Personal Experience

Here to Thrive: Interning with Invisible Disabilities

Should I disclose my invisible disability? What good will it do? Whilst talking to employers about invisible disabilities is often daunting, Chay's experience is an uplifting testimony to the power of disability adjustments when done right.

by Chay Graham

I arrived to a Scottish Wellcome Trust unit to work as a cancer research informatics student intern in the summer of 2018, when everyone who was Scottish wistfully smiled at me, uttering phrases like ‘that was a nice summer’, as my horrified English sensibilities struggled to comprehend thunder, constant rain and a day of snow happening over the months of June, July and August, when in my opinion, that shouldn’t be allowed.

Although it was absolutely freezing, that summer was made much better by the equality department’s approach to disability, which massively helped me get the most out of my internship. When I met the disabilities coordinator, they told me that they would first get me to explain my full situation and draft a support document, then together we could determine who to disclose (what) to, whether the coordinator would disclose on my behalf or not, and what adjustments would be implemented.

The coordinator not only took details of the medical conditions I had on paper (ADHD and poor mental health), but was also completely open to hearing my speculations about other conditions I wondered about. For example, the suggestion of dyslexia had come up a few times in my previous workplace. Whilst the HR team couldn’t afford to pay for a dyslexia assessment, they offered to pay for a £60 optician’s assessment for Meares-Irlen Syndrome (visual stress), a condition commonly associated with dyslexia. As perhaps expected, the optician diagnosed me with Meares-Irlen which the HR team took as proof of dyslexia alongside my anecdotes, and were able to make adjustments. One of my lab colleagues clocked my sunflower-yellow reading ruler on my third day and asked: “Oh is that for dyslexia? My niece has one of those. It’s fabulous that there’s stuff like that nowadays, when I was at school it wasn’t even a thing!”.

As well as dyslexia, I also waxed angsty lyrical to the disability coordinator about how I always struggled with adapting to new people in new places, but that I wasn’t sure if it was because of my ADHD, whether I might be somewhere on the autistic spectrum, socially anxious, just a bit socially weird, or all of the above. As I warbled on, the coordinator looked at me firmly then added in a sentence to my support document that read “Chay may also struggle with a communication disorder and is exploring ways to determine the nature of this”. The idea that I wouldn’t need a massive burden of proof to request adjustments seemed alien; it was incredibly relieving.

The adjustments I had in the end were:

  • Snazzy dyslexia freebies that I didn’t even know I needed
  • A building tour with the disability coordinator to help familiarise me and thwart my brain’s best efforts to get me lost
  • Weekly organisation sessions with an in-house staff mentor to help keep me keep track of myself
  • Time out each week to attend therapy sessions for mental health, with downtime afterwards and commuting time factored in
  • Able to easily request days or a week off to deal with any periods of acute mental health problems that I might have

As for disclosure, it was done through an online system, where the disabilities coordinator released ‘official’ info and plans (such as my recommended adjustments, medical appointment schedule, and the possibility of sudden absences and a ‘stop-start’ working style) to my boss, day-to-day mentor and other colleagues, depending on what they needed to know. This was all done with my consent.

This all went really well, with just a few awkward hiccups throughout the 10 weeks I was there. Some lab members got very interested in where I went each Thursday which I described as ‘a doctor’s appointment’ (therapy) and if pried I would just say it was for ‘long term stuff, I’d rather not get into it right now’ (chronically terrible mental health). If they looked a little put out by that I’d quip ‘but maybe if we all get drunk at my leaving do I’ll start telling you about it in graphic detail’, which usually got a good laugh. I like language that refers to my mental health honestly yet plays on the assumption of a physical health condition, as it feels like a way to avoid some kinds of stigma without lying – something I learnt from a lifetime of allowing my bisexuality to be overlooked in situations where that protects me.

When it came to my mentor meetings I was more transparent: I told my lab members I could be terrible at organisation if left to my own devices and so the equality department had arranged meetings with their organisational coach. A nice outcome of my openness was that it also got across to people that I was bad at organisation without necessarily revealing any kind of disability, although I am sure some people would have connected it to either the funny coloured reading rulers, tinted computer screens, my mystery ‘long-term health condition’, or that ‘certain chaotic quality’ they got from me.

Over the course of my internship, I took two full weeks off for mental health. I explained to my mentor that I was unwell and wanted a day/week off, and each time they presumably spoke to my boss. They told me both times it was okay and to get well soon. If my lab mates asked, I just described it in generic terms (sickness, lack of energy, nausea). I distinctly remember someone speculating that I might have got a flu that was going around after I listed off some symptoms, which I found oddly validating: we often treat mental health as completely different from physical health, yet the symptoms are physical as well. I didn’t correct anyone or validate their suggestion but just let them fall flat and carried on the conversations. My daily mentor always just welcomed me backed, checked in, and then went back to business-as-usual – this lack of illness-related friction also signified to the other lab members that my absences weren’t causing concern.

Despite the time out, I wasn’t falling behind but instead kept getting ahead. Having a supportive work environment was enabling me to access the best of my ADHD (and whatever else) traits. I spent most days with an intense, challenge-hungry fixation on some of our most complicated data handling tasks, I kept spotting unusual creative solutions, and at one point I set up almost two thirds of an AI coding pipeline by myself over a 36-hour period, where I was absolutely hyper and buzzing with interest – something that reasonably could have taken us over a week. My mentor laughed at me on the second day of this ‘academic episode’; it was absurd that we’d only first heard about the intimidating mathematical concepts the previous morning and here I was, about to tie it up.

By the end of my internship, I felt like I’d cultivated a really healthy relationship with the disclosure process. I had a disability worker who knew everything and was perfectly equipped to understand me; a boss who knew enough to help give me the best experience; and a daily mentor who had got to know me and found ways to work really well with my strengths and limitations. Most remarkably, by having multiple people gently and reasonably explain to each other my string of ostensibly bizarre absences, quirks and odd work patterns, I had integrated bit-by-bit into a lab group who had all started to twig that I was in some way ‘different’, but that they had all already learnt to be fine with that. I finally felt like I was reaching my potential, and the results both personally and professionally for my growth were pretty astounding.

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