On COVID-19, Home Working and Internalised Ableism

Content warning for: internalised ableism, COVID-19

Hi all,

In this post, I’m gonna talk a bit about the coronavirus and work today. The reason why is that the way employers have handled the coronavirus is both a source of frustration and opportunity for disabled people. I am going to reference my experience with my last employer to help illustrate this point.

My past experience

I had found out a few weeks ago my former employer is now working from home as a response to the coronavirus outbreak. All the team would not be in the office and could only be contacted through written mediums (or Zoom if they needed a meeting).

Yet when I worked there, I was never able to get any regular time out of the office to work privately in a quiet environment. This was an accommodation I needed for my sensory needs. The office is very overstimulating as a lot happens day to day, so even working outside the office elsewhere would have been OK. But I truly needed to be able to work from home at least two days a week.

I was not able to deal with the multitasking of various work and dealing with clients and an overstimulating. Not always being in the office to work would have taken the pressure off me. They felt it was “integral to the role” that I was in the office to answer questions even in an unsuitable environment.

Yet in light of COVID-19, the idea that my presence is “integral” to the role is nonsense. If I still worked for them, I would now be working from home too. My part was very similar to theirs. I would have worked from home in an environment that suited me, and I could regulate when I talk to people on my terms. Yet I wasn’t able to have this when I worked for them as a reasonable adjustment? Even Occupational Health agreed – their report was useless from my perspective. This doesn’t make sense, right? Well actually, it does.

I have no personal grief towards my former employer about anything. Even if they did accommodate me in this way, I still would have lost the job as it was unsuitable for me for many other reasons. However, these anti-home working attitudes are the kind of thinking that employers have systematically – even inclusive ones. I’m now going to explain what’s wrong with it and what employers can do to get around it.

Ableist expectations

There is the ableist expectation regarding work that employees must have a physical presence in the workplace period. There is this expectation that workers should be expected to relocated for all roles hence there are countries like the UK where the economy is centralised to a few specific regions. In the UK, the region is mainly London and the surrounding counties.

These expectations are so deep that employers – even genuinely inclusive ones that do try their best – do not realise the true extent. The foundations they use for employee expectations are rooted in ableism that harms disabled people. This is systematic ableism – namely that the design of the capitalist workplace itself discriminates against disabled people.

Abled employers barring disabled people from working – but then changing their minds when it affects them – is a blatant double standard. Yet when you point this out, many people will have no idea and cite the “extraordinary circumstances” of the virus. Yet they do not realise that disabled people have been dealing with these “extraordinary circumstances” for decades. Here’s what I mean:

  • We’ve learnt not to expect public services to help us correctly, and we have to fight for access.
  • We’ve learnt that communicating over the internet is more accessible for us than in-person events because we often can’t attend them.
  • We’ve learnt the importance of self-care and curating our environments, so we don’t force ourselves to tolerate an unhealthy environment that worsens our disabilities.
  • We’ve learnt to take extra steps to look after ourselves medically – whether that be medication, extra caution in daily life or allowing our bodies to rest when it tells us.
  • We’ve learnt to expect to be failed by the world of work repeatedly – bracing for the worst whenever we work for a new employer and being genuinely surprised when we find a genuinely inclusive one.
  • We’ve learnt to deal with a social security system that would rather deprive us of all support than give us what we’re entitled to.
  • We’ve accepted deep down we will have structural societal barriers to overcome, and we have to learn to deal with an inaccessible world that doesn’t value our lives.

Many disabled people accept that reality, but others don’t. Others continue to push their boundaries and force themselves to fit into the mould of broader society, even if deep down, they feel like a burden. And they know that the ableds around them mostly see them as a burden too – especially financially.

This is called internalised ableism – learned ableist messages from broader society. It’s not anyone’s fault for internalising them – whether it be disabled jobseekers or abled employers. Still, it does mean they need to take steps to unlearn it. This is because systematic ableism is underpinned by internalised ableism of most of those that participate in it.

I genuinely believe that there are employers out there that do embrace inclusivity. They do sincerely try to recruit staff from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. However, to be genuinely inclusive, it also means unlearning the ableism that has impacted their thinking towards work. This means unlearning internalised ableism as it benefits everyone.

How to be genuinely inclusive

This means redesigning jobs so that if ableds can suddenly work from home in the event of an emergency, disabled people can do so at all times so we can manage our conditions. For most office-based jobs, this will be possible. This means ditching the expectations of having to relocate staff unless it’s necessary.

In the UK, graduates shouldn’t have to move to London or a select number of other places just to get jobs that are right for their skills. People shouldn’t have to rely on jobs available in person because big employers will not offer home working. This is even when their response to coronavirus proves they can.

In my case, it meant that I didn’t truly need to be in the office the whole time. I knew that from the beginning. I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle it all the time. Yet they saw it as “integral to the role”. Hence, I had to either fit into what the employer wanted or eventually get let go. Quitting wasn’t an option for various reasons.

