Disability inclusion and how to ask for accommodations at work
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Claire Odom has always worked in the disability inclusion world, even before she knew she had ADHD. When she related a little bit too much to everyone’s answers in an ADHD focus group, she knew it was time to get evaluated.
Now, Claire is a psychotherapist at a private practice that embraces neurodiversity. She’s also a disability inclusion consultant for Understood’s Workplace team, which focuses on building stronger, more equitable, and more inclusive work environments.
Listen to this week’s episode of How’d You Get THAT Job?! for advice on how to navigate the workplace with learning and thinking differences.
Claire: You are entitled to reasonable accommodation, you're entitled to supports in the workplace to accommodate your disability or your learning and thinking difference. I'm not asking for special treatment. I'm asking for what I'm owed, what I'm due.
Eleni: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "How'd You Get THAT Job?," a podcast that explores the unique and often unexpected career paths of people with learning and thinking differences. My name is Eleni Matheou and I'm a user researcher here at Understood. That means I spend a lot of time thinking about how we find jobs we love that reflect how we learn and who we are. I'll be your host.
My next guest is actually part of the Understood family. Claire Odom is a disability advocate that works on our Workplace team at Understood. She was already working in the disability inclusion world when she discovered she has ADHD, and has since delved even further into the space. She's also a therapist in private practice, working predominantly with neurodiverse folks. In this episode, she shares how her two roles are both contributing towards creating more functional, inclusive, and enjoyable workplaces for people with disabilities, particularly those with learning and thinking differences. Welcome to the show, Claire.
Claire: Thanks so much for having me, Eleni.
Eleni: So, you were full-time at Understood. Now you're still around as a consultant. I'm curious to hear what you're up to and what you're doing at the moment.
Claire: I am a disability inclusion consultant with Understood, working on a lot of their different workplace programs, in particular supporting our training efforts and our disability inclusion assessment efforts where we work with companies to help them become as inclusive of people with disabilities and learning and thinking differences as we possibly can.
And then my other hat is that I am a psychotherapist working with people of all ages and of all needs and demographics, but with a particular emphasis on people with disabilities, people with neurodiversity — neurodivergent folks — up here in the Hudson Valley.
Eleni: I know some of your work at Understood is, you know, kind of like doing a little bit more hands-on assessments of organizations that, you know, are interested in taking the next step in terms of disability initiatives. And, you know, you might like audit what's their existing practices and how things are going. What are some of the things that you look for and like what is like a good kind of functioning, inclusive workplace? Like what does that actually look like?
Claire: What an interesting question. Because often as part of, you know, working with Understood, we don't know till we get there, right? So I think, you know, pretty much any organization would benefit from a lot of intentional thinking about inclusion.
But as an employee, I think what I would look for is flexibility, right? The understanding that there can be lots of different pathways to the same goal and that those pathways can be equally, you know, useful or valid or whatever else. I also think that one thing that I really, really notice is does an organization offer accommodations full-throatedly and at the very start of an engagement, or even just through the application process? It's such a big sign to people, I think, and it's something that really indicates a way of thinking about disability in the workplace that closely related to action. And I think that is powerful for for me and a good sign.
Eleni: What are some of the biggest gaps that you see? Like, is it in that early kind of engagement? Or is it in other areas?
Claire: It's changing so much. I think that when I first started in this world, the biggest gap was just talking about it at all. Nobody talked about disability in a workplace setting except for kind of activists in the space. So it's been really encouraging to see how much this conversation has advanced and grown in the past, like 20 years.
One of the biggest gaps I see is that a lot of people see the word "accommodation" and they think to themselves, "Eww, that's expensive." And so there's kind of this immediate fear of opening up the conversation, maybe? And so I think that the drum that I beat the most is how inexpensive, how easy to implement, how available so many accommodations are.
