Friday, November 23, 2007

Breaking Down Barriers

Some people would look at my job and wonder what on earth I've got to complain about. I'm allowed to spread my 18 hours of work over three days per week. It's sort of related to what I'm trained to do. I work in a reasonably accessible place - an accessible toilet (shame about the non-disabled people who've managed to get hold of a key and keep breaking the door-closing mechanisms, so that I have to play contortionist in order to close the toilet door behind me), not *all* the doors are so heavy that I sublux my shoulder trying to open them (just some), the staff room's next door to my office and the room I mostly work in is just down the hall...

But the attitudes of people in my workplace are a bit - well, it's hard to pin down what's wrong with them - but it's sort of a 'this far, no further' attitude. I've had meetings with managers in which I've asked for reasonable adjustments that would cost nothing and bother no one, but because they're a variation on the norm, or mark me out as a different, they've been refused (as being 'unreasonable', essentially). When I asked for a phone to be put on my desk so I didn't have to get up out of my chair to answer it every five minutes, six senior managers appeared in my office and discussed this 'problem' very loudly in front of all my colleagues - I still don't have a phone (but now I refuse to answer any calls). One of my duties is in another building on the site, involving me crossing a lot of uneven ground for about 400 metres, and opening some extremely heavy doors including two sets of double doors - one day soon, these are going to cause me some real injury. My complaint about this, and suggestion for an easy solution involving me staying in my own building (it would only take a tiny reorganization of one other person's schedule) has been met with such shock and confusion that I may as well have asked for something that was going to cost £millions. Earlier this week I was abandoned during a fire alarm because procedures went wrong and they forgot me - I ended up having to negotiate two flights of stairs - subluxed a joint in my foot that still hasn't stopped trapping nerves - exhausted myself - and then was told I still had to go over to the other building. My manager thinks reasonable adjustments are 'unfair' because not everyone gets them. Attitudes. Not so good. No overt disablism - more like ignorance and institutionalized stubbornness.

In addition, at the moment I rather feel like I'm wasting what little energy I have on a job that I don't really enjoy and which doesn't make the most of my training and experience. Am I supposed to settle for this? The British Government, it seems, would say yes. (Just look at recent reports on what's going to happen to Incapacity Benefit to give you an idea of their thinking on this.) But why? Before I became disabled, I was told to be ambitious, to push myself, to aim high. Then I became ill with mental health problems and was told my goals should be reduced. Then there was The Wheelchair, and my DEA started putting me forward for jobs as a dinner lady. When I was previously heading for posts in middle management and beyond. Um. What? No. I've been doing this job for two months, and already I'm deeply unsatisified with it. And bloody exhausted.

So I'm probably going to apply for a Master's, hopefully to start next September. I'll be paying for it myself, of course. And retraining after just three years in my previous job is not ideal - especially when I *really* loved teaching. Alas, the stress levels and un-inclusive policies (and many other problems) did not create a sustainable environment for me to work in. Maybe, through studying a completely different subject, I can start to move into another area of work that I'll actually enjoy. I hope so, because I really want to work and to enjoy working. But I won't achieve either of these things if I keep trying to work in my current sector - education. It isn't set up for disabled people, generally speaking (there may be educational establishments that are the exception to this rule). And that's a real shame. Maybe if more students had disabled teachers they'd develop more inclusive attitudes.

In response to the Government, I'd like to state that I WANT TO WORK. In particular, I would like nothing more than to return to my previous job. But the barriers there are too difficult for one person to climb over. Especially from a wheelchair (and with joints that don't work and fatigue that won't lift and mental health problems and a learning difficulty and a very understandable headache). I think this disablist wall needs an automatic door put in...

Conclusions? I have none, really - feel free to give me yours.


Elizabeth McClung said...

I can really relate to what you are saying; particularly the attitudes regarding accomodation and value of work. When I was jobbing during my degree I did photocopying and such at the highly touted law department of a university in the top 10 RAE ratings. I was told, "You have to photocopy four sheets on different colour paper for dyslexic students. Actually, you have to to it for complience reasons, I'm pretty sure that the student's with dyslexia are lying." The same attitude was given regarding those who needed test questions read out to them. A friend who was Deaf and went on to her master's was the student representative of her department when at a meeting, the department head announced they wouldn't be taking any students with disabilities anymore since "they are all likely too mentally damaged to complete the work anyway." (She was sitting right next to him). I also watched as the same Law department slowly kicked out a woman who had MS by giving her poor performance reviews after making no accomadation (for example she lost the use of the left side of her body, and they said that her performance in typing memos and transcribing was become sub-par).

