Author’s note: Before I get started, I want to quickly say that while I’m writing this based on my experience at my current employer, the things I say here should in no way be seen as about my current employer. That is to say: Ableist shit happens everywhere and our situation is far from unique.
Being an affinity group (also known as an employee resource group, hereafter will be referred to as AG) lead at work for the last couple of years has provided me a lot of opportunities for meaningful work—as well as a lot of opportunities for incredible frustration.
The thing about being an AG lead is that you’re a member of the community that you’re supporting. My co-lead and I are both disabled. Week after week we see the ableist nonsense our disabled colleagues are subjected to on their teams, within the company as a whole, or in their lives—and many of this stuff also impacts us.
Our job as AG leads is to support the needs of the people in our group, whatever that looks like at the time. Sometimes it’s with financial stipends so our burnt out disabled coworkers can buy lunch or whatever they might need. Sometimes it’s active listening and empathizing in a Slack thread. Sometimes it’s taking a break to share our personal wins so we can support each other in our successes. It all depends on what’s going on with the folks in our group, the company, and the world.
Our job as AG leads, however, isn't to educate the rest of the company on the disabled experience. That’s impractical, for one, because disabled experiences are so diverse. Disability is not a monolith. It’s also impractical because we aren’t experts in the disabled experience as a whole. Being disabled does not make you an expert on the subject. Plus, being an AG lead is separate from our actual jobs, and while we do receive a small stipend for being AG leads, it’s not enough to ask for this kind of labor.
Our disability AG at work is a closed group, meaning we protect the privacy of our members above all else. We require new members to sign a community agreement agreeing to protect said privacy before joining the group. The reason we do this is so we can provide community to disabled colleagues whose teams and managers might not know about their disability. Said another way, we do this so we can provide community to disabled colleagues whose teams may not be safe places to be disabled, and whose managers may have difficult-to-nail-down biases or assumptions about them because of their disabilities.
Another reason we have a closed AG is because we’re focused on the needs of our community instead of encouraging potential allies. Like us, our members are not responsible for educating their colleagues. Like us, they are not experts in the disabled experience. Additionally, when we have inaccessible and ableist company processes and tools that make work way harder for disabled folks to begin with (because that’s all status quo demands), why should we even consider it? It’s a lose/lose scenario.
Personally, I want our company to be a great, inclusive, and safe place for disabled folks to work. But I also know it’s not my job as an AG lead to make it so, and our influence only goes so far. It’s the job of our HR and exec leadership teams to put the needs of their marginalized employees first. Many of the things that make work harder for me and my disabled colleagues are directly related to ableism baked into the modern-day workplace, and thus embedded in what are considered standard policies and processes. There’s the casual ableism from our non-disabled colleagues, as well, but that’s not our job to fix either (if they don’t think we’re deserving of the same humanity they are, then what’s the point of us even engaging?)
The problem, really, is that the baseline of what’s legal at work is often ableist. It’s also often racist, homophobic, transphobic, and not set up to support caregivers. And affinity group leaders across these identities are not responsible for righting those wrongs.
Anyway, I’m tired. I’m not anywhere near stepping down from my role as an AG lead, but I am being firmer in my boundaries around what I will and won’t do in this position. I’m also being firmer in my boundaries of what is and isn’t my responsibility. Because this isn’t even my full-time job; it’s extra. And really, my full-time job isn’t even what I’m paid to do at work; my real full-time job is taking care of myself, which I’m… ok at. It’s easy to feel like you’re not doing enough as an affinity group or employee resource group lead, and I’m choosing to give myself some grace and trust right now that I am. 💙