Sunday 11 October 2020

Accessible Home Working

I was recently asked to comment on a document about accessible home working. The aim of the document was to provide advice to managers and staff about how best to make online working in the university accessible for people with disabilities. It was already a pretty good document, but I like to think I enhanced it with my comments.

There were a few items worth blogging about. The first was to do with good practice in writing emails. Like most academics, I receive hundreds of emails a week. It’s quite surprising to what extent I encounter the same issues in email that I find when dealing with people face to face. I am forever trying to figure out what people really mean, only to discover later that they didn’t really have any particular meaning. I may understand this intellectually, but I find I am unable to recognise it in the moment, so I easily misread or misunderstand the writer’s intentions. I have in the past sent emails that have got me into a lot of trouble, so I am perpetually terrified of making a mistake. At the same time, I still make mistakes! Needless to say, this increases anxiety.

A lot of it has to do with perceived tone of voice. I find that I often ascribe a tone of voice to emails that I perceive as harsh or abrupt. Often this is not the intention, but my anxiety is greatly increased because I get this impression. Usually the impression can be easily offset by a simple change of tone. To give you a simple example, an email that begins “Hi ...” is already more friendly to my ears than one that begins more formally with “Dear ...”. This is probably a result of history. An email seems like a more casual, less considered form of communication than a letter and the use of ‘hi’ seems to acknowledge that, not least because it involves less typing. I’m comfortable with that. If, worse still, an email begins with just my name, or with no initial statement at all, I perceive it as aggressive and I have to struggle to resist that impression from that moment on. 

Academics are an argumentative bunch and quite often there are email ‘wars’, some of which are fine because they concern scientific or intellectual disagreements which are generally a good thing in a university. However, there is another kind of war that involves people challenging others (usually management) on quite a personal level. Invariably, these people feel the need to copy in the entire department in order to try to drum up support or, in their view, expose wrongdoing. Sometimes I agree with them, sometimes I don’t, but I always find these kinds of arguments massively anxiety-inducing and never join in. Accusatory discourse shatters the illusion of collegiate working that, however naively, I still like to believe in.

Another line in the document advised: “Be aware that body language and social signals are less easy to interpret via video.” I pointed out that body language and social signals are difficult to interpret at the best of times from an autistic point of view. My suggestion was that people should not even attempt to use body language during a video call, but rather should concentrate on what they are saying and try to avoid statements that are sarcastic, ironic, and so on. It’s possible that video communication could actually be better for many autistic people if that step is taken. Not all of us will feel the same, but I welcome not having to try to decipher endless social cues.

There was a whole section on “keeping in touch” which advised establishing regular “social breaks” in order to help people feel connected to colleagues and avoid social isolation. Now I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I do think it is a good idea for people to stay in contact and sharing does combat isolation. But, and I pointed this out, one of the great benefits of online communication, from an autistic perspective, is the removal of the need to engage in endless “chat” with neurotypicals.

Finally, I attended an online meeting the other day in which the organiser had decided to use an “ice-breaker” exercise (always an odd phrase, that, but I know what they mean). We were asked to indicate (using a ‘pen’ on an online whiteboard) how we were feeling, on a chart which ranged between happy and desperate. This completely threw me, because my alexithymia means I never really know how I am feeling and it takes a great deal of effort to try and figure it out. There was no option on the chart for “I don’t know how I feel”, so the only solution I could come up with was to write that in the chat box. People responded nicely, but I was already far from comfortable with the situation, as they merrily put up coloured crosses to indicate their feelings, had a chat about them, and agreed that this was a great way to start a meeting. For me, the meeting was actually quite spoiled, because I spent the rest of it thinking about the exercise rather than concentrating on the business in hand. So the metaphorical ice expanded and hardened for me. And in any case, probably the straightforward answer to the question “how do you feel” is the one proposed to me by an autistic friend: “with my fingers”! 

There is a lot more that could be said about accessible home working. But I am very pleased that the university is taking this so seriously and involving autistic people directly in the formulation of advice and policy.