Last month I resigned from my job. Despite the fact that I’d been wanting to leave for more than a year and felt strongly about my own development as well as a growing reluctance to be aligned with an organisation underpinned by a disability approach which I found pretty problematic, when it came time to go I felt really terrible. It’s hard to pin down the exact emotion but rather than the overwhelming relief I had expected I found that I felt really afraid and, even worse, guilty.
Why afraid? I kept having to remind myself that I wasn’t planning to walk away from the ultimate “dream” job in order to explore whether trapeze artistry might not be more my thing. And even if I was, why would that necessarily be a terrible thing to do? Obviously I then spent many minutes thinking of multiple reasons why I should not pursue a circus career, most notably, my complete lack of upper body strength which is probably a deal breaker. No, I had to keep reminding myself, I was planning to leave a reasonably well-paying job in the disability sector which I mostly enjoyed doing with an organisation I mostly found incredibly frustrating in order to pursue a full-time PhD in Disability Studies, a perfectly logical step along my career path with the financial backing required to make it possible.
But, despite these little internal pep talks, I was spending most of my time fighting the creeping, persistent suspicion that I was tearing myself away, most foolishly, from the only job I could ever or will ever have.
And then I realised, “Oh, hang on, I know this feeling…” and I was reminded of a particular time some years ago when I made the decision to leave a relationship I was in, not necessarily a terrible relationship, but certainly a problematic one. Okay, so I’m breaking up with my job. It’s not working, I’m not happy, an impasse has been reached and there are some really problematic things affecting my emotional well-being, so despite the occasional few days when things feel like they might be getting better, it’s time to move on. Except, who else is ever going to love me?!
How much of this has to do with disability? Quite a bit I think.
In the case of that particular relationship, I certainly felt the pressure of, “Well he’s really great about the disability thing so maybe we can figure out the rest of the crap, I mean not everyone’s going to be okay with being with a blind partner and it’s likely that, if I leave now, I’m going to be indefinitely alone…” and obviously for single read unemployed.
Now, I’ve spent a fair amount of time working with unemployed, disabled job-seekers experiencing with them the struggle of finding work even when they hold numerous qualifications and possess mounds of charisma. There is nothing fun about being unemployed whatever anyone says, subsisting on a disability grant is not a good time. Of course, I have also been a qualified disabled job–seeker and remember well the increasing hopelessness as application after application was offered into the abyss never to be heard of again. As a side note, after walking away from that “not terrible but problematic” relationship I have, in fact, been single and will apparently be single indefinitely although being single is certainly not nearly as traumatic as being unemployed in my experience.
But, I’m not moving into a space of unemployment at all, despite the easy links made by many between student, flexible lifestyle, laziness and glorified unemployment. I certainly felt, during that awkward limbo that is a notice period, that my decision to tackle full-time studies was neither valued nor understood? That my availability for this, that and everything was assumed and my new situation was not going to be “work” but some sort of vague wafting about serving no particular end.
This I found pretty hard to swallow particularly because I carry a lot of anxiety about contributing, not being lazy and generally being a worthwhile person. Anxiety which is largely rooted in my experience of being disabled in society, of having my CV unquestioningly discarded, of being asked, “But what can they actually do?” by an HR manager over the phone before he knows he is speaking to an actual blind person. So being made to feel as though I was somehow taking an easy option or making a completely baffling life choice, as if I’d suddenly announced at age 29 that I was going to rather skip off to smoke pot and make origami hats instead of, you know, pursuing a doctoral degree in my field certainly caused me to feel as though I was possibly making a bad decision. Moving from employed, independent, contributing blind person to unemployed, directionless, “What are you doing again?” blind person. The power that question, “What is it you’re doing again?” has to completely devalue what it is you are doing is astounding. I have literally been asked if I’ll be doing a Learnership which was when I ultimately realised, “Okay, you just don’t get this at all”. Of course, if you know very much about the Learnership system you’ll see the very vast difference between an NQF 2 Call Centre Learnership and a Scarce Skills Doctoral Scholarship. Side note, there are some great jibes available to all of you regarding my scarce skills, you’re welcome and these would have been preferred to the common sense link between disabled person and Learnerships I encountered instead.
So that accounts for the fear, what was up with the guilt? Guilt and disability are often tightly bound up. On the part of the person with a disability this guilt is felt for the asking and the inconveniencing and the needing. Along with the unemployed people with visual impairments who I supported in my work were another whole group of individuals sticking out unhappy and sometimes downright horrible work situations, trapped by the belief that they could not and would not find alternate work and by the guilt of feeling that they owed their employer a debt of gratitude. Leaving any situation in pursuit of a new opportunity has pros and cons that should be weighed up but people with disabilities don’t seem to have the luxury of that kind of decision-making process. The refrain I heard often was, “Well, better the devil you know, right?”And this is how we become hostages, trapped between the reality of a society that discounts disability as holding any potential value, where our employment is likely to transgress an organisation’s bounds of what is considered normal on the one hand, and the tenuous comfort zone of, what probably feels like the sole organisation willing to “take a chance” on a disabled employee, despite the inconvenience, on the other.
And again I remembered my “not so terrible but also not so great” relationship and the heavy burden of guilt I felt in the decision to opt out; “He’s put up with this pretty unusual situation that other people have literally left over because they just couldn’t cope and he’s been kind of great so what right do I have to be unhappy?” How can I express dissatisfaction with my work situation when a large part of me feels like the organisation has done me a massive favour and I owe them? Added to this is the undeniable fact that, in my situation within the disability sector at least, I was wedged well and truly into a comfort zone. A space where I knew my needs would be met and where I was surrounded by understanding colleagues some of whom shared the experience of blindness or disability. In fact, this was the pinch, having to leave some truly brilliant people and relationships that I really value behind.
In the end though, the trade-off for comfort proved too high for me most particularly the constant tension between my own disability standpoint and the “sameness” script I felt consistently compelled to pedal and which I’ve written about here before. Also, continuously coming up against an unquestioned “charity model” approach to disability resulting in little to no engagement with the functioning of disablism within society and the organisation itself caused me to start exploring my options. And finally I reached the point where I was ready to say, “Job, we need to talk…I’m really sorry but I think we should start seeing other people…it’s not you, it’s me…actually, no reverse that…”