Susan's Blog

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Get A Job

You go to work
You be a jerk
You do your job
You do it right:
T.V. tonight!
–Frank Zappa

Now that I’ve mailed off Dirt: A Story of Gardening, Mothering, and a Mid-life Crisis, I feel myself walking close to huge pockets of time; that huge void is threatening to open up. There is no rest; I hate rest. I’ll rest when I’m dead. I want to work. I was raised to work, work, work for everything. From the time I could stay by myself, I was a babysitter. I worked in a movie theatre selling (and eating) popcorn and candy. I waitressed at restaurants and country clubs. I had work/study in college.

And now, my work is an odd mixture of housework, boycare, volunteer stuff, teaching, and writing. Not enough of any one thing. Not enough big blocks of time to expand any of them.

So I tried to get a part-time job at my favorite clothing and home furnishings store, Anthropologie. The interview was great, I was assured they were “so hiring,” and then I filled out the online “opinion survey” set up by the corporate headquarters. Beware corporate headquarters. Somewhere in there I displeased someone. Or maybe I am too old to represent their demographic? Me, with my closet full of Anthro clothes, my house decor of the same. I have a scary knowledge of their products and how their stores are laid out. I get my friends to shop and buy there. Yet, somehow, I was not right for the job. Eeek. That stung.

I heard a similar story about CVS Pharmacy from a dear old friend. Her “high-functioning” autistic son walks to their CVS all the time; it was his first independent outing. He stocks shelves there at a school program. He knows and loves CVS and their products better than anyone I know, knows it like he knows his own bedroom, or better yet, like he knows the train routes. You know what I’m talking about. And yet this wonderful young man cannot get hired there because everyone must fill out the corporate questionnaire, which has statements like, “I work well with people” to which you answer yes or no.

This dear boy does not know how to lie. He knows he does not work well with people. He works well in the stockroom. As long as everything is operating according to expectations (toaster in cafeteria working, and as long as you don’t say one particular kind of statement to him, he will do beautifully. But he cannot answer “correctly” because he cannot be imprecise.

Which made me wonder: what does “reasonable accommodation” mean? Is it only about building ramps, low toilets and reserving parking spaces, or is it also about training your staff and your corporate survey-makers in the particular ins and outs of neurological differences? This is an able young man who has overcome tremendous behavioral and sensory difficulties (bolting, tantrums, undressing in public) to be the responsible, sweet young adult he is. But he can’t get hired by CVS.

We need employers to understand that “accommodation” can mean many different things in today’s world of well-educated autistics and the college-degree-holding cognitively disabled. If little kids can be trained to work next to their atypically developing peers to the point where they barely bat an eye at a guy who flaps in class, why can’t the business leaders of today get a clue? I don’t need that job at Anthropologie, but my young friend really does need to be able to work at places he is trained to work in. For now, that might mean he has to be trained to lie on a job questionnaire. Stupidly ironic, isn’t it?


You got it!!

I was going to write a post about an article in The Globe and Mail about which CEO “looks” more successful from a survey, but I got busy. I was going to write how atrocious I thought that people judge success by appearance and how we might as well go back to the days when criminal tendencies, character and mental faculties were read through phrenology. It didn’t seem much different to me that we correlated such beauty and “certain features” with success. Such assessments must also be married with social and collective assumptions of success and beauty. They too are social constructs.

We are simply questioning them, and yes, if a kid can tolerate a hand-flapper and not bat an eyelash, surely our work colleagues will learn to do the same. We must keep tearing down assumptions!

— added by Estee Klar-Wolfond on Tuesday, January 15, 2008 at 3:26 pm

Anthropologie made a huge mistake…!How do we educate employers to not be prejudiced against our kids?

— added by Dori on Tuesday, January 15, 2008 at 7:27 pm

Amen. As the mom of a “high functioning” autistic son, I worry about where his opportunities will lie in a society as you just described. I suppose it’s going to take advocacy at levels we cannot yet imagine. Thank you, for such a compelling point that you could draw from your own experience with Anthropologie. Let’s hope and pray that these corporations can somehow become more enlightened — on both sides. You should be able to be respectfully honest and not be subjected to exclusion and prejudice.

— added by LisaL on Tuesday, January 15, 2008 at 10:18 pm

I learned that during my latest search for work. Wal-Mart rejected me because I answered their questionnaire honestly. So now I lie, but I hate it. It feels wrong, like a polyester sweater.

— added by Chaoticidealism on Tuesday, January 15, 2008 at 11:34 pm


This was, unsurprisingly, a great post. What you discuss here reminds me something that Roger Ebert wrote at the end of a review of a movie I recently watched (“Brothers”). He said:

Some situations are capable not of solution but only of accommodation. Sometimes the problem comes and stays forever, and the question with the hardest answer is, well, OK, how are you going to live with it?

