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.


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