Saturday, October 10, 2009

Becoming Disabled On the Job

In the months after I was hired at my first adult job -- the thing I had studied for, for over ten years -- my immediate supervisor informed me from behind his desk that they had hired a thoroughbred. I looked down at my mixed race hands. Oblivious, he continued, "We just have to see if you can run." At the very beginning of my second year on the job, my disablement process started. "I see that our thoroughbred has gone lame." In my third year on the job, when my legs were an utter mess and I was stumbling around on two canes, I sat in his office away from the desk on a comfy chair. I felt like this was no longer a professional talking to; I was a visitor on the soft chair. We were both silent for a while, reflecting (so I like to think) on the wreck that I had become.

I relate these moments because as a disabled woman of colour in an albeit pretty sheltered workplace, these were my worst encounters with the "system." When things started going wrong, my supervisor went to bat for me with higher ups. He provided accommodations -- a new computer, voice recognition software, and, most importantly, time. Time. Time. Ultimately, I was successful at my job; I wrote my heart out, presented, won awards, grants, and funding; I got myself published. Technically, however, I didn't get my work done on schedule; in fact, it took me approximately two extra years to approximate a body of work like the ones that my peers had on their resumes. I felt like that broken and imposter racehorse, uselessly gimping around behind its pure blood, beautiful, swift sisters. But my feelings didn't derive from my work climate; they were entirely about my insecurity and inadequacy. My boss stood (ha!) behind me and up for me.

I went on two job interviews while I was still employed there. For the first, I pretended I wasn't all that bad; I was afraid they wouldn't hire me. I left my wheelchair in the car and limped around with a cane until the point where I was literally begging for the day to stop so that I could go back to my car and get my chair. I asked my guide to please take the disabled parking; he ignored me. I asked him to go back to my car so I could get my chair -- "Just one more appointment," he cajoled. I got this job, but I didn't take it. It wasn't a disability thing; the job wasn't for me personally.

The second time. Oh well. The second time. I rolled into the interview room, knowing that one of my interviewers was also disabled. It was the first (and last) time I was ever to meet anyone with a visible disability in my particular sub-discipline. I rolled in. I don't think the other six people in the room knew I was a chair user; they stared. I stared at the chair user interviewer. The whole situation freaked me out. I couldn't stop staring. Another person? A wheelchair? I want to know your story? How do you do it? What's up with you? Can we both work on this topic and be disabled and write? Will we be in direct competition? Will you support me?

I scrambled the interview. I didn't get the job. Deservedly. It wasn't a disability thing. (Though part of me wonders what it would have been like. How many disabled people can you have in one small department? If you have one, is it enough? Are two too many?) Anyway, I was disappointed, but as life turned out, it wouldn't have worked for me.

I said that the atmosphere at my first job was fine; the physical environment was another issue. I remember how difficult it was to get access to the employee shuttle; access wasn't in my particular benefits package and it wasn't wheelchair accessible, anyway. Dumpsters in disabled parking. Snow and ice weren't cleared from disabled spots and zero-grade entries. I had to negotiate with facilities for them to clear where I was scheduled to be -- the walking entrances were always fine. Even without the snow, the accessible entrances could be locked/blocked/couldn't I ask for the key to the elevator when I needed it?

It wasn't just my workplace; professional conferences were inaccessible; lunches out, drinks, meals -- inaccessible. I felt like I didn't belong. That said, I didn't help myself; I made it difficult for people to talk to me. Generally, I was a moody, angry, frustrated person. I did not know what was happening to me; I could not understand how I had gone from being a person with an occasional bad back to being a mess whose mother-in-law was caring for her. I remember wrote a scathing memo at someone more vulnerable than I was denouncing her use of the word, "lame" on an internal publication. I remember feeling so vulnerable, exposed, and alone.

I think my condition embarrassed people. I spilled coffee from the lunch cart all down myself one day. It turns out you can't carry papers, food, coffee, and two canes at once. After that, coffee appeared in my office. My first wheelchair ride down the internal hallway ramp (built just in time for me) resulted in me crashing into the wall; it was 9:30pm and people still saw it happen. Coffee continued to appear in my office. People checked with me about picnics and parties -- there's a couple of stairs... there's grass ... can I help you? And despite the best will in the world, people still didn't get it.

