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What’s in A Word? Claiming Multi-Layered Disability Community Solidarity

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Words are powerful. I’ve been in awe of words since I was a small, mostly non-articulate child with sensory processing issues, and I have remained enamored of their power as a hyper-verbal adult. As a rhetorician in graduate school, I studied the rhetorical connection between words, images, thoughts, and stereotypes. My master’s thesis focused upon cognitive metaphor — how we make sense of things we do not fully understand by connecting them metaphorically with other thoughts and images. This is all to say that I am aware of the power of specific words, including the term ‘disability.’

I am aware that there are those within the Autistic community that don’t consider Autism a disability. Many of these people argue that neurodiversity is merely a “difference.” Although I do not want to point to any one person, to avoid public shaming and embarrassment of those individuals, I did recently read that one of my Autistic siblings has been speaking to the non-disabled community regarding barriers to employment faced by Autistic people — barriers that are, indeed, very real — and the resulting discrimination, announcing that employers and society-at-large should not view Autism as a disability. I find this rhetoric disturbing at least, and dangerous at most.

The concept of Autistic abilities is further complicated by an Autistic relationship with its own burgeoning cultural consciousness; the primary disabled culture; and the dominant, normate culture.

The broader field of disability studies teaches us that disabilities is a tricky concept encapsulated in a one term. There exist several disabilities that are or can be envisioned as difference from a typical and powerful majority of others — in this case, difference between the Autistic (non-neurotypicals) and the alltistic (neurotypicals.) The concept of Autistic abilities is further complicated by an Autistic relationship with its own burgeoning cultural consciousness; the primary disabled culture; and the dominant, normate culture. But there are other disabled cultures with similar considerations: the d/Deaf culture, for example, also possesses a rich culture of pride connected to their sensory abilities and linguistic differences. Many Deaf individuals also feel as if they are not technically disabled. Some Deaf people identify as linguistic minorities rather than disabled.

Like the term ‘disability’ itself, the community is a large umbrella.

I worry that some within my own community, the Autistic community, are distancing themselves from the broader disabled community. Disability studies scholars have long pointed out connections between the misogynistic and racist rhetoric and the implication of disability. As Rosemarie Garland Thomson illuminates in her book Extraordinary Bodies, women have often been compared to the disabled, “sometimes to denigrate women and sometimes to defend them.” This kind of question — the questions that asks the marginalized person to either distance themselves from one community and empower themselves, or to trouble the very notions of the meaning of disability and accept that all marginalization and dehumanization is wrong — is a classical Catch-22. Before women’s enfranchisement, women were told that they were too unstable (disabled) to vote. What choice did these women have? To distance themselves from disabled people might have led to agency; however, it also would have required them to affirm that disabled people in some way deserved their disenfranchisement. In short, it was a question with only one answer; it pitted one marginalized community against another, rather than allowing the focus on the real problems.

Certainly, the disabled community must encompass many people, many diagnoses and bodies. Like the term ‘disability’ itself, the community is a large umbrella. We have our differences, and we face different challenges, oppressions, and barriers to full participation; however, it is not our bodies, neurologies, or diagnoses that unite us. What unites us is the result of misconceptions regarding disability — the resulting ableism. If the Autistic community, or any other co-community within the larger disabled umbrella, distances itself from the broader community — claiming that our disabilities are not real disabilities — we say something disparaging about our disabled siblings, some of whom have other disabilities in addition to Autism, Deafness, and other strong identity-pride disability movements. We allow our non-disabled audiences to continue to believe that disability is always equivalent to a bad thing, a thing that must be avoided, and above all that disability is a reasonable excuse for discrimination. The real enemy is not our disabled siblings, fellow sufferers of structural, societal ableism. The real enemy is ableism.

I’m Autistic, and I Don’t Support the Microsoft Autistic Hiring Program… and You Shouldn’t Either

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Credit to Hamza Butt: http://www.buynothingnew.org/2017/06/sole-treadmill-reviews.html licensed under Creative Commons

I recently joined a virtual job fair for autistic career seekers that included a connection to employers like Microsoft and other tech companies. I noticed one thing immediately: the recruiters were falling over themselves to recruit men (yes, only men) with technical and coding experience to get a job with their organizations. These men had other things in common, too. They were, most likely, very close to the definition of what Rosemary Garland Thomson calls the “normate” — white, heterosexual, middle-class, educated, male, and otherwise non-disabled (no other physical, emotional, psychological, or learning disabilities.)

By focusing on technical careers — careers that are already underrepresented for PoC, women, and other disabled people — these programs reify harmful stereotypes, overrepresent their positive impact on the community, and come very close to exploitation rather than support.

I spied a post by a young woman looking for a customer service, non-technical role with Microsoft. She received no answer whatsoever. A young man below her inquired about a data scientist position; a recruiter responded immediately, asking for his resume and sending him the direct contract information of a hiring manager. I then tried another chatroom for another major employer and sponsor of the career fair. Similarly, I discovered a post by a young man with an ethnic name searching for a non-technical career with the sponsor company. A recruiter with this respective company responded thirty-three minutes later telling him to send his resume into the void (a general e-mail address.) Exactly like the other board, young men with white-sounding names looking for technical careers were almost immediately contacted with specific connections to network themselves into a job.

