Accommodation vs. Inclusion
I just had the privilege of co-presenting a panel at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs annual conference. The panel, “Invisible Illness, Tangible Language: How Disability Influences Craft” was well-attended, even for an early Saturday morning, and we touched on a variety of topics pertaining to physical and mental illness. Of everything said, though, one of the things that struck me the most was the first question we were asked during our Q&A.
Now that I’m thinking more about it, it wasn’t so much a question as a statement, and not so much a statement as a micro-aggression, but to sum up, the attendee let us know that she’d gotten over expecting people to accommodate her. In short, she’d “overcome her disability.”
There is no overcoming this. It’s a fact that’s ingrained itself into every aspect of my life.
So, some background about me. I’m open about my invisible illnesses and how they affect my relationships with people both professionally and personally. I’m neurodivergent, with my brain breaking down into less-than-delightful slices of autism, bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. If I don’t take my medication, my life is at risk. There is no overcoming this. It’s a fact that’s ingrained itself into every aspect of my life.
A lot of people I talk to have advice for me when they learn this about me. They tell me to run more, to sleep more. Eat less sugar, eat more chocolate. My dentist just told me last week that all of it would be cured if I traveled to Europe. Try meditation or yoga, people say, as if my skin doesn’t feel like it’s about to peel itself off of my body every time I sit still with nothing to occupy my mind.
If I had the insurance to be formally diagnosed earlier in life, I would have been able to take advantage of common accommodations, like more time to work on my assignments when I was in college instead of planning ahead for breakdowns and doing things weeks in advance. The “real world” doesn’t provide these kinds of accommodations for neurodivergent folks, though. I can’t imagine a scenario where I would feel comfortable calling my boss to tell her that I’ve had a breakdown, that I haven’t seen the sun in days, therefore I need more time to complete my work. Life doesn’t work that way.
But what if it did? What if my place of work actually understood that I have to reread my email responses twenty, thirty, sometimes fifty times before I send them? That I take longer to process written and verbal communication because I have trouble interpreting tone? That I have to prep myself days in advance to sit in team meetings I don’t even speak in because of the number of people in the room and the volume at which they speak? That, despite fifteen years of experience in my field, most days I feel like a fraud?
The Americans with Disabilities Act makes it unlawful to discriminate against someone with a disability in the workplace, and also states that employers must make “reasonable accommodations” for people with disabilities. While mental illness is less visible than a physical impairment, it still qualifies as a disability. So, it’s completely within my right to request things like flexible hours to see my doctors, for example. But who wants to look weak in front of their boss when the stakes are high?
On days where it’s too much, I want to feel included, not accommodated.
I make lists. I take regular walks. I recite daily mantras. I take my medication as prescribed. Sometimes, none of this is enough. On days where it’s too much, I want to feel included, not accommodated. I don’t want to feel like a statistic, like people are forced to work with me for fear of being sued. I want my humanness to be embraced, flaws and all.
I certainly don’t speak for everyone with visible or invisible disabilities, but I know that for me, I would love to feel more included in the life going on around me. I don’t want to feel like a burden. There aren’t easy solutions to the questions I’ve posed, but life isn’t easy, especially for people with chronic illnesses of both the visible and invisible varieties. For our sake, be kind to us, even if that means easing up a bit and waiting longer than you’d like for one of us to do something for you. Don’t just provide the minimum legal accommodations for us to live. Help us be just as comfortable as you.