The results of not accommodating disabled people are apparent to those that pay attention. Alongside disabled people being out of work, many of us are highlighting the hypocritical behaviour of many employers now becoming blatantly clear due to the outbreak. Many of us are at best, annoyed or at worst, angry. Though bitterness is more often than not what people see.

The feeling of seeing yet again how accommodations are only consistently given to employees when ableds need it. However, when disabled people need it, they are denied, even when it’s against the law. That’s why it takes longer for us to get jobs generally and struggle to maintain them. That’s why many of us go self-employed or hide our diagnoses at work. Because it is often safer for us to do so – whether it to manage our quality of life generally or simply make working possible.

For any disabled people out there who can work reading this – take note. You now have a powerful argument to the state to employers to get you the accommodations that you are entitled to.

Good employers should accept this reality and work to further accommodate disabled staff. Whereas bad faith employers have expertly played themselves, and now it will be harder for them to deny accommodations. The evidence will be out there for all to find over an internet search (like this).

The future is homeworking – not just for disabled people can we can actually work, but also for ableds to improve their quality of life too. It benefits everyone – and it starts by learning the lessons from coronavirus. The world of work doesn’t have to be the way it is now. It doesn’t have to go back to old habits once the coronavirus is no longer a threat. Work can be better. It must be.

That’s all,

Milla xx

What I’ve Learned About Social Expectations At Work Since Starting My Job

(Featured image description: Multiple shots of people working at computer desks.)

Hi all,

I’m sure you are all aware of the problems autistic people face with employment. A major reason is the social aspect of the role – such as the unwritten rules in the workplace.

Without going into too much detail, my workplace is one of the more accommodating ones in the UK. However, it is also one of the more chaotic workplaces which means that I have had a lot of challenges to deal with. Fortunately, it is starting to get easier for me so I am going to spread the love.

Here is a list of what I’ve learned this week – with the help of my line manager who communicated this to me – so that other autistic people can better understand some of the unwritten workplace rules out there.

Rules won’t always be followed

This is a big one. Even in the most structured of workplaces – the rules and procedures in place often serve as guidelines rather than hard and fast rules (unless they are legal or health and safety-related). Rules will be bent depending on business need so it means that people cannot strictly enforce them as doing so risks making the business look bad.

An example I was given refers to whether figures of influence are involved. This can include company directors to celebrities and political/religious figures. In other words, rules are often bent so that the company or organisation save face. Did somebody submit something a bit late? Well depending on who the guests are that work will be prioritised.

An individual’s actions have wide-reaching consequences on the whole team

This is important to understand because this is something that managers and other staff pick up on even if the individual concerned doesn’t. This is also used to factor in things like performance reviews. In other words, the bigger picture is something that all members of the team need to understand.

For me, I am currently not fully trained in my role and because of this other members of my team are picking up some of the things that I am supposed to be doing. Yet I had absolutely no idea until this was communicated to me directly. I only fully understood once I was given a concrete example of something, I should be doing but I’ve not been trained on yet.

Initiative is expected

By this, I mean that workers are expected to be able to think for themselves on how to solve situations and not ask too many questions. Initially, this was quite confusing for me because I thought that if I don’t know what to do, I should be asking questions? Yet apparently, I was asking too many questions because it meant that my colleague was basically doing my work (and I was just typing it).

I think this stems in part due to how much support autistic people have or not. For example, for the few autistic people in school that got proper support from a young age may have been constantly handheld and not fully developed the initiative required for many jobs.

Social anxiety and a fear of making mistakes also play a part here. One reason for this is that many autistic people have learned over the years that their judgement for social situations is incorrect hence their judgement is not trustworthy. When I say “incorrect,” I mean that as a value judgement as to how an NT would see things. When it comes to other autistic/neurodivergent people, more people are likely to see the judgement as correct (or at least something they would do).

Meetings should always be prioritised

This section can be summarised in a few simple points. The first is that if somebody invites somebody else to a work-related meeting they are expected to attend. This applies regardless of the context from verbal agreements to Outlook invites. This also applies if the meeting sounds informal and/or optional such as a “coffee with [senior director].” I had a meltdown that day and was volatile so I thought as this coffee meeting was optional hence, I didn’t have to go so I didn’t. I ended up getting told off for it.

Additionally, the individual employee is also expected to take responsibility for their own timetable. One reason why is because other staff have their own workloads so cannot be responsible for others too. Fortunately, Outlook has aids that can help with executive functioning such as alarms and reminders. This is not so helpful for making sure employees remember meetings first thing in the morning so other reminders (ie. Using tools like Amazon Alexa) as well as a daily reminder to check the calendar is what helps me.

It’s impossible to understand everything that’s happening

In the world of work, so much goes on that unless somebody is senior management, it is impossible to know everything that goes on and how people are expected to behave. Part of this is due to confidentiality obligations however it can also be down to the fact that things are generally communicated on a “need-to-know” basis.

