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Why Being an Inclusive Employer Matters

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When people ask me about the hardest thing I have ever done, they usually expect an answer such as losing a loved one or something of that nature. Well, that’s not it.

It was getting a job.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in late May, I sat down to interview for a position on food production at a Panera near my house. I had a good feeling, which was very weird, given my previous luck finding a job. I submitted 16 applications and landed four job interviews at places my neurotypical friends worked. Still no such luck, even from places I heard were desperately hiring.

After working with me for a while, people discover that despite my lack of ability to make eye contact or understand indirect language, I am a very hard worker and a kind person. I was diagnosed with autism as a young kid, and even living with it for so long, I still have not learned how to manage some aspects of it.

Even seeing this obvious deficit in the interview, they decided to hire me, and the man who interviewed me became my boss. While there were many things I enjoyed about working, there were still areas where I was obviously nervous. I was able to handle customer relationships extremely well, but I struggled to fit in or understand instruction from my coworkers.

Over seven months after I first sat down for that interview, I decided to do my official disclosure, outing myself as autistic to my boss, knowing full well he could do with this information whatever he wanted. I figured if it didn’t go well I could always put in my two weeks notice.

Luckily, for me, I didn’t have to do that. In fact, he was quite receptive to my needs and actually knew something was “off” with me the second I sat down to interview (just not autism per se). He also said he was interested in learning more about autism and what it means to be autistic in the workplace setting. About a week later I handed him a copy of a book called “Asperger’s on the Job” by Rudy Simone, which I had read and thoroughly annotated. Here’s why that means so much to me, and why inclusive hiring matters.

Being inclusive is being a decent person, but unfortunately I haven’t found a lot of “decent people” out there, even some who say accommodations “don’t exist in the real world.” But they do, if you ask for them and your employer is a decent person and follows the law.

The vast majority of people on the autism spectrum are unemployed or underemployed. A lot of us can mask very well, but sometimes it is just enough for people to say “something is wrong with you” but not recognize it’s related to an actual disability. This results in people being unable to find a job, just like I was for over a year.

There are legal protections in place that say you can’t discriminate against hiring someone because they have a disability, but many employers do it anyway, and since it is hard to prove, it makes it easier to get away with. Branding yourself as an inclusive employer will help you find more applicants with and without disabilities.

I love my job. In addition to being a full-time student and part-time disability rights advocate, I work 25-30 hours in a typical week, which is a lot for a high school senior. I work so much because I love it. The validation I receive is hugely motivating and helps distract me from the more depressing events in my life. I had no idea I was even capable of being hired until I started working at Panera. I had kind of lost hope by that point, but when I heard through a friend that they were hiring, I decided it was worth a shot to apply.

A little bit of effort into making your employee roster disability-inclusive goes a long way. I was considered “disabled enough” to be overlooked for jobs by the employers themselves but not “disabled enough” to need help from outside sources in applying for jobs. I am so grateful for my boss, my managers and my coworkers who make me want to show up to work every day, and I hope I have taught them something as well.

Image provided by contributor.

Originally published: February 27, 2019
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