Working Hard, But Hardly Working
My first work experience was in high school. I signed up for co-op, figuring it would be an easy way to get two credits. I contacted the librarian from my elementary school and asked if I could do my co-op with her, and she said yes. I thought it would be a cake-walk.
It was a fucking disaster.
The librarian and I got along well enough, but she knew very little about Asperger’s, and had no idea how to accommodate me.
I didn’t know how to ask for accommodations either. At the beginning of co-op we did a month of classroom work about every conceivable scenario we might encounter, up to and including sexual harassment and disfiguring burns.
Disability was not discussed.
During my co-op, I was regularly asked to do things that- due to my disability- I was uncomfortable doing.
I was frequently asked to deliver messages to teachers, which might not seem like a big deal, except:
1. I didn’t know these people, and I don’t like talking to people I don’t know.
2. I especially don’t like initiating social exchanges, and especially not with people I don’t know.
3. I didn’t know what the social hierarchy was. They were teachers, and I was a co-op student. Did that mean we were more or less on the same level? If not, then where the hell was I? I should still call them Mr. or Mrs., right?
I felt like everybody knew what was going on except me, so I didn’t want to ask about it or complain about it. The same went for some of the other work I didn’t feel good about. At one point, I was asked to photocopy a textbook. I had never used a photocopier before. The librarian took ten minutes to demonstrate it to me- totally fulfilling her obligation- and I still didn’t know how to work the fucking thing, because I immediately forgot 75% of what she’d told me, and I’m bad at imitating people’s physical movements (if somebody shows me how to do something instead of writing down instructions, I’m lost. I didn’t realize that then).
I managed to photocopy about thirty-five pages, using about a hundred pieces of paper. Nobody discussed the incident with me afterward, and nobody asked me to photocopy anything ever again.
There was also the time I was asked to colour in a poster with crayons, despite my lack of spatial awareness. Or the several times I was asked to use a paper cutter despite my lack of spatial awareness.
The latter might seem legitimately dangerous, but it wasn’t dangerous for anyone else, so I figured I didn’t have a right to complain.
Toward the end of the year, my co-op teacher spoke to me to tell me that the progress journals I’d been handing in were causing him some serious concerns.
No shit, Sherlock.
I was glad he took the time to legitimize my feelings, but it was too late in the game to make the situation better.
The next year- for some fucking reason- I took co-op again. This time I left it to the school to find me a placement. They couldn’t.
So they gave me a semester’s worth of busy work helping put together the school’s 75th reunion. Nothing I did in co-op that year had to be done. For instance, I was asked to print pictures from the Internet of historically significant events from the last seventy-five years. It was up to me to determine what was historically significant. Another time, I had to figure out which musicals the school had produced for the last seventy years, and compile them into a list. Another time, I had to scan old photos into a computer- which turned into an embarrassing rehash of the photocopier incident from the year before. For the most part, my second co-op experience was embarrassing and boring. I constantly felt like I was being condescended to. There were bright spots- I got to read every single yearbook the school had ever produced- but for the most part, it was a waste of time.
Coming out of those two very different workplace experiences, I thought that employment wasn’t for me. What’s the point in having a job, I thought, if I’m either going to be micromanaged or given meaningless work? If having a job means endless periods of either stress or boredom, I didn’t want any part of it.
Around that time, I was told about ODSP. This is a lump sum of money given each month to disabled people in Ontario who find it difficult to work due to their disability.
I thought, hey, this is fantastic. I’m semi-unemployable, so sign me up.
I got several hundred dollars a month just for living at home and going to university part-time. It was a sweet deal.
I may never have to be employed, I thought.
A few years later I stumbled into a part-time job at the U of T. It was perfect. Me and my friend Foster facilitated a social group for students on the autistic spectrum. I only spoke to my supervisor every couple of months. The work was enjoyable and meaningful.
Unfortunately, after two years, funding ran out, and I found myself out on my ass.
The idea of having a real job frightened and depressed me.
How the hell am I going to find a job that accommodates my disability? I thought. Working with the public would be stressful. Working with anyone would be stressful. Figuring out the unspoken rules of a workplace, as well as the social hierarchy, would be stressful. If I found something easy, it would be monotonous. If I found something hard, it would wipe me out. No matter what I found, I’d have no control of my environment all day, every day. I’d be out in the neurotypical world trying to survive by their rules. Frankly, the less time I spend around neurotypicals, the happier and more functional I am. *
You people are decent, hard-working folk, but your strange mannerisms and counter-intuitive rituals are enough to give me a fucking stroke.
So I figured I could continue to live off of government benefits indefinitely. This is not the case. At the moment I’m scraping by from month to month, writing as fast and as hard as I can, hoping to make money that way.
I know I’ll succeed eventually, because I don’t have any back-up plans. This is an excellent way to ensure success.
Still, you know, I wonder about the world I live in. I’m a big fan of social assistance, and I’ve been a socialist since I was twelve, but I wonder if ODSP is really the best solution. What if some of that money- hell, what if all of that money- was redirected toward making job spaces more accessible, and making employers more aware of accessibility issues? Instead of giving money to disabled people for staying out of the workplace (as well as a stipend if they actually manage to get employed), what if the government made it easier for disabled people to get jobs and keep them?
What would that look like?
Obviously the needs of people with physical disabilities are different than people with cognitive disabilities or mental illness, and people with social disabilities are perhaps more difficult to accommodate than anyone. We don’t challenge the way a workplace looks, we challenge the very fabric of interpersonal relationships.
So okay, what would an autism-friendly workplace even look like? I find this hard to do, because the only time I ever encountered anything like that was for a brief period of time last summer.
That was at the Hawkins Institute in Toronto, which is a job training centre for people on the autistic spectrum. Me and about two dozen other autistics acted in a social skills training video directed by Gail Hawkins, who is the director of the institute. We were told exactly what to do, when to do it, and Gail’s management technique was friendly but clear. There was never any ambiguity. As a result, the work environment felt both safe and fun.
It was only a temporary work environment, maintained over a two month period, and so I don’t know how sustainable it would be over the long-term. But it’s the only indication I’ve had that an autism-friendly workplace can be created.
So while there is certainly hope, I’m still depressed that hardly anyone has made an effort to include Aspies in the workplace. If the normative patterns of behaviour in your workplace can be so severely shaken by a couple of confused, well-meaning individuals, then maybe what you conceive of as normal is actually bullshit.
Also, fuck dignity: If anyone reading this knows of any opportunity where I could be paid for writing, contact me in the comment section or at firstname.lastname@example.org.