No Need To Apologize: Navigating Work with a Disability
How to assert disability-related needs at work.
Posted Jun 17, 2018
Jeremy sits in front of the screen, computer mouse hovering over the “send” button of an email that makes his stomach twist into knots. The conflict within is paralyzing. Does he ask his supervisor to clarify the expectations for his next project? Or should he “wing it” and try to just figure it out on his own? His mind flashes back to the moment he received the project instructions, in the center of a large workspace, sounds buzzing around as various office workers answered phones and shouted directives across the room. Max had mouthed something about fee structures in Jeremy’s direction and then walked away to handle another employee. As hard as Jeremy had focused on reading the lips and body language of his boss, he simply could not hear the instructions.
The knots in his stomach tighten and he cringes as he stares at the email. Images of all the condescending looks he has received over the course of his lifetime flash through his mind. Classmates sneering at recess, teachers frowning, co-workers with their glances full of pity. He’s learned, over time, to keep his head down and his voice silenced and above all, to never draw attention to his hearing impairment.
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, “historically, society has tended to isolate and segregate individuals with disabilities, and, despite some improvements, such forms of discrimination against individuals with disabilities continue to be a serious and pervasive social problem.” There are laws in place to protect those individuals, to ensure that they will not lose opportunities based on factors outside of their control, factors that do not interfere with their ability to excel at the tasks for which they are hired. However, it is nearly impossible to validate or prove subtle discrimination. The kind that occurs in the form of an eyebrow raise, a slight pause and sigh, or a change in topic when the employee with a disability enters the room. Those micro-aggressions can often lead to a sense of “less than” and of isolation in the workplace. Ignoring those attitudes around us can lead people to turn inward and shut down, denying their own ability to contribute to the workplace in a meaningful way.
If you have ever wished that your workplace were more sensitive to your specific needs, these tips may be useful:
1. Know that you deserve fair treatment. The voices from our pasts can slip into our psyches and have more influence than we would often like to admit. If you have any sort of disability, you may have been led to believe that you are less, than, underserving, or unworthy in some way. The first step in being an effective advocate for yourself is believing that you deserve respect, and time, and any necessary accommodations.
2. Remember that the law is on your side, whether or not your disability is apparent or visible to others. In fact, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) encourages employers to focus on what they can do to help their employees receive reasonable accommodations, rather than investigating whether employees meet the ADA definitions of a disability.
3. Fake it till you make it. When you act confident in your own self worth, others around you will begin to believe that you are worthy, which, in turn, will make it easier for you to communicate your needs. Make direct eye contact. Don’t defer opportunities that you know you can handle. Keep your head held high even when you don’t feel like it. As Sheryl Sandberg notes in her groundbreaking book, Lean In, when we act like we are equal, we show the people around us that we deserve to be treated as such.
4. Be compassionate to yourself. We may have resistance to speaking up for so many complex reasons. We don’t want to be seen as “that guy.” We don’t want to appear “needy.” We don’t want to draw attention to our disabilities for the fear that we will be seen only for what we can’t do, instead of for the many things we can. This is all exacerbated in the work environment, where our performance is inevitably going to be judged by how someone else perceives us (Sandberg, 2017). It is not easy to speak our truths, and it is normal to have anxiety about that.
5. When you are ready to speak up, communicate your needs clearly and without apologizing. When we are uncomfortable expressing ourselves, the people around us can sense that discomfort. This may make it easier for them to dismiss our needs or to brush us off. Alternatively, those employers who would like nothing more than to be helpful may have a hard time understanding how to accommodate us if we are not open with them. “I would like to do what you asked, but my impairment made it difficult for me to hear your directions. Can I trouble you to write them down, or to repeat them in a room with less background noise?” Statements like these show that you are motivated to use your skills, and are not afraid to have a conversation about your disability.
6. Welcome questions and discussions. It may take some time for people to learn how to best assist you. You may find that when you educate those around you about your experience, you create a space for true and honest connection. “It’s so hard for me to ask for help, but I’m going to share my struggle with you anyway,” is a powerful statement of your own courage, and one that communicates that you want to build a relationship based on honesty and trust.
In the words of vulnerability researcher Brene Brown, “The only thing experience gives you is a little grace that whispers in your ear: ‘You’ve been in the dark before, you know your way through... It’s gonna be okay.’” Remember that you have already overcome obstacles in order to get where you are today. You have built the strength within yourself, and you are more powerful than you think. By communicating your needs clearly and confidently, you can do your part to set the tone for a workplace culture that supports your professional growth.
Gluck, S. (2018, April). No Apologies Needed. B-Tank Magazine, 1(7)
Sandberg, S. (2017). Lean in: women, work, and the will to lead. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.