues behave, pick up important information, absorb the unwritten rules of the organisation and even its ethical values.” 

Another example is this, something that can lead to discrimination towards women and marginalised groups in the right environment, as well as forcing out disabled people who cannot participate in office politics or social culture.

“Gosling is more concerned about the challenge of retaining the benefits from the social aspects of traditional office life – the gossip, the chats, the collective visits to the pub.” 

In essence, the inaccessibility and deeply rooted ableism in office life already claimed tens of millions of disabled people at some point.

In a way, getting a career going forward will now be more accessible thanks to neurotypicals finally understanding the benefits of working from home. This was thanks to a pandemic, even though they should have listened to disabled people years ago.

Personally, I am incredibly thrilled office culture will never be the same again and is declining. Hence employment will now be easier for neurodivergent people to access. However, employers need to understand they must not force neurotypical abled standards on employees. They still need to listen to disabled people. I am happy to help people I’d work with down the line to a point, but a lot of it is on them. And not knowing what the reaction will be till I’m in the role is a massive source of anxiety. 

Here is an article I wrote back in April 2020 about COVID-19, home working and ableism. 

To go stealth or not go stealth? 

The other issue that is noticeable for trans people is about transitioning and how to balance that around employers. A lot of trans people often prepare to change jobs when they come out, so future employers aren’t aware that they have a trans employee. Many trans people also aren’t able to work as a result of untreated dysphoria and/or transphobia from employers, thus are stuck in the trap of not having the money required to transition. 

Hence, many trans people choose to be stealth at work – especially those with passing privilege – for their own safety and so they can get the money to transition. When it comes to medical appointments and other transition-related care, they may choose to lie or omit information about why they need time off. They may also not speak about their personal lives much to avoid outing themselves by mistake. 

There is also the whole issue regarding surgery and taking time off for that, though I don’t know enough about this to discuss that here.

Additionally, there are two legal barriers in the UK regarding transgender employees I’d like to highlight as they are also factoring into my thinking (and will also be variants of this issue worldwide): 

No GRC means trans people in the UK have to out themselves to HR 

This is because of two reasons: 

Firstly, if a trans person hasn’t updated their documents or they are coming out at their current job, their team will know. This includes HR and other staff who see misgendered/deadnamed documents as part of ID verification. Passport/driving licenses are what is asked at interviews, and this can be updated with each respective office using a different process. This doesn’t mean a trans person won’t be outed to their employer, though. 

This is because the legal gender at HMRC can only be changed with a gender recognition certificate, and there is nothing a trans person without a GRC and/or unable to get one can do. At my last job, when I had to fill in a form for my employer to log my info into HMRC with, I initially put down F because that’s who I am. LI later got summoned to HR, and they told me that they had to change the gender marker to M as my F marker doesn’t match what is on the database. Hence, I had to change it back so it could be submitted to HMRC so I could get paid. It was demoralising for me, but my employer knew I am trans already and was discreet about it, so no harm was done in my case. But that isn’t the case for everyone. 

This is a problem that all trans people in the UK face unless they get a GRC, which is one of many reasons there were calls to reform the GRA (where have we heard this before?). 

No GRC means trans people starting their own companies is also risky 

Yes, there is a loophole with self-employment too. The following applies to trans people who start their own company and become a company director or majority shareholder (referred to in UK law as “People with Significant Control”). This is because the current procedures mean trans people legally have to be outed by Companies House upon request due to an obscure legal loophole. This is explained by the following quote from page 59 of the 2019 Corporate Transparency and Register Reform consultation document

“The Companies Act 2006 requires any change of a director’s name to be notified to Companies House and made publicly available on the register. This also applies to [People with Significant Control] (PSC). This includes cases where the person’s name changes as a result of a change in gender. Section 22 of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 makes it an offence to disclose information about the gender history of transgender people who have legally changed their gender through obtaining a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) where this information has been acquired in an official capacity. However, section 22(4)(j) provides an exemption where the disclosure is made under another enactment. Companies House is exempt from this general prohibition because it makes information public in accordance with the Companies Act 2006.” 

One of the many proposed reforms in the 2019 Corporate Transparency and Register Reform that would allow trans directors and PSCs to apply to have their name hidden. But as of September 2020, the consultation still hasn’t had its results released. Sounds familiar, even though this is the only mention in the entire document. The loophole around this is to become a sole trader, although this does bring the risk of unlimited liability. Which in the world where anti-trans bigots threaten to sue people who call them out often forces trans folk into silence. 

