Lydia X. Z. Brown is a lot of things — writer, advocate, organizer, strategist, educator, speaker, and attorney. Why do they spread their time and expertise across so many arenas? Because Lydia chooses to dedicate every aspect of their life to promoting social justice for some of the world’s most marginalized people. 

Distributed Podcast: Hear Matt Mullenweg in conversation with Lydia X. Z. Brown.

I have believed from a very young age that every single one of us has a moral obligation to use whatever resources we have — time, money, knowledge, skills, emotional energy, access to physical resources — however that might be defined — that we each have a moral obligation to use those resources in service of justice, and fighting against injustice and oppression and violence in all of its forms, structural and individual, subtle and overt.

Lydia recently joined the Project on Algorithmic Fairness & Disability Rights at Georgetown Law’s Institute for Technology Law & Policy as co-lead. Lydia’s work assesses how algorithmic systems impact disabled people in employment, benefits determinations, and other settings.

Through their work with people who navigate a range of disabilities and marginalized identities, Lydia has developed a deep understanding of how different workplace environments can best serve these folks. Along the way, they also learned what companies can do to make workflows and working conditions more inclusive for their diverse employee pools.  

Making Work More Accessible

The central focus of Lydia’s work lies at the intersection of neurodivergence, gender identity, and race; they themselves identify as a non-binary trans, autistic, East Asian person of color living in the U.S. They’re keenly aware of how people with these identities can suffer marginalization, even more so when living with multiple identities against which society tends to discriminate — a phenomenon some have referred to as hyper-marginalization. One of the areas in which they invest a lot of their energy is the exclusion of hyper-marginalized people from the workforce.

According to a 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, just over 19 percent of people in the U.S. with self-identified disabilities are employed. This data doesn’t account for undiagnosed workers or those who choose not to disclose their status. This high unemployment rate reflects the difficulties disabled people face when looking for jobs. The data doesn’t tell us specifically why the unemployment rate is so high, but hiring discrimination is a clear factor. Employers sometimes fear that hiring disabled people will come with additional costs. Combating this bias in the HR community is of paramount importance for reducing unemployment among disabled people.

Human Resources teams may also address this problem with logistical adjustments to the way employees experience their jobs. Distributed work promises to empower some disabled workers, since it removes many of the logistical hurdles involved in working out of a co-located office space. For starters, the process of getting ready for work can take hours for people with certain disabilities, cutting into their sleep. Then there’s the challenge of getting to the office. Some people require costly services to get them from home to their place of employment. Others navigate public transportation systems that can be treacherous, especially in inclement weather. Once a disabled person arrives at the office, they may face a host of other challenges: has the company built ramps and made other necessary spatial considerations for those using wheelchairs? Have employees received training to avoid microaggressions and other discriminatory behavior? These are just a few of the areas where companies can fail their employees. 

In contrast, remote work allows people to work from home, an environment far more likely to be comfortable for them and to accommodate their particular needs. A common byproduct of remote work is a more flexible schedule, which is crucial for those who require medical care or rest during the day. Distributed employees also have more freedom to design their workspaces in a way that facilitates their productivity.   

Even with the above benefits, though, remote work isn’t a panacea –and isn’t for everyone. For example, some neurodivergent people thrive in environments with frequent social interaction. Lydia is one of those people. They currently work in a co-located office space in downtown Washington D.C. They’ve done what they can to personalize it according to their work-style preferences — off go the harsh fluorescents, on goes the desk lamp. Lydia appreciates having their own office so they can close the door when they want to get work done, and leave it open when they’re feeling social. 

Lydia argues that the potential benefits distributed work might provide to disabled and neurodivergent folks sometimes outweigh the benefits of co-located office spaces, and vice versa. Each approach has value.

For some disabled people, having a traditional co-located office space is a boon. It’s a boon to mental health because it enables and provides a built-in way to connect with and share space with other humans. People were built to be in community, that is how we evolved, evolutionarily speaking, if we want to go to basic biology. And that’s true even for those of us like me who are more introverted… Having access to a workplace where we can actually see other people, potentially have the opportunity to build social and professional networks, can be great for that reason. 

Companies shouldn’t think about this issue in terms of disabled vs. disabled people. Instead, they should recognize that people exist on a spectrum of work-style preferences, some of which diverge from those of a hypothetical “average worker” because of physical or neurological differences. Employers should find more ways to allow individuals to modulate their work environments according to their personal needs. Lydia explains: 

Where disability comes into the picture is thinking about how someone’s body or mind might function best in an environment, a built environment or an emotional or communicative environment or infrastructure that perhaps wasn’t designed to begin with with that particular person’s bodily capacity or neurodivergence in mind.