And they could be as simple as, you know, a quick thing that you sort of overlay your existing systems. They can be a screen reader that gets added, which I know for a variety of different disabilities, learning and thinking differences that could be helpful. It can be adding closed captioning to meetings. As someone with ADHD, a closed caption meeting is the difference between me paying attention and me not. So, I think that just the beginnings of the accommodations conversation, I think there's a gap there that once people are educated and know what we're actually talking about when we talk about accommodations, it's pretty quick to close.
Eleni: Yeah. I know one piece of research that I think we worked on together or that our teams worked on together was back in 2020. And it was, you know, this notion of building trust and comfort, like with a direct manager, is actually like really an important element in terms of like being able to have a conversation about, like, needs and challenges and, like, potentially accommodations.
I guess without giving away, like, the whole training, like, what is one thing that you would want managers to know about? Like how to be more inclusive or accommodating to people with learning and thinking differences?
Claire: I think the most powerful thing as a manager that you can do is one, to know what your organization's accommodations policy is, and two, to feel comfortable talking about disability and accommodations in the workplace — knowing what you can say, knowing what you can't say, and feeling ready to have that conversation. Because it's going to come up, right? People are going to come to you and say, "Hey, I can't do X, Y, and Z because of this condition," right? Like, there are going to be situations in which disability is going to enter into your role as a manager. And just knowing the facts I think is is hugely important.
Eleni: So yeah, let's look at your other jobs. So you also work as a licensed psychotherapist, working with neurodiverse folks. I imagine how they show up at work probably comes up a lot in some of your conversations. So I'm interested in like how you apply some of your workplace expertise in your one-on-one work.
Claire: Yeah. It's been — it's been interesting being able to draw on that world of experience as well. Because you think of it as being such a different kind of setup: psychotherapy versus, you know, going to work every day. But I think again, the concept of accommodations is something that's very relevant to my work.
Now I ask new clients if they have any sensory issues that we should be aware of as we start our work together. I ask every new client if they need any sort of accommodation. You know, people say things that can be really interesting and creative and surprising when, you know, you kind of open up that safe conversation to talk about, hey, what sensory stuff really bugs you out? What would really be detrimental to our daily or our our regular conversations here if I have it going on?
So yeah, I have a huge, huge bucket of sensory toys and fidgets that is always at the ready, because I have several clients who just are able to better talk about the tough stuff if they have a fidget spinner or if they have a puppet, or if they have one of those like sequins, you can flip the sequins back and forth. Pieces of cloth. Yeah.
Eleni: I have a pillow like that. It is so popular when friends come over. I never really made the connection. But you're right. It's particularly popular with my neurodiverse friends.
Eleni: They'll just be sitting there the whole night, just, like, doing that.
Claire: That is such a soothing feeling, that back and forth, because it's smooth on both sides. It just — it is very satisfying.
Eleni: That's so funny. Wow. Yeah. I'm just making that connection now.
I mean, I don't know the average age of the people that you work with, but do you provide them any advice with like how they might talk to their managers about, you know, their work style or their challenges, or like, as you said, some of their sensitivities?
Claire: Well, so I work with people across the life course. My youngest client's 4, my oldest client's 70. So it's really everybody is welcome. But yeah, absolutely. I would, I mean, I think I would help any client prepare for any difficult conversation or stressful conversation if that was within the scope of our treatment together. And I think especially helping folks with barriers to neurotypical communication styles, for instance, like really spending that time to help people practice what they would say. And, you know, effective communication skills are definitely a part of the world of work that I do. Even up to like scripting with people, you know. Would you like to sit together and script how you would say this to your manager, to your teacher, to your colleague, your co-volunteer — you know, anybody in any of these venues of life where we maybe aren't expecting or accepting of neurodiversity.
But also, you know, I am pretty open to talking about, you know, potential accommodations that people could benefit from. I write letters for my clients who are in the school system or in college to help them advocate or identify accommodations that can help them succeed in in their school settings.
