At AWSF, we often talk about inclusive hiring and how an organization has not truly accomplished diversity without including disability. To those outside of our staff, it may seem that we are touting a message in which we do not follow up with action. However, a person with a disability is working at AWS Foundation me.
I only got my diagnosis a mere three years ago, so my coworkers have given me grace and the privilege of privacy until I was ready to take on this identity openly. While I am not ashamed, it is still new. For a while, I felt imposter syndrome. How could I openly declare I am disabled if, for 29 years, it went seemingly unnoticed? Even now, Im sure I will get many remarks like I would have never known (dont do this to disabled people, by the way). But that isnt fair to myself or others like me who may not be able to hide. So, here I go:
I am autistic.
A year up to my diagnosis, I suspected this was the case. Working in the disability world and learning more about autism, I realized that many of the ways I struggled throughout my life may have had a reason. Still, I never said anything to anyone. Then one day in therapy, almost exactly three years ago, my therapist said the words, you are autistic. I remember vividly, tears instantly overcoming my face. He handed me a tissue and apologized for upsetting me. But I wasnt crying because I was sad. I was relieved. Having this diagnosis helped me to better understand myself, my needs, and how to overcome barriers that held me back. I can now accept the things about myself that cannot change (its a process).
A study done by the Center for Talent Innovation in 2017 found that 30% of the workforce in the United States has a disability. However, only 3.2% self-identified at work. This is primarily due to judgments made about people with disabilities and their capabilities, either being actively insulted or avoided by coworkers or not feeling comfortable enough in the workplace environment. Even working somewhere disability-focused, I was nervous opening up about my diagnosis at work for fear of these same things.
The first person I told at work was Patti, our CEO. She was quick to say that I could come to her with whatever I needed, though at the time, I was still clueless. Shortly after, I told Joni, who if you dont know, has a Ph.D. in Education and worked in special education for most of her career. She replied, I know. She may not realize it, but those were the most validating words I could have ever received at that moment. Slowly, but eventually, I have informed everyone in our office. I was still not ready to be openly autistic, and they have been great with respecting that. Together we have worked to make our working environment more accommodating to my needs.
So, what does our inclusive office look like? Its much more than just the physical space in which we work. Yes, we have a sensory room where I can go and either work for a couple of hours or just take a break for ten minutes. But most of our inclusion is less concrete and specified to my unique needs. If I am struggling with a task due to overstimulation, my coworkers will step in and help, but only after they have asked and I have agreed to the help. I am given specific deadlines instead of vague timelines such as no hurry. My coworkers understand that I need to doodle to stay focused in meetings. They are enthusiastic about learning more about autism and the different ways it is present in each autistic individual. They get excited to share a new fidget toy, book or article, and stories about autism or one of my special interests. While my sometimes blunt approach to communication can seem intense or rude, they have grown not to let it undermine the message of my words. My perspective as an autistic person is both respected and considered in our work. Not only do these things allow me to thrive in my work, but I feel welcome in the place where I spend the majority of my week.
Know that these adjustments did not happen overnight. There is a learning curve, and I am still learning about my own needs. I know how lucky I am to receive this diagnosis while working for an organization whose mission is an inclusive world for people with disabilities. But I believe that my treatment at work can be a reality for anyone with a disability in any workplace. It starts with respect, but we all need to be better educated about disability. I mask well at work (though I have days where I cant, just ask my coworkers), but not everyone can hide their disability. I encourage everyone to show one another more grace, learn about disability, evaluate how your office can be more inclusive. It may empower more people to open up about their disability at work.