A couple of years ago, I was out job searching. I had heard of a service located in Alexandria, Virginia, known as the Department of Aging and Rehabilitative services (DARS).
From the Virginia DARS website:
Our Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) program offers services to empower individuals with disabilities to enter the work force or return to work.
DARS set me up with a counselor to work with me on finding a job. At first, it looked like a great resource. They claimed to work with individuals with all sorts of disabilities.
Beyond that first impression, there were problems.
This person was very unprofessional and inappropriately intrusive– even nosy– for a counselor to the point it was dehumanizing.
From an agency that is taxpayer-funded to help people like me gain access to being able to support myself and find accessible employment, I was not expecting ableism.
I went there of my own determination looking for work. The first thing she said to me was that I need paperwork proving that I’m “disabled enough.”
She did not ask for a note from the doctor who diagnosed me as Autistic. She asked for evidence that I’m “disabled enough.”
What does that mean? How does that reflect on how well autism is understood by the supports that are supposed to be there to help us? Autism isn’t a look.
An Autistic person is disabled based on context. An Autistic chemist may do very well in a lab but would never be able to work in the fast-paced, sensory-overwhelming environment of a McDonald’s.
But while the national unemployment rate (pre-pandemic) was below 4%, the unemployment rate for autistics with at least a bachelor’s degree was 85%. This demonstrates the complexity and nuance of the challenges autistic people face on a job.
From the beginning, the way she initiated the conversation simply caused more confusion and anger than I wish it had.
It was all downhill from there.
The ‘counselor’ then started complaining about everything I did to stim. At one point, I had to scratch my face because, like everyone else, I get itchy sometimes. She called it weird and nasty.
I scratched my face briefly. Everyone scratches their face.
Would she have called a non-autistic weird and gross for this?
The icing on the ‘you’re done’ cake:
After we wrapped up our first meeting, she insulted what I was wearing. I get that plenty of corporations want their people to wear professional clothes, but I was looking for a casual job.
She then made the leap to associating my past work record to give me bizarre excuses as to why she wanted me to wear certain clothes. First of all, with no information other than stereotypes and prejudices, she assumed the reason I was not employed currently was that I did not understand dress codes.
Second, there are ways to provide feedback— as a professional— that are from a place of wanting to see someone succeed, and there are ways to bully and degrade people that are from a place of seeing them as less deserving of dignity and respect.
Third, because I do not drive and didn’t have a clear destination, I knew I would be walking in the sun for more than an hour. I was not intending to interview for a corporate job, but to browse for what was available. Again, benefit of a doubt is all I ask for.
Lastly of all, the job of a counselor is to understand the client’s side of things and where they are, then to help them get to the next step in a way that works for them.
I felt like the total opposite happened that day.
If you decide to work with DARS, that’s your choice. Just know, they could hurt you just for being you.
Every time I hear anyone endorsing DARS, I feel jarred and anxious just thinking about what I went through. The less fellow autistics experience this kind of treatment, the better.
I have looked a lot on LinkedIn for casual jobs. They have a wide range of restaurant host jobs that I ended up loving.
I also worked with Asperger Experts, an online community created by people on the spectrum with advice and resources for Autistics. They understood my choice of dress. They understood and were respectful of how far I could go this far out of my comfort zone but also of my limits and boundaries.
This is not me intentionally trying to persuade anyone to not wanting to work with DARS or even for endorsing DARS. I just want to warn disabled people about the potential for being treated so poorly. I hope that Autistic people can at least be emotionally prepared so that more unnessecary trauma can occur with it.
- Discrimination from DARS: Autism and Seeking Services for Employment - January 9, 2021
- Autism, Fire Alarms, & School Fire Drills - November 25, 2020