Eleni: Help people kind of sort through what kind of environment might be a better fit for them? Like say they're in like a work environment that doesn't support them, or they have those conversations and they're not met, you know, where they deserve to be met. When would be a circumstance where it would be appropriate, let's say, to have that conversation, talk to a manager or, you know, go through more formal means versus just moving on from that place?
Claire: If ever you are coming to your manager or to HR to talk about changes or supports that you need in a work environment relevant to a disability or learning and thinking difference, that is an accommodations request, right? You have opened up what we call the interactive process there. And so you are in a territory where you are protected and where you have a right to receive the accommodations that are going to help level the playing field for you.
I want to be very careful and state here that I am not a lawyer, and I am not an ADA expert. Really. I think about it a lot. But you know, I am not in a position to give legal advice. But, you know, I think just that confidence that — this is an entitlement. You are entitled to reasonable accommodation. You're entitled to supports in the workplace to accommodate your disability or your learning and thinking difference. So having that confidence, knowing that that's true, believing that that's true. Like I'm not asking for special treatment, I'm asking for what I'm owed, what I'm due.
And then I think the other thing is really preparing, doing some research. A resource that I use all the time is AskJan.org, which is a government-run website that is a pretty exhaustive resource of supports and accommodations that are broken down by kind of area of need. So OK, I struggle with executive function. What are the types of things that have been helpful for that? Understood.org, too, has lots of great resources that can help you sort of think about things that might work for you.
So coming to that conversation prepared with some ideas for solutions is always going to be — I think it's going to be helpful. It's going to help things move from planning into action a little more swiftly.
Eleni: So, I worked on a piece of research a year or two ago. What is time? We kind of talked about some of the common catalysts that lead to adults confronting their own personal challenges with learning and thinking differences. And I remember when we first met, you had kind of shared your own ADHD realization story. I think it's a really good one. So I would love for you to share that with us.
Claire: Very early on in my work with Understood, I was mostly focusing on the world of developmental disability. But I had the chance to help facilitate a focus group of young people with learning and thinking differences. And as we were facilitating this discussion, I found myself more and more saying, well, wait, but that thing you're describing, that's what everybody thinks and feels, right? You know, like, well, sure, it's hard for everybody to concentrate on textbooks for protracted periods of time. Like everybody has issues with like memory and, you know, everybody else sort of — everybody has confusion about calendars. And by the end, I was like, oh, my gosh, I really never — yeah, I think I might have a learning and thinking difference.
So, I ran home that night and spent a lot of time on Google and decided to get formally assessed. So at 34 years old, I was formally assessed and diagnosed with ADHD inattentive type, and it explained so much about some of the things that I sort of thought of as my inherent weaknesses, and has really, really helped me adapt better to the world.
Eleni: I think what's really interesting is that you were already at Understood when this happened, so there must have been something that kind of drew you to this world. And like I know up until that moment you'd already kind of dedicated your whole career to like, you know, working towards creating more like, inclusive workplaces for people with disabilities, like including learning and thinking differences. What do you think drew you to that path if wasn't, at that point, this personal connection?
Claire: Yeah, I mean, I think part of it's just sort of a happy accident, right? Like when I finished college, I really didn't know what I wanted to do. And I kind of fell into this world of disability support services and disability inclusion and really found a lot of connection and meaning through that work. Like really, really enjoyed finding ways to communicate with people who, for instance, didn't speak or, you know, people who were deaf from birth and had not used sign language previously. Things like really being able to be creative and find different ways of connecting.
And I was able to kind of use that connection as the driving force, I think, in pretty much all of the work that I've done since. But it definitely deepened — my connection with the work definitely deepened when I realized I wasn't talking about, you know, making the world better just for other people. It was also actually more than indirectly for me. You know, it really changed how I thought about accommodations in the workplace. I'd ask for them now. It's just a more rich connection now that it's me as well.
Eleni: Can you talk a little bit about, like, you know, your own challenges and your own discoveries over the years. And kind of how you discovered what works and what doesn't and what you've kind of, you know, done as a result?