We have known for quite some time that our sisters in the Autistic community have been under-diagnosed. The same is true for Autistic people of color. Moreover, Autistic people often have co-occurring disabilities that might include physical disabilities, sensory disabilities, ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, OCD, PTSD, learning disabilities, and more. Employment discrimination (including sexism, racism, and ableism toward co-occurring disabilities) has existed for some time, and there is little at work within Autistic employment programs to combat these biases. By focusing on technical careers — careers that are already underrepresented for PoC, women, and other disabled people — these programs reify harmful stereotypes, overrepresent their positive impact on the community, and come very close to exploitation rather than support.

Certainly, none of this is to say that programs like those at Microsoft can’t be successful, but we need to be more critical before we literally hand them more accolades (and associated business) without questioning what it is their program is doing — I mean beyond the weaponized, commercialized inspiration porn produced by their respective PR departments.

For people like me, people with a mathematics learning disability, a technical job is mostly out of the question. I certainly will never be a coder. However, that’s not to say that I do not have other skills, some of which are constantly touted by Autistic onboarding companies: excellent rote memory, superior analytical skills, natural organization and administration abilities, a good mind for policies and procedures, and ethical direction in work. On top of that, I have three college degrees. And I can confirm, as many have pointed out, that getting a job with a degree is even tougher being an Autistic adult than searching for low-paid, non-professional employment without one.

Certainly, none of this is to say that programs like those at Microsoft can’t be successful, but we need to be more critical before we literally hand them more accolades (and associated business) without questioning what it is their program is doing — I mean beyond the weaponized, commercialized inspiration porn produced by their respective PR departments. For example, the puff-pieces touted by Microsoft’s Autism hiring program feature all white, presumably heterosexual, cis-men who have found work through the program. One of the stories produced regarding the program mentions one woman working in customer support, and one video features a non-Autistic female with an Autistic son. No other Autistic women are mentioned, nor do they feature any Autistic people of color. Also, all the men work in data science or coding positions.

First, before we literally hand out more awards and accolades than actual people hired by Microsoft and similar companies, we need to ask about their demographics. How many employees have been hired? How many of these new hires are women, LGBTQIA, or PoC? How many have other disabilities?

To be clear, I am not communicating here that Microsoft isn’t attempting to do a good thing. Despite 35% of Autistic adults having a college degree or higher, the unemployment rate for Autistic adults with is 85%. Although the unemployment rates of adults with other disabilities is now dropping, they continue to be higher than the non-disabled community. Furthermore, the new employment opportunities for disabled adults appear to be mostly low-paying, menial jobs that no other employee wants to do. Before we start handing out humanitarian awards, and the related business entailed therein, we need to do our due diligence in asking critical questions.

First, before we literally hand out more awards and accolades than actual people hired by Microsoft and similar companies, we need to ask about their demographics. How many employees have been hired? How many of these new hires are women, LGBTQIA, or PoC? How many have other disabilities? What is the average age of these new employees? Next, we need to know more about the specific positions. What’s the pay rate? How does that compare to others with similar positions? Most importantly, do women and PoC get hired at similar rates for similar positions? Are all positions within the company available to and offered with the same eagerness to candidates within the program? Finally, what are the opportunities for advancement from the starting position?

As an Autistic person, I am, of course, concerned with the dismal state of employment for highly capable Autistic adults. We do need programs to help companies of all sizes (not just major employers) in all sectors to help hire, onboard, and keep disabled workers. But we do not need these companies to reinforce harmful (sexist, racist, and ableist) stereotypes.

Not only do we need to ask questions of the hiring company, but we also need to be critical of the onboarding companies that get paid a pretty penny to onboard these Autistic employees. First, these onboarding companies actual tend to do little to get Autistic candidates hired, contrary to their rhetoric. Related to the above, these companies often masquerade as charities — featuring puzzle piece imagery that Autistic people find dehumanizing and offensive and aligning themselves with Autistic hate groups like Autism$peaks. These companies are almost always owned and operated by non-Autistic and non-disabled “experts.” Like the aforementioned faux-charity, these organizations have learned to do very little to help any individual Autistic person while making a great deal of money for themselves, all while procuring massive amounts of undeserved public support.

I am aware that companies need to make a profit, and that we can easily sell companies on the idea that hiring more disabled workers is a win-win situation; however, because these companies are profiting, we need to be more critical with our praise — in some situations, the programs are more harmful than helpful. As an Autistic person, I am, of course, concerned with the dismal state of employment for highly capable Autistic adults. We do need programs to help companies of all sizes (not just major employers) in all sectors to help hire, onboard, and keep disabled workers. But we do not need these companies to reinforce harmful (sexist, racist, and ableist) stereotypes. We need these companies to affirm that they are aware of matrices of marginalization. Autistic people have multiple identities: we are sometimes LGBTQIA, African American, Latinx, Indigenous, or multiracial. Sometimes we have other disabilities in addition to Autism. Not only do we all, equally, need jobs; we need good-paying jobs in multiple roles with companies of all sizes and the opportunity to advance in our career. We need to hold programs like the Autistic employment program at Microsoft to higher standards. I do not support the Autistic hiring program at Microsoft, and I will not support it until I have honest, acceptable answers to all of the questions herein… and neither should you.