Why My Disability Makes Me a Better Employee

As people may have noticed, I’ve been a bit quiet lately, mainly due to being totally snowed in and overwhelmed at work. I’ve had a major project with a hard deadline and have been devoting nearly every waking moment to either working about it or just worrying about it. That worry and constant fretting is directly related to some of my anxiety issues – it’s a worry I feel both mentally and physically, with tensed muscles and clenched stomach and jitters. And I’m convinced that anxiety helps make me a better employee and better at my job.

I am a lawyer and my major project was a hearing with an administrative law judge to determine whether one of my clients will be considered disabled by the Social Security Administration and thus eligible for cash benefits and medical coverage. Our office had been working on this case since his initial application for benefits in 2006 and in the interim, I’d seen him struggle to avoid homelessness while his income disappeared and his medical condition deteriorated without access to effective medical treatment. So this case was an extremely big deal and the outcome would make an enormous difference in the course of his life from this point.

No pressure, right? And it didn’t help that it was an extremely complicated case involving about 15 years of medical records from 10 different medical providers and facilities about three or four distinguishable medical conditions. And that, although his disabilities have extremely serious effects, they were the kind of disabilities that Social Security usually has a hard time understanding and so tend to lead to findings that the individual is not disabled. So – a major case with a lot of difficult work for an extremely important outcome. And the short time between when we were notified of the hearing date and the actual date meant that to succeed, I would need to spend nearly every waking minute in between working on the case.

Which is when my anxiety kicked into high gear – and actually made that possible. I spent all my time in the office reviewing records, teaching myself relevant medical terms and context, and coming up with an overarching narrative to frame the disabilities. But when I would close the file and go home at the end of the day, my anxiety would not let me stop thinking about it. While I was driving, making dinner, in the shower, at the gym, my mind was constantly spinning, either worrying over some aspect of the case or making a list of my next steps when I got back to work. I was not only waking up in the middle of the night to spend some time thinking about the case while staring at the ceiling, I was dreaming about it.

When I’m that anxious about a specific topic or issue, I think of my brain kind of like a rock polisher – it takes a dull idea or problem, with jagged edges, and rolls it over and over and over (and over) again until the edges are worn down and the surface is polished to a brilliant finish that can be appreciated by even the most casual observer. But the end product wouldn’t be the same without the constant, unceasing motion and effort. If the motion, the tumbling, stopped for stretches of time, the end result would not be as smooth, as shiny, as easily appreciated.

My anxiety makes it impossible for me to slack off while working on such a major project. Even when I try – by watching tv, reading a book, talking to my cat – there’s a portion of my brain that keeps spinning and spinning away, and my whole body is ordering me to pay attention to that part of my brain. Yoga wouldn’t help, hot baths didn’t work, even a hard session on the treadmill just made me more tense. The only thing that would reduce the anxiety was making some progress on the case.

I think that drive makes me a better employee and results in better and more persuasive case work. I certainly know that I would love to take breaks and put work out of my mind and to not dream about it every night. But I don’t think the end product would be as good if I were able to do that. So my employer never needs to worry about me blowing off a case or putting less that my full effort into it, because of the anxiety that will not permit me to do anything less.

(By the way, we won the case and my client will get his benefits. Yay!)

There are definitely other aspects of my disability that either aren’t relevant to or actually make it more difficult to do my work, and I don’t want to imply that everyone who is a lawyer should have anxiety to make them more effective. But this particular aspect of my disability definitely enhances my ability to focus and concentrate and motivates me to put in lots of time and thought, which is an advantage for my job.

Are there aspects of your disability that enhance ro amplify your abilities in certain areas?

15 thoughts on “Why My Disability Makes Me a Better Employee

  1. Yes. I have a complicated history of mental illness and I’m about to start graduate school to become a therapist. I know how oppressive the mental health system can be. Because I know this, I can take steps to actively avoid being part of of the problem. I also am committed to bringing a systems perspective to therapy, which is a perspective that looks at the way the systems in a client’s life (family, peers, school, work, society as a whole) contribute to the client’s illness. This is a non-blaming stance and it is an approach that really helped me when I was in actively treatment.

