Friday, October 12, 2007

Slippery slopes, canaries in coal mines, mixed metaphors

In working with employers to promote the inclusion of more autistic adults in the work force, a number of stock responses and arguments tend to come up repeatedly. One of the most persistent obstacles, though, may be the often unspoken “slippery slope” concept. The argument is that if one permits accommodations to workers with “invisible” disabilities, then everyone will want something, and eventually the business will not be able to support these varying demands and its structure will collapse under the weight of all these differences.

To stay within the legal bounds proscribed by the ADA, accommodations must be considered “reasonable” and not create “undue hardship.” Major structural changes requested of small business owners are often deemed not reasonable, and these are the sorts of things employers can discuss with impunity. The slippery slope argument is not something I hear much in the context of these discussions, but rather something I know about from more casual talks with acquaintances, some of them in management positions, and from my time as an unidentified Aspie in various workplaces.

As a person without a known disability, I was privileged to hear the conversations about the “others”, the trouble-making sort who were always asking for accommodations they didn’t (according to the bosses) really need. In the 1980’s, employees of the company I worked for were routinely assigned to less desirable positions or given difficult schedules following such requests. One man had a letter from his doctor, stating that he was to wear a certain brand of athletic footwear, despite company policy to the contrary. A few weeks later, he was moved from a department he loved to one he hated, though still in the public eye with the “unacceptable” shoes. When that didn’t make him decide to leave the job, his hours were changed, too.

This isn’t the worst or most recent offense I’ve seen, not by a long shot. It’s just one that haunts me for some reason. I was in the office with the manager and Human Resources person when the doctor’s letter was delivered. I had no right to know what it said, but they discussed it in front of me anyway. I was frequently invisible in those days. They had a laugh at his expense and immediately began planning his punishment.

After all, what could they have done? What if everyone decided to get a doctor’s note declaring a need for athletic shoes, just in order to be comfortable? The dress code might become meaningless, unenforceable. How could people be expected to spend money in a store where the workers wore sneakers?

Of course, no profits were at stake, not really. These people had the sense to know that the footwear of sales clerks was not a major factor in consumer spending decisions. It was all about power. If any rule could be questioned or amended for any reason by anyone, then the power of the few to rule the many would be weakened. And this, they could not have.

The fear persists among managers today, in all sorts of businesses. People with so-called invisible disabilities threaten the status quo. They can “get away” with things others can’t. To compound the insult, their managers can’t even explain to co-workers why one worker is being given “special treatment.” It’s all very threatening to the power structure.

Add to the mix a condition like autism, said by many to be a tragic, harrowing condition, a nightmare few ever escape, and well, you can just imagine the employers lining up to take advantage of our abilities! Or maybe the diagnosis is Asperger syndrome? What are they likely to have heard about that? Either we are rude and impossible to get along with or just a bunch of fakes looking for sympathy for the same traits everyone has. And who knows what we might ask for, once we’ve gotten in the door with an officially sanctioned diagnosis?

Some people who are convinced that environmental toxins are to blame for the higher reported prevalence rates for autism like to use the canary in a coal mine analogy. They believe that autism may be a warning sign of even worse “diseases” to come, brought on by chemicals, pollution and various mismanagement of the earth and its resources.

Of course, I do not agree with this position, but I do find the canary image useful to this discussion, so I’ve decided to borrow it. Here the canary is the worker. The coal mine is the toxic social environment we have created, with its rigid insistence on conformity and sameness. The idea that we all can and should behave, function and look as much alike as possible is poison to social and cultural diversity. A system based on fear and false assumptions has emerged and this deserves to be dismantled.

I would like to think that enough canaries have been sacrificed already, that the unemployment rates among autistic adults could stand as notice that perhaps our society’s acceptance of all types of diversity needs a big boost. What’s so slippery about accommodations anyway? Many of them cost very little and increase overall productivity. Sure, not everyone can have the corner office. But couldn’t we all have respect, acceptance? Or isn’t there enough to go around?


  1. I might be off, here, bev, but I think that if understanding's what you're after, it might help to view it from the management pov, which is generally this, i think: "Work is already hard. I have enough trouble getting necessary stuff done. So long as people leave me alone and let me deal with a very few problems over and over, I can get it done. Now here comes this person who wants me to work harder and do some kind of crazy improvisational dance while I try to get my job done. No."

