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Taking Care of Yourself at Work: Some Strategies for Disabled People

I genuinely love going to work. I adore my teammates, and I enjoy being in our bright, airy space, which is frequently filled with riotous laughter.

It’s been almost a year since I started working at Chez Genèse. During this time, I’ve worked mainly as a server, though I’ve recently moved into a different primary role as a writer for our blog and Instagram page. (If any of our regulars are reading this, you’ll still see me at evening events.)

Though I’ve found a lot of joy and meaning in the in–person part of my job, I’ve also felt utterly exhausted after work on some days. As our owner Kathryn has noted, working in a restaurant often involves literal sweat!

Working in the restaurant or service industry can be especially draining for disabled people. Moreover, we often start the day with a battery that’s already half empty. I’m autistic (and strongly suspect that I also have ADHD); working in a noisy and chaotic space has required me to think carefully about the ways in which I take care of myself at work.

I’ve decided to share some of the ways of thinking and self-care strategies I’ve adopted this past year — I hope that at least some of what I share will be useful to other disabled people, particularly those who work in the restaurant and similar industries.

Before I continue, I want to acknowledge the point of view from which I’m writing. The tips I give in this series will likely skew towards Autistic people as that’s where my personal experience lies. Additionally, I am white, cisgender, and am generally able to conceal my autism when I choose to. All of this comes with certain privileges. Consequently, some of the self-care strategies I describe may not work for people who are multiply marginalized — in this case, people who are disabled and black, brown, and/or queer in any way. My goal is for future blog posts to incorporate and center the perspectives of such folk.

Lastly, I also want to acknowledge that I am fortunate enough to work with people who are committed to inclusivity (and who are generally wonderful humans). I am aware that, had I ended up working at another restaurant, I might have had a very different experience this past year. I may have had to rethink some of my self-care strategies, or spend more time advocating for myself than I have. Not everyone has experience working with disabled people. (Or at least, not experience that they’re aware of — many disabilities are invisible.)

Moreover, whether we are conscious of it or not, we all wear cultural “glasses” that influence the way we see and interact with the world. Some inclusive practices and attitudes may conflict with mainstream American cultural beliefs and values, particularly those related to personal control/agency, independence, and time. Despite the protections provided by the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), some people may be resistant to providing workplace accommodations. All of that said, I have felt deeply encouraged by my recent interactions with local business owners in Greensboro.

Strategy #1: Allow Your Body to Move as It Needs To

People with intellectual and developmental disabilities are often taught to suppress their natural movements, including stims. Personally, I find that suppressing my need to stim at work leads to greater levels of fatigue and sensory overload. In the long run, suppressing stims can negatively affect one’s mental health. Recently, I’ve been trying to become more comfortable stimming in front of other people. This is something I’m still working on — after years of subconsciously hiding my unidentified autism, I feel self-conscious about letting my body just be.

Not everyone may feel safe stimming publicly. Compared to my black and brown autistic peers, I have a lot more freedom to move my body in atypical ways. My public stimming might draw a few gazes, but I’m fairly confident that no one will interpret my behavior as disruptive or dangerous. Unfortunately, this is not the case for all autistic people.

If you feel unsafe or uncomfortable stimming at work, you might consider finding places to stim in private — a bathroom stall, a closet, a back office, or even a walk-in freezer may work. You might also consider keeping a small fidget toy in your apron if you wear one as part of your uniform. Accessories like fidget spinners are popular at the moment, and using one seems unlikely to draw much attention. Of course, there is always the option not to stim if it feels too fraught.

Lastly, if you are able and willing to stim in public, it may benefit others as well as yourself: Letting your body do what it needs to could help normalize atypical movement, and encourage other disabled people to take care of their needs, even if it feels a little awkward. It could also reinforce the idea that disabled bodies belong in public spaces. Much of our built environment is inherently exclusionary. Having more visibly disabled bodies in public spaces may help change the way people design new spaces, or redesign old ones — they might begin to imagine disabled people among the occupants of these spaces. Just as importantly, we might also begin to more easily imagine ourselves in these spaces.

Some Notes on Language

“A disabled person” (identity-first language) and “a person with a disability” (person-first language) are both acceptable ways to refer to disabled people. I prefer the former, though I respect the choices of people who prefer to use the latter when describing themselves. Many people in the disability community prefer identity-first language. Similarly, “an autistic person” and “a person with autism” are both acceptable ways to refer to someone on the autism spectrum. Again, I personally prefer to use identity-first language (“an autistic person”).

“Stimming” refers to movements and actions that autistic people and others with developmental disabilities perform to help regulate themselves, or to express strong emotions, including joy.

About the author: Ally is a part of the Chez Genèse team and a graduate student in English at UNCG. She loves a great many things, including her friends and teammates, working out, being in the kitchen, science fantasy fiction, French and francophone culture, and clever puns.