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Disability and neurodivergence in tech: options and accommodations

by Susanne Escher – May 17, 2021

To start off, I need to make a couple of disclaimers.

Firstly, as this post is about disability, it is necessary to discuss language surrounding disability. There has recently been a lot of discourse about whether to use person-first language (“person with a disability”) or identity-first language (“disabled person”). I am going to go with my personal preference as an autistic person, as well as that of most disability self-advocates whose work I follow (such as Imani Barbarin and Jessica Kellgren-Fozard), and use identity-first language.

Secondly, this will be more about how to make tech jobs more accessible to disabled tech professionals, rather than about making tech which is itself accessible. I will mostly go into examples, because I know that when I started working, I wanted to see more examples of accommodations that actually helped people like me. I’m mostly speaking about my own experiences, and hope that even something as informal as personal anecdote might still be useful to readers.

With that out of the way, I will briefly introduce myself and explain why I decided to speak on this topic. I am an autistic data scientist and have recently also been diagnosed with ADHD. Additionally, I have a bunch of relatively minor physical ailments, which aren’t much of a problem in and of themselves, but combine with the autism/ADHD to result in some symptoms like fatigue which do affect my work life. Because of this combination of things, I do refer to myself as disabled, but I realise that some autistic people don’t – however, no matter what label a person chooses, the world is not built for autistic people, so accommodations might still be useful.

When I left academia to enter the general job market 2 years ago, I knew that I would likely need accommodations of some sort, but did not know at all what those might look like. At the time, I’d come from academia where I could set my own working hours (usually working 4 days a week), but otherwise there was no help available aside from weekly mentoring sessions with a disability mentor. I was hoping that going into full-time employment would go smoothly.

The first accommodation I asked for, from the very start of working at OpenMarket, was the ability to work slightly odd hours to be able to avoid rush hour on public transport. Crowded public transport can be very difficult for people with sensory difficulties such as autistic people, including myself, to the point of badly impacting productivity at work due to the stress of sensory overload. To begin with, I would work 8-7 (before rush hour till after rush hour) 3 days a week, and 8-3:30 (before rush hour to before rush hour) the other 2 days. This arrangement worked fairly well in helping me avoid sensory overload. Flexible scheduling can be useful for many reasons, for example if someone has very bad pain flareups it is important to be able to schedule around that.

However, within the first few months I found that I was spending so much time at work that I would fall asleep while working(this is where the fatigue problem comes in) as well as being unable to keep up with my chores at home and stress-eating all day. After some deliberation, I ended up asking my manager for reduced work hours. He sent me to HR and they sorted it all out for me without any issue. I am incredibly thankful that this was an option. I now take Wednesdays off to allow me to recharge mid-week, and it has improved my productivity at work as well as work-life balance and overall well-being. If part-time roles are not available, another option might be for two or more people to share a full-time position (this is referred to as job sharing). Wanting or needing to work part-time is of course not limited to disabled people but can also be sought by young parents, people who care for family members, or those who want to spend more time on goals that are not work-related.

A more involved accommodation that OpenMarket is starting to roll out for employees in general over the next couple of months is executive function coaching. Executive functions are cognitive processes which affect the ability to do things we want to do, such as focus, the ability to get started on a new task, task breakdown and so on. These are often impaired in people with neurological or psychological conditions such as autism, ADHD, PTSD or depression, but will also vary greatly within the general population. The coaching consists of workshops which teach employees ways to improve executive functions.

Also related to executive functions is extended task-planning. If someone struggles to break down tasks into manageable chunks due to their neurotype, it can be helpful for managers and team members to help with writing down step-by-step explanations to speed up the start-up process and progression of tasks for the affected employee. My current manager does this for me and it has been incredibly helpful.

In summary, the accommodations I have received or am currently seeking at OpenMarket are:

Flexible work hours
Reduced work hours
Executive function coaching
Task planning assistance
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I have also asked friends for their experiences with requesting accommodations at work. Here are some ideas from those conversations:

A stable desk instead of hotdesking for autistic/neurodivergent employees
Working from home arrangements
Private office if noise or light level is an issue
Noise-cancelling headphones to help with distractions
A quiet room (OpenMarket had these before the pandemic!)
Fans, humidifiers, minifridges for medications
Text-to-speech software for both blind employees and those with difficulty concentrating on textual information
Standing desks, ergonomic keyboards and mice
Organizational software – Engineering teams in OpenMarket already use this
Training for managers to understand the needs of their disabled employees
Accessible offices and bathrooms
Written instructions
Various accommodations for people with sensory (sight or hearing) disabilities that are too numerous to actually list here
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Of course, this list is nowhere near exhaustive and very much skewed toward the needs of neurodivergent employees due to the skew in my own experience and my circle of friends. But I hope my experience and the other ideas listed can still help readers who are looking to figure out their own accessibility needs or those of their employees or loved ones. I know that for myself, figuring these things out on my own was trying, and I have had conversations with friends who felt similarly when first entering mainstream employment.

If you don’t know how to ask for accommodations, the best points of contacts are likely your line manager, HR, and if extra help, research or knowledge is needed, diversity, equity and inclusion officers or groups within the organization. Some companies may also have specific employees in charge of providing accommodations. In many countries such as the UK and the US, there are laws in place that protect employees’ right to ask for reasonable accommodations, so it is worth asking for things that will help you improve your wellbeing and productivity at work. At OpenMarket in particular, I have had very positive experiences asking for accommodations and HR as well as my current manager are not just willing, but actually enthusiastic, about helping me achieve my full potential.

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