As a disabled person, I’m pretty used to being seen as a problem, especially in the workplace, and sometimes all the more even when “reasonable adjustments” are supposedly being implemented. For example, in my last secretarial post, discussions about supposedly agreed alterations to my working hours would begin with explicit statements about how I “had to realise how terribly difficult it is”. I was pressurised not to attend medical appointments or follow medical advice. If I was in any way assertive about my needs (not disability related ones) once “reasonable adjustments” had supposedly been put in place, I was reminded of the “great leniency” being shown towards me and how my boss was allowing things most firms never would. It got to the point that I explored this with a manager. Was there something wrong about my performance that they considered they were being lenient about – if there was I would much rather they openly told me what it was, so that I could try to correct it. Oh no, said the manager, and she went on to tell me pretty much in so many words that it was the fact that I’d been allowed to return to work after a period of sickness absence and that [what had been agreed amounted to reasonable adjustments] had been put in place! Once I dared to be assertive that whilst it was agreed that I was working reduced hours, there needed to be a plan for how urgent tasks that arose in my absence would be dealt with (it was not okay for me or for anyone else for them all to be left for my return on top of my usual full workload), I was told by my manager that everyone knew I could not cope with the job. From then on, bullying and harassment continued, along with continually calling on the fact that everyone knew I couldn’t cope with the role. This was despite the fact that, until the point that I had asserted my needs, all my reviews and appraisal had been excellent and I had taken on many responsibilities beyond my job description.
I left soon after, feeling I had no other choice as my mental health was deteriorating so rapidly. I made a formal complaint, but the lies in the company’s response and the regulatory body’s disinterest meant I gave up. 2 years since this started, the impacts on me are still considerable, especially intense self doubt about whether I can take on the responsibilities of a skilled job and the intense emotions I feel when I try to take on more responsibilities now. I’m a good way off returning to paid work but I know these memories will be something I battle with when I do.
Looking back, I feel that although the company I was working for made “reasonable adjustments”, they did so out of a sense of obligation. They made them on paper but were not really willing to discuss the practicalities. I did not hide my disabilities from my employer at any point but when I had a period of particularly bad health they became more visible. I feel that the firm continued to employ me out of obligation but from this point I was seen as a problem, an inconvenience, “terribly difficult”, someone who cannot cope. As soon as I asserted my needs (both relating to my disability and not), this was unacceptable to them. I was no longer wanted. Looking back I feel as though I was acceptable so long as I never spoke out, so long as I never dared assert myself because I was so grateful for everyone allowing me to stay despite all the problems I caused. Whatever happened they needed me to fit their impression of me as someone who can’t cope. If I didn’t assert my needs, eventually the ever mounting pressure would have got too much and I would not have been able to cope. When I did assert my needs, they took this as grounds to announce that everyone knew I couldn’t cope. Whatever I did, it came back to this. If I stuck to my contracted hours and a task went undone, I would be told off for not completing it. If I worked late to complete a task (sometimes specifically with a manager’s agreement or even at their request) I was told this showed I couldn’t cope with my job because no other secretaries worked late (untrue incidentally).
So, I wonder, how much of this was done malevolently and how much came from my employers’ assumption that disabled people can’t cope with responsibility or can’t do the job? Yes, in the later stages I believe their lies were malicious or at least covering their own backs so that should I take my complaint further I would have no case. However I am coming to think that their underlying beliefs about me as a disabled person played a large part. (It could have been that I was actually rubbish at my job from the outset but then why was this never reflected in my performance reviews?)
It seems a very backward assumption that disabled people can’t work. Then, the other day I encountered the assumptions of a total stranger who had met me for a few seconds at most, that I’m irresponsible and don’t work.
I was about to get off the bus when the driver sailed on past the stop despite 3 of us ringing the bell in plenty of time. By the time we got to the next stop this had trebled the length of my walk home and this over-exertion has now worsened my symptoms such that for the next 3 or 4 of days I’d be almost unable to walk at all and wouldn’t be able to leave the house even to get to my medical appointments. Someone who has no way to appreciate what life with a disability entails might not realise the extent of impact of having to walk a bit further. The driver was very rude and dismissive when I asked why he didn’t stop and so I thought it worth pointing out the impact it had on me. He would not apologise and lied saying that the bell hadn’t been rung and what was it to do with him. This being the last in a considerable number of recent bad experiences with the bus company that have left me dreading bus travel (recently I was shouted at and ordered off the bus because I asked the driver where the bus was stopping during a temporary diversion and wasn’t willing to accept his answer of “I don’t know I’m not a taxi driver”!), I decided to complain and asked for the company’s telephone number. The driver flatly refused to give any details. At this point another passenger came up, pushing into me, telling me “Just get off the bus, you [expletives deleted] idiot! It’s alright for you, all the rest of us have responsibilities and work to get to! Take the bus number you idiot, he’s told you [more expletives deleted].” On top of which the bus driver nodded and smiled, said she was absolutely right, actually thanking her. Pretty much encouraging her.
I was furious with the passenger as well as the driver and it took me some time to work out why I felt so strongly. Part of it was the driver’s refusal to apologise, refusal to admit he’d missed the stop and pretending the fault was mine and generally very poor customer service, which really gets to me as I’ve worked in customer service for years and feel strongly about how I’d treat other people. I also ascertained he missed the stop deliberately to save time, though that is something of an assumption. But I figured out that what really upset me was the implication in the passenger’s tirade and the driver’s support of her.
“It’s alright for you” whilst the “rest of” the passengers have “responsibilities and work to get to.” She made the assumption that I did not have work or responsibilities, that I was different from everyone else on the bus – why, because she could see I’m disabled? “Take the bus number you idiot, he’s told you”. She assumed the bus driver had given me the information I needed and I was too stupid to understand (he hadn’t). Again because I’m disabled? And I should “just get off the bus” – why did she find that it was wrong for me to stand up for myself? Are disabled people too much of an inconvenience to the “rest of us” when we do? Should I keep quiet because everyone else has responsibilities and jobs that count more than mine? The driver supported her being verbally abusive. Perhaps he was just hoping she’d intimidate me into giving up so there would be no possible repercussions for him if I made a complaint, but in the context it felt like him agreeing I was stupid, an inconvenience and so unworthy I don’t even merit decent customer service.
Am I being paranoid? Was it not actually to do with my disability? Was the other passenger setting me apart from her and the rest of the passengers for another reason? I don’t know. Instinctively I feel it was very much to do with my disability and perhaps the fact I wasn’t behaving in the typically meek, apologetic, unobtrusive way it seems acceptable for disabled people to behave.
Hmmmm. To be continued at some point, I think….