It wasn’t until my former employer turned my disability into a liability that I recognized the profound gap between inclusion the buzzword and inclusion the virtue. Of course, by the time I realized that difference, I’d been backed into a corner and forced out of a job. But processing information slowly is part of my disability, so, ironically, it works out.
I have a hipster disability; it’s super cutting-edge and you probably haven’t heard of it. It’s called nonverbal learning disorder (NLD), a developmental disability whose diagnosis is so recent, it’s not even in the DSM, though an estimated 1 percent of the population has it. Thanks to my NLD, I have trouble understanding nonverbal communication and social cues. I can’t “read between the lines.” If something is communicated by implication, a facial expression, or some means other than language, it’s something I’ll probably miss or misinterpret.
Language is how I make up for those deficits. Words’ meanings provide me meaning. They’re how I find stability amid the seismic unsteadiness of inferences and social cues. This is often the case for people with NLD. One of the tell-tale signs of NLD, actually, is a profound disparity between verbal intelligence and nonverbal intelligence (or “performance intelligence,” a diagnostic category that includes nonverbal skills like mathematics and visual-spatial abilities). People with NLD often use their verbal skills to try and make up for all the nonverbal stuff that flummoxes us, using language to make sure we’re included and able to cope in a world full of uncertain messages.
My way of coping was undermined one day in the fall of 2018, when a company committed to the secular trinity of welcoming, diversity, and inclusion used my disability against me. Since then, I’ve wondered how those words — welcome, diversity, inclusion — could be so divorced from their meanings. I think I finally have an answer, as ugly as it is.
I have a shirt with the Gonzales flag of the Texas Revolution on it, the one that reads “Come and take it” and shows a cannon. That’s the front. The back is a George Washington quote about the necessity of the Second Amendment. I love this shirt for a few reasons. For one, I fell in love with Texas when I lived there for four years. For two, I love the historical resonances: “Come and take it” originates with the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, and the phrase was also used in the Revolutionary War. I also love the Washington quote; a summer stint as a Mount Vernon tour guide turned me into a Washington devotee.
I’d worn this shirt to work before. My employer, a tech startup named Capterra, had a characteristically informal dress code (“Make sure you’re wearing something,” our former CEO said). At least, we did until we moved in with Gartner, the Acela-corridor mega-corporation who had bought us.
Shortly after lunch one day last fall, I was told my shirt was offensive. I was never told why. I was told, however, that I had two choices: go home and change or work from home the rest of the day. When I asked who found my shirt offensive, I was told, “The company finds it offensive.” That newspeak was as much explanation as I would get.
I explained that I’d be happy to talk to whomever was offended. I’d even be happy to buy him or her a coffee or beer, so the conversation wouldn’t feel like a confrontation. To my mind, discussion is the only right way to solve such a conflict in an open, democratic society.
Another party was added to the discussion, but it was an HR rep. They kept asking me whether or not I was willing to change. I kept saying no. I honestly couldn’t figure out why they kept asking that question, when I kept giving the same answer. So, I finally asked what would happen if I continued to refuse. They told me to wait elsewhere while they discussed the issue.
When HR came to fetch me from grown-up detention, they informed me I’d been disciplined. I’d been referred up the chain of command and should wait on some form of punishment. I was furious. I thought I was waiting on an answer, not a punishment. That was, I thought, why they’d told me to wait elsewhere. I was too livid to express it at the moment, but when I did convey this misunderstanding to the HR rep later, her response was, “That’s not your decision to make.”
At this point, I saw only one ethical way out of my conflict. I told them that to save their time, this was my two weeks.
My choices may seem obstinate and juvenile. I may seem to be looking for a source of outrage, like Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Viewed through the lens of my disability, however, the situation is hardly humorous, especially given the way employers ostensibly dedicated to “inclusion” and “diversity” treated an employee who processes nonverbal communication differently than they do.
As I mentioned above, NLD is a developmental disorder characterized by difficulty understanding nonverbal social cues. Those nonverbal social cues can be anything from a facial expression, to a tone of voice, to a subtle implication. And those subtle implications are more important than you might think: 65 percent of the information in every conversation is communicated nonverbally. When I try to read between the lines, it’s mostly in invisible ink.
But my inability to read social cues is balanced by my facility with words. Because I depend on language, I’ve become very good at using it. That’s what I did for my employer: I was a writer, responsible for blogs and marketing collateral.
NLD also means I struggle to resolve cognitive conflicts. A cognitive conflict is exactly what it sounds like: any mental conflict, from “What do I eat for dinner?” to “Do I choose what’s right, or what’s easy?” This can make life comically miserable. Imagine spending 30 minutes deciding what to watch on Netflix. It can also make life actually miserable, like it did in my run-in with Capterra’s management.
But this inability, too, had helped me in my job. I wrote about the challenges faced by small businesses. My ability to see all the different possible problems a small business might face was a benefit. I could anticipate all the things that might go wrong and analyze how software could solve those problems. My job was a place where my disability’s downsides were actually upsides.
