I’m usually pretty good at standing up for myself.
I remember a job interview I had not that long ago where the interviewer opened with you are too young, too disabled and too female to be a project manager. There was some talk of the level of audacity I must have had to even apply for the job. Which I thought was a curious position to take after the interviewer had called me in for an interview within hours of me applying for the job.
The point I’m trying to make is when confronted with this level of… stupid I was more than capable of explaining to the interviewer why I would be an asset to the organisation and then promptly turn down the job! I call it warrior mode! I still believe I would have been amazing in that job, this was not an environment I wanted to be involved in.
But sometimes it gets in. It’s astounding how quickly someone treating me badly because of the wheelchair can make me feel about 2cm tall. Earlier this year I was in a situation where I was relying pretty heavily on customer service staff to function. The customer staff in question did not … I don’t want to get into details because it’s not about what they did it’s about how I feel. Let’s just say the customer service team could have used additional training. It was kind of a full frontal attack, minimal access to the facilities, actions that left me feeling humiliated and scared for my safety. Even little things like they kept apologising to people around me for being near the disabled person.
I did not handle it well. Warrior woman from my job interview was nowhere to be found. Instead I was crying and racking my brain for what I’d done wrong to cause the situation. I could not shake the idea that I was going to somehow get in trouble for occupying this space where disabled people were not welcome. I think this experience exploded in my head for the next week and but for the support of my friends and lovely husband I think I would have just internalised all that negativity.
A couple of points I wanted to make.
I find I slip very quickly into taking on the responsibility for other people’s bad behaviour. The truth is that if someone singles me out and treats me negatively because of my disability it will always be a case of shame on them. I have just as much right to occupy space as any able bodied person. My two cents, because the disabled person is usually in the minority it ends up a “is it me or the rest of the world” situation. And for whatever reason I find it much easier to assume that I’m the problem… and not everyone else.
This is why I want to share my stories. Because I think there is power in coming together and validating each other’s experiences and feelings. I want to build on my confidence to speak up and I want to encourage others to speak up. We need to normalise that this kind of activity is abusive and not even close to being ok.
The other point is a kind of cautionary tale about internalising negative experiences. If I just accepted the negative comments as truths then of course I end up thinking the world is against me. That’s when I build up walls and become the warrior woman that can protect myself from horrible interviewers. Warrior mode will get me through a rubbish couple of hours when I’m stuck in a bad situation. But every-time I let the warrior woman deal with my problems those walls just get higher. I start to assume that everyone is going to try and hurt me. I don’t build relationships. I don’t challenge the status quo and disability inclusion disappears as off into the distance.
Which is why I try and focus on validating my feelings. When I validate my feelings, I can frame the situation more logically. Of course, I felt varying degrees of scared and humiliated. The other actors around me were treating me terribly and anyone would have reacted in the same way . I’m not a problem child because I experience the feelings that anyone would put in the same situation. It makes it a HEAP easier to put them blame where it deserves to land which is on the bad actor. The more I can separate the bad actor from the general population, the more I can focus on the good people which are definitely the majority.
So, for anyone who needs to hear it, your feelings are valid and exactly what you’d expect when you place anyone in that kind of a situation. You are allowed to ask for help. There will always be people who are keen to help and support and they outnumber the bad ones.
Always speak up. No man (or woman) should ever be an island. Retreating and fortifying barracks will just lead to further isolation and less I’m inclusion for disabled people. We deserve as much of society as abled bodied people.