Deeper Breaths, Gradually

On taking a risk and disclosing neurodivergence during my job search

Popular meme a monkey puppet looking all around

I have trouble looking people in the eye, and I also have trouble not trying to hide it. I don’t think I acknowledged I had this trouble until I was home for, you know, most of two years, and a lot of my masking muscles atrophied (ironically, during a time when I always wore another kind of mask). I think I’d been pretending for so long that I didn’t know what other way to be. It’s definitely led to some poor first impressions, especially when combined with my other energy, where I’m either looking all over or focusing intently on not doing so, and then I usually say something odd.

I don’t really get into that situation a whole lot given I’m not around people I’m meant to talk to that much these days. An outdoor bar has always been easy enough to come up with surface-level conversations given I usually take my dog and that sort of handles itself because he has too much energy and it’s funny for everyone to watch, and the same when I’m in the park with my son. But truly, the workplace has always been the hardest for me, and looking back the extra tension I felt was responsible for a lot of it.

So when I started looking for work a few months ago, I decided to go front and center with it. They tell you not to mention anything like this when you apply because then they might subconsciously use it to reject you or something. But the jobs I was applying for claimed to genuinely care about justice in some fashion, so I figured, if I convey it well and authentically, maybe it’ll connect with someone.

Over these unbearably stressful 4 months, between Omicron stuff and writing my dissertation and editing my book and editing my dissertation, the entire job search I was conducting always felt like a pile of garbage I did not need. I knew I’d wanted something new as I finished my degree, and once the latter seemed like it was on track, I really started thinking about what it might be, but it was way too much to do at once. Now that I am trying to come up for air, I think of the lessons I’ve learned in my handful of times SCUBA Diving not to swim up too fast, so I’m taking deeper breaths, gradually.

Back to last summer and thinking about what I wanted in the future. There was the obvious possibility of tenure-track. And I did apply to a few of those, nine overall I think. I figured I might do well if I got a chance to interview, but it wasn’t in the cards. “Maybe next year,” folks said, and yeah, maybe. I never really wanted to move, and then Alissa got a new job anyway so that wasn’t going to happen. I also looked into some “DEI” positions, but weirdly, despite all my research and so forth, they literally only wanted “DEI Professionals,” which I get to some extent, but, well, I’ve written a lot about this, but that’s how they end up in the same position all the time (and I said that long before I ever applied to one). That said, I was also fooling myself if I thought I’d have a lot of freedom in such a role. They are very constrained, and it would be easy to be tokenized. The couple that did interview me seemed to enjoy talking to me but it seemed like I wasn’t credentialed for the much more cold-hearted version of such a role than I probably wanted.

And then there was… what I was already doing. For those who don’t know, I’ve been a curriculum developer and employee trainer for a nonprofit-government-academic partnership, which is precisely as confusing an arrangement as it sounds. But there wasn’t much chance to really grow beyond where I was, and it just wasn’t what I wanted to be doing after finishing.

There are a lot of training/curriculum development jobs out there. A lot. Go look. And most of them are just evangelizing for their companies or repeating governmental regulations. I picked a few places that looked like they had some vague efforts at justice and started applying, figuring you never know until you actually talk to people.

I made some progress with one place where the work would have been more focused on economic justice, but they sent me an email called “Thank You” at 8 am (while I was dropping Ezel off for the day) and I knew what was what. That day, which happened to be my first back in the office after we’d been sent home for Omicron, I sent out a bunch of applications to places I thought might actually be cool after getting home, and lo and behold, among the places I applied to, once reached out two weeks later, and then, six weeks after that — these processes are so long, and this one was pretty fast! — I had the job.

In the process, though, I had done something they tell you not to do. The HR employee (who I suppose is my colleague now) setting up the interviews had asked if any accommodations were needed for each (zoom) call. I hesitated and then, feeling bold, said I sometimes look around when I’m excited and that I plan to be excited on the call. She told me it was noted.

Knowing they were prepared for that — even if it made someone uncomfortable, they’d have known and not been surprised — I was so much more relaxed when tying all my disparate ideas together. It’s a challenge for me to express my thoughts extremely clearly when talking. I can do it when I write and I’m particularly focused, and I can do it when public speaking (like all my teaching), but in responding to questions the way interviews are structured, I, again, have to focus really hard not to ramble, and when I combine that with holding my gaze steady, something somewhere falls apart.

Now, clearly we need to restructure the whole… everything but regarding this topic, the whole job application and interview and so on process for neurodivergent and other folks who might have these sort of needs. But at the least, just letting them know what might happen was a huge relief.

I say all of this to say, it remains to be seen how affirming the new place will be in all sorts of ways, but I am at least optimistic going in, and am looking forward to something new and potentially exciting, though I’ll always keep writing in what might finally be more free time(!). And though a small part of me thinks I’d be listened to in my critiques of academia more if I were employed within it, I’ve done enough qualitative interviews with academics trying to change things to know it’s not all that likely even if you really try.

I guess I got lucky, to have landed on this while sort of sad about another opportunity. And lucky in terms of various axes of privilege, including economic, gender, and so forth. But I do think these stories matter, because there still aren’t enough being told by folks like us, Black ND folks. Hope it was worth reading.

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JPB Gerald

Dr of Ed. Racism/language/ability theorist and adult educator.