Autistic Future
August 9th, 2016

Why I Talk About Autism In Bars

glasses and whiskey bottles above a bar

I do it because it’s impor­tant. I’ve nev­er been the most inclined to approach strangers in pub­lic places, but I cer­tain­ly talk to them when they strike up con­ver­sa­tions with me. This hap­pens all the time, on pub­lic tran­sit, in cof­fee shops, on the street, and, yes, in bars. Peo­ple take my t‑shirts plas­tered with neu­ro­di­ver­si­ty imagery inter­est­ing rings, dis­tinc­tive lap­top, and maybe my gen­der and age as an invi­ta­tion to chat, which is usu­al­ly fine with me. When this hap­pens, espe­cial­ly when I’m deal­ing with some­one who might have the author­i­ty to make deci­sions about acces­si­bil­i­ty, I talk a lot about dis­abil­i­ty. Here’s why:

Peo­ple with invis­i­ble dis­abil­i­ties who need accom­mo­da­tions usu­al­ly have to do some­thing that can be awk­ward and uncom­fort­able to get what they need: they have to dis­close the dis­abil­i­ty and request an accom­mo­da­tion. That should just mean men­tion­ing the dis­abil­i­ty and explain­ing the accom­mo­da­tion. In real­i­ty, the pub­lic does­n’t know much about most dis­abil­i­ties. Where media por­tray­als even exit, they’re over­sim­pli­fied, roman­ti­cized, exag­ger­at­ed, or just plain inac­cu­rate. Even where por­tray­als designed for pop­u­lar con­sump­tion have some nexus with real­i­ty, near­ly all dis­abil­i­ties are spec­tra. Dif­fer­ent indi­vid­u­als will have dif­fer­ent fea­tures or symp­toms to dif­fer­ent degrees. Because dis­abil­i­ty is stig­ma­tized, and peo­ple often hide it if they can, not all mem­bers of the pub­lic know they’ve ever seen some­one with a dis­abil­i­ty before.

The upshot of all this is that, when peo­ple dis­close their dis­abil­i­ties, they don’t just risk expos­ing them­selves to dis­crim­i­na­tion and maybe suf­fer through the awk­ward­ness of going over their med­ical his­to­ries with strangers or author­i­ty fig­ures. They also, often, have to be the recip­i­ent of the dis­clo­sure’s first teacher about their dis­abil­i­ties.  An in-depth expla­na­tion often has to come between the dis­clo­sure and the request. Although I don’t real­ly need accom­mo­da­tions now, I remem­ber when I did, and I know exact­ly how loaded and stress­ful that dis­cus­sion can be.* Approach­ing a deci­sion-mak­er, a gate-keep­er, as a sup­pli­cant and pre­sent­ing a brief infomer­cial on one’s needs is awk­ward and embar­rass­ing. That’s a tall order for some­one who is prob­a­bly wor­ried about even get­ting a need­ed accom­mo­da­tion. It’s also dicey from a rights perspective.

Recip­i­ents of such dis­clo­sures should always respond grace­ful­ly, but they won’t always in the real world. It may be eas­i­er for recip­i­ents to process new infor­ma­tion in a way that leads to a pos­i­tive out­come for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties when they are not simul­ta­ne­ous­ly try­ing to decide one way or anoth­er on a request, try­ing to fig­ure out what the law requires of them, and think­ing through the pros and cons of say­ing yes or no.

No mat­ter how truth­ful one’s sto­ry about one’s dis­abil­i­ty and needs is, no mat­ter how rea­son­able the accom­mo­da­tion request­ed is, a lot of whether one is able to exer­cise one’s rights with­out any has­sle depends on the qual­i­ty of one’s per­for­mance. An expla­na­tion may seem less cred­i­ble when it’s wrapped around a request. If you’re assertive, lik­able, and charis­mat­ic, you’ve got a much bet­ter shot at inspir­ing the good feel­ings that might tilt the deci­sion-mak­er’s men­tal cal­cu­lus toward let­ting you have your rea­son­able accom­mo­da­tion with­out con­flict or fur­ther ques­tions than if you’re not. This is an access prob­lem for peo­ple with some per­mu­ta­tions of some dis­abil­i­ties. It also defeats the entire pur­pose of hav­ing a right, since rights aren’t sup­posed to be con­tin­gent on whether peo­ple feel warm and fuzzy toward you.

