I am many things – a scientist, a weightlifter, a cross-stitcher. I’m a Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) employee with a job that has me pondering polar bears, grinning at gorillas, running statistics on snakes and everything in between. I am a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Research and Technology Committee (I never thought I’d get to say that!). I am a colleague to researchers I used to regard as quasi-celebrities. I am, in so many ways, the fulfillment of my childhood self’s wildest dreams.
I am also neurodivergent.
I have been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, autism spectrum disorder and several other conditions. If you take anything from this article, I hope you understand how difficult this is to say—much less to claim with pride. We have been socialized to speak about mental health conditions in whispers, behind closed doors or—better yet—not at all. Being born in the ‘90s, I am acutely aware of the privileges, awareness, and social accommodations that exist for members of my community now that were not available for previous generations. However, even now, I know that publicly identifying myself as such may have repercussions for me in some spaces.
The neurodivergent community remains highly stigmatized, whether it be by inaccurate (often trivializing) stereotypes of our conditions, infantilizing assumptions related to our capabilities or dismissals of our lived experiences. We often struggle with accessible workplaces, preparing stacks of paperwork to “legitimize” or justify our needs. We accept basic accommodations with genuine gratitude or choose to avoid it all and muddle through. We make the best of what we have, with the exhaustion, self-doubt and other obstacles largely invisible to our colleagues. We balance the challenges we face against the intimidating process of disclosing our needs and advocating for ourselves. Even as AZA-accredited zoos center questions of accessibility and inclusion for neurodivergent and disabled guests, sometimes the same considerations for staff can slip between the cracks. For many of us, self-advocacy is the only avenue for accommodations. We have learned, often from a young age, that no one is going to speak on our behalf. If we need something, the fight will come from our own lips.
For 25 years, until I joined the DZS, I relied on myself to ensure my needs were met. After some time with the DZS, I disclosed my neurodivergent conditions to my supervisor. I was ready to offer all my paperwork and go through the whole arduous process. My supervisor looked across her desk and said, “Let’s talk about work-from-home accommodations.” There was no skepticism. No heavy-sighing or awkward excuses. She only followed up with, “Do you think that would help? I can contact HR and get it all worked out.” In a combination of relief and disbelief, I broke down in tears. It hadn’t occurred to me to even request this, much less that someone else would offer it, intercede on my behalf and advocate for me.
Since then, we have worked out other accommodations (many minor for my employer but with major benefits for me!) as they have arisen. Behavioral observations during peak crowd season in the reptile building? My heart is happy for our guests and young learners, but that environment leaves me exhausted, overstimulated, and anxious. No problem for the DZS—we just tweak the observation schedule so that I handle the shifts during the slowest periods and other staff/volunteers cover the peak observations. When I struggle with the texture of nitrile gloves in the lab, I am provided fabric gloves to wear underneath so the nitrile doesn’t touch my skin. I find myself more productive than I have ever been. I am excited to go to work. I feel innovative, curious and giddy! Best of all, I have energy to engage in hobbies that bring me joy when I go home.
I am a juxtaposition. I always knew I would love my work—my passion for wildlife and research has been all-consuming from a young age—but that enthusiasm was tempered with the knowledge of the barriers I would face. It never occurred to me someone might speak for me and strive to create an equitable environment with me in mind. I am different from you; I don’t pretend I’m not. But I’m also just as joyous, passionate, and capable in this field as you are. Mine is not the only voice calling out in our community, and you have the power to help us break the silent barrier.
Dr. Kylen N. Gartland is the manager of applied animal welfare science at the Detroit Zoological Society and a member of the AZA Research and Technology Special Committee.
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