I have notice myself that no matter what I do, because I am in a wheelchair, people simply do not believe that it is a job that a) has been given to me or b) that they could do simply because they are AB - or to put it bluntly: The disability negates the idea of being highly trained, qualified or intellegent. Where a year ago my jobs offers/applications were working of Government research teams; policy assessments, and teaching university courses. My current job openings and what I have directed toward include: folding pamphlets and putting them in envelopes, putting away DVD's at video store (until I was told that the AB employees could do it faster and I wasn't really needed anymore) and answering phones.

I have found that the greatest opportunity seems to be in small towns, where a person has grown up and is known by all. On vacation in a small town named Gibson, we talked to a man whose daughter was in a wheelchair. She had done the first year of training for preschool/kindergarden and been given a part time job in the preschool in the local town. When she went to Vancouver for rehab, she was told that she should quit the program because, "No one will ever trust their child to someone with your level of disability." Being 19, she came home, withdrew from the second year and, at the time we had talked to her father, had not yet left the house after returning. Great Career Advice eh?

I really do hope things work out better - at least at uni you will be challenged, which it appears your current job does not.

Hayles said...

We're currently awaiting finalisation of plans to build a new Spinal Injuries Unit in Cardiff.

The original plans where pretty much completely inaccessible for wheelchair users- worse, in fact than the 1940s hospital we're currently based in, which is built on a hill and our unit is at the bottom and all the hospital facilities are at the top- can you imagine self propelling up a corridor that's both realy twisty and a big hill? No, neither can most of our patients, especially the ones who can't use their hands. Those with permission to use their electric chairs unsupervised (I didn't know they had to pass a test first until the other day... but then having tried to drive one, I can see why it's necessary!). Hard for people to retain their independence when they can't even go around the hospital without help. The first lot of plans for the new unit had such intelligent design features as STAIRS (worse than a hill, I think!). My boss was less than amused.

Anyway, I hope the masters course works out better for you... I remember how much you were looking forward to teaching and how much you enjoyed it. What is the course in?

Crystal said...

*hugs* I just want you to know that I feel for sucks.

Anonymous said...

"Then I became ill with mental health problems and was told my goals should be reduced. Then there was The Wheelchair, and my DEA started putting me forward for jobs as a dinner lady. When I was previously heading for posts in middle management and beyond"

That, I think, is your conclusion. Society can accept disability, but only as long as "people with disabilities" will aim for nothing. I trained for four years as a doctor and then (having finally got a degree almost ten years later in something entirely different) got a phone call from the DEA to say they found me a job as a hospital support assistant.

Keep fighting... keeping fighting...

I'll be praying this Masters happens for you...

Anonymous said...

Oh jeez, will the "bang head here" days never end? I can't believe they were making such a big deal about getting a mere phone on your desk!

Here's some ammunition for you regarding the whole "fair" nonsense, the differences between equality, equity and need:

Anonymous said...

Reading your post brought up a lot of anger. I know I say this ad nauseam (well, not here yet since this is my first comment but in general), but it seems to me we should be further along, that society and individuals should get it by now, that there is a huge difference between "special treatment" and "accommodation".

Years ago, while I did a brief stint in the private sector, I was fired because a couple of times a week, I would arrive late to work, on average about 5 minutes in a 8 hour day. But even though they knew I had no control whatsoever over paratransit and that on minimum wage, there was no way I could afford to buy a car or take private taxis every day, they fired me anyway because they "just could not make an exception", that "it was unfair to other employees".

Thankfully, I now work for an organisation that understands accommodation and is more interested in what I can do than what I can not. But I know I am one of the lucky ones.

Anyway, I hope things work out for you. Best of luck.

BenefitScroungingScum said...

I can also relate too well to this post and I really feel for you. There seems to be a major presumption throughout the New Deal and in fact all the govt programmes to kick us of incapacity benefit (regardless of ability to work) that it will be only to full time, poorly paid, low level jobs. The idea of disabled graduates doesn't seem to have entered their heads and is certainly not something any I've come across are equipped to cope with. The fall back position is always, either work from home doing impossible menial jobs such as stuffing envelopes, or be forced into the equally impossible full time jobs they have to fill such as support workers. It's insane and like you I'm very worried about the situation when the govt increase the pressure on incapacity claimants next year.

I think Elizabeth is right though, in some ways the situation is better in small towns, in that people just get used to the disability and knowing the person see the intelligence and how wrong it is that there are all these barriers to opportunity, only being able to work part time being a major one. However, it's no better in that there are no more opportunities, access is worse than in cities, and although attitudes can be better, they can also be much worse and cause significant issues when stuck in a small town environment.

I hope the Master's goes brilliantly, what do you plan to retrain in? I keep hoping eventually I'll find some way of affording to retrain, sigh. Bendy Girl