Claire: Yeah. Getting the ADHD diagnosis really changed how I approached some of my quote-unquote shortcomings. Right? They really helped me move from this sort of confusion and frustration with myself to a more, like, solutions-oriented approach.
So I know for me that time and scheduling are things that are enormous challenges, and that there are limits on how much I can strategize around that and change that. So, you know, being able to think about checks and balances that can help keep me oriented in time throughout my day. Like I am going to have to have somebody else double-check any travel planning that I make. Because if I do it on my own, I will book the wrong weekend. And I will lose hundreds of dollars in transfer fees or whatever else.
And knowing that I can do that without thinking that I'm just some space cadet who can't get it together. It's more like, this is the organic setup of my brain. And I can call on supports in order to work with that.
I also think in terms of gravitating towards clinical work, towards psychotherapy, I think that it also helped me figure out work and activities and ways of thinking that are more naturally pleasurable or in sync with how my brain works. I am really able to focus and connect when I am in these, you know, one-on-one conversation setups. Those in-depth conversations are very natural fits for the way that my attention naturally gravitates. Whereas having to build a very long PowerPoint presentation is something that is a lot more of a — requires lot more accommodation for me. How's that say? How's that sound?
Knowing that there are types of work and ways that I can work that are better fits for where my attention naturally gravitates has been really transformative for me too. Because I think I was really trying to force myself into, you know, if I just work hard enough, if I just focus hard enough, if I just set enough Pomodoro timers, I will suddenly snap into being able to focus on things that my brain doesn't want to focus on. And having that freedom to think differently about how I think has been really revolutionary for me.
Eleni: Yeah. And I think that's a nice way to phrase it. It's like you're not forcing yourself. And that's kind of related to the environment talk, too, right? Where it's like, hey, no matter how many things I do to like, accommodate this, you know, it's not actually going to change the way my brain works. It's still going to be, you know, a more challenging task.
Claire: Yeah. Accommodations can only get you so far. Can't make you like a job necessarily. So yeah.
Eleni: How do you think about yourself and your differences? Or like how you understand yourself and your differences now compared to how you used to, having gone through that?
Claire: I just have a lot more patience for myself, and understanding for myself. It's a lot easier for me to be kind of mindful of my own self-talk, you know — what am I saying to myself? And is it true? Now that I have this overlaying ... ADHD, it's — rather than excuse, it's explanation, if that makes sense. It helps me to walk that line of taking accountability without falling into the trap of guilt.
And I'm really thankful for that because I think prior to this understanding of attention deficit, I, you know, wasn't thinking about tools that could help me maintain a feeling of not being overwhelmed, and was just kind of in overwhelmed crisis world more often. And just knowing what's going on to a certain extent has really helped me work within the way that I think, without necessarily like trying to mask it or, you know, hide my disorganization from people. It's a more — God, I'm going to use the word "self-actualized" — view.
Eleni: It's a great word.
Claire: Like I'm more at the top of Maslow's hierarchy. Yeah, I'm just like — I'm more aware of how I function and I'm more OK with it.
Eleni: Well, I'm very happy for you that you were able to come to that place.
Claire: Thanks, Eleni.
Eleni: To get to the top of the pyramid. Woo!
Claire: Sometimes they dip down. I try to stay toward the top.
Eleni: Well, yeah. Thank you so much for having this conversation with me.
Claire: Absolutely. Thank you so much, Eleni. This has been super fun.
Eleni: You've been listening to "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" from the Understood Podcast Network. This show is for you, so we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts about the show. Or maybe you'd like to tell us how you got THAT job. I'd love to hear from you.
If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.
Understood.org is a resource dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at Understood.org/mission.
"How'd You Get THAT Job?!" is produced by Margie DeSantis and edited by Grace Tatter. Briana Berry is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show. For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. And I'm your host, Eleni Matheou. Thanks again for listening.
leads user research for Understood. She helps Understood to center its work on the lived experiences and voices of people who learn and think differently.