I’ve been thinking a lot recently about disability laws such as the Equality Act in the UK, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The concept of disability provides a positive way to talk about removing barriers for those who are different. This concept does not, however, provide a framework to discuss the strengths of being different. This piece is a first step towards trying to put some of that thinking into words. I expect to have more to say on this subject in the near future.
Autistic people’s brains are different; from each other, and from other people’s. These differences make it difficult for autistic people to function out in the world. Viewing autism as a disability is necessary. Without some assistance, or at least forbearance, most autistic people will fail to reach their full potential.
Because I know that I am autistic, I have a framework for conversations with friends, employers, and businesses about my needs. The therapists who carried out my assessment gave me a list of suggestions for employers. Ideas of changes at work that could help me be more effective. A lot of what employers do to make things better for autistic employees are also improvements for non-autistic employees. This is similar to the fact that often designing products to accommodate physical limitations makes those products better for everyone. A great example of this is the Oxo Good Grips line of kitchen tools.
Disability Focuses on Limitations
The existing legal structures are all focused on adjustments for ways in which being autistic is a limitation. The law tolerates failing to value the ways in which some autistic people do tasks better than most non-autistics.
Hiring autistic people is often viewed as a ‘good deed’ and companies are applauded for doing so. Few questions are asked about whether or not the value the autistic people provide is reflected in their compensation. Has any company ever quantified the financial benefits of autistic employees being better at a job than non-autistic employees? For example, determining the value to a company of reducing the error rate in their quality control process. Perhaps this is worth millions of dollars per year. Shouldn’t the autistic testers who deliver this improvement see some reasonable percentage of that savings? If anyone knows of examples of this happening, please do share. Any company that does behave admirably in this way should be applauded.
Autistic Strength or Weakness?
Once, during a performance review, I laid out for my manager what I thought was a strength: my ability to simplify and streamline the work of an entire large project team, perhaps hundreds of people. My manager agreed with everything that I said, and then turned it into a weakness. How, he asked, are we to manage the fact that not every project has someone like you on it? Apparently having every project, and every employee, accomplishing less, and/or producing lower quality work was a better solution than having some projects excel.
I then proposed that I be promoted to a position that would allow me to set standards for everyone. This idea was a non-starter. The company had no path to promotion for an employee who was exceedingly strong technically without making them a manager. A look at lists of what makes someone a good manager quickly rules this out for me, and for most autistic people. One of the keys to being a good manager is understanding how one’s actions and words will effect the emotional state of others. This is something that is an insurmountable barrier for many autistic people.
Difference Is A Strength
Autistic people encounter this sort of glass ceiling all the time. This is unsurprising in a world which most richly rewards those who have the skills to build and/or sit atop a large organisation. The lack of those skills diminishes the perceived value of strengths in other areas. This is analogous to the suppression of women’s wages. Most people view jobs where women are the top performers, or the majority of the workers, as less valuable.
If we want to claim that our societies value diversity and inclusion we must expand beyond the disability model. We must create a standard of actively valuing the ways in which difference is a strength.
Zen Master Bear Has Spoken.