Thursday, March 19, 2015

Blue Light Special on Awareness in Aisle 5

You want awareness? Here are some things to think about. Autistic people are at extremely high risk for unemployment and underemployment.  Some of us have a hard time getting jobs or even interviews due to differences in social interaction styles.  Others have been shunted into sheltered workshops where they are paid wages that would be illegal if the worker did not have a disability. Some of us have been beaten down by a lifetime of being told we were worthless.  When we get a Nickel and Dimed type job, we are grateful, sure it’s the best thing that could have happened.

I stayed at Kmart for fifteen years. I couldn’t imagine my way out, not having gone to college, not having the sorts of skills employers looked for. I never would have lasted so long had it not been for a manager who noticed that I was very efficient at sorting things. She saved me from the sales floor where constant customer interactions threatened to tear me apart, and found me a place in the stockroom where my tasks revolved around organizing and categorizing. While my coworkers haphazardly unpacked items and threw the individual packages on carts, I did my best to make the job of the shelf stocker easier by sorting the many brands of aspirin, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen onto separate shelves of the rolling cart. Lining them up in perfect rows.

 In the stockroom, I was in a good position to notice when certain items began to pile up. One summer, there were more than 30 cases of orange and black wrapped peanut butter candy. These were left over from last Halloween, waiting for October to roll around again. Sometimes the overstock wasn't the merchandise manager’s fault. Some special sale items were sent as “general orders” by the home office. People who had never been to our state would make decisions about what we could sell. A lot of this stuff was made of wicker for some reason. It was dusty and it smelled bad. Then there was the “Dollar Days” merchandise.  Dollar Days was the big sale that came only 2 or 3 times a year, with lots of things nobody needed priced at 2/$1.00, 3/$1.00, etc. Markup on these items ranged from 25% to 400%. Half of the gadgets and doodads were probably broken and thrown away within a month.

Whenever we had too much of a particular cheap and useless item, an associate would be required to roll out the blue light and announce a surprise sale. There was a strict script for the Blue Light Special: “Attention Kmart shoppers, for the next 15 minutes in aisle X, we are having a Blue Light Special on Y!” Then the light would start to strobe while making a sound like Thing from the Addam’s Family when the mail came, casually putting people at risk of epileptic seizure for the sake of commerce. The clerk would stand by with the pricing gun, ready to label each chosen item at its new temporary price as customers rushed over to see what the fuss was about.

In those years, when Kmart lit it up blue, most people walked away with nothing for something, a scratchy t-shirt, mildewed dish towel, stale candy, a wicker tchotchke. Nothing they wouldn't survive. The excitement of blue lights flashing and other customers swarming must have seemed worth the inevitable letdown when the toy broke on the way home. Everyone who worked there knew that while bargains could sometimes be found at the store, those items that made it to blue light status were well beyond redemption.

The Blue Light Special Autism Speaks (also beyond redemption) will run all through the month of April, is not so harmless. If you go to this sale, the gap between what you are buying and what you meant to purchase will be more extreme.  Most people still seem to think they are helping autistic people by supporting these “awareness” efforts. But groups like Autism Speaks have cheapened the very concept of “awareness” to the point that many self-advocates cannot stand to hear the word. Autism Speaks has discounted autistic voices for many years now, refusing to hear us when we have said that their dehumanizing tactics are harming us.

If you go to your local Light it Up Blue event, this will happen: You will feel the rush of excitement that comes from moving in the same direction as the others. You will listen to speeches affirming what you already believe. You will purchase a shirt or a button or something and believe that the profits are going to benefit autistic people. You will feel good about yourself because everyone there will be saying that you are doing it right. Autism Speaks will use the money to finance its next awareness campaign or its next PSA claiming that our existence is tragic, pay its exorbitant salaries, and fund the research they believe will put an end to autistic people. People will continue to look at us with fear and pity. Autistic people will continue to be unemployed or underemployed. The research requested by autistic people will continue to go unfunded. Autistic people will continue to be shocked at the Judge Rotenberg Center. Autistic people will continue to be murdered by their caregivers. Nothing will change.

If you continue to lend your voice to the already huge and powerful and non-autistic run Autism Speaks, the things actually autistic people have to tell you will continue to be shouted over. What we have to say will continue to be ignored because we are so Not Like Your Child, the one who will maybe work at Kmart someday, the one who will struggle so hard to believe they could ever do better. 


  1. So sick of Autism Speaks. I cannot wait until they are finally outed for who they finally are.

  2. Well I am not the person to understand sales, not really enjoying shopping all that much. But these items are on sale because they are not selling at top price or will break later. I rather have something that will last a long time. I can't blame the store associates for that though.

    I do not think working at K-Mart is in any way a failure-it is work and it does serve a purpose. It is good the manager put this particular employee to work stocking shelves, knowing that customer service wasn't his/her strength. I do feel terrible that autistic people are taken advantage of and not embraced for their quirkyness, ways of communicating. I would also add that a lot of college graduates are also underemployed/unemployed (like myself) and unable to find work in their area of study.

    My own experiences with Autism Speaks is also muddled. A student was tabling for the organization at my school. I asked him if he knew what Autism was. He said he did not know; just tabling for his fraternity. I decided not to donate. It wasn't because I didn't support self-advocacy for autistic people but that this person didn't know about the principles of organization he represented or anything about autism.

    So yeah. Thanks for writing-I loved the catchy title. Also I believe you could do better and more.


    1. I agree that there is nothing wrong with working at Kmart or any other job. I didn't do the best job at explaining this. It's a far more complicated story than I could tell in a single post. The problem is in not having a choice or believing you don't have a choice, especially when the available work means low pay, low autonomy, and micromanagement. That's why I included the link to Nickel and Dimed, a book that does a good job of respecting the dignity of workers while pointing out the ways in which their employers fail to do the same. I would not have been less of a person if I had continued to work at Kmart, but I am happier now that I have discovered other options. I realize that not everyone has the opportunities I have enjoyed, and I did not in any way mean to suggest that there is anything wrong with working in retail. Thank you for calling my attention to this.

      On the topic of college graduates also facing poor employment outcomes, it's just not in the same league. I've seen estimates of 20-25% workforce participation.

      I'm glad you decided not to donate to Autism Speaks. Self-advocacy for autistic people is definitely not what they are about.


Squawk at me.
Need to add an image?
Use this code [img]IMAGE-URL-HERE[/img]