DISABILITY IS A STRENGTH IN THE WORKPLACE NOT A WEAKNESS

At the 2022 Oscar Awards, the Best Motion Picture movie was a disability centered film known as Child of Deaf Adults (CODA) by Apple TV. The film tells the story of a girl raised by deaf parents but does not have hearing challenges. The daughter to these deaf parents struggles to pursue a career in music while at the same time helping her parents in their fishing business. After back and forth with her school and her parents, she finally gets a scholarship courtesy of the school and the workers in their fishing business take it upon themselves to learn sign language to communicate with the owners of the business better. 

As the world marked Autism Awareness Day on 2nd April and the start of the Autism Awareness Month of April, perhaps it is a time for us to listen to the autistics and trying to solve autism challenges from an outsider perspective rather than letting autistics run the show on matters of autism solutions. Autism researcher Damian Milton suggested the theory of double empathy where the problem experienced by the person with autism is seen as a mutual problem between the autistic and the non-autistic rather than the problem of the autistic person himself. This means that while we say autistics struggle with communication, with double empathy, the understanding is that it is the non-autistic person who does not understand what the autistic person is trying to say rather than the autistic person being the problem.  In the working world, it can be said that it is the organizations that do not see the value of the PWD in the organization or the strength that is hidden behind a certain disability. With this understanding, autistics have been advocating for a neurodiversity paradigm. 

Neurodiversity paradigm argues that the abnormalities that are associated with the brain of an autistic person are not a problem but a uniqueness and a different way of thinking. In neuro diversity, there are no right or wrong brains: all brains are equally valid and equally valuable, just like biodiversity helps to create a healthy and sustainable physical environment. In neurodiversity, autism as a disability occurs as a consequence of the environment. For example, society teaches us that when communicating, you must look at someone and establish eye contact. It does not take into account that for an autistic person, their senses such as their sense of sight are intensified so establishing eye contact is overwhelming and tiring. If people understood that looking away is a coping mechanism for autistics, the view that they are disabled would not hold. If we had deemed lights in public places and reduced noise, autistics would be more outgoing rather than being confused for introverts and being seen as anti-social

In recent years, the view of disability as a social problem has gained root in most societies and hence the diversification and inclusivity programmes that have come up. The idea that PWDs are not the problem but the society is, has caused more awareness for inclusion and diversity in the workplace. In 2015, Microsoft started the Autism Hiring Programme that seeks to recruit and tap into the skills and talents of people with Autism albeit in the non-traditional way, using a method that gauges the strength that comes as a result of the disability rather than taking them through interview questions that may highlight their unsuitability by virtue of their condition. Autistic people are very organized due to their liking of routines and hate it when routines are disrupted. They can be good examples of how to go about time management in an organization, a problem most people without disabilities struggle with. Because of their step by step thought process, they are able to understand and explain complex processes easily unlike some non-autistic people. It is no wonder that in the Autism Hiring Programme and Microsoft, most autistics are employed as software engineers and data scientists because of their math skills which in turn make Microsoft products more inclusive since they can be used by PWDs since they were made by PWDs with PWDs in mind. Its no wonder that Microsoft is a trillion-dollar company. 

More than just making their premises disability friendly, companies should look at the strength that one poses as a result of a disability instead of looking at disability as just an inhibitor to productivity in the workplace. A friend of mine has always wanted to work on radio but employers look at his disability rather than his intellectual and vocal prowess. His dream has always been to impact people with positive advice for people to be more optimistic in life, that’s why he dreams of radio since it reaches many people at once. This means that he could make a good counselor at an organization with some training in psychology thus helping companies train its employees on how to deal with work life balance issues. In any case, cases of mass resignations in companies are because of companies neglecting the work life balance and not giving it the deserving attention. People want flexibility in a job. A job that fits into their lifestyle rather than feeling like an obligation. Perhaps my friend’s skill would come in handy at the moment. Let employers look for the strength behind a disability and not looking at the disability only. 

Diamonds are found beneath rocks. Look beyond the rocks of disability to find the diamond that is  the  strength and  potential of persons with disabilities.

 

BY

MURITHI NDIRITU