    It also helps that I am planning to be an art therapist- in the context of clinics and treatment centers, art therapists tend to get ignored so we have a little more freedom to screw the system and offer a place of safety. I really don’t like the idea of working in a treatment center, but know that I will likely have to do it, at least for a little while.

  2. There are many things I think being autistic makes me good at, but the most important one: I suspect I wouldn’t even be pursuing the career path I am if it weren’t for my disability, because I’m a mathematician and I think a lot of the things that make me good at maths – being able to work with and have an intuition about highly abstract objects and concepts, being good at and enjoying highly rigorous logical thinking, pattern recognition, etc. – come from autism. (I admit that one of the reasons I think this is more because of context – a lot of mathematicians seem to have at least *some* autistic traits and I get my mathematical ability from the same branch of the family tree as I get the autism – but I think there’s still something to it.)

    On another note, I like to think that my speech disorder actually makes me better at giving presentations, because I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to compensate for it or how to make the talk as good as possible despite it. If I didn’t stutter I probably wouldn’t sink nearly as much effort and thought into this sort of thing, wouldn’t go to nearly as much trouble to make sure my speech is audible and as clear as it can be and that there is some back-up medium in case the stutter gets too bad, etc. I have hopes of something similar happening for tutoring…

  3. (Trigger warning: in this comment I briefly mentioned cases of kids with disabilities being abused by teachers which have recently been posted about on FWD/Forward.)

    Having ASD made me interested in ASD for a while, which made me be interested in working with other people with ASD, which eventually changed to being interested in working with DD people in general.

    I’m in college and my only paid jobs have been cashiering; all my experience working with other DD people has been volunteering/internships. I’m about to start my first support staff job next week though, at a summer camp.

    There are some good and some screwed-up aspects about me-as-staff. The screwed-up aspects are related to the fact that it is really daunting to be in a work environment with standard-issue humans, and can end up pretty heartbreaking and shutdown-y if it goes long enough. So although I like working with DD people, it is not really a choice–it’s one of my only real job options. But this isn’t obvious to other people so I end up feeling like I’m being perceived as a non-disabled person who is being really altruistic by working with people who are seen as difficult or undesirable to be around. I feel like it’s really dishonest and oppressive for me to try to use my line of work to basically escape from non-disabled people while still being read as non-disabled myself.

    I’m working on a post about this because it’s a huge mess of tangled-up privilege scrounging on my part. However, on the good side:

    1. Since I don’t see DD people as difficult, undesirable, etc., and even find their presence to be a relief, I am extremely energetic and happy when around DD people. Which I assume is somewhat unusual, given all the weird things non-disabled people say about how stressful DD people supposedly are (so stressful that you need special training to avoid stomping on their feet and duct-taping their only working limb to a chair).
    2. Since I’ve had to work on communicating with non-disabled people, I’m somewhat more creative and quick when it comes to communicating and engaging with people who I have trouble communicating with for other reasons (for instance, because they are nonverbal).
    3. Like a lot of ASD people I always think I’m doing something wrong. This isn’t exactly great for me in my personal life, but I think it is good that I always worry about whether I am offending or disrespecting the DD people I’m interacting with. In my experience, DD and especially ASD people are treated as though they’re always wrong and their aides/teachers should be able to make all the decisions about how to do things (even things as small as holding hands). A guy with ID who I knew didn’t particularly like me until one day when I offended him, he got up and walked out of the room, and I followed him and apologized. After that he hugged me and told me he really liked me–which was nice for me, but in retrospect, I feel bad that he found my behavior so uniquely awesome.

  4. Although I don’t get paid for this, I’ve recently started transcribing podcasts. When I tell people I genuinely enjoy doing it, a lot of them don’t believe me. Part of it is that I like certain kinds of simple, repetitive tasks. I also like grinding–i.e. killing the same enemies over and over again in role-playing games to get experience points–and transcription is a lot like that. (I transcribe a podcast about gaming, and of the people who’ve said: “I can’t believe you do this!” none of them are hardcore RPG guys :)).

    People with my diagnosis can process details at the expense of “the big picture,” and this comes in very handy for breaking down people’s speech into individual words, which get broken down into letters so I can type them. This also means that I have trouble knowing what details are relevant and which are not, so I had to learn to leave out filler noises.

