Recently, I made the acquaintance of someone who works with [Non-Profit Organization Meant to Help Job-Seekers With Disabilities Find Work]*. I was referred to this person, in turn, by another person via [Generalized Job-Search Assistance Firm]*, which my former employer set things up with to assist laid-off workers.
So far that firm has actually been surprisingly helpful -- I mean no, I haven't found a new job yet, but I've definitely got my resume in much better shape and I've got a decent idea of where to start.
But anyway, I'll get to the point of this entry: during a recent meeting with my go-to person (whom I'll abbreviate as GTP from now on) at the firm, I had an interesting experience with "not passing".
I had not mentioned specifically that I was on the autistic spectrum, and had not intended to bring it up unless it became inevitable or "absolutely necessary".
And I have to admit I was sort of assuming I was "passing".
But then, out of the blue (from my perspective), at one point during the meeting the GTP asked if I was "able to establish eye contact".
That, in turn, led into a discussion about disabilities, and disclosure, and "barriers" I might face in my job search. My GTP noted that she could tell I was "bright" and "able to work", but that clearly I would likely encounter some difficulty in, say, an interview setting (and there are also various "on the job" issues that would likely come up, but first things first).
This got me thinking: at my prior job (the only job I had post-college, in fact), I never had to deal with the Big Interview that "regular" new prospects went through, seeing as I'd already proven my technical prowess as a summer intern (a position I was assisted in getting via a family member who worked for that company).
And I did face difficulties at that job, but managed to stay employed there anyway -- probably in no small part because I started figuring out some things about how my brain worked, and was able to actually put some terminology to it (one reason I'm glad to have an actual diagnosis; some people may not need one, and some might disagree with the concept, and I myself disagree with "medicalizing" autism -- but right now, for many of us, a diagnosis is really the only route to actually getting needed accommodations, etc.).
So, to make a long story slightly less long, I got referred by the GTP at the job-search assistance firm to another GTP who is affiliated with the aforementioned nonprofit. And it sounds like they may actually have some information and/or resources that would be helpful to me (and others like me).
But: in order to get "officially" involved with them I would have to get a "verification of disability" from a medical professional. As in, my doctor would have to fill out a form, which I guess I would then give to the agency (or something).
That should not be too difficult for me -- so long as my COBRA application went through, I should have access to the same doctors I was seeing prior to the layoff. And I can't imagine [particular doctor] refusing to fill out the form (though I am slightly worried that they perhaps won't have time).
But: that's me. I am all kinds of lucky and privileged (class privilege, white privilege, etc.). This means that while, yes, I am disabled in some respects, I also have a lot of "safety nets" in my life that help reduce the amount of sheer fail I'm likely to encounter when things go badly.
And...not everyone who might presumably need help with their job search is going to have access to these safety nets, nor to professionally-sanctioned "proof of disability". I am not blaming the nonprofit for this -- it's part of the culture we're in, to imagine that "gatekeepers" must exist between individuals and services. And there may be good reasons to have those gatekeepers in some situations.
Still, though, it worries me to think that there might be some other autistic person out there who might not even have an official diagnosis, let alone an accessible and willing professional to fill out forms for them. People of color and folks from low-income backgrounds, so I've read, tend to be way under-identified with developmental issues; instead they get presumed to have "behavior problems". As a middle-class white nerd living in Silicon Valley it is not lost on me that (aside from being female) I'm probably in the Most Likely To Be Identified group as far as ASD is concerned.
There are also logistical challenges that go along with this sort of thing (forms, setting up with nonprofits and service organizations) that, heck, I don't even know if I will be able to handle myself, and I'm in a pretty good position (all things considered) for someone of my neurology.
So...I am not sure where I am going with this, except to say two things:
(1) Please, if you are a professional or just a Concerned Acquaintance, or friend, or family member of a disabled person who is looking for work, do not think you are somehow helping to say things like "oh, don't call yourself disabled! You're too smart/talented/good at [thing]! Why do you want to sell yourself short?"