Moving Away from the One-Size-Fits-All Workplace

There will never be a single workplace that satisfies every worker’s preferences. So how should office managers and designers think about making spaces comfortable for neurodivergent people and for those with physical disabilities? Lydia takes issue with that framing of the problem. Some autistic people crave natural sunlight and need a lot of it to function well. Others become uncomfortable when exposed to sunlight, finding it overstimulating, emotionally draining, or even painful. Colleagues with these disparate sets of needs cannot share a single workspace, or at least not the same room. 

For me the question isn’t so much, “How do we design a workplace or one methodology of supporting employees in terms of infrastructure,” as it is “How do we make sure that each person that is involved with our company or our organization or our community is able to access the type of environment and space that works best for them.”

Before devising a grand plan, HR teams can play a crucial role in making all employees comfortable and productive by simply inviting them to share how they view their ideal work environments, and truly listening when they provide answers. 

Listening is also important in a distributed context, where remote workers might not have as much face time with HR. Recent hires might also feel that since they’ve been given the opportunity to work from home, they shouldn’t rock the boat by making requests or expressing frustrations. 

By asking open questions, effective managers can detect when a team member is experiencing discomfort with their workspace (whether distributed or co-located), even if they hadn’t proactively disclosed this information in previous conversations or at the time of their hiring. 

It’s taking some of the kinds of questions that we might ask someone either in an assessment or an evaluation and/or in a job interview, but asking them with an eye to detail, being open-ended but also narrowly defined enough to capture the kind of information that will help the supervisor, the manager, and any HR support staff in figuring out how to then apply that information into the person’s current workplace.

In the example of a distributed employee lacking social interaction, Lydia suggests a potential solution: the company could invest in co-working space memberships for anyone who prefers not to work alone from home. Other distributed workers might simply need adjustments in the cadence of their communication with team members and management. Teams that have the ability to experiment with different styles, channels, and frequencies of communication will have more connected and fulfilled employees. Large companies can take this a step further by placing new hires with teams whose communication styles match their own. 

Neurodivergence as a superpower?

Over the last few decades, perceptions of autism in the business world have shifted. What many employers once considered as anathema to the workplace — whether tacitly or explicitly — is now perceived as a potential asset, especially for programmer roles. Lydia argues that while neurodivergent folks looking for work in tech might appreciate this attitude, employers should nonetheless enforce equal treatment when dealing with neurodivergent workers. 

Something that really worries me in many conversations around employment and corporate hiring initiatives are that many hiring managers creating these programs will say things like “We love having disabled employees because they’re so motivated, they show up to work every single day, they never call out sick, we can depend on them, they’ll be loyal to our company forever.” 

Lydia says that while many of these employers mean well, they should be aware that it’s riskier for disabled or neurodivergent employees to take a personal day or request equipment that will enable them to do their work more comfortably. Even the most banal decisions or interactions can be fraught, and appear as proof of either a presumed superpower — or as a tacit admission of a limitation. 

 Lydia believes we ought to reframe the disability-as-superpower concept completely. 

I don’t think we should be hiring disabled [people] either because of stereotypes that might or might not be true, e.g. that all autistic people are savants at math or that all blind people are prodigies at music, when sure, some are. There are some autistic people I know who are math geniuses and there are some blind people I know who are incredible musicians and there’s also plenty of us that aren’t. Like, I’m autistic and I suck at math. Also I’m Asian so I just broke two stereotypes at once, which is fun.

Instead, employers should understand that some neurodivergent and disabled folks will excel at particular jobs and others won’t, but their success or failure won’t be contingent on their disability or divergence. 

If the question is, “What are superpowers that we bring?” My answer is, “How about we not talk about superpowers but we talk about why each and every single one of us deserves to be able to do work in a way that’s meaningful, that makes sense, that makes us feel good, that is not doing something horribly unethical, hopefully, and that at the end of the day enables us to be able to live in a system that unfortunately isn’t really set up for most of us to thrive?”

The distributed model can be a boon to folks who have difficulty working in an office, but ultimately it’s up to the people who create and design work environments — distributed or co-located — to recognize that there isn’t a normal employee or a normal mode of work. There are no abnormal employees with abnormal needs. Companies should reject this false dichotomy and acknowledge that every employee is different, and that some might also experience several forms of difference and marginalization at once. Everyone, however, is likely to be happier and more productive when they have choices, agency, and a way to express their individual needs.

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