  5. Having gone through a lot of what clients are going through, and knowing how frustrating it is on both sides of the counter, gives me a lot of insight into how to handle my interactions with them AND how to structure my job to make it fairer to both parties.

    I feel like a lot of people in social work don’t have that. And it breaks down communications in a lot of places and really distorts the whole system in bad ways. Because without that knowledge and willingness to empathize and think through things from both sides, you construct programs centered around the needs of the people administering them, and make decisions based on those factors.

    So the people who need the help end up getting screwed royally in some cases, and outsiders get upset, so they go and bend the rules a little bit, but not because they want to – just because they know they need to quell a storm. And then go about their day running these programs centered around the needs of the workers.

    There’s just this disconnect somewhere in there, and if these workers would realize that they are serving the clients, therefore need to pay attention to what they are going through & waht they need — I feel like the whole deal would be far more consistent and justified than it is now. The workers don’t have to give up their own considerations – but they don’t get 100% of the consideration in this equation.

  6. Kaz: much of what you said struck a chord for me. Especially this:

    “If I didn’t stutter I probably wouldn’t sink nearly as much effort and thought into this sort of thing, wouldn’t go to nearly as much trouble”

    While obviously not the same, I think having fatigue can sometimes make me a better at academic projects because I have to stop for breaks. And those breaks can be really useful for re-gaining perspective on the thing I’m working on, re-thinking or re-ordering ideas, and making sure that I’m saying what I want to say the way I want to say it. When I don’t have to allow for fatigue time, I’m often tempted to push on and not take breaks (because I don’t have to take them), and I notice that my work is often less thorough as a result.

    I often think that being disabled has added some positive things to my quality of life because of the management strategies I’ve developed.


  7. I really love the rock tumbler metaphor. My brain works the same way, though I don’t need to be particularly anxious and I’m often surprised at the end result. Because I’m not so great at monitoring my internal thoughts and feelings without actively thinking about it, I find that my rock tumbler has been going over some problem or connection without my even realizing it–until I have an epiphany on the topic. I’m familiar with your anxiety-induced tumbling, since that happens, too. Right now I’m trying not to let it start up about visas and immigration.

    I’m on the autism spectrum, and I think it does make me a better employee in general, and will serve me well in medical school and beyond. I’m detail oriented in a way the HR people writing job postings for craigslist can’t even comprehend. I require a sense of order, I’m very unlikely to gossip, and I notice small things (especially in paperwork) that others miss. I think the attention to detail will be especially good as a doctor, hopefully working with others on the spectrum.

  8. AWD, I just wanted to follow up to your comment (should’ve read before I posted). I worked in a public psych hospital for kids, so I understand really well what you mean about working with other neuroatypical people and it being the only comfortable choice, but being misread as neurotypical and feeling like a fraud, etc. You’re not alone.

  9. Oh, wow. I definitely can relate to this.

    Even when I am relatively mentally healthy, I am never free of significant levels of anxiety. So when I have work to do, I can’t not do it because my anxiety wouldn’t let me not do it. That is hugely motivating and productive. However, there are times (like most of this year, unfortunately) when something, perhaps minor failures, or higher stress, or simply a change in brain chemistry, when anxiety stops being productive, and I am utterly unable to concentrate.

    Social anxiety makes me a better employee (or has done in the past, I currently work independently) because I am hyper-attuned to people’s non-verbal signals, to the extent that on the downside I see things that aren’t there (non-verbal slights etc.) but on the upside I am able to anticipate people’s needs really well, can tell when others are stressed or harried even when they don’t tell me, and can just kind of tell when I’ve done something not quite right even without feedback. Consequently I’m really good at working in teams even though the social interaction is the thing that causes me most anxiety!

  10. I don’t know if my disabilities and chronic illnesses make me a better employee, but I do think they make me a better doctor in some aspects of my work as a pediatrician. I refer to it as wearing a double-sided white coat. Being able to bring the patient aspect to the practice of medicine has given me insight with both patients who share one or more of my diagnoses and those who share general aspects of living with a mobility impairment or a chronic medical illness.

