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Slippery slopes, canaries in coal mines, mixed metaphors

Posted Nov 10 2008 4:51pm
In working with employers to promote the inclusion of more autistic adults in the work force, a number of stock responses and arguments tend to come up repeatedly. One of the most persistent obstacles, though, may be the often unspoken “ slippery slope ” concept. The argument is that if one permits accommodations to workers with “invisible” disabilities, then everyone will want something, and eventually the business will not be able to support these varying demands and its structure will collapse under the weight of all these differences.

To stay within the legal bounds proscribed by the ADA, accommodations must be considered “reasonable” and not create “undue hardship.” Major structural changes requested of small business owners are often deemed not reasonable, and these are the sorts of things employers can discuss with impunity. The slippery slope argument is not something I hear much in the context of these discussions, but rather something I know about from more casual talks with acquaintances, some of them in management positions, and from my time as an unidentified Aspie in various workplaces.

As a person without a known disability, I was privileged to hear the conversations about the “others”, the trouble-making sort who were always asking for accommodations they didn’t (according to the bosses) really need. In the 1980’s, employees of the company I worked for were routinely assigned to less desirable positions or given difficult schedules following such requests. One man had a letter from his doctor, stating that he was to wear a certain brand of athletic footwear, despite company policy to the contrary. A few weeks later, he was moved from a department he loved to one he hated, though still in the public eye with the “unacceptable” shoes. When that didn’t make him decide to leave the job, his hours were changed, too.

This isn’t the worst or most recent offense I’ve seen, not by a long shot. It’s just one that haunts me for some reason. I was in the office with the manager and Human Resources person when the doctor’s letter was delivered. I had no right to know what it said, but they discussed it in front of me anyway. I was frequently invisible in those days. They had a laugh at his expense and immediately began planning his punishment.

After all, what could they have done? What if everyone decided to get a doctor’s note declaring a need for athletic shoes, just in order to be comfortable? The dress code might become meaningless, unenforceable. How could people be expected to spend money in a store where the workers wore sneakers?

Of course, no profits were at stake, not really. These people had the sense to know that the footwear of sales clerks was not a major factor in consumer spending decisions. It was all about power. If any rule could be questioned or amended for any reason by anyone, then the power of the few to rule the many would be weakened. And this, they could not have.

The fear persists among managers today, in all sorts of businesses. People with so-called invisible disabilities threaten the status quo. They can “get away” with things others can’t. To compound the insult, their managers can’t even explain to co-workers why one worker is being given “special treatment.” It’s all very threatening to the power structure.

Add to the mix a condition like autism, said by many to be a tragic, harrowing condition, a nightmare few ever escape, and well, you can just imagine the employers lining up to take advantage of our abilities! Or maybe the diagnosis is Asperger syndrome? What are they likely to have heard about that? Either we are rude and impossible to get along with or just a bunch of fakes looking for sympathy for the same traits everyone has. And who knows what we might ask for, once we’ve gotten in the door with an officially sanctioned diagnosis?

Some people who are convinced that environmental toxins are to blame for the higher reported prevalence rates for autism like to use the canary in a coal mine analogy. They believe that autism may be a warning sign of even worse “diseases” to come, brought on by chemicals, pollution and various mismanagement of the earth and its resources.

Of course, I do not agree with this position, but I do find the canary image useful to this discussion, so I’ve decided to borrow it. Here the canary is the worker. The coal mine is the toxic social environment we have created, with its rigid insistence on conformity and sameness. The idea that we all can and should behave, function and look as much alike as possible is poison to social and cultural diversity. A system based on fear and false assumptions has emerged and this deserves to be dismantled.

I would like to think that enough canaries have been sacrificed already, that the unemployment rates among autistic adults could stand as notice that perhaps our society’s acceptance of all types of diversity needs a big boost. What’s so slippery about accommodations anyway? Many of them cost very little and increase overall productivity. Sure, not everyone can have the corner office. But couldn’t we all have respect, acceptance? Or isn’t there enough to go around?
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