I went to work at a Supermarket today.
I held a bunch of broomsticks when someone’s hands were full, had important conversations, watched two people exchange Facebook details, and surreptitiously danced to muzak. Nobody saw me, of course – or if they did, I’m assuming they thought I was awesome.
On my lunch break, I had a delicious pie.
Tomorrow will be even more exciting: I will work a paper round before heading out to a local restaurant for lunch.
I’m reluctant to get to the point of this post. I mean, it’s a post about my job, so I should really tell you what it is I do. But once I do that, you’re all going to judge me. Of course, if you already know what I do, then the suspense is ruined – but if you don’t, then my fear is legit.
I’m a disability support worker. And if you’re thinking ‘why would I judge you for that?’, then read on, my friend. Read on.
When I was wandering the aisles of the Supermarket (because my job is as much to get out of the way when I’m not needed as it is to provide support when I am), a shampoo sales woman bailed me up. She was fine – I just don’t like talking to people when I shouldn’t have to. And, seeing as I was not seeking shampoo, I shouldn’t have had to.
Anyways, when I was learning all about the joys of the particular brand of shampoo she was spruiking and trying to weasel out of the conversation at the same time, I made a rookie mistake:
‘I’m actually at work,’ I said awkwardly. ‘Like, I work here.’
‘Really?’ she asked. I don’t wear a uniform, so it was a fair enough question. ‘What do you do?’
‘I support someone with a disability who works here to do their job.’
And, bless her heart, she judged me too. You know what she said?
‘Oh, that’s so nice. It’s so nice to help people.’
In one sense, she was right. Doing disability support work doesn’t inherently make me an arsehole, and helping people is not an unkind thing to do. I have no issue with people thinking I’m a half-decent human being. What does make me squirm – besides being sold shampoo when I don’t want shampoo – is the look in people’s eyes and the tones of their voices when they tell me I’m nice for helping people.
And here’s why:
At the start of this post, I gave you a carefully tweaked version of what I did at work today. Yes, I did all of those things, and I did them well. I am particularly adept at keeping my mouth shut while holding a handful of broomsticks when we are running 1 minute late for lunch – not that I’m a clock-watcher.
I deliberately left out any part of my role today that involved awkward interactions (not my own, thanks for asking), negotiations of what needed to get done and how, or anything else that might give away the fact that I work with a person who has a disability. Because I really do want you to understand how freaking boring my job should be were it not for my fateful trip down the cosmetics aisle.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to scare you into not talking to me at all (unless you sell shampoo). What I want to do here is explain why I don’t like being called nice. I will do that by explaining why people think I am nice.
All human beings have different personalities, traits, etc. I think we can all agree on that. When a person has a disability that impairs their cognition, their different personalities, traits, etc can stand out in a crowd when most people in that crowd don’t have a disability.
As a society, we don’t tend to cope with that very well. The employment rate for people with intellectual disability is shamefully low, and we have these things called ‘group homes’ for people with disability instead of thinking in creative and mutually beneficial ways about the myriad of different ways people with and without disability can live together. The overall result is that we’re not always used to hanging out with people with disability, so the “awkward” gets slapped on thick and fast, and we think the solution to *that* is to either make people normal, or make them go away.
It is my job to do neither of those things. Therefore, when I say ‘I’m a disability support worker’, I’m saying it in the context of a society that feels very, very uncomfortable by what they think my job means. And you know what? That’s nobody’s fault. We’ve been conditioned to either idolise people with disability for “achieving normality”, or we look down on them by…
By thinking that people like -us- are “nice” (charitable) for working with people like -them-. That rationale gets kinda messy when you know I have a disability, but because mine isn’t physically obvious, I am people like -us- when at work.
Yes, of course I’ve had to make major internal adjustments to become a support worker. But that’s not because disability is such a dire, horrible thing. It’s because The World – myself included! – is so unaccustomed to a person with intellectual disability working in a mainstream setting that my role as a support worker becomes downright awkward in terms of navigating this unfamiliar experience in a way that truly does support everybody.
When I’m told I’m ‘nice’, what I hear is ‘you’re not making someone normal or making them go away, and I don’t know if I would be capable of doing that.’ And I never quite have the words to respond. But now I’m controlling the dialogue, I do have the words to respond.
The whole world is a mess of grey, y’know? We’re all just bumbling along, trying to create some semblance of an illusion of ‘fitting in’, and when we fail, we hope like hell we’re around misfits who’ll nod in agreement when we say ‘what is normal, anyway?’
But what happens when you have a disability and you don’t have the illusion down pat? Or when you say or do certain things that aren’t necessarily kosher when you’re at work? Everybody is 100% familiar with what ‘normal’ is when someone breaks the rules badly enough, and will punish anyone who doesn’t without questioning ‘what is normal?’ In that sense, it is my job to teach people stuff, which might be seen as “making them normal”. I’m on a perpetual tightrope between “personal choice” and “this person likes their job, therefore, they need this skill.”
In short, my job would be far, far, far easier if fewer people thought I was ‘nice’. Because me being ‘nice’ is necessarily parallel to the person I support being ‘a burden’. And that, by far, is the ickiest part of my job – even though most people do not mean it like that and would be mortified if I pointed it out to them. I’m just trying to do a thing, but every time I tell someone who asks that I’m doing this thing, they unknowingly put down a person I’ve come to really care about. And that hurts.
As a support worker, my main burden is that not nearly enough people understand that people with disability deserve to be in the same spaces we’re all in. I mean, decent people kind of get it when I’m like ‘I work in disability and the people I support have paid and volunteer jobs’ – they just make the mistake of thinking it’s because I’m freaking amazing or that the person with disability is some kind of superhero – instead of realising that that’s how it should’ve always been. My internal work would’ve been greatly reduced had I entered a sector that took it for granted that my role is to facilitate relationships between people with and without disability who are already accustomed to interacting and adjusting and mingling and fumbling and messing up and trying again.
I know this post is boring in that I haven’t told you any juicy stories that prove how wonderful my job is or how “my clients” (mwahahahahaha, I OWN PEOPLE) “make me smile every single day”. That’s sufficiently gooey for a viral post, but (a) it’s patronising, and (b) it’s untrue. Nor have I told you how “inspirational” the people I support are. Literally – all I’ve done is tell you that I wish my job was more boring, and that it could be more boring if fewer people thought I was ‘nice’ and more people understood that I’m just trying to do fair and reasonable things by all people.
This isn’t the shit that goes viral. The viral posts will be the ones that reduce the dignity of a person with disability by showing how “amazing” some random person at Maccas is for helping them eat their burger, or a story that grabs at your heartstrings because of how difficult disability must be *according to untrue assumptions about the lives of people with disability*.
But I really hope this post does go viral, because I’m exhausted. It does not come naturally to me to walk into an established setting and facilitate relationships where no such relationships have gone before, or to explain why jobs and mainstream stuff are cool for people with disability too, or try to convince people that I am not ‘nice’, or explain why I don’t want shampoo even though I’m walking down the shampoo aisle. I mean, I shaved my head twice in my 20s for goodness sake. I’m not exactly your poster girl for shampoo.
If a shampoo ad appears at the bottom of this post, please let me know so I can get indignant about it.