Unintentional barriers are still barriers


One of our supporters explains what a microaggression is and how they've been made to feel self-conscious about not drinking due to their disability. 

Stray comments and off-key jokes are at one end of the spectrum, but larger acts of prejudice lurk at the other.

“Go on – just one drink.”

It’s innocuous-sounding, I know, but this is one of the most difficult things I’ve encountered at work relating to my disability. Especially when, as in this case, I heard it said repeatedly and insistently.

This was just before a social at work. It was Friday, and the fridges full of beers in our office were being thrown open.

I absolutely could not have a drink. There was no question of it. But not having a drink was not ‘normal’.

And that’s the thing about our working culture. Like our social culture, it has many things ingrained in it that don’t go well with having a disability or long-term condition. And so it excludes.

Why I don't drink

Take a condition like mine, which affects things like mood and impulse control. I used to enjoy a drink as much as the next person, but I’ve learned that the interactions between alcohol and my condition are too dangerous, so I now avoid it.

Of course, that’s easier said than done when our social culture is so wedded to alcohol. Be forced to avoid it due to your condition, and suddenly you can’t access many social spaces, including workplaces, like many of your peers. It’s a hidden barrier.

Of course, I’m not alone in this, though my situation is fairly unusual because it relates to a disability. And, to anyone who’d argue it’s just a case of saying no, let me introduce you to disabilities that affect impulse control – there are a few of them!

And the difficulty is that I’d already established that I would not be drinking, then or ever. So to be blunt, it’s not something that should have been up for discussion.

So why was it?

What is a microaggression

Many people with disabilities and health conditions will likely have asked themselves similar questions at work. A disabled employee might ask: ‘why have my team chosen an inaccessible venue for a social event even after being reminded?’ Someone else might wonder: ‘Why am I being congratulated on being so articulate when no one else gets that comment?’

These are all examples of those strange moments, hard to define, where you feel you’ve been singled out because of your identity. They leave you wondering whether it was intentional, whether there was any malice behind it or not – and whether it was all in your head. In other words, microaggressions.

Now, would I call someone insisting I have a drink a microaggression? I don’t think so myself, but many would. The thing about microaggressions is that they can be unintentional and just be a result of one worldview clashing with another. In this case, it’s our drinking culture coming head-to-head with the real life requirements and choices involved with having a disability or long-term health condition.

Symptoms of something bigger

The problem with little moments like this is that they can be symptoms of something bigger. I have been forced out of a job due to my condition before by managers who neither understood nor, I think, really believed in it. Stray comments and off-key jokes are at one end of the spectrum, but larger acts of prejudice lurk at the other, which is why it’s important to interrogate everything that makes you feel excluded.

As for solutions, it’s a case of understanding and making adjustments. I’ll still attend a social if there’s alcohol, but equally, a workplace could opt for a social that didn’t involve drinking – or at least not revolve around it.

But really, the adjustment’s even simpler than that. Guys, if someone says they don’t drink, they mean it. Especially if it’s not by choice.