    I find myself translating “patient” to some of my colleagues, often able to put a different spin onto patient or family characteristics that can be frustrating for a health-centered provider. Conversely, I’m often able to intuit what my patient or family might want to hear from their treatment team, because I remember lying in a hospital bed or sitting on an exam table wishing someone had said it to me. I’m told I do well with “difficult” or “complex” patients, but the truth is, those are often the ones with whom I identify the most. I’m more likely to struggle with the otherwise healthy, neurotypical patient with a simple acute problem, one who is considered straighforward, such as a toddler with an ear infection. But a kid with five diagnoses, ten medications, a couple of pieces of equipment and a mother who insists we give all those medications on exactly the same schedule they do at home, the typical resident nightmare? Those are MY kids.

  11. Yes, certain aspects do help. I’m a special education teacher. I believe my own sensory problems and speech apraxia helps me teach and empathize with children with similar issues better (because I know the experience from the inside as well as being well-informed on possible coping mechanisms and therapies). I’m more likely to take a multisensory approach to lessons, which can help all children learn better.

    On the other hand, in periods of high stress, my depression has caused me to not be as well prepared as I might have otherwise been and even to miss a couple of days this past year. However, a lot of that was due to the dysfunctional work environment I found myself in, which hopefully won’t be an issue next year! *crosses fingers*

  12. Many of my cognitive impairments have a flipside where they are actually unusual abilities. Or many of my cognitive abilities have a flipside where they are actually impairments.

    I wrote an article in Disability Studues Quarterly called Up in the Clouds and Down in the Valley: My Richness and Yours. It is the only time where I feel like my writing has even gotten close to what I mean here. So I will just link to it rather than write a clunky paraphrase.

  13. I teach gymnastics, adn am autistic.

    I feel that I see exactly where the skill is going wrong better than some of my colleagues, who know where skills tend to go wrong and drill for that. I can replay things in my brain and see where it falls apart & figure out the fix.

    I’m not bored by drilling basics OVER AND OVER AND OVER AND OVER AND OVER. Even if my athletes are. I can find a detail to fix. Really. Try me.

    I’m worried about not making sense, so I make SURE I make sense, & will show, tell, and if possible lift kids through what I want them to do b/c nothing sucks more than trying to do what is asked of you and not grokking it. Been there, done that.

    I’m not irritated by the kids who area bit neurodivergent (which in a busy gym, can be rough for the kid and the coach). I in fact like them a lot. They pick up on this and everyone has a better day.

  14. In retail…

    My obsessive-compulsiveness makes it so that I am constantly straightening, reorganizing and adjusting the various displays at the store. I pick up anything I find on the floor, I will pull off any items on pegs that don’t belong in that section (even if they’re mixed in all the way toward the back), and at one point I even organized the flip-flops that people usually just throw into a bin into neat little columns by size. For larger stores people tend to be more concerned about this but since I work at such a small place, all of my coworkers and my managers are much more lax about it. I’m used to working at larger stores and I just cannot stand it when I see these things out of line. My manager and I would joke about how she takes advantage of this when she assigns me to tasks that she wouldn’t want anyone else to do because they wouldn’t do nearly as good of a job. It also affects how I bag everything. To the point where, unfortunately, I can be a bit of a pain when I become the customer and I put my groceries on the belt in the order it should be bagged and they don’t do it right.

    Then there’s the hyperactivity that I tend to have, where I have to be doing something constantly. Yeah, combine that with the obsessive-compulsiveness. I’m always moving and doing something. I refuse to stand at my register and do nothing, or worse – play around on my cellphone or eat (oi…).

    On the flip-side, my physical disabilities actually help my interactions with my customers, because I pay more attention to their needs and keep a constant mind for any accommodations I can help with. I always pay mind to not bag the bags too heavy, and if they ask me to bag them heavy anyway, I double bag them. I hold doors open, and for customers with power chairs, I help arrange the bags on various stable parts of the chair such as the neck of the head rest so they can get home or finish their shopping without worrying about losing their bags.

  15. Similar to your experience, anxiety helped me perform well in school and college. Once I had an assignment (school or work), I would endlessly think and work until it was perfect. I learned how to argue against (or for) anything and how to conduct exhaustive research.

    Major depression on the other hand, due at least in part to that perfectionism…well, let’s just say I’m not as on top of my game as I used to be.

    But I agree that it’s worth to discuss the ‘advantages’ of disabilities.

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