You can already probably see how my disability played into my quitting. My disability makes it hard for me to resolve conflicts; this was exacerbated by being confronted by my boss and a hostile HR rep. My disability makes it tough to read between the lines; I didn’t realize the subtext of “And you still won’t change your shirt?” was “Do what we say or you’re screwed.” My disability makes it tough to understand any conversation’s nonverbal implications; I didn’t get how deep in it I was. Incidentally, the company was aware of my disability. At the time of this incident, I was in the process of formally declaring my disability with my employer. I wouldn’t get the chance to finish that process.
The situation they put me in was the complete opposite of what you’d expect from a company devoted to welcoming, diversity and inclusion. They certainly made me feel unwelcome. My neurodiversity was made into a liability. I certainly didn’t feel included, and excluding myself felt like the only ethical choice after our confrontation. Those three words and concepts, which were apparently intended to protect people like me, failed on every level. How did this happen?
Gartner was fully invested in the rhetoric of diversity and inclusion. Their website is replete with the standard corporate rhetoric about creating a welcoming space. Two months before this interaction, I’d heard one of our HR reps saying she “wanted to make a diversity hire.”
In a truly welcoming and diverse workplace, though, a disability doesn’t have to handicap you. The difference between disability and liability is the difference between disability and handicap. According to the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health, a disorder is only considered a disability when it impairs functioning in society. If a society is genuinely inclusive, disabilities are less likely to be handicaps. One famous example of this distinction is Martha’s Vineyard in the 1700s and 1800s. So many islanders were deaf that deafness on Martha’s Vineyard didn’t impair social functioning. Since many islanders knew the local dialect of sign language, deafness wasn’t a handicap to the same extent it was on the mainland.
Technically, I’m the sort of person that HR goes out of their way to welcome and include. I’m invisibly disabled. I have a rare developmental disorder. Moreover, this developmental disorder actually made me better at my job. I told HR all this, explaining that their actions that day were exacerbating my disability. So, how did a diversity-happy HR department back their neurodiversity hire into a corner? How did the people who should have protected the disabled handicap a disabled man?
Look to the inciting incident — if you can call it that — for an answer. The shirt I’d worn “was offensive.” As someone limned by language, I can admit some grudging respect for that phrase: “was offensive.” It’s brilliant sleight of hand. Offensive to whom? I never found out. Offensive for what reasons? Again, I never found out. The words “was offensive” weaponized a complaint and overrode any concern for my disability. Just two vague words from an anonymous source, and factors like the broader context of my disability, not to mention my freedom of expression, became secondary concerns.
Moreover, their use of that phrase, “was offensive,” deprived me of my principal means of navigating the world. How do you exclude someone who uses language to get by? You make language vague and indefinite. You don’t allow someone who depends solely on words to understand their meaning. This attitude extends to how Gartner defines those words: welcoming, diversity, and inclusion. They’re vague abstractions that can be weaponized for any purpose — like getting rid of the disabled who happen to have “offensive” political views. That way, words are just as shifty and uncertain for me as social cues.
Gartner’s definition of inclusion was more about power than about making sure that disabled, different people like me, are included. No, they actively excluded me in the name of inclusion. Whatever they say inclusion means to them, in practice, all it means is pure force. The word isn’t a marker of an idea; it’s a smokescreen to do what they want.
Taking off my shirt was more important than my neurologically mediated outlook. Taking off my shirt was more important than my relationship with language, which made me good at my job (I had the fastest-growing blog in Capterra history). Taking off my shirt was more important than including someone who’s struggled with exclusion his whole life. Everything that made me diverse and unique was secondary to HR’s exercise of power. But even as I can grudgingly admire the strategy of how they excluded me, I’m still left wondering, more broadly, how Gartner’s devotion to the buzzword “inclusion” didn’t translate an attempt to include someone with a cognitive difference.
I think some of it has its roots in the academy, like a lot of today’s soft fascism. I’d guess the genealogy of Gartner’s corporate morals can be traced to ideas like those in Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s 1997 book Extraordinary Bodies. In that book, Thomson suggested that we reframe disability as a political category, rather than as something medical (or personal, intimate, or unique). Disability, on this view, is not something that can differ radically between even people with the same diagnosis. No, it’s one more socially constructed group identity to be used in the politicized world of intersectional identity politics.
The academic Left took that poisonous advice, and that poison has reached the increasingly left-leaning elitists of coastal corporations like Gartner. When you reframe the endlessly individual experience of disability as one more politicized group category, inclusion ceases to be about the person sitting across from you. Inclusion is, instead, an exercise of power. Inclusion is a buzzword rather than a virtue. Everything looks like a nail to a hammer.
So, how do words like welcome, diversity, and inclusion become divorced from their meanings? Easy. They’re redefined to mean their opposite. Words are transformed from guideposts that help people like me into weapons that allow people to bully and exclude in the name of “welcome” and “inclusion.” My experience at Gartner is far better explained by George Orwell’s 1984 or Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals than by anything in Thomson (or any leftist disability theorist).
Make no mistake: the ugly treatment I got at work that day is a preview for what will continue to happen if language degrades and the guardians of “diversity, inclusion, and welcoming” misinterpret those terms through the lens of political power. The more language is divorced from meaning, the more people like me, people who are made of language, will be divorced from opportunities to engage in one of life’s most important pursuits: honest work, and work with people and words that mean what they say they mean.