    I do this myself with my daughter. As a single mother, I already have plenty to take care of: I have to make money, keep the house clean, maintain some kind of social life for her, tend to her education, buy and cook food, keep her clean, play with her, think ahead for her, do that parenting stuff when people are mean or she's mean. Regularly, because she's 4, she comes to me with some new way she wants to do something. In an ideal world, there's nothing wrong with the proposal. However, some days I am damned if I'm doing one more child-related thing. So I shut her down.

    Now I'm not going to laugh at her or punish her for asking, because she's a kid. But if an adult treated me the same way -- someone I would expect could understand that other adults are not their parents -- I would have a very particular laugh, the kind that says, "Would you listen to this guy? Who does he think he is? You think he's noticed that other people have problems too?" And if he was persistent about it, I'd try to move him along, too.

    I've seen Asperger-society checklists that parents are meant to give teachers, and to me they're breathtaking. It's like the parents don't notice that the teacher already has a barely-possible job, and now they want the teacher to forget the other 25 kids and just concentrate on doing some kind of crazy gavotte for this one.

    Personally, I don't care about things like wearing NB shoes, or whatever. But to some managers that (properly) signals: This person is going to make your life harder. This person is going to ask for other things too. The requests are probably not going to end. Why would I go so far as to say that? Because it's been my experience with household employees.

    If a nanny wants changes and accommodations off the bat, the odds are excellent that she will call me frequently with reasons why she can't come to work, or will try frequently to get her schedule changed, or will call me from other towns an hour after she was supposed to be here, apologizing about some emergency. Now, my deadlines don't change when a nanny has problems. I still have to get the work done. Generally, having a flaky or schedule-shifting or proliferating-request nanny means I'm up in the middle of the night trying to make deadlines. So I shut that down right away too.

    Employers are wary of people who want things that deviate from the normal and routine. I can't speak for all, but generally I think it's out of self-protection, rather than some drive to punish people who are different.

  2. See, I agree with Bev and ohgoodmorelabels. Unfortunately, I do believe there are many people who do discriminate and it's not just about making their jobs harder. They don't want "different" people around simply because they don't want to acknowledge that these "others" even exist and their requests are valid.

    I am a jr high teacher at a private school. We have no resources for disabled kids yet we have many enrolled. We are a nurturing bunch and all the teachers do their best to accommodate kids' learning differences on the fly. It's hard. As the mom of a spectrum kid, I'm thought of as an "expert" which I am not. Even in a situation where people do not discriminate and do care, it's still a HUGE challenge for us to meet the needs of all our students.

    I think a vast social change has to take place. It has been argued here by other posters on other posts that vast social change is impossible, but I disagree. I think all the small changes we make or even discuss do help toward the bigger goal. Even if it's just writing a good blog about it or helping one student who hopefully will go on to help others because she feels like she matters.

    karen in ca

  3. While you're mixing metaphors, I'd like you to add more canary. You've got like four parts slope and barely one part canary. I've got a fever, and the only cure is more canary.

  4. Evonne,
    Your wish, my command. Just in case you are right and really can be cured.

  5. Very interesting debate.
    Best wishes

  6. Eventually they'll discover that the slope runs the other way... that when accommodations are made for differences in the workplace, more workers (not necessarily all "disabled" by today's standards) will realize that it's OK not to pretend to be exactly like everyone else, and they will indeed start to feel empowered to ask for changes in their environment to make them more comfortable as they go about their work... and the resulting increase in productivity will boost corporate profits.

    You'd think employers would have figured it out by now. The same slippery-slope arguments were made against hiring women, and the economy hasn't collapsed because of pregnant workers, etc.

  7. Acting on the belief that vast social change is impossible is a very good way of preventing it from being possible. In the last 100 years, we've seen so much social change, and none of it would ever have happened if people had just given up without even beginning to fight.

  8. I appreciate all of the contributions to this discussion. I do understand ohgoodmorelabels' point about overly demanding employees and the need for dependability. As a matter of fact I have always been a model employee in this regard. At my last full time job, I called in sick one time in four years.

    In return, I would have liked for my boss to have given me the benefit of the doubt when I said a certain task (maybe 2% of the total job) was not possible for me. Instead, I was accused of lying about it. This is the sort of thing I would like to see employers understand.

