Disclaimer: This story is not affiliated with the movie “Elf,” or its creators, as “Elf” is a trademark of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All images of “Elf” used in this story are the property of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Three months before my 40th birthday, I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD.
It surprised me. It happened after I transitioned from the disability services industry to a mainstream environment. Take a second to let that information sink in: I got an ADHD diagnosis when I switched to a work environment that was not inclusive.
With my new label, I couldn’t help but see myself as Buddy from the movie “Elf.” It was as though his journey from the North Pole mirrored my own experiences. In Santa’s workshop, he was embraced for his uniqueness, but in New York, his behavior seemed out of place and misunderstood. His valuable skills went unnoticed.
People only believe him once he has proven himself to be true.
Here’s the thing: I am a subject matter expert in accessibility. I have spent a career developing inclusive programs, services, and access to assistive devices for individuals with disabilities. I am not new to neurodiversity or experiencing an invisible illness.
I am aware of the challenges we face in advancing disability inclusion, even in organizations whose mission is accessibility. My experience is not the norm.
I am privileged that my knack for high-level organization, pattern-finding, and out-of-the-box thinking has always been rewarded. However, I felt like an outsider in the new job environment, much like Buddy. My colleagues dismissed my concerns about inclusion and accessibility. They told me to lower my expectations and treated me as unskilled.
This experience reminded me of Buddy, who was often ignored and underestimated by others despite sharing his truth. At first, I tried to be more like him. I held onto optimism. However, over time, I started to see myself from their perspective.
I made a list of the challenges I was having at work. While looking at it, I was reminded of all the assistive technology plans I had written for other neurodivergent individuals.
Surprisingly, I realized the list was eerily similar to the clinical symptoms of ADHD, Inattentive Type.
I didn’t notice these signs until then, simply because they became challenging for me in a non-inclusive environment. I had spent nearly a decade at my last job before moving.
After realizing I had ADHD, I documented the assistive tools I used at my previous company. I discovered that I had come to rely on them over the years and did not notice.
I felt lost without a diagnosis or a way to prove that I needed a reasonable accommodation. The tools in my previous job were not categorized as assistive technology for me; they were there for everyone.
What did I do?
The medical and corporate models say I am broken because of how my ADHD presents in a non-inclusive space. I left the inaccessible job with my head held high, confident in my skills and abilities, knowing I had made a positive impact. They’ll soon realize that they lost a valuable asset to their team. A medical doctor later confirmed my suspicion of ADHD.
Next, knowing that I had a right to accommodations at my future workplace, I wrote the most comprehensive accommodation plan I have ever written, ensuring that it was legally sound and difficult to challenge.
But as I read about myself in clinical language, it struck me: Would Buddy ever do this?
No. Buddy would refuse to dim his light. He would continue talking about his experience. He would fight for what he believes in, no matter what.
I decided to do that, too. I deleted the plan and started a business instead. I know many do not have this option. I am privileged to have a safety net.
That’s why systems need to change.
Carefully written accommodation plans and self-advocacy training are insufficient and focus on the wrong paradigm. We must build inclusive ecosystems where accessibility is built in from the start. Other people should not see stories of inclusion and access as fanciful or naive. These places exist, and we can create them in our organizations and communities.
Let’s create inclusive spaces together and be more like Buddy!
Glossary of Terms
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by difficulties with attention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. Source: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5-TR).
- ADHD, Inattentive Type: Formerly known as Attention Deficit Disorder or ADD, Inattentive Type is a subtype of ADHD primarily characterized by difficulties with attention and focus, as opposed to hyperactivity. It’s important to note that this condition is often underdiagnosed in females. Source: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5-TR) and “How Girls with ADHD Are Different: And the Emotional Costs of Being Overlooked” by Rae Jacobson.
- “Elf” Movie Synopsis: Buddy (Will Ferrell) was accidentally transported to the North Pole as a baby and raised to adulthood among Santa’s elves. Unable to shake the feeling that he doesn’t fit in, the adult Buddy travels to New York City in full elf uniform, searching for his real father. Source: Warner Bros.
- Neurodiversity: A concept celebrating the diversity of neurological conditions, emphasizing that these differences are a natural part of human diversity and advocating for societal inclusion and acceptance. Source: Coined by Judy Singer and popularized by Nick Walker.
- Assistive Technology (AT): Any item, piece of equipment, software program, or product system used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities of all ages. Source: Assistive Technology Act, 29 U.S.C. § 3002(1).
- Reasonable Accommodation: A modification or adjustment to a job, the work environment, or the way things are usually done that enables a qualified individual with a disability to have an equal opportunity to apply for and perform the job or to enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment. Source: Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12111(9).
About the Author
Tiffany Wilson is a seasoned accessibility and Assistive Technology professional with over 15 years of experience. She is the Founder of Wilson Inclusive Solutions, a company dedicated to empowering accessibility and fostering inclusive environments. Tiffany’s expertise spans multiple domains and industries. She is passionate about collaborating with you to create customized solutions that prioritize accessibility in your workplace. Her mission is to build ecosystems where access is seamlessly integrated right from the beginning. She’s eager to team up with you to create inclusive initiatives that genuinely make a difference!