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The Harmful Impact of My Neurotypical Privilege at Work

As an aspiring ally, I recognize that there are people in this world who I don’t share a common identity with that I’d like to be in solidarity with. There are oppressions in our country that I benefit from, I affirm that this is incredibly harmful, and I want to actively want to fight to end this. So, I want to be an ally. 

Now the aspiring part: I have been living with and benefitting from these oppressions my entire life. I understand that I will make mistakes along the way while engaging in the work of being in solidarity in a meaningful way.  As one of my  colleagues at MCEDSV stated: “Allies make mistakes almost perpetually because if we are doing this work the way we should be, we are constantly reflecting, growing, learning, unlearning, acting, and being accountable.”

It’s scary to know that not only could I do the wrong thing and cause harm to folks I want to be in solidarity with, but I also get this feeling of possibly harming myself, my relationships and reputation. However, fear of doing the wrong thing is not a good reason to not act. A better practice is to de-center yourself and your own feelings.

For example, once I was asked to lead a work group. While in a virtual space, I asked the attendees to participate in a group edit of a PowerPoint. I had seen a demonstration on using Google to simultaneously edit slides with a group, and I thought it was novel and creative and I wanted to impress my group by bringing it in to the space. My instructions about using the tools were not clear, people were talking over each other, and I clicked through the screens at a very fast pace.

After the meeting, I checked in with a colleague for feedback.

“Oh boy,” I said, “that meeting sure was chaotic, but we got through it and no one got hurt.” (I thought I was speaking figuratively.)

“Well, take a deep breath,” They said, “The way that meeting went really was harmful.”

We had a long conversation about using screens and the harm it can cause to individuals who are neurodivergent. Neurodivergent means having a brain that functions in ways that diverges (or differs) significantly from the dominant societal standards of “normal.” That is a definition by Dr. Nick Walker, author of the blog Neurocosmopolitanism. Human brains have differences in functioning sometimes due to an event (like a TBI, long-term drug use, or other) or because of innate, born difference (like autism, dyscalculia, or dyslexia).

My colleague shared with me that limiting the amount of movement on the screen and the amount of noise in a meeting can help individuals who have neurodivergence to be able to fully participate. They told me that chaotic meetings like the one I led can make a person physically ill.

I didn’t know if anyone in the group is neurodivergent. It’s also not a requirement that meeting attendees tell me about it before I think about accessibility. Sometimes, we find ways to hide things about our marginalized identities so that people don’t look at us differently. I understand this tactic because I am a non-binary lesbian and am often asked about my ambiguous gender. I find ways to hide my difference when I can, because it could be dangerous for me to let my difference be known to everyone.

Neurodivergence  is an invisible disability. Thus, those who are neurodivergent have either had their lived reality diminished, or relegated to a generalization around learning challenges. Society sets the idea of what is “normal,” and this “normal” is how workplaces, schools, churches, and other systems throughout the Western world have been organized. I live in a society where being neurodivergent is looked at as bad, and so it is hidden or disguised. To avoid rejection and discrimination, people who are neurodivergent are forced to adapt in order to assimilate as much as possible.

It was my job to use the resources at my work to make sure that meetings were accessible and inclusive so that everyone who attended could participate. I have neurotypical privilege, so I need to be intentional on assuring that accessibility is a part of my presentation design. Simultaneously, in my journey toward allyship, I need to continue to confront the oppressive systems that I continue to benefit from and that I perpetuate in my work.

My statement, “Hey, no one got hurt,” wasn’t about the people with invisible disabilities who I try to be in allyship with, it was about me. I thought that if I made it through the meeting without getting hurt, then everyone else did. I thought if no one came up to me and told me how they were hurt then no one got hurt. A practice of decentering myself would start with listening to the allies and the people with invisible disabilities who told me how to run an accessible meeting for everyone, and then putting their recommendations into practice at every meeting I am involved in.

To make more workplaces inclusive of all people, here are some of the helpful practices that people with neurodivergence and their allies came up with:

Use lighting options other than just florescent lighting;

Ask staff not to wear scents or bring scented items into the office;

Turning the camera off during Zoom meetings;

Having written material available and presented before meetings;

Allow processing time during meetings;

Use accessibility standards for presentations, such as appropriate color blocking and font size.

Policies that have been intentionally developed to increase accessibility for staff with neurodivergence have broad benefits for neurotypical staff as well. It is important to make accessibility a priority in the structure of our work, not an afterthought or an accommodation when someone asks for it. This blog is not intended to be a how-to, or an inclusive guide for making your meetings accessible; for that you will have to do a deeper dive. Starting points can be found here, and here, and here.

Allyship is not possible to do on my own. I need and am grateful for the support I receive. I will continue to grow in my aspiring allyship because the community I am in is growing with me and encouraging growth, even when I make mistakes. If you’ve found that you have not been a perfect ally, you’re not alone.

The other bloggers on this website are a part of this community of support that I’ve found. Continue to follow us in our aspiring allyship by reading their blogs, sharing them with your community of support, and checking back often for more new content.

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