Finding Your Hive: Longing for Usefulness as a Disabled Worker Bee

Over the past few years, I’ve been focusing less on sheer survival and more on living in a way that brings me lasting contentment. Common wisdom for such a pursuit most often begins with ‘find your tribe’ sentiments.

Said wisdom did seem to be working well for most everyone I knew. Each time a friend picked up a hobby or clicked with a social group, their general happiness seemed to improve tenfold. Then there was me: phenomenal friends, supportive coworkers, closely knit family, thriving romantic partnership. My social life was thriving for the first time since high school, and loneliness had become something other people suffered. I was even beginning to explore creative hobbies after too much time spent in stagnation. My writing showed promise, and music, that stalwart friend, was a central part of my life again.

So where was the life improvement squad? Where was the revelatory sense of purpose? Where was the click?

Maybe I was supposed to order it. Maybe I’d have to go online and fill out some form and half the fields would be unlabelled and everything would be colour-coded and then the CAPTCHA verification would be inaccessible and maybe I should just have a nap?

Anyway, just as I accepted my destiny as incorrigible malcontent, I found a comfortable niche at a new job. The work I do offers abundant opportunity for individual accomplishment, but there is also a lot of work that’s unglamourous, uncredited and, therefore, quite unpopular. It needs done, and when it’s done well it brings enormous value to the team, but no one likes doing it.

Well, no one but me.

Once I developed a widespread reputation for being the person who’s up for anything, always willing to embrace the ‘hard’ in ‘hard work,’ I felt it — my resounding click. I was useful, and that was just what I’d been looking for.

You see, like many rural kids, I grew up in a culture obsessed with usefulness. There was always work to do, and if there wasn’t, you weren’t looking hard enough. All around me, my sighted peers were making themselves useful mowing acres of grass, feeding livestock, doing renovations, operating farm equipment, changing someone’s oil. You name it, someone my age was doing it.

As for me, I could usually be found unloading the dishwasher or doing laundry while everyone else rushed about doing things I was too blind to tackle. In an environment like mine, if you couldn’t drive, couldn’t see, couldn’t learn purely by observation (no one had time for adapted training, even if they’d known how to carry it out), there was no sugar-coating it: you weren’t of much use. I know plenty of rural blind people learn most of these things by grit or gumption or good, patient teaching—see you in the comments, guys, keep it civil—but for reasons that are numerous and complicated and not at all relevant here, I didn’t.

So, in effect, I spent my formative years knowing I was not very useful, while up to my eyeballs in a culture devoted to utility. As you can guess, that understanding sank deep into my marrow and helped forge who I’d become: A restless, rudderless person who couldn’t work out what would make her truly happy.

Being academically inclined was nice. Being reasonably intelligent was handy enough; that would help me make money later, maybe. My singing brought others joy, even if it wasn’t going to babysit their kids or cook their dinners. But I felt like a defective worker bee in a very busy hive, and no one seemed to know what to do with me.

It took me way too long to realize what I need for true contentment is less ‘find your tribe’ than ‘find your hive’. I’m not wired for attention and I’m not especially motivated by approval. I like working with other people, but community, important as it is, doesn’t fulfill me on its own. As it turns out, finding my people is my nice-to-have, not my must-have. What I hunger for isn’t attention, recognition, or a group of people who ‘get’ me, though I won’t say no to them. Instead, I am the ultimate team player, totally invested in a job well done. I want to have your back, not take your limelight. I want you to notice me for my dependability, not so much for my brilliance, though again: I won’t say no to that either. If I’m competing with anyone besides myself, it’s to see who is most helpful, not who is most impressive. I hunger for the knowledge that because I’m around, doing my best work, someone else’s life is easier.

I wonder, as I write this, whether other disabled people have the same worker bee drive. Plenty of nondisabled people crave this sort of external validation, of course, but I have a feeling there are a lot of disabled people out there who, having been labelled ‘of little use,’ have grown into restless, rudderless people like me, asking themselves why they never feel whole unless others are counting on them.

And I’m sure there are many more out there who have yet to feel useful, at least by society’s narrow standards. Isn’t most disability defined, after all, by the work a person can or can’t do? By our earning potential? By our limited ability to contribute financially via the labour market? Don’t so many of us find that the only thing worse than a bad job is no job at all? Beyond financial constraints, what would unemployment say about us and our worth?

I think you’re out there, worker bees. I think you’re worried about whether you’ll ever be useful enough, and I think you find meaning in what you manage to get done. I believe you have mixed feelings about the fact that the toxic mentality that made you feel small and inadequate is giving you such fulfillment. I expect you live to hear people say, “you really helped me out today,” and I’d bet some part of you balks at the very thought of being so vulnerable to how others feel about you.

