At the age of 29, as I became increasingly immobile, I desperately tried to find ways of continuing to work in the optical industry. I left my management role where I was working 12-hour+ days without breaks and commuting 2 hours a day across London (do not recommend!) and switched to a non-management role where I was working part time.
At this point, I was using crutches to walk. My new place of work, a 3-storey optical practice was tall and skinny. Locker rooms and toilets were on the third floor, sight testing and contact lenses on the second, and the majority of the optical dispensing was done on the ground floor. The three directors of the business were fantastic and agreed to the reasonable adjustments that I felt would benefit me at that point: no journeys up the stairs unless absolutely necessary, and I would be able to sit whenever I needed.
My manager, a fellow dispensing optician, took it upon herself to do the opposite of what had been agreed upon with the directors. I overheard her saying to my non-disabled, well colleagues “Give that job to her (me) to take upstairs. She needs the exercise”. She would give me all the heavy lifting tasks that colleagues would later tell me they had offered to do. This deliberate deviation from what had been agreed upon created a cycle of me doing a couple of hours work and ending up stuck in bed for the following 8 days.
Within weeks, I had to leave the job, and in fact, the entire profession. I could no longer stand with patients for frame-selection or lean over to take measurements from vulnerable patients without turning grey and dizzy. As the pain became more disabling, I could barely recall my own name, so I no longer trusted myself to be able to interpret the medical information in front of me.
When I resigned, I advised one of the directors how their practice manager had behaved, and she was shocked. I knew the way I had been treated wasn’t okay, but I was new to the disabled experience and did not yet have the language to advocate for myself. I wonder if the trajectory of my illness and disablement would have looked different had I not crossed paths with this ableist bully.
I am someone who can’t help but try to understand the psychology of others. Did she not believe me? Did she think these reasonable adjustments were special treatment? Did she not know about the Equality Act? Did she have an irrational hatred of disabled people? Was she jealous that another experienced, professional woman qualified to the same level as her had entered the business?
Whatever her motivation, I wish I could have told younger, vulnerable me that it was my legal right to refuse the tasks she was pushing on me, and that no one has the right to inflict pain on me. It lit a fire in my belly to advocate for myself and others in similar situations.
We deserve reasonable adjustments. We deserve equity. We deserve respect.