“Wait…You Work Here?”

About a month ago, I was charged with covering reception at my workplace. We were severely short-staffed that day, but in small non-profits, everyone pitches in. Our clients are used to seeing unfamiliar staff members covering the desk, and it’s common enough that it never raises eyebrows. When I sat behind the desk, however, everything changed.
Instead of asking me questions about how to send a fax or print in colour, clients asked, often openly and a little confusedly, “Do you…work here?” Many of them avoided the reception desk altogether, knowingly violating protocol and striding past the desk without so much as a by-your-leave. They’d quiz other coworkers milling about in the reception area, even when those coworkers encouraged clients to speak to me directly. At times when I managed to engage with them and ask them what they needed, they expressed a preference for the intern who had been with us less than a month and knew maybe a tenth of what I did about how things are done. Although the intern was nervous and visibly uncomfortable, clients chose to wait and interact with her rather than dealing with a long-term staff member who had a visible disability. After only one short hour in reception, I realized that having worked at this non-profit for almost a year, sitting confidently behind the desk, asking people directly if I could assist them, and being dressed as professionally as anyone else working there—none of it mattered. People just assumed I was either incompetent or not an employee at all. (I don’t know whether they believe my workplace routinely allows non-employees to sit behind the desk for fun. I didn’t ask.)
In a move that was a little twisted even by the cruel universe’s usual standards, I was stopped in my apartment building a few days later by a fellow tenant I’d never spoken to before. I was clearly in a rush, walking briskly, and doing my best to ensure I wouldn’t miss my ride to work. Ignoring every signal I was blasting frantically to the world at large, this inquisitive woman started to pepper me with questions.
“Hi. Where are you going today? I see you leave here most days. Always wondered where you go.”
“I’m heading to work.”
“You work?!”
“Yes, yes I do.”
“Like, every day?”
“Five days a week.”
“Where?”
“At a small non-profit.”
“Oh! Which one?”
The interrogation probably would have continued, but I was able to extricate myself by pleading lateness and managed to escape before snapping at her with much more irritation than she’d have deserved. It’s not a crime to ask questions, and I’m not one of those who will eviscerate someone for daring to try it, but having strangers ask you where you go every day and the exact location of your workplace seems a little dodgy, disability or no.
As with almost every other disappointing situation I’ve experienced because of disability, I soon realized I was far from alone. While discussing the matter with others, I heard several accounts of blind people being mistaken for non-employees who had strayed into forbidden areas, or who were merely assumed incapable on sight. Sighted people are used to seeing us sitting at a piano or acting in feel-good, promotional videos, but a blind person sitting at a desk or standing behind a counter seems to be a bit more of a leap for them. Fellow blogger Blindbeader has been stopped twice now at her new workplace, where she was warned by strangers that she was going the wrong way and was trying to enter a secure area. Only when she flashed her security badge and explained she was an employee did the people in question re-evaluate their assumptions. Apparently, even a professionally-dressed, confident-looking blind person looks lost and out of place in a work environment, at least to some people out there.
This type of unconscious discrimination can have more serious consequences than mild annoyance and inconvenience. While working as an intake assistant at CNIB, I conducted most of my consultations with clients by phone, so they readily listened to and respected my advice without question. When they’d walk into my office and meet me for the first time, though, some of them, even people who were going blind themselves, would do an astonished double-take, hard pressed to believe the helpful, knowledgeable woman they’d spoken to on the phone was blind. My partner, who has a moderate eye condition that is sometimes visible, was frequently discriminated against at work in retail and food service fields, despite his capabilities. While working for a fast food restaurant, coworkers were quick to blame any mistakes on “the blind guy,” and management was a little too quick to believe them. When he worked at a computer repair shop, customers would request to work with a different technician, or complain about him to his coworkers, because they thought it glaringly inappropriate for a person with even mild vision issues to be employed there. Their complaints are perplexing to me, since his vision issues are minor enough that he doesn’t usually use accessible devices and never uses mobility aids. He’ll never drive, it’s true, but he can certainly repair your computer and even read your screen without help. To this day, reliving these experiences makes him uncomfortable and anxious, and it’s easy enough to understand why. Hard as we work to convince interviewers and supervisors we deserve to work alongside everyone else, we still have to face the hurdles put in place by public and peer perceptions.
I didn’t realize how prevalent this casual discrimination actually was until I entered the workforce at age eighteen. At one point, while trying to comfort a distraught mother whose teenage daughter had just gone blind, I found myself explaining to her that, no, her daughter’s life was not irrevocably ruined. Yes, she’d be able to go to school, and have a career, and be successful. In a moment of weakness for which I don’t blame her one bit, she burst out: “How would you know? You’re just saying that!”
“Actually, Ma’am,” I said as gently as I could, “I’m blind, too. I’m getting a degree, and I have good career prospects. Many of my blind friends are very successful in their fields. It’ll be hard, no question, but your daughter’s going to be okay.”
So, if there are those out there who honestly believe blind people are destined for lives spent at home being cared for by our unfortunate families, and cannot aspire to anything higher, it makes sense that they’d react oddly when confronted with blind professionals. All manner of superficial attributes make people seem more or less trustworthy and credible, right down to appearance and voice. Why, then, should it be shocking that a visible disability would, however unjustly, decrease a person’s credibility in a stranger’s eyes? It’s not fair, and it needs to be combatted, but it does make a kind of sense. At least, it’s no less illogical than thinking tall, deep-voiced people are more credible than short, higher-voiced people with the same qualifications and credentials. The world is a vastly illogical place.
My solution to this issue mirrors the one I default to in so many other cases: education, education, education. The more blind professionals are seen out in the world, the more accustomed to us society will become. People’s minds do change, and I know a few who, since having met me, have altered their perspectives on a great many things. No more would they stop a blind person in a hallway and automatically presume they don’t belong there. No longer would they avoid seeking help from one of us if they found us behind an information desk, or repairing their computers in a shop, or cooking their food in a restaurant.
As usual, the way is long, and slow, and sometimes painful—but it is, I think, the only way we have.