If I were to guess, I’d say you might even question whether enjoying your usefulness demonstrates a lack of self-respect, a brokenness, an internalized ableism you can’t quite shake.

Am I getting warmer?

So if you’re out there, worker bees, I propose the middle ground, as I so often do. Delight in your usefulness. Find the niche that lets you be a go-to person, even if it’s for something simple. Relish it without apology.

Yes, our society is obsessed with measuring the utility of human beings and punishing or rewarding them accordingly. Yes, that obsession is more pronounced and more damaging when those humans happen to be disabled. But don’t let that deprive you of the pride and fulfillment you derive from your ordinary, unglamourous work. Don’t chase admiration simply because someone told you that the only good disabled person is an outstanding one. Most importantly, don’t you ever buy in, the way I did, to the idea that your value lies in how well you stack up next to nondisabled people. That way lies madness. Life doesn’t have to be a competition. The unremarkable, uncredited tasks you perform every day have weight. All you have to be is the best version of yourself.

Go, worker bee, and find your hive. And when you do, take what brings you happiness and leave the rest.

It’s The Little Things

So often, it’s the little things that spark my frustration. True, the broad, sweeping issues matter more in the grand scheme, but the minor, day-to-day irritations eat at me the most. Instructions I can’t read, inaccessible features of a website, people asking rude questions–these annoyances burrow beneath my skin and make me curse my disability (or, more accurately, the way the world treats that disability).
There’s another side to this, however. Just as I’m most ruffled by the tiniest details, so too am I cheered by equally inconsequential things. A door opened at just the right time, a person taking the time to describe an image, information provided in an alternate format—these are the gestures and accommodations that remind me the world is not falling apart. No matter how hopeless I feel, how acute my frustration, how black my outlook, there will always be some mundane occurrence or other to soothe my spirit, at least for a while.
My fundamental mistake, I think, is failing to acknowledge these happenings and give myself the space to be grateful. It’s easy to express gratitude for the landmark victories and grand gestures, but I’m less likely to stop what I’m doing and spend a moment simply appreciating the good that’s quietly and often anonymously done in the world each day.
My regular readers know just how averse I am to trumpeting positive mantras and ignoring uncomfortable truths. Disability advocacy is still sorely needed. The world has a long, long way to go before the personhood and humanity of people with disabilities is fully recognized and integrated into society’s structure. So many great leaps have yet to be taken, and there are a thousand battles left to fight. I’m aware of this, and so are fellow disabled people.
Yet, for my own well-being, I’m compelled to devote more energy to revelling in the simple kindness and thoughtfulness of others. Thanking a developer for prioritizing accessibility is, for now at least, just as important as calling another out for failing to do so. Writing social media posts about kindness, generosity, and hope should be as habitual as writing about injustice and prejudice. Venting my frustration is necessary, but expressing gratitude is necessary, too.
Even as we tell others how they have done wrong, we ought to tell them how they have done right. They may not listen or even care, but if we don’t give people the tools to improve, they never will. If we censure fellow disabled people, we must also build them up, for we all walk the same path.
I won’t close my eyes and make believe that the good outweighs the bad. I won’t ask anyone else to do that, either. Keep calling out what’s wrong in the world; your voice is vital, and if we do not speak, no one else will do so for us. In your own life, though, among those you come into direct contact with, focus on the good, as well. If a stranger does something you like, tell them so. If a disabled peer does something of which you approve, let them know.
Yes, we need to be watchful. We mustn’t become complacent and hide in a cocoon of warm, fuzzy feelings. That doesn’t mean we wouldn’t benefit from a few moments of happiness now and then, though.
So, take a moment. Think of the last time someone understood you, or supported you, or treated you the way you want to be treated. Reach back to that point—I hope it wasn’t too long ago—and remember how it made you feel.
Don’t forget.
It truly is the little things…

Yes, I Have “Bad Blind Days”

People complain about bad hair days. They complain about bad workdays. They complain about Monday’s very existence. I complain about all those, too. Frequently. One might even say, insufferably.

There is another day I feel less comfortable complaining about: the Bad Blink Day. Some days, everything that can go wrong does go wrong, in the context of blindness at least. This morning, for example, I was trying to prop my cane against a door. It fell no fewer than four times before I accepted defeat and folded it up. At that moment, I thought “I should have gotten a dog!” We all know how I feel about getting a service dog. I remember a day two summers ago, when I was learning the route to work and back, in an unfamiliar neighbourhood, with absolutely no one to go along with me. Everything went pear-shaped from start to finish…

