Just before COVID-19 fundamentally disrupted the workplace, I decided to resign from the first office job I’ve held since February 2018 on the basis that it wasn’t a good fit for someone like me with Idiopathic Hypersomnia.
When we talk about disability in the workplace, the conversation revolves around disclosure and accommodations. Like people of color or those of different gender identity, self-identification gives disabled job seekers pause – there are laws in place to protect disabled workers from discrimination, just like there are laws against racial and gender discrimination, but there is little visibility to how employers actually use self-identification in the decision process. Increased competition in this digitized job market enables employers to use self-identification not as a diversity tool, but as another way to exclude qualified candidates based on disability myths and misconceptions.
Accepting disability diagnosis is hard, especially when the disability conflicts with what’s considered acceptable to employers. Some disabilities are impossible to hide and that is a burden on which I cannot speak, but for those with some forms of mental illness or other “invisible disabilities”, the pressure to get and keep a job leads many job-seekers to opt for the time-bomb approach in hopes that flare ups happen off-the-clock or on weekends to avoid disclosure.
I know that I want to live my life without fear – fear of rejection, fear of inadequacy, fear of not being accepted for something I cannot control. The job that I just left was the first time I decided to be proactively open with my employer about my sleep disorder. When I accepted the position, I filled out the self-disclosure with “Yes, I have a disability” and one of the HR reps remarked that she had “never seen a ‘yes’ before”. I immediately felt the same kind of regret as when I wore braids to an office for the first time – while what I did was objectively right or OK, the result would only remind me that no matter how talented I am, no matter how quick, smart, or hard working I am, I am still seen as a business risk instead of an asset. As much as workplace advice articles encourage people to “bring their full selves to work”, for people of color, people with disabilities, people struggling with mental illness, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and even those with familial responsibilities which might impede their ability to fulfill traditional work-life expectations, your full self is often what excludes you from gainful employment.
The sleep disorder that I have periodically impedes my ability to wake up on time for work. The best sleep schedule, avoiding caffeine and stimulants later in the day, going to bed a few hours after I get home from the average 8-5, working out – all of these things help keep my sleep disorder at bay, but they are not a cure. The many different alarms (on the phone, separate alarm clocks, bed shaking alarm clocks, physical wake up calls) that I use every day to wake up are not always successful and I often wake up in a frenzy hoping that when I look at the clock, I still have enough time to get to work on time. When that isn’t successful, I start the day disempowered, explaining again and again to employers that I apologize for being late, and accepting the consequences (up to and including termination) with my head bowed in shame.
Life happens every day, at work, at home, in the first 90 days, after the first 3 years, etc. After less than 90 days on the job, right around daylight savings, I started having symptoms and woke up late for work 2 times in a week. I was written up, with emergencies like picking up my Mom from work after a car accident were counted against my attendance record with the same weight as waking up late for work. At this point in my young career, I’m used to being treated like a delinquent. I understand that Human Resources is a misnomer, and that too many HR departments exist to protect the interests of the company by evaluating the risks of retaining each employee. I understand that waking up late for work, taking prescriptions to avoid falling asleep at work, having to leave work early for doctor’s appointments, etc. are read as risks to employers, especially in at-will states, especially when you’re a person of color. So, when I woke up late for the second time, I took a large bag with me for my belongings anticipating termination and blasted uplifting songs to stow away the familiar defeat.
(Fun fact: I was also pulled over on my way to work that day. When it rains, it pours.)
When my boss finally asked to see me in her office, I had already finished my work for the day and spent hours reading articles about how to handle workplace conflict, how to approach conversations around disability accommodations, and how to protect yourself from termination when living with a disability. All of the articles were things I have read before, things I know don’t work in practice. Walking to the HR office, again, I felt the eyes of my colleagues on me and held my head high – I knew I had done all I could to avoid symptoms, I was honest, and I tried my best to make this work. I prepared myself for the worst.
During the conversation, my boss praised my work ethic, my “spark”, my creativity and ideas, and then lamented that unlike her, I didn’t have kids, dogs, or other obvious responsibilities that should impede my ability to “show up on time”.
I gripped my pen and waited for the lecture to stop as something in me snapped. I was done. Done being treated like a delinquent, done being the screen onto which others projected their ignorance about a condition I had no choice in living with.
My boss asked me what I would do if I were her in this situation. What I wanted to say, I had the presence of mind to keep to myself. What I did say is why I’m writing this down for others to see. The law protects those with disabilities against wrongful termination, but that’s with “reasonable accommodations” at the center of the legislation. For a receptionist, showing up on time will always be a fundamental part of the job. The job is also considered low-skilled. A receptionist is replaceable, and the difference in quality from a receptionist who goes above and beyond but occasionally is not there on time, and a receptionist who does the job as required but is always on time, is minimal, but the receptionist who shows up on time will always be preferred. Even if companies are required to provide accommodations, an accommodation cannot alter the foundation of the job itself. I could stay at the job and risk termination for something this company would never understand, or I could leave: I had to resign.
This is what matters. Since graduating college, I followed the old, fear-based advice: “get a job, figure out the rest later”. I never thought about what kind of careers are best suited to those non-negotiable things about my life. My sleep disorder isn’t going anywhere. My identity and how I look isn’t going anywhere (being an attractive, young woman of color in the office is a topic for another day). My confidence isn’t going anywhere. My intelligence, detail-orientation, and problem-solving mentality isn’t going anywhere. So, why am I going for jobs that can’t possibly accommodate all of these things which make up my full self? Why am I choosing a line of work which doesn’t challenge me, and doesn’t provide room for upward mobility? Why am I floating down the lazy river of Capitalism miserably lamenting the conditions of my life instead of centering my actions on a vision for success?
The answer is because it’s what I’ve been taught, but more importantly, it’s what I’ve allowed myself to accept. I know now that I am the most important piece of my own success. I know that it’s irresponsible to view the job market from a position of asking what’s possible instead of actively creating the best possible career situation. I know that it’s never too late. I know that career success is a complicated equation of skills, location, connections, and hard work. I know that if you feel out of sync with the life you’re living, it’s on you to change it. Especially now as we collectively experience the effects of a global pandemic, spending as much time as possible taking a hard look at your life and visualizing the steps it will take to change what you don’t like is important and timely work. If you can, you should. If you can’t, ask for help. If you can’t find help, keep asking until you find it.
The world is yours, and the world is more pliable than we’ve been led to believe. If you need to work from home, find a job that understands work-life balance. If you don’t have the skills to get that job, get the skills. If you don’t have the money to get the skills, rearrange your financial priorities until you have the money to get the skills or find creative ways to gain the skills. If you’re unfulfilled, grab a piece of paper and a marker and center your kindergarten self – what did she want to do, what did he dream of doing, what do you like about your job, what don’t you like. Sit with yourself and craft the life you want to live. Visualize it! Then put that plan in motion.
Walking out of that office after resigning, I had tears in my eyes but a bounce in my step. I left a position of disempowerment and decidedly reoriented myself away from self-defeating thoughts of inadequacy towards fulfillment and success. I applied for fellowships instead of jobs. I talked to colleagues and fellow alumni with fresh honesty: “I don’t know what I’m doing. How have you been doing?”. I started taking free classes online and checking myself when the doubt starts to creep in. It may sound like a cat poster, but it’s simply belief. I believe in me, and I believe in all of us. Not only to get through this unprecedented time of isolation, but to come out stronger than before.
We got this.