Disability Anxiety: Starting Up Without Breaking Down Part 4

The incorporation process has begun. Papers sit on my desk waiting to be signed once final passes have been made. This is, of course, ridiculously exciting. It also feels like an incredible responsibility.

I have always been totally open about my mental health, and the struggles it has caused me. I speak at conferences and on steering groups and panel events regularly about the way mania left my life in chaos and my dreams of an academic career in tatters, how social anxiety left me isolated and executive functioning that can border on the altogether absent sunk me deep into holes that take years to see a way out of.

I can either do things my way and do a really good job, or do them other people’s way and do an adequate one.

Yet somehow this feels different.

It is hard to be honest when it might affect the perception and success of your company. And yet being honest about my mental health is exactly what is needed in order to make the company what it needs to be. Rogue Interrobang is about being different, doing things differently, unlocking talent currently shut out, making the world better by ensuring every voice is heard and everyone is able to flourish.

More fundamentally it is about telling much of the world that they are doing things wrong. Our basic proposition is “you need us because you’re driving off a cliff going the way you are.” Being open about my mental health and the impact and the obstacles it creates, accepting that will switch a whole bunch of people off the business should be something I am totally comfortable with. Because the other side of that is there will be people who understand that I am, in effect, my own proof of concept. Who will not just see that I can’t do things the same as other people can but will see how important it is to engage with and learn from people and companies who do things differently.

I wonder, as my fingers hover over the keyboard uncertainly, if I will ever feel OK admitting the things I find hard, the things I find impossible. It’s easy to say that it’s good not to feel comfortable, to do things anyway. But when you’re disabled that feels like so much thoughtlessly-spouted nonsense. Life, the simple act of waking up and moving around in the world, can often feel unspeakably hard. It is an extra level of coping we have to come up with that others don’t, an extra call on our resources others don’t have. We start each day in deficit compared to our peers. Telling us that more deficit still is something we should embrace is something you could only say if you’ve never really felt that. Or if you have, and you’ve come through the other side with some survivor’s story junk that ignores the 95% of people who went through the same and didn’t come out successful, just burned out. Exhaustion is not something to work with. It is something to work around.

I guess what it comes down to is this. I owe it to my customers to be honest about my mental health. Not so they can be “adequately warned”, but because it’s part of who we are as well as who I am.

And I feel I owe it to everyone else out there who has an idea they think will make the world better but believes bringing it to life is something they could never do because people with poor mental health don’t start companies. Every time I hide who I am I’m saying in some way “the demands you make of me as a disabled person are reasonable”, “it’s OK to set rules for founders that mean someone with my level of disability could never achieve them.” When that’s not OK. Start-ups have the potential to make the world a better place. Start-up culture will never fully make good on that potential as long as there are great ideas that can never be nurtured because the people who had them also have unique needs.

It sounds simple and banal, and it is, but it’s also really hard. We do not need to change to fit start-up culture (we can’t, at least not permanently and not without greatly diminishing our ability to use our skills). Rather start-up culture needs to change to accommodate us. It’ll be interesting to see how willingly that happens.

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