I struggled. I fought for grace, but found only grouchiness and rudeness. I was anything but long-suffering and silent. Even so, I fell off the fast track, faster than anyone could have imagined. I was our ongoing spectacle. A drama better than any other office politics or gossip, kind of like an accident no one really wanted to see, but they couldn't pass me by without looking. Wrist braces, canes, crutches, wheelchair, crutches, canes, wheelchair, wheelchair, braces, .... Eventually, I resigned. I was under no pressure to do so; I had just achieved promotion. But I think they were glad to see me go.

I know that I felt a big burden lift. I would have been living alone on a different coast from the Wizard, struggling to cope with what was happening. Now, several years later, I believe I could do that job; I've met people from my former life -- I've even built a support network of colleagues in a field that I no longer work in. I think I could still be the high-flyer they hired: I would revel in the irony that the disabled racehorse was one of the most successful. I think I would know how to advocate for myself, I think I know how I could pace myself in that environment. I think I could do it. But back then, however, I had no clue.

My current employment as a disabled dancer is a very different thing. It should probably be a different post.


  1. Thank you for sharing this. It's good to know that I will eventually get past the cluelessness and frustration dominating my life right now. I do not know what to do, nor do I know where. You are one of a handful to whom I can admit this...No one else really understands, so I don't bother with them anymore.

  2. You should submit this to the Disability Carnival on work (Liz Henry this month). This is a very moving piece on the process of becoming disabled while in academia--thank you so much for sharing it. While I've written details about my work before, I didn't give a perspective on it--this gives the perspective.

  3. Anonymous9:58 PM

    Cool story. Chill to have the ability, the clarity, to tell it so plain. Should be required reading. Bouquet2U. —OT

  4. cool story. I covered it.

  5. This is just about exactly how I feel in so many ways. Thank you for writing it. I find it so hard to describe and talk about.

  6. Thank you for this SO MUCH.

  7. Your blog is a cool breeze to many---write on! I had loving co-workers, great bosses, but there were some things they just didn't get. I fought some battles, not sure I won any wars but tried to leave a mark for the next person with a disability.

  8. I moved into my current job last summer only mildly handicapped--to the point that one coworker expressed surprise that I thought of myself as a person with a disability. Part (most?) of my presentation, however, was based in ignorance and denial: I actually have some progression in my condition going on with which I am only now, six months later, beginning to deal.

    I am scared witless about how these people are going to take added assistive devices, lower productivity, etc.

  9. Dear CupHolderGuy -- Please stop sending me requests for blogroll links to your products. I don't accept commercial stuff here.

    Thank you.


  10. Anonymous2:24 PM

    So what would you have preferred? NO coffee appearing in your office?

  11. Great question...

    I think I would have preferred to walk down with the person who brought the coffee. To talk. To have had some commumication and interaction in all that aloneness.


  12. Anonymous8:04 AM

    Wow what a nice story.
    I like the racehorse comparison.
    It is great to see such feelings put so nicely into words so those of us that are not gifted in that way can benefit from the education it provides to the general public.

    No one can ever be prepared for major life changes. No matter how much knowledge, experience and examples you have...different environments, personalities and work mean you have to constantly adapt on the fly.
    When my life put me in the position to use walkers and wheelchairs I had already been exposed to dozens of amazing folks who had learned and even in the most strange of situations could often still come across professionally and dignified. I had a professional career in the field of disability, but was not disabled.
    My personality had not necessarily been one of dignity to begin with so my mistakes were often turning bad problems into a joke. While I loved doing this, I did realize that some of my behavior was perpetuating I have to curtail some of my urges.
    For example; one of my behaviors (bad...bad, my bad)
    when being stared at by an adult was to act like I did not notice and begin to pick my nose...and if they seemed to persist with the rude staring...stick my "retrieved bugger" into my mouth....I have not pulled that for a decade...but would love to...

    When I first began using a wheelchair, one of my colleagues encouraged me to try electric scooters (at a professional meeting) and I took out an entire buffet table when the table covering caught in the wheel. And I thought it hysterically funny. and so did all the exhibit hall employees who were stuck with the aftermath/mess. But the other person at the meeting in an electric scooter was not amused and was annoyed with me....They felt it made disabled folks look bad. I agree with that to some degree, even if we do not want person can be setting the attitude for many. So I try real hard to not to get into mischief when in professional environments.