Saturday, April 16, 2016

Cathy's New Job - Awkward Situations

Having a new job as a wheelchair user was exciting for Cathy, but it was definitely nerve-wracking too, since she technically did not 'need' the wheelchair she used at work every day - not physically, at least.   As he first week at her new job wore on, however, her nervousness was slowly being replaced by confidence.  Her new co-workers accepted her 'disability' without question and were generally either very supportive or, in some cases, simply tried their best to avoid the subject altogether.  Either way suited Cathy as she wheeled through the office cubicles or sat at her desk fielding calls.  Of course, being the only wheelchair user in an office not used to disabled employees, awkward situations were bound to happen. 

One thing Cathy did learn in her first week on the job was that she was actually not only the first wheelchair user that has worked there in the 14 years they have been in business; she was the first person with a disability requiring a mobility device, aside from the occasional sprained ankles and broken legs requiring crutches.  That was definitely a little surprising, but not entirely unexpected, and it went a long way to explain some of the looks that Cathy got as she wheeled around the facility.  It also made for some awkward conversations, both because many people there had
no first hand experience with a person with a disability, and because technically, Cathy did not actually have a disability.

On Wednesday, Cathy discovered one interesting quirk that made for a somewhat embarrassing situation.  One of the product teams' managers - a burly and deep-voiced man named Thomas - liked to have his team meetings sitting in the cubicle area, with everyone pulling their chairs around him in an open-floor group.  As their meeting was going on, Cathy needed to use the ladies room, but the meeting was between Cathy and the washroom, blocking the aisles between the cubicles with people sitting in their rolling desk chairs.  A person walking could have possibly scooted around a couple chairs and skirted the whole thing, but Cathy was blocked completely.  She wheeled up to the roadblock, then backed off and wheeled to another row, but was still blocked, and did her most subtle 'ahem' to get the guy closest to her to notice her and move. He noticed her and tried to move, but then he was blocked by the next guy, and so on, so that it started a bit of a chain reaction that began to disrupt the whole meeting.  Finally enough people were able to shift so that Cathy could make her way through - again, a person walking could have skirted through with minimal effort, but between the width between the cube walls and how many people were crowded in the aisles, a wheelchair wasn't going anywhere.  Cathy did mention, as she finally got through and made several apologies, that she would need to be coming back to her desk in a few minutes, just so they wouldn't re-shift into her path again as she used the restroom. 

The washroom is also an interesting place for a woman in a wheelchair - especially in a place where they just aren't used to wheelchair users.  Cathy had already had several interesting encounters in the ladies' washroom, and she was sure there would be many more to come.  One of the challenges for this particular job is that, unless it's an 'emergency', restroom time is limited to set breaks every few hours (since it's a call center and the call queue is sacred') and there is only one accessible ladies' restroom, and it's the furthest away from where Cathy's team sits.  There is a closer restroom, but it does not have an accessible stall or even sink, so Cathy avoids it. 

Cathy wheeled into the restroom on one of her breaks and really 'had to go', but of course there was someone using the only accessible stall.  Cathy waited patiently, as she was used to, but between her bladder level and the time limit on her break, she was getting impatient, and could definitely hear the telltale signs of smartphone use coming from the stall.  She finally knocked quietly and asked if the user would be done soon, to which she got a snappy 'Just use another' from inside the stall.  Cathy sighed and simply said 'I wish I could' and with a practiced wrist motion, squeaked her wheelchair wheels on the tile floor a bit.  The woman in the stall didn't seem to get the hint, but did leave the stall a minute later - as soon as she saw Cathy sitting in her wheelchair she turned pink in the cheeks but then looked annoyed and said 'Well, I'm done now.'  and left in a bit of a huff.  Cathy wheeled in, took care of business, and thought maybe she would start wearing a diaper to work... just in case. 

Another awkward bathroom situation happened on Friday, though Cathy thought this one was kind of funny.  She had just wheeled into the restroom when an older woman she had seen a couple times around the office exited the handicapped stall.  She turned bright red and apologized to Cathy about ten times for using the stall - she kept referring to it as Cathy's stall, like she owned it and was the only authorized user or something.  Cathy told her it was fine, no harm done, but the woman was so profusely apologetic Cathy was once again almost late on her restroom break. 

Of course people can always find a way to make the simplest interactions awkward.  In the break room, the water dispenser was out of cups, and the only replacement cups were, of course, on top of a cabinet that Cathy was not going to reach from her chair.  She asked one of her coworkers if she could get it for her, and of course the woman happily helped, but then felt the need to 'connect' with Cathy, explaining how she had once fractured her knee and wound up on crutches and in a brace for over six months, and how everything was so much more difficult when she was on her crutches, so she totally understood what Cathy was going through, etc...  It was such an awkward and embarrassing conversation Cathy just wanted to crawl under her wheelchair and hide - on the one hand, this woman genuinely trying to compare her trials of six months on crutches with the issues of a permanent wheelchair user was just so.... bad.  On the other hand, in reality Cathy had never even been genuinely injured so badly that she required a mobility aid for more than a couple weeks, so technically this insensitive and babbling office worker had been more severely 'disabled' than Cathy ever had.  Talk about both awkward and ironic. 

And then there's just the dumb questions - the break room at lunch was great for that.  Cathy had already been asked things like how she tried on shoes, how she could drive, and if her wife was in a wheelchair too (even though in the picture on Cathy's desk she is clearly not).  Cathy came to realize, though, after a week of going to work every day in her wheelchair, that she would not change a thing about it.  She didn't mind the questions and even secretly kind of liked the looks, she like the attention, and above all, she LOVED being in her wheelchair - it was who she really was and it just made life 'better', being able to be out there presenting herself as she felt she was - a woman in a wheelchair. 

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