Additionally, for transgender people who are in work, many also intend to pass as cis as part of maintaining a working relationship. Because while cis men do not take cis women and cis passing trans people seriously, they take non-cis passing trans people even less seriously.

Hence this is a scenario where the transgender concept of passing and the autism concept of masking overlap – and both of these issues will take its toll on trans and autistic employees. I also wrote about this ages ago, here is a relevant extract. Note that body language and presentation are two things considered very important in the world of work, and women have it particularly hard. The world of work – without relevant adjustments – also enforces the narrative mentioned in the last paragraph.

Firstly, with being autistic I am not always aware how I come across. So, if my body language doesn’t appear feminine, I likely have no idea that’s the case. Furthermore, even when I try to present feminine it will be very hard to maintain the image as I fundamentally can’t mask.

Additionally, executive dysfunction may also get in the way which may make daily feminine tasks difficult, such as doing makeup to cover up facial hair and shaving body hair. Plus, I have seen cis autistic women that find it difficult to meet these standards or choose not to. It would be very unfair on them to be judged by these same arbitrary standards. 

However, I then realised how much this is similar to masking – and how there is still the widespread ableist assumption that autistic people need to mask to be accepted in wider society. I have talked about this before. We see this pervasive attitude in wider culture and through how ABA is being forced on autistic children from a young age in an attempt to “normalise” them with no regard for their mental wellbeing. 

And the reason why both passing and masking are problematic is because they blame the autistic trans person for their own differences. Basically, the narrative says that both autistic people and trans people alike (regardless of whether they are both autistic and trans) aren’t good enough as they are. In other words, the narrative says they are not who they identify as, they are what other people decide they are.

My personal, less objective, conclusion

The conclusions I’ve tentatively come to is that it is very tempting to conceal my gender and disability-related support needs as much as possible. I don’t like the thought of having to go stealth at work about these aside from: 

  • HMRC stuff as outlined above 
  • Any time off requests for medical transition appointments 
  • accommodations that aren’t vital for the job 
  • Anything else that my employer needs to know and that I can’t get away with not disclosing. 

Bear in mind much of this stems from avoidable trauma I got from people I have disclosed and been open to. And frankly, I do not have the energy to deal with that going forward, despite the thick skin I developed from it. While I am moving on and slowly mitigating the trauma, trying to mitigate further harm and obstacles is very important to me. However, I am hoping that as time goes by I will feel more able to take the risk of disclosing my needs again and being open like before (but not too open as oversharing is also something I did at my last role).

I know that masking in work like that would likely be very damaging for me as it is for many autistic people, and being myself is vital for motivation. I love who I am and am proud of myself and everything I have achieved, and I shouldn’t have to hide that. 

In hindsight, I overshared at my last role about said issues – again, partially due to trauma and disassociation – which may have factored in being let go. I am grateful to my previous employer for treating me as well as they did because I could have been treated a lot worse. 

I am still contemplating self-employment. As much as I’d like to be self-employed, that could take years to become sustainable enough to migrate, so I may end up having to do a Masters just to help me get out of England. Which in all honesty isn’t a good enough reason by itself, but depending on what I do may be useful in other ways too. Fortunately, I am open to pretty much anything work-wise I can do.  

Regardless of what I decide to do, I just want to get this employment dilemma worked out and mastered so I can medically transition, get my life stabilised and get out of this country for good. I don’t regret being open to the extent I was – and I’m glad I was as it was the right thing to do at the time.

The more objective conclusion

In short, there are a lot of structural barriers to work that have been touched on in this piece. Some of them can be helped by the world of work – to any employers reading this, please listen to your disabled staff and work to make your workplace genuinely inclusive. Please do not follow the same mindset like the person from the Independent article. Please allow form policies allowing trans people to take the time off they need for essential appointments, and do not allow transphobia to take hold in your organisation.

Hopefully, anybody who has taken the time to read this now understands many of the systematic barriers that trans and/or disabled people face regarding re-entering employment. Despite my personal anxieties, I am confident I can find a way forward, and I believe I’ll be in a much better position next year. 

Milla xx 

PS I recently set up a crowd funder to help kickstart my medical transition privately. Please consider donating to it if you have something to spare. You can view it here. If not, no worries. Thank you so much for reading!