When my boss, Dana Marlowe, shared her blog post about emplyment and mental disability, I had mixed emotions. This isn’t rare for me. As someone with a mental disability, I’m used to sifting through varying moods and thoughts to determine the answer the deceptively simple question: How do you feel?
Coming from the perspective of an employee whom many other employers might not have hired, I’m grateful to work for a company that values my contributions. On the other hand, I worry for others who might not have found their fit in a supportive workplace.
Data collected by the Department of Labor and its subsidiary organizations tout the benefits. Workers with disabilities increase staff morale, are more loyal employees, can increase profit margins, and are a competitive differentiator. But what I needed this useful list of acronym-laden organizations to do was help with my personal acronym: PTSD.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects the right of a person to disclose their disability. There is less stigma now more than ever surrounding mental disabilities. While not perfect, people with mental health are getting the support and care that they need to survive and thrive. I wasn’t legally obligated to disclose my disability, but I did because I needed the accommodations. The ADA does require that an employer must make reasonable accommodations available to all employees with disabilities. By discussing my diagnosis with my supervisors, I was initially worried it’d be an inquisition. Instead, it was an honest dialogue: less about my limitations and more about my future abilities.
Mental disabilities are referred to as hidden disabilities because it’s not as immediately apparent as someone in a wheelchair or someone who has a hearing aid. The unpredictability of my disability made me want to disclose it to keep myself and others safe and productive. I know from personal experience that an internal struggle can become an external conflict in a matter of seconds. Telling my co-workers that I was prone to panic attacks, nervousness, anxiety, impulsive behaviors, and difficulty concentrating wasn’t easy.
We all made a plan in place and I felt relief and hope. Working for a small company with a few co-workers spread out across the country gave me a national support system. I was, and still am, floored by the messages of empathy. When I disclosed, I found support as others within Accessibility Partners shared their struggles with their own disability. I realized that even though we might have different experiences, we still felt the same feelings.
The struggles seemed less intense, and more of a bonding experience. Sharing my experiences didn’t change the fact I needed four different medications to manage my symptoms, and that I had group therapy appointments twice a week. What my disclosure taught me is that bringing things out into the open makes the hiding unnecessary.
The Job Accommodation Network has some suggestions that changed the workplace for me. For previously impossible tasks, we found workarounds. Here’s what personally worked for us:
· Allow extra time for assignments and projects. Use a flexible schedule that does not dictate when the time is to be spent (i.e. I could work evenings and weekends), but deadlines are still enforced.
· Allow for breaks and appointments. This didn’t mean I worked less time, but it mean I worked less consecutive hours, but still kept a full-time schedule.
· Restructure job to avoid triggers and stressful situations
· Provide clear expectations and helping to prioritize
· Enable a safe space to talk about difficulties and struggles
· Freedom to check in with therapists, groups, and doctors during normal business hours
There were many more, but the benefits of these were felt by all immediately. When I think of mental illness, the image of a person treading water in a vast ocean comes to mind. Asking for help allows the person with the mental disability to feel the sand beneath their toes, even if they’re still at sea. I’m still in the ocean, but there is a respite now.
While I can’t speak to my colleagues and my lifelong friends with their own disabilities, I do believe in open and honest communication. Keeping a disability hidden internalizes negative feelings, and can be more of a hindrance. I’m grateful that the ADA gave me a platform to ask for help, and have those accommodations lead to my personal and professional success.
Dana and the rest of my Accessibility Partners team has been a lifesaver to me. I’m glad they saw me treading water, and steered me to smoother seas. Thanks for keeping me afloat.