Not only is this incredibly patronizing, it could very well end up feeding into the disabled person's already-present internalized stigma. And making them reluctant to even use services that might be a huge help to them, because of "not wanting to define [self] as 'disabled'", even when it's actually quite contextually appropriate to do so.
(And I am writing this in part to encourage myself here, because I actually have a lot of internalized stigma myself, and have been feeling guilty all day about the prospect of benefitting from a service meant to assist disabled jobseekers. Even though I was referred to the GTP for this service by someone who called me out on my own disability because they could see it themselves. *headdesk*)
I realize that some of this kind of response might stem from the fact that some people equate "disability" with "sickness", or more generally with meaning a person is intrinsically broken or damaged.
I've taken part in some very frustrating discussions wherein the other party just does not seem to get that disability does not HAVE to mean anything bad, but is rather a neutral description of a situation that needs to be addressed (i.e., that I have non-standard needs in some areas, and that no, pretending they don't exist is not going to make them go away).
Also, I don't put any stock in philosophies that seek to build up some people's sense of self-worth at the expense of others. Hence, no, I do not consider it reassuring when someone tries to assert to me that I shouldn't apply concepts like "disability" to myself because that would mean failing to distance myself from the sorts of disabled people who are presumed to be tragic, pitiable, and undesirable.
When from my point of view, the problem is that pity is ever considered appropriate to apply to anyone, regardless of type or "magnitude" of their disability. There is no way you can simultaneously pity someone and see them as an equal, and it is grievously wrong to figure that someone who discloses or displays non-standard needs is somehow asking for pity. They aren't, and it's beyond insulting to presume they are.
(2) It does not actually help anyone to figure that people like me (that is, college graduates with engineering degrees and whatnot who are also on the autistic spectrum, etc.) are somehow "polluting" or "appropriating" the meaning of what it is to be autistic, or disabled, etc., to the detriment of folks who currently lack abilities we have.
I know full well that there are people with "spectrum" diagnoses who struggle a lot more than I do to be understood, or to deal with academics, or to perform "daily living" tasks.
I also know that there are people with "spectrum" diagnoses who drive, and who have PhDs, and who have a better sense of danger than I do.
And yet...I don't sit around getting annoyed at those folks and yelling about how they're "taking away" something from me, regardless of whether they can do more or fewer "standard" things than I can, at any given time.
Because they're not.
They have their own struggles, as well as their own triumphs, and the reality of what they've achieved (by standard measures) does not negate the fact that they might need non-standard forms of support in some areas.
Nor does extreme struggle in one or more areas negate the potential for capacity in other areas.
Disability is not a generalized lack of all ability, and I find it obnoxious and bizarre that autism in particular seems to be relegated to the "can't do ANYTHING" box so much of the time.
Which is a silly box to begin with -- I mean really, would you figure that if a blind person happened to (for instance) own a home or play a musical instrument that they weren't really blind? Pretty much everyone can do some things -- disabled people just have our can-dos and can't-dos in unexpected (per our culture) places.
So please, if you're tempted to say "but you can do [thing]! how dare you call yourself autistic/disabled!", just...don't. Because that would be ignorant, and would not actually help even a tiny bit to get better services for, say, non-verbal preschoolers or "severely impaired" adults.
Finally, I guess I would like to say that I think autism, and disability at large for that matter, should be a broad category**, sort of like how the designator "bird" can refer to both, say, penguins and hummingbirds. Calling a penguin a bird doesn't even begin to invalidate the reality of hummingbirds, after all.
* I may give the names of these groups/agencies in the future, especially so I can recommend them if they actually end up helping me get a job! But for now I am just referring generically to them, as I don't want to make this discussion about specific firms or service providers.
** Within reason, and with respect to good scientific/ethical practice. E.g., I don't think it makes any sense at all to call, say, gastrointestinal issues and food allergies "autism" (particularly when one is promoting the use of autistic kids as experimental subjects for any number of bizarre supplement regimens). I mean, good grief, one of my cats gets what I've come to term "poopfetti" (based on what I find in the litterbox afterward) whenever he eats anything containing corn...and I'm not about to go around calling that (corn intolerance + poopfetti) "autism", even though Brodie does like playing with string...