A reader asked:
I run a club for transgender students at my university. One of the newer members disclosed to us that she has asperger’s. Her sensory threshold seems to be extremely low and she seems to get overwhelmed in meetings often. After a meeting, I tried to pull her aside to ask her if there’s any way I could accommodate her better, but she got flustered. I don’t think she knew quite how to phrase what she needed to say in the moment, but I want to make the club more accessible for her. I’ve already spoken with the faculty adviser so we could move to a bigger room with more space. I also want to make sure this member of our club is getting her needs met, but I don’t want to force her out of her shell or put her on the spot while I try to meet her halfway. I’m having a hard time. Do you have any advice for me?
I think the most important thing is not to put pressure on her to talk to you about her disability or access needs.
Sometimes people with disabilities choose to do things that are hard for us. Sometimes being overloaded is the price we pay for participation. It can actually be harder when people get upset about this and see overload as a problem they need to solve. Sometimes that’s just the way things are. Sometimes there’s no immediate solution, and sometimes it’s not the problem we want to work on.
Disability is personal. Coping mechanisms and disability-related choices are deeply personal. Some people with disabilities are fairly open about their specific issues and choices; for others, that’s a topic reserved for close friends. It’s ok if she doesn’t want to have that conversation with you even though she’s often physically uncomfortable or overloaded in the group. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re doing something wrong or that she’s doing something wrong. Sometimes it just means that some things are hard but worth doing anyway.
I’d say back off trying to get her to disclose more things about her needs, and follow her lead.
The one unilateral access thing I’d advise is that I think it’s important to make sure that she (and other group members) have the option of contacting you by email. If she’s getting too overwhelmed in the moment to tell you things she wants you to know, being able to email you might be really helpful. Don’t make a big deal about it, though, and don’t pressure her to email you about things. Just make email available as an option.
Good luck to both of you.
Short version: When you’re running a group and people with disabilities seem to be overwhelmed, don’t pressure them to talk about their disability or their access needs. Offer, but don’t pressure. Do make your email address available to group members. This makes it easier for them to tell you things that are hard to say in the moment.