  9. ABFH,
    Yes, that's it exactly. A very small change in a work environment (or dress code) can boost my productivity enormously. I'm sure this is true for many, many people, whether or not they have anything that could be viewed as a disability. I do understand that not everything in a workplace can easily be changed to accommodate individual needs. But many things could, and without prohibitive cost or difficulty.

  10. In the industry I work in, acceptance of differences has become key to doing business, since so much business has been shipped to other countries. There are classes teaching managers how to help their groups deal with change, how to deal with cultures you don't understand, etc.

    I think one of the keys to breaking this is to explain why you would want someone with autism working with you. What are the positives, how much will it save or earn the company? If it is looked at in that light, sometimes even big changes are seen as minimal when the gains are considered.

    I have to take issue with one of the points I read - lists that teachers receive. In my mind, now that I have had two kids pass through the school systems, teachers need more lists because they don't know how to handle kids
    especially once the kids get hormones (middle school). The teachers my daughter had were always open to things I suggested, especially if they knew I was
    reinforcing it at home. And, my daughter went from FAILING because she was too overloaded to deal with middle school (and I was told if she failed it would teach her to be obedient!! evil principal!!) to making straight A's when they
    allowed her to be late to class and chew gum. Very small accommodations, huge impact to a young woman who was accepted to every college to which she applied, receiving significant scholarship offers at all of them.

    Again, I think the key in business is making people realize how much money the business will gain if they just make a small adjustment. And maybe teaching autistic people how to look for signs of bad, non-flexible managers, so they don't lend their skills to those work environments.

  11. Gina, usually the problem is not that we can't spot the bad managers when we first take the job, but that changes in management are very common in today's workplace.

    In my job, I've had five managers in less than ten years. Four of them (including the current one) have been quite good. The other one was the type mentioned above who didn't want anyone making extra work for him. Often the best choice of action with a less than ideal manager is just to wait him out, if the job is otherwise good. Managers usually don't stay in one place for long; if they're good, they move up, and if not, they get moved out.

  12. ABFH, that is so true. I was thinking more about this, and knowing when NOT to take a job, or knowing when to leave a job because it's just too toxic (I'm thinking specifically about the situation Bev described) is a hard skill for anyone - NT or autistic - to learn.

    Not to mention, sometimes you have to put up with certain things to keep a roof over your head.

    Here's a question to the autistic working folks out there: if you are in a bad work environment, is it easier to put up with the environment than it is to deal with the changes and effort required to change jobs? I ask because my daughter HATES changes. It takes alot out of her.

    (if this gets posted anonymously it's from Gina.)

  13. "I do understand that not everything in a workplace can easily be changed to accommodate individual needs. But many things could, and without prohibitive cost or difficulty."

    Bev, when businesses receive social service subsidies from the govt to make these accommodations and essentially become social service providers, I'll get behind what you're saying. But in general, I get the impression that you and several others here aren't too interested in the fact that these places are in business. They compete, very hard, with each other, to make money. That's what they're for. When you ask for accommodations, change, anything that requires effort or money, you're asking for somebody to give you something.

    I don't mind that on a social level so long as we're agreed on what we're giving, and do it through taxes. But when you say to an individual employer, "It wouldn't cost that much to let me do _____, so you should let me," what you're essentially saying is "You, manager and/or owner, I have a right to some of your time and/or money." The cost is not accepted socially; you are asking this businessperson to bear the cost directly. And despite the cheerful rhetoric, no, it is not generally true that a happier make-your-own-environment workforce is a more productive and profit-generating workforce. You are not doing him a favor or saving him from himself.

    There are health and safety laws in effect that _do_ make the workforce more productive. Child labor laws, for instance, ensure that children will go to school and become more productive, healthier employees 15 years hence. Environmental and workplace safety controls keep companies from dumping large costs onto society and essentially stealing subsidies. But you're looking for something else, and so far as I can see, it's a net social cost. Again, that's fine. We have lots of those. Healthcare, trains, schools, roads, arts, various social programs, none of this stuff pays for itself. That's fine, so long as we more or less agree it's what we want, and so long as it's recognized as a cost and paid for through taxes. Not by employers alone.

    Gee, somewhere along the line I became a Rockefeller Republican. How do you like that.

  14. I like the canary analogy. I think that people with certain personality types tend to be 'canaries' for dysfunctional societal patterns - especially sensitive, idealistic people.


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