Employers and service providers have a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments for employees and service users who are living with disabilities. There are many accommodations that we’re used to seeing in everyday life, such as wheelchair-accessible ramps and lifts, hearing loop provision, and even textured paving and Braille signage on office and classroom doors. For most people these adaptations don’t even register; most people don’t need or use them, and so they don’t understand exactly what functions these provide.
A classic example of accommodations and provisions not being understood is the emergency pull cord in a disabled access toilet. These are supposed to be accessible from the floor, so that in the event of a fall they’re easy to reach from ground level. All too often, they are tied in a loop or tied to a handrail to stop them dragging on the floor or becoming soiled from mopping, rendering them inaccessible to the people who need them.
When it comes to accommodating hidden disabilities (including many conditions that fit under the neurodiversity umbrella), the lack of understanding is even more pronounced – it seems like something which can’t be seen, can’t be understood and believed. For us neurodivergent individuals the struggle to get our needs met and accommodated is very real. Here are some real world examples of this problem in action.
My experience was making a request to work from home for certain tasks that required quiet for concentration which was denied because it was “against [company] policy”. At the first instance the request was denied without any interest in why I needed the accommodation (which I had explained as well as having provided my psychologist’s report with recommendations for the workplace). There was no dialogue, no assurance that it could be checked out, just a straight denial.
A pupil living with dyspraxia (the child of a good friend) struggles with getting changed for PE because there is a time limit set on how long they have to change. Their dyspraxia means that changing clothes is difficult and they need more time to do so. When requesting an accommodation with the school (for more time) this was denied, and instead the school offered to let her get changed in a private area, further away from the PE area. This not only did not solve the problem, but it compounded it by reducing the amount of actual time the pupil had to change.
Another example is a participant on a wellbeing course who requested access to the supplementary materials in advance, by email, each week. This seemed very reasonable, and did not require more than 5 minutes effort on the part of the office team responsible for participant communication. When the request was made, the response was “well if we do it for them we have to do it for everyone who wants it”.
That is, quite literally, the spirit of the Disability Discrimination Act! This request was perceived as “asking for special treatment” in a negative way. As neurodivergent people we sometimes do need special treatment, and that so-called “special treatment” is actually just the enabling of equal access. Treating people equally is not the same as treating everyone in exactly the same way.
In all these examples requests have been denied either on the basis of not wanting to take on extra work, however minor, on the basis of policy vs. need, or on the basis of “we know what’s best”. When neurodivergent people are faced with this response to our legitimate request for reasonable adjustments it impacts our ability to self-advocate, and negatively affects our self esteem and mental health.
In all these examples the actual needs of the neurodivergent individual were not acknowledged, instead the capacity and willingness of the organisation was the deciding factor. Is this right? Should neurodivergent people not be allowed to suggest and request accommodations we know will actually help? Should we not be listened to?
It is a crushing blow when we are not believed, accepted and accommodated. We are left feeling “less than”, and like we are “trying to get away with something” or “causing trouble”. Neurodiverse people, with our lived experience of accommodating our needs, are best placed to decide what accommodations we need in the workplace or in educational settings, and what form these take. Deciding on the exact form needs to be a conversation, a real dialogue between employer and employee, but we should not be dismissed out of hand because of poor perception and understanding.