Life and Tech with a ‘Hidden Disability’

October is national employee disability awareness month and so it seems like the right time to write about a condition called Dyspraxia, a developmental condition that millions of people around the world have, but relatively unknown in comparison to conditions it is frequently compared to (dyslexia being the main one).

Dyspraxia is diagnosed through clusters of symptoms – it is unusual for an individual to present with all, or most of the symptoms. Generally, extremely poor hand-eye coordination, poor balance and posture are key signs, whilst some cases also show problems with speech, focus and planning.

Personally, I was diagnosed when I was 5 when it was clear I couldn’t really write, catch a ball, put on shoes or clothes, ride a bike or do any of the other normal kid things. Frankly, I was lucky – not all developmental psychologists spot the condition, and due to the diversity of symptoms it is frequently misdiagnosed as ADHD or Asperger’s syndrome, or just dismissed as clumsiness or stupidity. 

In a way, it is good to have a label that explains the differences you notice between yourself and others – there have always been some things I’ve been significantly worse at than peers; and there have always been things I’m better at, but most deeply I’ve always felt different. People label conditions like Dyspraxia as ‘hidden’ or ‘invisible’ conditions, but I don’t think that is entirely accurate. I’ve always been noticeably different to most other people. This is part of what made high school no fun for me, but then I’m not sure it is fun for anybody really, is it?

I’m still not sure what to say to people, and default to saying nothing at all and just pretending to be ‘normal’. I don’t feel like I should necessarily be obliged to explain myself to people.

However, when nobody knows you have a diagnosed condition/disability/neurodiversity, some people seem to think they have a license to be insulting. You quite frequently get laughed at, called weird, called lazy, called stupid. I’ve been on TV before, did something that looked funny, and it amazed me the things that people who you’ve never met will say about you on social media.

Equally, I was going through the airport recently and it always takes me about 3 times as long as others to get things out of bags going through security. Because I was taking my time and there were some impatient looking people in the queue, the man whose job it is to churn people through the security line in an airport told me to ‘stop being an idiot’, in those exact words. Even in high pressure situations, we should always try to assume others are doing their best, show empathy and compassion and other to help. But stuff like that happens and it happens a lot. If you don’t have a clear visible impairment, people assume you’re mentally inferior, lazy or a troublemaker.

On the other hand, when you highlight to people that you have ‘a condition’, you are treated differently. People decide you aren’t capable of doing X, Y or Z and so you won’t be invited to certain events; people avoid giving you feedback about certain things as they fear that they’ll be seen as discriminatory. In some companies, you don’t get promoted as easily or paid as much (a sort of reverse halo effect where people imply having something ‘bad’ means that everything about you is in some way bad).

And ironically, in my case, Dyspraxia isn’t unequivocally bad, or perhaps I’ve been lucky. I don’t know if it is related directly to dyspraxia, but I have a great memory and find it very easy to spot patterns and make connections between different threads and people, and I’m not the only dyspraxic to report this.. And because I can’t always focus on any one thing, I’ve become pretty good at doing 10 things at once.

On the other hand, I struggle with a lot of physical tasks that most people find easy and routine – I wear clothes inside out about once a week; forget to do my hair; still can’t write well and can’t always walk straight. Whilst I know how to drive, I’m not really supposed to and honestly wouldn’t feel responsible doing so, although I respect that other people with dyspraxia choose to do so.

Perhaps this made working in software engineering a strange job choice, given the importance of fine motor skills in typing? Given that I have a physical disadvantage typing also means I have to do as much work as possible in my head and as little as possible on the computer (and leverage IDEs, annotations and other shortcuts where possible; no more manually writing out builder classes). It means I bias towards tasks which are more abstract, and throughout my career I have always tried to contribute in planning work, post mortems and design docs as much as in writing code. Working as an engineering manager, I try to put myself in situations where I can absorb and process information and make sure it is available to the team rather than working hands on. I also try to build the right environment where all sorts of people can prosper.

I’m writing this because I still don’t think we (humans, engineering organisations) do enough to understand neurodiverse individuals. We’re trying to get this right at Glovo, but it takes a lot of effort and time. I don’t think we adapt working environments to get the best out of people. Our competency frameworks, or at least their implementation, can often reward extensive documentation, speaking and presenting, and the navigation of social structures which for some individuals are opaque. When they are applied rigidly, we fail to appreciate the vast amount of things people can do, and punish them for what is usually a small range of things that they can’t, or can’t well. I’m not able to offer concrete answers, and I don’t want to speak for anyone else who may have had completely different life experiences.

I think all I want to say is that I’m not ashamed to be different. Not anymore. 

https://dyspraxiafoundation.org.uk/

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