My Lived Experience: Dana Meijler
Understanding the lived experience of our colleagues is central to our disability inclusion strategy. It raises awareness of visible and non visible disabilities and debunks the myths around the umbrella term of ‘disability’. To mark International Day of Persons with Disabilities, we have created a series – ‘Enable: My Lived Experience’ where we speak to our colleagues to find out about their own, or family members’, lived experience to discover what it means for them in their day-to-day role at Clifford Chance. This week we speak to Dana Meijler.
Hi Dana! tell us about your role at Clifford Chance.
I am a Senior Business Transformation Advisor based in Amsterdam and work with our lawyers to ensure that our delivery of legal services is efficient using our specialist resources like legal technology and legal project management. I’m originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and have happily lived in the Netherlands for 20 years with my fabulous Dutch husband and our 18-year-old daughter, Maya, who has autism and an intellectual disability.
Are there any common misconceptions about Autism?
With our daughter we were often confronted with two opposing misconceptions. On the one hand, we were challenged by people doubting her diagnosis, because she was not only verbal but fully bilingual from a young age and many people assume that all people with autism have trouble speaking which is not true. Others assumed she was weird or badly behaved, after seeing her do things like flap her arms or repeat certain phrases over and over.
How has Clifford Chance enabled you to work and thrive?
When our daughter was first diagnosed, we went through a two year period of treatment and assessments to try and find the right educational environment for her. This required us being available to meet with specialists on a regular basis. The firm allowed me to work to a more flexible schedule, so that I could meet both my professional and parenting obligations. Our HR team in Amsterdam were always very supportive and they checked in with me often and offered a real listening ear. So many colleagues across the Firm who know about our daughter have always expressed a lot of interest and concern in both great and small ways. We’ve always felt so well taken care of by Clifford Chance.
How have you enabled yourself and your family?
My husband and I came to understand that autism wasn’t a problem to be fixed as much as understood. We realised that putting Maya through endless therapies which showed very little progress, didn’t work for us and if anything, it seemed to spark her anxieties and resistance more than helping her to develop. We could support and encourage Maya, but we couldn’t force her outcomes, for example, we couldn’t make her learn to read. But what we could do was focus on what was in our control, to help her to feel good about herself and build her self confidence. We didn’t know if that would make any difference, but we figured being happy was something that would serve her well in life, regardless of her outcome. We made a hard and fast rule that the only therapy she would receive was that which could be delivered during school hours. We turned home into a completely safe space, where she could just be herself. We went against a lot of the experts’ advice. We supported her arm flapping and other ‘autistic’ behaviours, we even encouraged them, because we realised, they were ways for her to feel more secure and when you feel better about yourself, you may be more open to new things. When we did that, the most incredible things started to happen. Her anxieties lessened significantly, she was calm and started to learn in her own special ways and she has developed much further than we thought possible.
How has the pandemic affected you?
Maya has lots of sparkle, which is infectious and helps keep us grounded. We’re lucky that she’s someone who benefits from having down time which has made it easier when the schools have been shut down. She’s turned into a voracious reader and has developed new interests in history, nature and geography, and gobbles up documentaries like candy - so she’s been able to make good use of the time.
What is one piece of advice you would give to others who may have a concern about sharing their disability, long-term injury or condition within the firm or with the wider world?
Sharing your experiences in a way that’s comfortable for you has enormous benefit to those around you and beyond. When I started to share Maya’s story through blogging, and through talking about it at work, I not only found support and compassion that has helped me beyond measure but by sharing our story, we helped others move past stigma into understanding.