It can be difficult to raise awareness. Not just about disability but about unconscious behaviours towards someone who’s a bit different. It’s not about knowing every disability or being politically correct. It can be about small and subtle behaviours of able-bodied people. They may not be aware they’re doing them but it’s important to highlight, especially in a large workplace.
It's not a blame game
Curiosity is natural, we stare at things that aren't the norm. We automatically look at the things that are not in our day to day life. But what most of us don't realise is that our glances have an impact.
It's tough not to take it personally. It’s tough to hold your head up and ignore the feeling of being looked at for being different. It’s not something you can change, you’re stuck in this body and you’re being judged because of it. You also can't villainise people because it's human nature. So where’s the balance?
We’re not in Kansas anymore
Six months ago I moved from a small agency to PDS. This is the first time I’ve worked in such a big organisation. And it’s been an adjustment in terms of my disability. When you work in an open plan office of about 50 people, everyone knows you. Even if to start with there’s a couple of glances, they stop seeing the difference over time.
I never appreciated the sanctuary of working in a bubble of people that are used to you. I get looked at everywhere I go, on the tube, walking to work, walking home, shopping in Sainsbury’s. I’m prepared for that, and to be fair those are only short bursts of time.
Having ‘sanctuaries’ where I can fully relax and be myself is important. Not only is it mentally tiring ignoring the looks, you feel uncomfortable and self-aware all the time.
Unfortunately, working in a much bigger organisation is like being in the outside world all the time. I’m not in a bubble away from the judging eyes of others during the day. I have to walk past strangers who steal a glance (or stare), some are more subtle that others. It’s not just walking from meetings and buildings, I quite regularly have to meet new people.
Meetings, meetings, oh and more meetings
In a small agency, I knew my clients, and meeting new ones was usually fine because they already knew me over email. In Parliament, that’s not always the case and surprisingly I have more meetings here than I did with my clients.
That said the beginning of a meeting is always awkward. Why? Well, greeting someone professionally always involves a handshake. Always. And then I’m faced with a series of ridiculous options.
The dreaded handshake
The first option, and the most common, is having to do the awkward backwards handshake. People are surprisingly stubborn. They put out their right hand and that’s that. So I’m left doing the backward handshake while they give me a look.
The second is I can try to pre-empt the right hand extension and put my left hand out, but even then, people won’t swap. Either I have to switch and do the backward handshake, or they look confused and do a backward handshake.
The final option is my preferred one but only because of the above experiences. I give a smile, nod, or wave as I introduce myself. Whichever option I go with feels like a terrible introduction or greeting. In an ideal world everyone would just swap to their left hand.
I feel like I have to accommodate the able-bodied person’s preferences. I try to make them feel less awkward or put them at ease with the action that I decide to take. This is stressful and doesn’t make me feel good about the situation or myself. I do it because I have to, but when you have more meetings, the feeling is more frequent.
My face is up here
I’m also someone who moves their arms around when they talk, more so when I’m in a meeting explaining something. I’ve found that in some meetings with new people, I see them following my amputee arm with their eyes. It makes me more self-conscious and often distracts me from what I was saying.
It also knocks my confidence. I’m in a meeting trying to have a conversation and they don’t look like they’re listening because they’re looking at my abnormal limb. I have no doubt that they’re not even aware that they’re doing it but it doesn’t change the impact it has.
Why work’s different
In a social situation this only occasionally happens. That’s because if I don’t know someone, I’ll let them get to know me first before I stop hiding my arm. They’re already comfortable with me so will be less fazed by my disability. In reverse, people are noticeably unsure about talking to me and seem more anxious so it falls on me to make them feel better.
I can’t really use this tactic in a work environment and I don’t think it’s something that can be resolved easily by equality and diversity or disability training. It’s a wider issue of ignorance and lack of exposure in society. You can’t always help how you react to something, but being aware is important.
This isn’t everyone. Some people are more accustomed to disability than others and as I said it’s human nature. I can’t blame anyone for that, but maybe I can raise some awareness. I can only speak about my own experience. Other amputees may not feel the same, or they may find it easier to block out.
Standing in my shoes
For me, it takes a lot of confidence to walk out the door in the morning, hold my head up high, not hide my arm as I travel into London, and ignore the looks. Being able to do that is so important. I see it as partly my responsibility to help make it feel like the norm, and the only way to do that is exposure.
So I try not to hide. I endure the looks so that maybe the next time that person won’t double take, stare or follow a disability with their eyes. They’ll be so used to it they won’t see it.
I'd recommend avoiding jokes about cutting your hand (or other limb) off for something. You’d be surprised how often that happens. It may be a flippant comment or joke but it’s not to me. When it’s your reality, knowing what I know, you really wouldn’t joke about it.
Never do something for me without asking if I need help first. That’s the most disabling thing even if it comes from a good place. The only exception is if I’m about to drop something. And please stop calling disabled people ‘brave’. Carrying out my day to day life isn’t brave. Strong, determined, resourceful, and patient might be better adjectives.
Read about the equality networks in Parliament which provide an opportunity for groups of people to discuss and consider issues relevant to their situation or of interest to them.