by ChrisTiana ObeySumner
I recently signed my first commercial lease and moved into my first solid office space. It is exciting to finally be able to create an environment that would mitigate barriers that made work process difficult for me in the past, (and inspired me to start consulting on intersectional disability justice).
I found a reclining chair for when I get dizzy, created a hidey-hole under my desk for when I am overstimulated, and bought lamps to effectively retire the overhead lighting in the room during my work hours. Everything was almost perfect, except for one thing: This humongous window looking out into the main space. The issue is not with the window itself, but the distractions on the other side as people walk to and from a conference room and a kitchen. On one hand, this is a great location and opportunity to meet co-workers and share more about my work and business. I have already landed one contract over a cuppa from the fancy espresso machine! On the other hand, people and prospective tenants walk by and glare inside, which can get super distracting. I figured a quick, low-barrier fix would be a spring rod and a sheer purple curtain – to match the theme of the logo on my door. I’d come to realize I would be faced with having to navigate through a hostile accommodation.
I coined the term Hostile Accommodation while grappling with my support network about this situation. Recognizing the aggressiveness of the word “hostile” in this context, the definition as I currently sit may be resonant for those who’ve been impacted by this situation: Any process or offer of accommodation that is either so complex or so strenuous that most people on the receiving end would consider it hostile or violent.
Hostile accommodations also tend to show up as environmental microaggressions: biased and discriminatory physical, social, and/or political spaces impacting a particular marginalized group or groups. For this reason, hostile accommodation is a manifestation of bias towards the person requesting an accommodation or working to self-accommodate who is met with physical, social, and/or political barriers during the process. The latter was my experience at the office.
A member of leadership walked by the large window, glaring inside. They knocked on the door and informed me that while they thought my curtains were “super cute,” there was a policy banning office curtains. Of course, I had to ask why. The lease had given a wide swath of liberties in terms of structural changes, including an offer to borrow a stud finder to mount my bookcases into the drywall and permission to anchor paintings and other knick-knacks into what must be a century old exposed brick wall. The building manager didn’t have an answer, only that it was a policy from the parent company. I told them the sheer curtain was an accommodation I needed as a multiply-disabled person to create some space between my office and the people who walk by and glare. I asked for the contact information of a corporate manager to discuss Title III of the ADA, which covers commercial leases and public accommodations.
I was never connected. Instead, I was informed after several emails the solution would not be to allow the sheer curtain, but to be moved to an office on the second or fifth floor in one of the oldest buildings in the city where the elevators are iffy at best, (everyone who has visited my office to date has commented on the anxiety-provoking nature of these mid-20th century lifts). They were willing to provide the office at my current rate (taking a substantial loss in rent), move all furniture themselves (they are not professional movers nor do they have any on staff), and somehow ensure a safety plan for evacuation in a liquefaction zone and an area of town that is infamous for burning to the ground. Despite my concerns around mobility and the reliability of their elevators or safety planning, they held firm.
The building management knew and acknowledged the proposed accommodation would be a herculean effort for all involved to completely relocate my workspace, including all of the administrative work that would be involved in changing the lease, moving my furniture and logos, and turning over the space I am in now for a new tenant. While this hostile accommodation may have been made with the best of intentions, it’s irrelevant when it comes to the impact of these microaggressions and biases. As the old adage goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
The process of requesting accommodations can also be hostile. Earlier this year, I facilitated a workshop on how to create an equitable and inclusive work space for people with intersectional marginalized identities including an invisible disability. As you can imagine, it was quite a dense training that could have easily been a series of two or three parts. When I shared with the audience that requiring a doctor’s note was a form of hostile accommodations, the floodgates of incredulity flung open. The common theme among those insistent that a doctor’s note be required argued some sort of documentation was needed to ensure people weren’t “faking it” or “trying to game the system.”
I asked one particularly energized participant to estimate what percentage of people requesting accommodations they thought would try to do this. They said between 2-3%. I then shared the results of a 2012 Cornell University study that found 70% of disabled people/people with disabilities choose not to disclose out of fear of being fired, and 60% anticipated their employer would not be supportive. A Harvard Business Review (HBR) article shared the results of a survey with a little more than 1000 disabled people/people with disabilities. Only 39% of people said they had disclosed their disability at work in some way, meaning 61% of people did or would not. These valid assumptions are not random, they are rooted in past experiences and trauma from an ableist system and all of the intersectional marginalizations and oppressions that come with it.
Consider the process of an employee with an invisible disability requesting accommodations and being told they need a doctor’s note, especially if they have other intersecting marginalized identities. The foundational hostility of this scenario is requiring someone to navigate a medical system that has long been established as racist, antiblack, transphobic, transmisogynistic, sexist, ageist towards younger and elder people, classist, xenophobic, and prohibitively complex. This doesn’t account for the potential cost of unpaid time off, falling behind on work, the complexity of possibly needing to see specialists or undergo testing to establish a formal diagnosis, and the frustration and disenfranchised grief of not being heard or believed up front.
The passionate participant in the workshop believed 97-98% of those who requested accommodation were being honest, yet was willing to put them all through a traumatic process just to catch 2-3%. The social model of disability prompts people to evaluate what about the physical, social, or political environment may be disabling to someone. This is in juxtaposition to the medical model that sees the person as disabled within an otherwise neutral space created for able-bodied and neurotypical people, which can be seen as othering and marginalizing.
If you are an employer or decision-maker in an institution, here are some suggestions to get you started on dismantling hostile accommodations in your workspace or environment:
- Take time to reflect on ways your policies, workspace, and work environment may be disabling to people with various and multiple disabilities.
- Start a disability justice employee resource group or internal consulting group and develop an equitable process for accommodations that begins to cultivate rapport and trust.
- Hire, and promote into leadership, disabled people/people with disabilities in all departments, not only as “diversity coordinators” or “disability specialists.”
- Consider why you may ask someone with an invisible disability for a doctor’s note to prove whether they are “covered under the ADA,” whether you would do the same for someone with a physical disability, and what the bias and/or impact of this practice means for the person requesting an accommodation.
- While it has become a standard practice, a doctor’s note is not required during the accommodation process. Work with Human Resources to review policies around accommodations in partnership with disabled employees or disability consultants and promote or pay disabled employees and consultants as part of your organizational equity work!
- Begin conversations with your employees around hostile accommodations and have a 360-review process that leads to change with accountability structures and benchmarks.
In my situation, the compromise I found was placement of a bookcase with plants in my window to create space between me and the glaring passersby. This was somehow acceptable for what I later learned was an aesthetics policy. While my office is mostly perfect, the experience of a hostile accommodation still stings every time I see building management. One member of the leadership team came to apologize, and while I acknowledged and affirmed it, I didn’t accept it. I explained there needs to be a review of the policies with disabled people/people with disabilities leading the charge. As the battle cry of the disability justice movement goes, “Nothing about us without us.”
ChrisTiana ObeySumner is the CEO and principal consultant of Epiphanies of Equity LLC, has dedicated nearly two decades of their life and career to amplifying the importance of social equity through the lenses of critical race theory and existential social psychology –particularly through frameworks of: Narrative identity development and its role in cultural humility and allyship; Intersectionality and social models of disability justice; Bridging awareness to the lived experience of race, racism, racialized ableism and antiblackness, and; Dismantling neuropsychological and psychosocial paradigms underlying social injustice and inaction.
Featured image is used under a creative commons license