There are a great many topics we consider taboo in the workplace – religion, politics, sex (usually) – and disability definitely has to go on that list.
Because I have POTS, I’m at a risk for fainting or needing to do things that look odd like suddenly sitting or lying on the floor. I thought it was only fair to warn my coworkers.
First I warned the legal secretary in our office, since I know her best. She’s a lovely person, she really is, but it was clear she was uncomfortable. I mentioned that there’s a risk of me fainting in the heat, and she started asking if it might be blood pressure issues, that sort of thing, but in the sort of tone that acknowledged that this was Not Spoken Of At Work. I told her that on the rare occasions when I faint, I generally come around within a minute or two, and not to worry or call for help unless I was down for more than five minutes. I managed to ease her worries by pointing out that I haven’t had a full faint in 2 years, and that the most likely thing to happen was that I’d get woozy and dizzy, and sit back down hard in my chair when I tried to stand. She eventually got comfortable enough to make a joke about keeping the air conditioner blasting in the room where I work.
Today, I told my supervisor, the judge’s clerk. I told him that it was possible that I’d have to do something odd like sit or lay down on the floor, and he gave me this look like I’d just dropped a frog in his lap. I told him that it was a blood pressure problem and it got worse in the heat, so the current weather was very hard on me. He continued looking like there was a frog squirming on his lap, and said, “Er, okay.”
Now, I was warning my coworkers so they wouldn’t panic or freak out if I did happen to faint or collapse, or sit on the floor for no apparent reason. I hadn’t expected them to be so very uncomfortable with discussing my disability, in ways it might affect them, but boy were they!
Because we treat disability as a very taboo issue, when a person chooses to speak about it, we tend to react as if they had just stripped down to their underwear and started dancing around in the middle of the office. While disability is indeed a very personal issue, and one that I think shouldn’t be broached without a firm relationship with the person who has the disability, it’s disconcerting to realize how much other people don’t want to deal with it.
There are reasons, of course. If you talk to a healthy looking young person about their disability, you have to admit that there is theoretically nothing to stop anyone – including you – from becoming disabled. You have to acknowledge that disability makes their abilities different, and many people have to struggle over the idea of whether that changes their value as people. You are given an introduction to a different perspective on the world, especially if the person with a disability chooses to talk about some of the ways the society’s treatment of us sucks. It’s a pretty big paradigm shift, especially if you can wrap your head around the idea that being human, and thus of value, is not dependant on having certain abilities – it is an innate quality in all of us.
But part of getting to that point is learning to listen to people talking about disability without getting the creeping feeling that somehow talking and listening to/about disability is wrong. You have to get over the idea that disability should be hidden, shameful, embarassing, and degrading.
It’s a lot to ask a person to do. Any time you push someone to take a closer look at their privileges and their prejudices, it’s a very uncomfortable journey for them, because they have to admit they HAVE privileges and prejudices. And let’s face it, none of us wants to admit that we have accepted and shaped our world view around bigoted notions.
So I can understand why my coworkers are so uncomfortable when I mention that my disability might have certain affects on me while I’m in the office. But that doesn’t make it any more comfortable for me.