Inclusion For All! (Unless You’re Disabled)

Yesterday, I went through a fascinating but painful experience on Twitter. A very popular activist posted an important piece of information about the women’s march, saying she wanted it to reach as many people as possible and encouraging people to share far and wide. As it turns out, these were pretty words: while she did host a plain-text version of the information on her website, the tweet contained an inaccessible image with the text inside. This makes it impossible for screen readers to interpret the contents of the image, leaving out anyone with too little vision to read the message without sighted help. What is more, this woman placed a URL to the accessible version inside the inaccessible image, completely defeating the purpose of including it at all!
Wanting to make the information easier to access, another disability activist asked that the original poster tweet the URl on its own, and stressed the importance of accommodating screen readers, particularly since the tweet was meant to be available to everyone. If you want something shared widely, then including as many people as possible makes sense.
I joined the conversation (I’m a glutton for punishment), pointing out that Twitter has a handy alt text feature that makes it possible and easy to describe images. This feature would have been perfect for making sure the URL was readable for everyone, including blind screen reader users. I did not expect immediate action; I didn’t even expect a response at all. I just wanted to raise awareness about an option that is often overlooked and that would save people so much time and effort.
What did I get for my trouble? Well, nothing encouraging. Two of this activist’s followers jumped into my Twitter mentions to tell me the following.
• I had no right to “harass” someone who is doing her best.
• I was devaluing the tireless, exhausting work she was doing.
• I should go find something “real” to complain about.
• The only reason I was speaking up was that I was “bored with my life” and had nothing better to do. (Yes, because a full-time job, a social life, a relationship, and a budding freelance career mean I’m ever so bored and useless. I adore being judged based on nothing at all.)
• I should stop attacking people on Twitter.

Let’s break this down. A person (whose followers presumably agree with her) professes commitment to inclusiveness. Intersectionality, a buzzword many on the far left are fond of using, only applies to some groups. Disability is not included in that group, which is typical of a lot of feminist, left-wing activism; we’re often invisible to the loudest, proudest voices. Since I am disabled, I must be a bored, unproductive person. Asking for access is considered harassment by default, even when it’s a fairly polite, solitary tweet devoid of name-calling and anger. My concerns aren’t “real” or meaningful. Inclusion doesn’t include me, or other disabled people, and sharing far and wide means restricting your audience, even after you’re told how to remedy the issue. Finally, harassment doesn’t go both ways: tearing a stranger to pieces and continuing to tweet them after I’ve said I’m done with the conversation is acceptable, but sending one informational tweet is not.
I hate hypocrisy, and it’s inexpressibly devastating to come across it in the very communities that are supposed to support and include minorities. Why is disability so often absent from these people’s minds, and why, when it’s brought to their attention, is it so callously and vehemently dismissed? Why don’t we count?
I try to be patient with people. I try not to live a life of constant rage and victimhood. I realize that baby steps are par for the course and our rights and humanity won’t be fully recognized overnight. Education is vital and not every activist should be expected to have intimate knowledge of what we need right off the bat.
You would think, however, that once they’re enlightened, they’d act on what they have learned. Many of them do; later in the day, another Twitter user I approached apologized and was more than happy to make changes to her inaccessible tweets. Her warmth, sincerity, and complete lack of defensiveness were exactly what I needed after such a disappointing encounter.
I can put this down as one unfortunate incident and move on, and I intend to do just that. Before putting it behind me, though, I feel bound to tell people about my experience, and explain why that never should have been allowed to happen. Even among supposedly inclusive circles, I was treated like an annoyance who should just go away and stop complaining already. These people have “real” work to do. Can’t I leave them to do it?
This is not okay. You cannot and should not be allowed to get away with cherry-picking which minorities to support. You should not get to decide who is worthy and who is not. We’re not perfect, and sometimes we are guilty of cutting people down for honest mistakes. Despite this, I will continue to hold inclusive communities accountable for their refusal to acknowledge and stand with us. (Predictably enough, the activist I tweeted did not back me up or tell her followers to stop.)
In the meantime, I’m going to appreciate and uplift those who are willing to listen and act. The world isn’t all bad, and I can’t let myself drown in a sea of rage-fuel that really isn’t personal. I know I’m not useless. I know that my access requests are legitimate. I know I’m worthy of respect. I’ll just have to wait patiently for everyone to clue in, I suppose.
Now, excuse me while I get back to my productive, useful life.