Hello Guilt, My Old Friend…

After months of being unemployed (or underemployed, if you count sporadic freelance gigs), I finally got a full-time job. I have, for the first time in my life, gainful, permanent employment. I have achieved what I’ve been hoping for, and it feels indescribably satisfying. I feel grateful, even though I earned the job. I interviewed quite well. I conducted extensive research on the organization before coming in, and proposed plenty of ideas which the interviewers seemed to love. I dressed well, spoke confidently, and wrote a cover letter of which I can be just a little bit proud. I had the necessary qualifications, useful background knowledge, and a passionate interest in the organization’s work. In short, I did everything right. I was, I think, offered the job on merit, and the accommodations I’d need were treated as a matter of course, not a burden.
I probably shouldn’t feel grateful at all. Nondisabled people don’t generally feel lucky when they get a job. If they’re qualified, they probably feel, if not entitled, then at least deserving. There’s no question of whether they can actually do the work; it’s assumed that they can until there is evidence to the contrary. Gratitude has a place in my life—quite a significant one, really—but it’s not something I really want to be feeling right now. I’ve been lucky, yes; in the current economic climate, just about everyone struggles to find work. Still, I did the legwork and I think the organization will continue to see me as an asset.
There’s another emotion that is harder to ignore though, and I consider it far more toxic. I feel overwhelming guilt—guilt that I, who have only been searching for a handful of months, got a job so soon. I feel guilty that my supervisors have absolute faith in me, never seeming to regard my disability as anything other than a personal trait. I feel guilty that a bachelor’s degree and scant experience were enough to land me the job, when far more qualified veterans of their fields couldn’t find a job if they begged. Most of all, I feel guilty that my highly-experienced, educated, and talented disabled friends are still out of work, still searching frantically, still wondering how they will make mortgage payments.
Again, I know guilt is not something I need to feel. None of my disabled friends would dream of resenting me. They are far too happy for me to feel something so petty. They’re overjoyed that I’ve found employers who value and respect me, and they’ve all emphasized how proud I should feel. (I don’t deserve my friends, I really don’t.) If anyone, disabled or otherwise, felt envy or resentment, they’ve hidden it well. The only person feeling anything other than pride and happiness is me.
From what I’ve gathered, this is a very normal emotional place in which to be. Disabled people have often confessed guilt when good fortune befalls them, no matter how hard they worked to be successful. So much of life is governed by luck, which is why people like me can find work and other, far more worthy candidates cannot. Yes, I slaved for my degree, and yes, I have an impressive-looking portfolio, but I’m certainly not the ideal candidate for most jobs. Yet here I sit, employed and happy.
I know better, but some dark, vindictive part of me thinks, “How dare you? How dare you rejoice when your friends are struggling? How dare you tell them all about your job and how great it is when they’re attending interview after interview without success? Are you so callous that you can enjoy your good fortune when people you love aren’t so fortunate? Really, how dare you?”
I’m doing my best to ignore that malicious little voice. I know full well that my happiness in no way robs others of opportunities. I know that my success will not hamper anyone else’s, and that the most productive, sensible course of action is to throw myself into the work and support my unemployed friends as well as I can. I know all this, but knowing a thing and believing it are two very different things.
I hope that I, and others in my position, will learn to eliminate or at least ignore these feelings of guilt. They are a waste of energy, and can even lead to self-sabotage if they are strong enough. There is no need to feel guilty, and certainly no good can come of it.
If you’re out there, and if you’re listening to that nasty little voice inside your head, do your best to tune it out. You are allowed to be happy. You are allowed to feel blessed without devaluing your effort and talent. Seriously, you’re allowed. Be there for your peers, give them a shoulder to cry on, and help them in whichever ways you can. That, friends, is all you need do.

