Disability empowerment can change traditional definitions of work and employment

Disability empowerment … can bend the moral arc of a neurotypical universe into one which supports the idea that initiative and hard work is valuable in and of itself, in whichever way it chooses to manifest.

By Nils Skudra

A little prefatory material is perhaps in order before I engage in a bit of rant. I’m a well-educated individual who also happens to be on the autism spectrum, my specific diagnosis being Asperger’s Syndrome. I received my Master’s Degree in American History last May from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro with my field of specialization being the American Civil War/Reconstruction period. I am currently pursuing a second Master’s in Library & Information Sciences there as well.

For the past six months I also have been working approximately three days a week at Chez Genese, a newish popular French restaurant in my city one of whose specific goals is to employ people with developmental disabilities to the tune of fifty percent of its workforce.

I spent many hours training for my job as a server and it has richly taught me many things: how to more appropriately and kindly navigate a social universe which is never an easy thing for me to do, to disambiguate between text and sub-texts in conversations with customers (are they truly happy with breakfast or lunch entrees? Do I need to provide them with more detailed synopses of menu items? Are the fact that they are not smiling a sign of some sort of dissatisfaction with their quiche Lorraine?) and to further refine my understanding of social cues which Aspies famously have difficulty with. I am always punctual, work hard and enthusiastically and am proud to tell everyone that I am successful in my job, happy in my accomplishments and regularly receive accolades from both my bosses, fellow employees and customers not to mention a steady supply of tips!
My challenges nevertheless are constant.

I strive to cultivate an attitude of “can do” and keep my distance from nay-sayers whenever possible. Like pop-up storms in North Carolina, they show up at a moment’s notice. In my experience it is far easier to make a judgment than to refrain from one.

However, I too am not immune from the effects of negative opinions. This fact (if I may call it that) was brought home powerfully to me several weeks ago when I looked at my Facebook page and saw a comment that a California cousin had posted on it. He had apparently just learned of my employment at Chez Genese and was quick to weigh in on my employment status with his remark that “you have a Master’s Degree in American History and are doing another Master’s too, so what are you doing working in a restaurant as a server for G-d’s sake?”

His comment hit me like a one-two punch with a kind of immediate global effect. If truth be told, firstly, I’m just grateful to have a job and one in which I am appreciated. In my mind all work is honorable. I am not particularly religious but am nevertheless still a person of faith who finds some solace in reading the Bible and found my conviction about the value of my job receiving a bit of ancient moral support from a line from Ecclesiastes itself: “whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all our might” (9:20). There is another line I recalled as well in the Old Testament about “find(ing) satisfaction in all (one’s) toil” (3:12-13).

I am proud to model for the neurotypical universe that people will disabilities are able and conscientious employees whose disabilities do not define them and that whatever one’s employment is, it should be undertaken with zeal and enthusiasm.

Secondly, in my mind being on the autism spectrum is not simply a fact – it is a responsibility that I take very seriously. I love working in the food industry and admittedly, when I meet a customer who wants to talk American history (as is not uncommonly the case), I can spiral out of control into an orbit of intellectual happiness.

The reality is that the disability community is MY community and I want to ensure that its existence and significance are incontrovertibly right out front in the imagination of the public. As they say in the vernacular, I walk the walk, and don’t just talk the talk. The fact that I work in a French café does not take away in any sense from my academic achievements and standing as a bona fide Civil War historian. American history is my passion. Anyone who knows me certainly knows that.

My OTHER passion is doing autism advocacy by demonstrating that this needs to be done on a daily basis in every environment and venue. I feel fortunate that Chez Genese and numerous other businesses are stepping up to the place and embracing the disability community by hiring its members.

Each of us has talents and abilities. We need to let that little light shine as a growing beacon, illuminating a universe which slowly is coming to task with the idea of disability empowerment and how it can bend the moral arc of a neurotypical universe into one which supports the idea that initiative and hard work is valuable in and of itself, in whichever way it chooses to manifest.


Nils at Special Blend

I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.

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