Better Living Through Severed Shoestrings

“Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know,” played on repeat throughout my time in public school. I was better off than many blind students, since my school division rarely hesitated to fund what I needed, and my educational assistant’s skill far exceeded her salary. Despite this relative abundance, I was never permitted to forget how lucky I was to receive basic educational tools. Fellow classmates were forever losing or damaging their books and equipment, while I was reprimanded for so much as bending a binder. I was threatened with a $700 fine for misplacing one volume of a Braille book. If a piece of expensive equipment malfunctioned—usually because I had not received the most rudimentary lessons on how to use it—I was held solely responsible, my attempts to explain myself summarily dismissed. Almost nothing I used belonged to me, so a broken coil or missing stack of Braille paper was grounds for outright hysteria. In fact, my first panic attack was triggered by a problem with my school-issued laptop. It had been drilled into me by a few overzealous adults that I could either be a faultless steward of my assistive technology, or I could surrender the right to have any at all. Panic seemed warranted.

University was a welcome reprieve. Generous grants and scholarships covered all my equipment. There was an expectation that I’d take care of my technology to a reasonable extent, but no one was hanging over my shoulder, evaluating the way I carried my Braille display. Grant money wasn’t unlimited, so I still had to be cautious, and when something broke down, there was no guarantee I could afford to repair it. For those fortunate enough to be uninitiated, specialized technology seems to break down a lot.

Then, as if to cement this shoestring pattern, I started working in the nonprofit sector. Anyone who has worked in nonprofit organizations for any length of time knows that you can’t assume you’ll have reliable access to stamps and functional phone systems, let alone costly assistive devices and software. Funding is available for Albertan employers, but I had already developed the habit of accomplishing all tasks with bare-bones resources. Years of living on the disability shoestring meant I was a convenient employee, but not necessarily an optimal one. In the disability world, you often get what you pay for, and the nonprofit tendency to use no or low-cost alternatives to standard products spurred me to avoid asking for anything at all unless my job depended on it. My employer checked in periodically to make sure I didn’t need anything new, but I insisted I was just fine, thanks. Again and again, I chose the long, winding path to every goal—whether at work or in my personal life–because it meant conserving other people’s money and time. What could be more important than that?

Recently, I switched to a position in which employees are expected to make any reasonable request that will increase their productivity. Nothing is promised, but much is delivered, and my shoestring habits are neither lauded nor useful. Profligacy isn’t encouraged, but neither am I praised for taking hours to perform simple tasks just because I used a cheaper option, or refused to ask for help, or failed to request an accommodation. In my new environment, resources are plentiful, and I’ve had to do major soul-searching to become comfortable with that.

It has taken me years to pinpoint why I find the hard way so easy. The trouble with the shoestring lifestyle is that while it’s not enjoyable, it’s comforting. If no one can accuse you of being a drag on the system because of those dreaded “special needs” of yours, you can indulge in self-righteous piety. Doing everything the difficult but economical way is a bulwark against societal pressure to take as little from a harsh world as you can. I convinced myself I had to earn my right to work, which meant ensuring that no employer or disabled peer could view me as financially burdensome. Amid all my anxiety about costing too much or needing too much help, I forgot that employers are typically more attached to excellence and efficiency than economy. If I proved to be valuable and competent, employers would find ways to accommodate me. On the other hand, if I cost them next to nothing but lagged in terms of productivity, they’d be well within their rights to trade me in.

A lawyer friend said it best: “A good dose of get-sh*t-done is important, but time is money.” Cultivating an independent, innovative spirit is worthwhile, but it’s equally important to identify what you need, and have the guts to ask for it. Shoestrings make great security blankets, but when resources are within reach, it’s best to snip those strings. The severing exposes you to potential criticism, yes, and it means someone might conceivably make the case that you’re too costly to keep, sure …

But it also means you’ll do your best work, in good time, with minimal risk of burnout. What could be better for your work-life balance, your health, and your employer’s bottom line?

I’ll keep my ability to improvise and adapt. I’ll hang onto my talent for working under tight budgets and tighter deadlines. I’ll learn multiple ways of circumventing disability barriers, because the ideal environment will not always be there.

As for the scarcity-based, shoestring mentality? I think it’s time I let that go.