My entire winter break I’ve been putting off writing a piece for my school newspaper about the amount of insensitive comments I hear all the time from students AND staff members — “that’s so retarded,” “stop acting like a retard,” etc. I want in particular to address the argument one often hears when people who say such things are called out on their statements — namely, that they “don’t mean any harm,” that they “don’t have anything against retarded people,” that they’re “not trying to hurt anyone’s feelings.” I understand that intent does matter, but those excuses are just lame.

What I’m realizing, after having spent the last few days reading Robin Morris’ blog, “The A Word,” over at and reading your entry, is that, in many ways, it really does boil down to accommodation.

While my school, Wheaton College, is very accommodating in terms of giving academic assistance to students with learning disabilities (I have a friend with dyslexia who attests to that), there’s so much more that the Wheaton community could do. I worked as a tour guide at Wheaton this summer, and met one mother of a prospective student who was in a wheelchair. She couldn’t get into the admissions building because it isn’t handicapped accessible. She was, naturally, pissed off about this. The admissions secretary had me go over and meet with the woman in the student union café next door, where she was staying while her son and husband went on a tour. I asked her if she knew that we do offer a handicapped accessible tour route, and she said yes, she realized that, but she doesn’t go on any tours with her son because she knows he would pay more attention to her well-being than the information being given to the group. A selfless mom, I thought.

She was very heated when I first came up to her. She repeatedly said that it was against the law for the school to not have an accessible admissions building. Sooner than later she calmed down a bit and emphasized that she wasn’t blaming me. I said I understood, and after trying to give her a pass to get a free lunch at the café, as I’d been instructed, I went back to admissions. Later, I told my co-workers about what had happened, and they speculated that the woman wasn’t correct about the legality issue, since Wheaton is a private institution and the admissions building was constructed before laws regarding accessibility were enacted.

I don’t know if that’s true or not. I do know that since then, I’ve often wondered how difficult it would be to make the side entrance of the building accessible by a ramp. There may not be enough room for one; then again, there may be. I’ve also noticed how many other buildings on campus are or are not handicapped accessible. Most do have handicapped accessible bathroom facilities.

But accommodation, as you said, extends further than ramps and bathrooms. In some aspects, Wheaton is progressive. I’m proud, for instance, that it has a good system in place for students with learning disabilities and doesn’t shy away from applicants who happen to LDs. I’m proud of how I often see a wheelchair-bound student (who has, I’m guessing, Muscular Dystrophy) be treated with respect and patience by his peers. At the same time, I tend not to see many students even acknowledge the cafeteria workers who have disabilities, even though many of them are exceedingly friendly. And, sadly enough, I hear “that’s so retarded” on a regular basis across campus.

Over the past semester, the signage for all bathrooms at Wheaton were changed to be gender-neutral in order to be inclusive of people of all gender identities. Some other colleges in the state have recently taken similar steps, I believe. I was dismayed when in September I heard the Dean of Students, who is a lesbian, talk enthusiastically about how “Men’s/Women’s” signs would soon be going up everywhere. My friend pointed out to her that such a designation isn’t truly being inclusive to people who don’t fit into either of those two categories. You’d think that’s common sense and would’ve been apparent to the higher-ups from the get-go, but apparently not. And so the signs (the ones I’ve seen, anyway) indicate facilities for “men/women”.

Real accommodation, in other words, is a tricky thing. The diversity of needs that people have, and the diversity of people themselves, is really kind of intimidating. But who can really say that, for instance, your friend’s son doesn’t need to work? Who can say that he doesn’t deserve that job at CVS? Who can say that people who don’t look “typical” don’t need and deserve to be acknowledged and spoken to with respect, or that people who don’t subscribe to typical gender designations don’t need and deserve to feel comfortable when using bathroom facilities?

Yeah, it’s tricky, and it’s intimidating, and it’ll never end, because perfect accommodation will never be realized. But I’d rather see people trying harder than claiming that someone or some group is being “unreasonable” with a certain demand. What’s unreasonable is when people don’t admit that there is always progress to be made, or claim that, since there’s just so much to be done, there’s just no point in even bothering at all.

I wish that every time I hear something like that in the future, I could whip out this post of yours and say “This… this is why.” Because it is.

Thanks again, Susan.

– Josh Begley

— added by Anonymous on Wednesday, January 16, 2008 at 4:08 am

Hello Susan: You have a great media presence with your book, blogs, interviews, articles, activism, etc. Why don’t you contact the CEOs of these companies (at least of CVS) and get them to revise these unfriendly policies?
I too am the mother of a ‘special needs’ son with an atypical brain (not autism), and worry about his future in the workforce.
Thanks for reading

— added by Anonymous on Thursday, January 17, 2008 at 8:40 am

Sigh. Yes. Unfortunately, being part of the “rest” of the world involves lying and bullshitting – two things that our autistic loved ones do not do.

Yes. All of your points. Ironic indeed.

Lovely post.

— added by Drama Mama on Thursday, January 17, 2008 at 9:38 am

Interestingly, one of my readers has a connection to Corporate HQ at CVS and there is some positive movement towards ameliorating this situation now!!! Thanks J and A!!!!

— added by Susan Senator on Thursday, January 17, 2008 at 2:44 pm

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