Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Moving Ahead, Staying Sane

Companies, non-profits, and educational institutions should hire me as a consultant (or others with expertise in accommodations and supports for cognitive difference) because too many organizations do not know how to hire, support, and develop talented people with personality traits outside the accepted norms.

Readers of this blog know that my experiences in the "tolerant" world of academia demonstrate that "tolerance" is not acceptance or support. I don't want to be "tolerated" (you tolerate bad weather, you tolerate an annoying relative). People with cognitive difference want to be appreciated, listened to, and supported.

This post uses the first-person "I" but it likely represents the "we" of many people with differences society hasn't embraced.

I'm not going to settle for being tolerated. No thank you. Like many advocates, I do not want your pity or your tolerance. I want to be an equal, not a token.

Moving on from a difficult situation seems to be a recurring theme in the lives of many people. For autistics, moving on isn't always a choice so much as the result of being nudged and pushed out of workplaces and organizations.

In late March, I learned that my employment would be reduced from full-time status to part-time for the 2015-16 academic year. Technically, I was a temporary visiting professor this school year following a retirement and a resignation — someone had to cover the courses on short notice and I was available. I did interview for the 2015-16 post, but another applicant was selected and life goes on.

Did my autistic traits contribute to the decision of the hiring committee? I believe they did.

The interview process was a complete puzzle to me, and I considered several aspects unfavorable to my nature. I knew following the interviews (one-on-one and group), if not before, that the odds were against being offered a contract extension.

Hiring has little to do with job skills. Hiring is about cultural fit and some, generally pointless, "behavioral" interview techniques. Plenty of research exists to demonstrate that silly pseudo-psychology exercises seldom result in better hiring.

Word association games? I'm sorry, but what a waste of my time. And I'm sure the professor (not a psychologist) was relying on some text he read to determine what a "good" candidate should answer. Whatever. How about asking me how I teach my courses?

Telling me how great your students are and asking me what makes them special? Get over yourself. I'm not going to tell you why "you" (a graduate of the university) are great, by way of praising the student body. And did you need to insult state universities? My wife and I attended respected state universities, unless you somehow imagine the University of California system and the University of Minnesota are not great research universities? Yes, I also did attend a California State University, in a program that featured nationally and internationally respected poets, essayists, and novelists.

Don't tell me how important you could have been. You sound petty and bitter. Don't tell me how much money you could have earned. Don't whine to me about how much you gave up because you work for the university. If you don't like it, LEAVE. Leave now and make the university a better place.

If these are more "behavioral tests" to see how I reacted, they are dumb. Do not lie about what you think of a workplace. However, since I have heard some of the committee make similar comments in other circumstances, I assume you were being honest. You hate a lot about your jobs, but are proud of where you teach. Status is everything to at least some of the interview committee, or they wouldn't have mentioned rankings and money and famous people they know.

Telling me how much you dislike the university where we work? Stupid. Just plain stupid. How can I respond to that, before or after the interview?

Scheduling my interview for mornings, when I told the committee I was having motor control issues? Whatever. I gave up and accepted a morning interview, knowing I would be in severe pain and have to "fake" my way through the formal process. I threw up afterwards, from the pain. Thank you for listening closely to my needs.

Don't ask me if I'm up to a job I have been doing for much of a school year. Obviously, I am up to it — despite any physical discomfort or limitations. You are crossing a line with this question, and you should know that it isn't a proper question.

Don't tell me that I need to be flexible. You think I don't know that good workers need some flexibility? Telling someone with cognitive differences to be flexible is inherently insulting. After explaining my need for routines, you then insult what is a neurological difference? Thank you for (not) listening to what I tried to teach you.

Don't ask for copies of my research, which is auto-ethnographic and addresses cognitive and physical challenges, and then say you didn't realize I had special needs. Seriously, if you read even the introductions of the two papers, you knew my physical and cognitive limitations. If you didn't read my papers, then I'm even more disgusted by the hiring process.

There's more, but readers will get the idea. It wasn't a good process.

And yet, I love the university and its students. It was the first place in many years where I felt like I belonged. The students are wonderful. Most of the academic programs are outstanding. I love the campus, however weird it can be and hard to navigate for someone with mobility issues. It is a special place, overall, and most of the people with whom I've interacted have been professional and supportive.

But, the interview process was horrible.

Not accepting the part-time offer for next year was easy. I tell my students, if the people interviewing you don't like their jobs, don't seem interested in you, and have negative answers to your questions, don't accept a job offer. Walk away.

Did I want the job, even after the horrible interview? Sort of. I wasn't sure I would accept, if an offer to renew was made, but I also know I'm going to miss teaching the courses I designed.

Disclosure didn't help. Asking some colleagues for help didn't work. I should have contacted human resources and disability services early in the semester; I didn't because I was sure that doing so would be viewed as putting the interview committee in difficult position. Getting HR involved in my situation earlier would have been awkward, certainly.

And so, I am moving on. Maybe I'll never have a tenure-track or full-time teaching job again. Time to move forward by moving back to writing at home for a time.

Yes, writing this blog post violates basic advice I would give my own students and other people with special needs: never talk ill of an employer or coworkers. But you know what? The system is broken. It needs to change. People need to change.

I'm tired of having to pretend to be someone I'm not and I'm tired of stupid "tests" in workplaces. If I have to be anything and anyone other than myself to succeed in a workplace, that isn't the right place for me.

When an organization does more than tolerate difference, it benefits a much larger community.

So, if you want to be part of a better organization, listen to self-advocates and experts. Hire us to help you become better employers. Listen to us.

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