It’s eas­i­er for every­one, less awk­ward and more effi­cient, if we can just skip the infomer­cial, if peo­ple in need of rea­son­able accom­mo­da­tions can say

I have [dis­abil­i­ty]. It man­i­fests [ in the fol­low­ing ways], so I need [rea­son­able modification/accommodation].”

with­out addi­tion­al, lengthy expla­na­tion, but the recip­i­ent of dis­clo­sure has to be some­what informed for this to work. We don’t need aware­ness in the sense that we see in glossy, big-bud­get cam­paigns, but we do need the ini­tial deci­sion-mak­ers, the gate­keep­ers of rea­son­able accom­mo­da­tions and mod­i­fi­ca­tions, to have a ser­vice­able under­stand­ing of the basic fea­tures that tend to come along with cer­tain disabilities.

I talk about autism in bars because peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties are prob­a­bly the best ones to spread the infor­ma­tion. We know how our impair­ments work in prac­tice. We can present the var­ied pic­ture that the media won’t, and we can put a human face on our dis­abil­i­ties as no one else can. Bars are my favorite place to do this because, for what­ev­er rea­son, they’re where I run into the biggest deci­sion-mak­ers most often. It so often hap­pens that an old­er, white guy with some man­age­r­i­al respon­si­bil­i­ties, maybe trav­el­ing for work or bored with no plans, wan­ders into a pub by him­self feel­ing lone­ly, decides that I look more enter­tain­ing than the mut­ed TV, and strikes up a conversation.

I like to think that, if I talk about autism there with my feet firm­ly plant­ed on the brass rail, I can plant some seeds. I can explain some things and get that man­ag­er think­ing while it’s all just inter­est­ing triv­ia. Maybe I can get him to lis­ten, open-mind­ed, in a non-threat­en­ing set­ting where he isn’t jug­gling the new infor­ma­tion along­side wor­ries about how much a giv­en accom­mo­da­tion might affect the bot­tom line. Lodg­ing some infor­ma­tion and a pleas­ant mem­o­ry of a friend­ly stranger and a bet­ter-than-expect­ed night out in the mind of a gate­keep­er months or years before the request aris­es might just make him a lit­tle more accom­mo­dat­ing when the time comes. If you also feel com­fort­able talk­ing about dis­abil­i­ty, I encour­age you to do the same thing. Talk about it in social set­tings. Nor­mal­ize it. Plant those seeds when­ev­er you get the oppor­tu­ni­ty. Bring up dis­abil­i­ty out­side of the usu­al times and places so that mem­bers of the pub­lic who have to make deci­sions on the ground, every day, that set the dif­fi­cul­ty lev­el of get­ting need­ed mod­i­fi­ca­tions and accom­mo­da­tions already know some­thing about your dis­abil­i­ty when the request comes in. It might make dis­abil­i­ty dis­clo­sure and request­ing accom­mo­da­tions a lot quick­er and eas­i­er for the next per­son who has to ask.

*I don’t have to ask for accom­mo­da­tions any­more because the impair­ment that I need accom­mo­dat­ed is hav­ing a dif­fi­cult time with hand­writ­ing. As an adult, I mere­ly have messy hand­writ­ing. Since typ­ing is nor­mal in so many set­tings that the only thing I ever have to write by hand is, some­times, notes for per­son­al use, and I’m not offend­ed by jokes about how I how I should have gone to med school, it’s a non-issue. In the pub­lic schools in which I grew up, dif­fi­cul­ty with hand­writ­ing was an extreme­ly stig­ma­tized dis­abil­i­ty because typ­ing was unusu­al. Most of the schools’ admin­is­tra­tive staff mem­bers were com­plete­ly com­put­er illit­er­ate and hat­ed and feared what they did­n’t understand.