When I started my professional career, I dove in headfirst. As a Residence Life Co-ordinator at Wilfrid Laurier University, I was fully dedicated to supporting students and my staff. I took the time to carefully read all my emails and craft thoughtful responses, I kept up on the latest research to understand industry best practices, I wrote intentional action plans for staff development and I attended student events as much as possible. My colleagues did the same, and we were successful in our own ways.
However, in my second year, I noticed I spent more time doing things than my peers. What was more frustrating was that this wasn’t due to a change in my peers’ motivation or dedication to the role, but because I was taking longer to complete the same tasks. In conversations with my peers, I learned that they could produce the same quality of work in half the time and with what seemed like less effort. It was also around this time I started noticing signs of burnout that I had experienced the previous year but didn’t think twice about it then.
Thankfully, I was very comfortable with my manager and was able to share this observation with her. It was in this meeting that she asked me if I should be considering some accommodations in the workplace. This was the first time I really stopped to consider how my disability affected me.
I was diagnosed with a learning disability (specifically in reading and ADHD) at 18. I was a high-achieving student, so I stayed off the radar; it was my mom who noticed the excessive homework hours that caused concern. With regards to ADHD, I am energetic and easily distracted, so what people assumed was just my personality was in fact symptoms of the disability. All this added up to me never considering how my learning disability might affect me outside of academics.
When I was in school it was easy to identify what I needed. In fact, I had professionals who were able to suggest the best accommodations to suit my needs. I had access to assistive technology, time and a half for exams, and a private room to write them in. All these accommodations supported the fact that I take more time to read and process written information, and my ability to focus can be affected by my environment.
Academics were the only point of reference I had for my disability, so accommodations at work felt out of place. Could I ask for extensions on deadlines or a private working space? In the past I was able to download my screen reader onto my personal laptop, but I had no idea how that might work for an office computer. However, to be successful at work, I still needed to do a lot of reading, writing and analyzing – work requiring a lot of focus – so of course my learning disability would affect my day-to-day.
“Academics were the only point of reference I had for my disability, so accommodations at work felt out of place.”
Thankfully, my manager connected me with resources to get assistive technology and worked with me to make sure I knew what I could ask for regarding accommodations. I was encouraged to speak up if we needed to adjust something. I found out that my institution had licensing for the screen reader I used at school and was available for all staff.
Equipped with the tools I needed, I was able to set realistic expectations at work and be easier on myself. I realize now that I need to set dedicated time for going through long emails or researching topics because I take longer to read through them. I need to put on noise-cancelling headphones with music that won’t distract me and tell my peers that this means “do not disturb” when we are working together in an open office. Further, I must continue to advocate for my needs and recognize when things are getting to be too much.
That last lesson is probably transferable to most; we all need to be cognizant of the invisible challenges that we each face. I was lucky my manager was aware of my disability; however, not all employees are comfortable sharing that information with their supervisors. We all experience challenges, and so being aware of the resources that can support our work can help make life easier for ourselves and our colleagues
Looking back on my experience transitioning from post-secondary to the “real world,” I have come to understand that accommodations don’t need to be complicated. Too often employers and employees are worried about having the conversation in fear they may be insulting or may look incompetent. I understand how these conversations can be intimidating. When you don’t know where to start, it’s an even bigger hurdle to overcome. We need to find more ways to make accessibility more accessible. I encourage employers to review how you are sharing information about accessibility. Do you expect employees to self- identify, or are you proactively equipping your teams with the knowledge to request support when they feel comfortable? If it wasn’t for my supervisor’s awareness about what the institution might offer, I never would have known I could use assistive technology without having to pay for it myself.
You also don’t need fancy jargon around diversity, equity and inclusion; it can be as simple as asking: “What tools or support do you need to be more successful at your job?” or “What resources have you used in the past to help you succeed that maybe we can look into offering you here?” or even “Did you know that we have access to [insert accommodation tool here]?” By proactively raising awareness about accommodation supports at your workplace, you make them more accessible for your staff.
I am also a firm believer that if you provide accommodations/tools to your employees (even if they don’t require them to support a disability), you create a more supportive and understanding culture. This can further drive employees’ productivity and satisfaction with their work. The fact that my peers were able to use the screen reader on days where they were experiencing screen fatigue was super helpful for their productivity and well-being. Solutions that help minorities on your team may help your whole team, and I am pretty sure that’s a great outcome!
To those who are entering the workforce after having accommodations at your fingertips in school, take some time to reflect on why these were in place. Analyzing what you need can help you learn how to articulate this to others, or at least set up your environment for success. It can be frustrating if you have an employer who doesn’t get it, and while it isn’t your job to help them understand it (they should do some of the learning on their own), it is your responsibility to make sure you can find a way to thrive. That could mean advocating for your needs, adjusting your workspace, communicating with peers for support or looking for a new workplace that will be more supportive.
You need to do what you can to gain confidence in your abilities, because your disability doesn’t mean you can’t – it just means you do it differently. Coming to terms with that fact is what has helped me be easier on myself, continue to meet my goals and learn to thrive in a professional career.