This meme recently popped up in my LinkedIn newsfeed. As with so many memes about “The xx characteristics of people who are successful / strong / innovative / etc.”, this contains a number of statements that are quite ableist. For example: “they embrace change” (many autistic and other neurodivergent people may struggle with change), “they stay happy” (certainly a challenge for those struggling with depression and anxiety), “they invest their energy in the present” (impossible for people with chronic illness — I encourage you to read Christine Miserandino’s fantastic “Spoon Theory” analogy), and “they have staying power” (once again, often a major challenge for people with chronic illness — again, Miserandino’s Spoon Theory is instructive here).
And yet, my neurodivergent and disabled colleagues*, friends and acquaintances are some of the most mentally strong people I know. Moreover, they possess unique skill sets that should be highly valued in the workplace — such as exceptional empathy and the ability to approach problems from multiple perspectives (they spend their lives doing this anyway), incredible determination, diplomacy (due to years of navigating systems that are not designed to accommodate them), and highly specialised knowledge that we typically expect to be acquired only through extensive education (for example, intimate knowledge of pharmacology, physiology, health policy and governance, and research methods).
Another meme made the rounds back in June and came to my attention via one of the support groups I am a part of for my narcolepsy. (Yes, potential employers, be warned. I am a disabled woman. I have narcolepsy and fibromyalgia. They make some of the things in these memes hard for me. I am also autistic but in my own case I consider that more of an identity than a disability.) The June meme said that things like ‘being on time’, ‘body language’ and ‘energy’ require zero talent. Clearly, those who created and circulated this meme have never met a disabled person. Or — more likely — they have, and just wrote them off as lazy, untalented losers. In case I need to spell it out, being on time, having great body language, and having lots of energy are dependent upon a physically abled body and a neurotypical brain. They may require ‘zero talent’ but they often require a tremendous amount of effort for disabled people — and in spite of that effort, they sometimes still remain out of reach.
But what is really so wrong with these memes? If you are abled, this sort of thing may well seem entirely innocent to you. Obviously, they’re not commenting on people who aren’t able to do these things; they’re just meant as friendly advice to help you maximise your performance and productivity! But that in itself is part of the problem. People who can’t do these things are written off from the get-go. It’s simply assumed that they’re not part of the conversation at all. And because of that assumption, they often aren’t.
According to the 2011 Canadian Survey on Disability, the employment rate for disabled people in Canada was 49 percent, compared to 79 percent for abled people. Only 9.03 percent of disabled people are employed in management positions, compared to 12.9 percent of abled people. This may seem inconsequential — both those figures are fairly small, after all. But when compared statistically, that difference is significant to a p-value of less than 0.00001. This means that there is a less than 0.001 percent probability that difference happened by chance. Moreover, 12.9 percent of disabled people (those both employed and unemployed at the time of the survey) reported feeling that they had been refused a position because of their disability.
These figures do not include people who had reported facing barriers in the job-seeking process, nor those who encountered barriers or discrimination at work. However, veering away from quantitative data into the murky world of ethnography, engaging with online patient support groups reveals many disabled people sharing experiences of having their needs in academic and professional environments dismissed (see the Twitter hashtag #AcademiaIsAbleist for an enlightening read), of encountering microaggressions such as accusations of laziness and malingering, of being let go shortly after disclosing a disability, and of being terrified to disclose during the hiring process.
The professional world is a scary place for disabled people. When I made the choice to disclose my disabilities to a prospective employer, my friends and family urged me to reconsider. I was terrified that I’d made the wrong decision. (The fact that hiding one’s disability is considered the ‘prudent thing to do’ when job-hunting should be illustrative in and of itself.) When I ended up missing an extended period of work due to problems accessing my medication, I was terrified I would be let go. All the credit in the world to my employer that they were incredibly understanding and supportive during my ordeal, and my fears were not realised. But these are the fears that we as disabled people live with every day as we seek to make our way in the professional world. These are the fears we have because we are not part of the conversation that decides what a talented, strong, valuable employee looks like. These are the fears we have because we every day we face assumptions that the things our bodies do without our input are judged to be lazy, awkward and weak.
So please, before you share that meme about “The 15 Essential Qualities Every Amazing Employee Must Possess Or Else They’ll Fail At Life And Everything Else” — think about the people whom you may be excluding with it, and perhaps consider what unique strengths they may be able offer your company instead.
* Although person-first language is often considered the norm in disability circles, I prefer the increasingly popular identity-first language, because it foregrounds the important role that our experiences as disabled people have in shaping our identities and social interactions.