Hence a skill that will be expected of staff is to know when to ask for more information and when to just accept what you’ve been told. Usually, when someone says that “it’s private and/or confidential” or “only senior staff have access” that is a clear sign that lower-level staff are not to dig. Even many autism-friendly workplaces have these expectations.

This also applies to social situations. Yes, some managers may make decisions that seem strange but if they have a track record of meaning well and aren’t trying to be malicious their advice is worth following. Not just because they are the manager but also because they understand better how everything works.

The line manager acts as a communicator for any problems

One thing I’ve greatly struggled with over the years is that people won’t talk to me directly about the problems they have with me or my behaviour. For personal relationships, this is obviously a serious issue however this is not the case for workplace relationships in many contexts.

This is because the role of the line manager is considered important. Basically, subordinates tell their line managers anything that is bothering them. This includes how other employees are negatively impacting on them. This doesn’t just include the usual bad things but also includes things that are causing them to have difficulties doing their work such as asking too many questions that I mentioned earlier.

This is nothing personal. It is not a personal failure or anything like that. It is because this is the unwritten social rule of many workplaces that employees are taught to follow. Additionally, line managers often undergo specific training on management that lower-level staff often do not.

The boundaries blur a bit more when it is a personal relationship of some sort. Usually, this applies if somebody knows them outside of work or the colleagues have worked together for a long time. Hence colleagues may talk to each other directly rather than going to the line manager.

So in other words, these are some of the many ways that work relationships are different from personal relationships. Hence autistic people can’t simply cut and paste expectations from personal relationships into a workplace context even though that is the logical thing an autistic person may do. That’s all for today. I hope to be able to share more tips like this soon.

Milla xx

Transitioning Into Work When You’re Autistic Is Doable, But It’s Harder Than It Should Be

Hi all, 

Apologies for the lack of activity as of late – I’ve had a lot to deal with, but one of the most important things that have come from that is the following. I’ve got an internship starting next week! I’m happy and excited as a result for the most part but I’m gonna blog a bit about my thoughts from a disability perspective. Part of the reason why is that most of my backlogged posts are quite serious so a more lighthearted approach will be needed for this one. 

Earning money is important 

I will soon be earning my own money and that makes me very happy for a few reasons. The first is that I will be able to meet something that all disabled people should have the opportunity to do (if they can) is to earn an income. Another reason is that I need to start medically transitioning privately. In the UK, waiting lists for trans medical care on the NHS are years long and are not sustainable so the recommended advice is to go private during the wait.

A supportive environment is more likely to exist than people think 

As an autistic person, one of the biggest things that myself and others like me have to look for is whether a workplace is supportive of our needs. Fortunately, the push by companies to recruit more autistic employees is increasingly popular so it is more likely that we will get the support we need. Of course, some companies do indeed sign up to schemes that are flawed just to appear supportive like “Disability Confident” in the UK (here are several articles about it, CW ableism) so it is a minefield and there is still some way to go. However, things are still better than before. 

I am not as clued up on trans related employment issues however things are faring somewhat better there even though trans people are more likely to be unemployed than cis people. Hence I don’t address trans related issues in this article. The employer I will be working for I feel is a good fit for me and will help me meet my needs through reasonable adjustment which greatly helps my confidence. 

New pathways may open up 

Once somebody gets their foot in the door workwise, multiple pathways can open up depending on the situation. But a lot of it comes down to gathering experience. Doing a job is one way that employers will judge their employees. If somebody can do their job well, that is a great start. Of course, many opportunities would require some level of networking and skill, however, supportive environments may be more willing to overlook weaker social skills if somebody’s strengths exceed elsewhere. 

However, there are other pathways to work such as self-employment which is an increasingly popular option for disabled workers due to the added flexibility. Hence, in a way, many disabled workers can create a supportive environment themselves. Being disabled makes working harder, but it doesn’t always make it impossible. 

Of course, challenges persist 

I know that I am in the minority for my community, especially as so many people who are autistic cannot access work for many different reasons. This is why it’s so important that acceptance of our identities is pushed out there so we can be better accommodated in the world around us.

A lot of people, including many of my relatives, have a lot of negative opinions about whether people like me would be able to find and keep a job. I can only speak for myself when I say this but I am determined to prove those detractors wrong because I know their pessimism is unrealistic and based on outdated views of the workplace (and assumes all bosses are assholes).

Anyone who has additional supports or marginalisations is worth a fair shot at the world of work – end of. It is quite telling – and sad – that many people disagree and will actively take steps to harm the careers of disabled professionals. It’s important to discuss positive stories of disabled people succeeding in work without falling back on inspiration porn-based narratives or centring nondisabled perspectives and change the narrative. Hence there will be more disabled people in work achieving their goals. 

And finally, it is also important to ditch the idea that disabled people have to be in work to have a fulfilling life because in reality work is not an indicator of somebody’s worth. It is just that the current state of capitalism has convinced the average person otherwise, including many disabled people. Hence there would be better social and financial support for those disabled people that cannot work so they can live equally fulfilling lives. 

That’s all for today. 

Milla xx

Featured image source