Accommodation with a Side of Guilt, Please

This evening, I went out to dinner with some friends. I ordered a dish I’ve eaten many times (a salad) only to find that they’ve begun presenting it in a new way: the dressing was in a small cup on the edge of the platter, rather than atop the food as it usually is. I froze, slightly embarrassed. I’ve always had trouble dressing my salad if it’s in a cup. Squeeze bottles? No problem. These give me a certain degree of control. Cups, however, are a different story. (Disclaimer: some blind people have no issue with these whatsoever.) I was just about to ask someone at my table to help when our extremely-attentive server materialized at my elbow:
“Do you want me to take this back and dress it for you?”
“Um…no, it’s okay…it’s just a bit awkward—“
“I totally understand. Don’t worry about it. I’ll be right back.”
Away went my plate. The server appeared several minutes later, saying “Here’s your salad. We have a special rule here where each time food is sent back for any reason, we have to actually make a new dish. So, we just made you a new salad and dressed it for you.”
I was stunned. I had just inadvertently wasted an entire plate of food so that someone could put dressing on top of my salad for me? Forget being slightly embarrassed: I was mortified and, I confess, a little ashamed. While the server reassured me that it was all okay, I silently asked the powers that be to disappear me immediately. They did not oblige.

I’m used to being “accommodated”. Indeed, I often expect it: when I enroll in university classes, each of my instructors is given an accommodation letter, which describes the accommodations I’ll need to participate fully in the classroom. (If I sound like a handbook, that’s because I wrote one—no, really!) I also expect workplaces to make (reasonable) accommodations to the work environment. This is something I’ve been encouraged to view as normal and acceptable. As is typical for me, I have felt heaps of unnecessary guilt over accommodations, even when they are deemed “reasonable”. Once, in ninth grade, my science teacher got together with a few others on staff and made me a periodic table, so I wouldn’t have to use the rather inadequate one in my textbook. My junior high Industrial Arts teacher went out of his way to make sure I could try out all the same equipment everyone else could. He even positioned the end of a nail gun while I fired, showing a remarkable lack of concern for his fingers. (If you’re reading this, I want to thank you. I’ll never forget that one.)

When people go above and beyond the call of duty for me, I feel grateful (healthy) and horribly guilty (unhealthy). Instead of simply thanking people and getting on with things, I waste time and emotional resources worrying about how undeserving or inconvenient or high-maintenance I’m being. While the person who is helping me is busy doing me a favour, I’m busy coming up with all the reasons I shouldn’t be accepting it. Even when I do accept it, as I did with that salad, the shame and humiliation will plague me for days. Yes, you read that correctly: days. This particular incident was so awkward that I’m amazed I didn’t start crying right there at the table; goodness knows I wanted to.

As far as the server was concerned, she was helping a gal out, no more no less. I have no idea what the kitchen staff thought, though I wouldn’t be surprised if they were about a dozen different kinds of exasperated. As far as I was concerned, I’d manage to waste food, fill my server’s time with running back and forth (in a very busy restaurant, I might add) and make a fool of myself all in about five minutes. I’m cringing as I write this, but the more I think about it, the more I realize it needs to be discussed. There are probably a lot of people out there who have felt how I’m feeling right now.

I’m trying to be okay with being accommodated. I’m trying to be at peace with accepting help, and depending on others, and even letting people do me favours now and then. Could I have dressed the damn thing myself? Of course. Would it have been less messy and awkward to have someone else do it? Absolutely. Did I force anyone to do it for me? No. Am I still going to feel awful about it for days to come? Yup.

But should I feel guilty? Most people seem to think I shouldn’t. Accommodations are there for a reason, and in many cases they are universal enough to be made into policy and/or law. But just because it’s not in a handbook or policy statement doesn’t mean it can’t and shouldn’t be done. While imposing unreasonable accommodations on people at work, school, and elsewhere isn’t going to further the cause, it shouldn’t mean that any random act of kindness ought to be rejected.

Should we make a habit of letting people do things for us, especially when we’re capable of doing them ourselves? If you know me at all, then you know I’d never suggest such a thing. However, this does mean that we should be comfortable with accepting what people want to give us now and then. If it’s not a sin to let someone carry your heavy bag, or hold open a door, or grab you a drink (all things sighted people let others do for them on a regular basis) then why not let someone offer kindness if they really, really want to?

I’m learning, guys. I’m learning. But for now…I think I’ll go and have that cry.