The inauspicious beginning: I was sorting out some new outfits to wear to work, and found that I’d forgotten which skirt went with which shirt. I was panicking, because I apparently lack the ability to prioritize calamities. I eventually threw on something I thought might be okay, and off I went to catch the bus. The bus, of course, was late, and the driver very grumpy. I used my GPS the entire time, trying to make sure I didn’t miss any stops. (I’ve since learned to pester the driver, however annoyed they may become.) During the work day, things went reasonably well, but for a few accessibility hiccups I dealt with quickly. Well, okay, so I was on the phone with tech support for an hour, but otherwise it was great! And then …

I caught my first bus home, and transferred at a busy station. It was pouring, and we were under a tornado warning, I believe. I got onto the second bus, and when the driver reached the approximate location of my stop, she said “I’ll just drop you off over here.” The chosen spot left me disoriented, since I didn’t really know my way around yet. I wandered for ages through rain and wind. Normally rain doesn’t bother me much, but this rain was unusually cold, for July anyway, and it was really coming down. I was hopelessly lost, though I knew I was only a few blocks from my destination. The GPS was no help. My phone was nearly dead, and in any case my fingers were so wet and cold that I couldn’t get the screen to work (this was before I had Siri). I knew that, had I been sighted, this day would have gone a lot differently.

The dreary end: I ended up standing in some stranger’s yard, hiding under a tree, bawling my eyes out and getting soaked. The stranger was kind, and drove me home (yes, I got into a stranger’s car—sue me). I got in the door (wringing out my skirt as I did so), went upstairs to my room, and curled in a ball to cry. That day, like many days, I was so done with being blind.

Most of my “bad blind days” aren’t nearly as dramatic as all that. Usually it’s little things, like getting somewhat lost, calling cabs to go to an unfamiliar place, fighting stupid stereotypes, and generally getting people to treat me normally. We all have them. So why don’t I like talking about them?

I’m very free with blind friends. They’ve all gone through what I have, so we can share our frustrations without inviting negative perceptions, seeming whiny, or killing people’s buzz. Yet I have difficulty talking to sighted people about days like this. Maybe it’s because I feel ashamed: after all, blindness isn’t so bad. Many people have it far worse, so what am I grumbling about? Maybe it’s because I feel very slightly unsafe—as though anything I say will be twisted out of context. I don’t want one bad day to make people think my life is always confusing and frustrating. Maybe it’s because I’m a generally upbeat person, and I only feel safe venting to a select few.

I’ve recently decided to change this. I was chatting with my fiancé Gregg about social media. He was pointing out that people hardly ever post negative things there, and when they do, it’s usually to gain sympathy (we’ve all done it, don’t shake your head) or shed positive light in a subtle way. Oh, look how brave I am, fighting adversity! Oh, look how desperately busy I am; I can hardly keep up (but I actually can, see?).

What you don’t see, he said, is people posting genuinely negative things that have happened to them, without any intention of garnering sympathy or making themselves look good in crafty ways. “Maybe,” he continued, “posting more negative, less self-congratulatory things will help everyone feel better about the bad stuff that happens to them.” I decided he had a point. Research has shown that people often feel depressed as they scroll through Facebook, because all they see are the good times everyone else is having. All they see are the successes. All they see, in essence, is how well everyone else is doing, and how badly they are doing in comparison. It never occurs to people that what you see on Facebook is carefully chosen, and that it doesn’t represent the whole. I’ve met people who had glittery, perky, and plucky Facebook lives. I thought they must be the happiest people in the world, with a million friends and so many successes. These are some of the unhappiest people I know, by the way; all you have to do is ask them how they’re really doing. I’ve often heard the following: “I have a thousand Facebook friends and no one to talk to.”

So, on my Facebook, Twitter, and the blog, I’ll endeavor to share the foibles, failures, and trials without trying to be inspirational. I’m not trying to uplift others. I’m not trying to make everyone feel sorry for me. And I am definitely not trying to flatter myself in any way. What I want is to get people—disabled and otherwise—to feel comfortable talking about the bad stuff; the embarrassing stuff; the frustrating stuff. Share the things that aren’t inspirational, or uplifting, or flattering. Share the things that make you squirm just a little.

I’m not suggesting you roam into “too much information” territory, and I’m certainly not suggesting you post content that a possible employer might find unsavory. I’m not saying you should share stories about your latest drunken mishaps. Share the little stuff—the stuff we all go through but don’t like to talk about.

“But Meagan!” you say, “won’t that turn Facebook into a sea of negativity?” Nope, it really won’t. The less time we waste comparing our lives to someone else’s–without even seeing the whole picture–the more time we can spend supporting each other, keeping up with friends, and generally having a good time.

You can share the good things, too. Share your success in sports, music, art, and the workplace. Share things that make you proud. Complain bitterly about the impersonal—traffic, the government, the state of kids today. Just remember to share the personal stuff, too; if you can share the personal good, feel free to share the personal bad, too.