Saturday, November 19, 2011

Dealing with ignorance and idiocy

Sometimes it is hard to fathom the kind of ignorance and idiocy that people have when it comes to disability issues. I'm not talking about people who never graduated high school or anything like that, but rather people who are well educated and are otherwise smart. But for whatever reason, when it comes to disability, people tend to lose their manners, common sense and sensibility.

I have come across several conflicts this month and they all involve some sort of ignorance about disability issues or just plain idiocy. Some of them are outright unbelievable to most people but for those familiar with life with a disability, these should come as no surprise.

The worst part is that most of these incidents are not opinion-based but fact-based; actually, all of these incidents are pretty black and white.

And here we go...

The great parking debacle

One of the more recent incidents involves someone on Twitter talking about possible ways to forge and create counterfeit disability parking permits. The person in question does not have a disability and is interested in finding ways to be able to park in one of those spots for convenience.

It is obvious what is wrong with this situation. It doesn't matter that he was only talking about doing it; creating counterfeit disability parking permits for your own convenience (instead of need) is simply a very asinine thing to even consider. Despite several other people blasting him about this, he defended his suggestions (claiming they are merely "ideas" even though it is apparent that he has either considered doing it or is already doing it); he continues to defend them, using personal homophobic insults to "strengthen" his position.

He really does NOT understand the whole point of accessible parking.

Paraplegics can't use computers

I had a phone interview with a potential employer's recruiting agency not too long ago. It wasn't so much an interview as it was an interrogation about my abilities; even "interrogation" would be an inadequate term.

I was asked about my physical abilities first and foremost. Despite my repeated answers that my upper body is unaffected, the agency pressed on for one reason -- they were not convinced that I could use a computer. This is despite my resume being full of computer- and internet-related experience (with an 80-WPM typing speed, no less).

After about 30 minutes of futilely trying to convince them that I could use a computer, the interview was over. Obviously, I didn't get the job -- all because one recruiting agent did not understand the difference between someone paralyzed from the neck down and someone paralyzed from the waist down.

I thought that was stupid, until...

Failure to rise above mediocrity

I applied for a call center position for a famous multinational Vancouver-based exercise clothing company (which I shall not name publicly, but you can take a guess). The job itself is simply helping clients on the phone and online. My background fit the role quite well.

I was contacted for an interview with one of the company's suburban call centers. During the phone conversation, I made it painfully obvious that I use a wheelchair and did my share of diligence in asking and making sure the location was accessible (to which they replied, "Yes, no problem").

Then I got a call mere days before the interview informing me that the interview and work locations were atop a flight of stairs. Providing accessibility accommodations was "not feasible," despite being a multimillion-dollar company. The interview was promptly canceled.

I was pretty sure that this was illegal, so I contacted the head office for an explanation. I was promptly offered a replacement interview at their world headquarters (which is here in town). I was given specific instructions -- park at the visitors' lot atop the parking garage and take the building's entrance from that level.

I got there and immediately realized there was no accessible parking anywhere (in addition to all the spaces being full). ZERO. I drove back down to ground level and looked for street parking. Quickly, I realized it wasn't going to work -- the ground level's public entrance has a flight of stairs on the outside.

I got back to the visitors lot where a spot opened up. Carefully, I parked so that there was JUST enough room to get out with my wheelchair. I got to the entrance on that level -- only to find that there was a flight of stairs on the INSIDE of that entrance.

My interview time was coming up and I didn't want to be hard to find so I stayed outside and waited in the freezing temperatures. Finally they realized something was wrong and sent someone. We found out that there was ONE accessible way to get in -- descend 33-degree slopes, 4 stories, all the way to the basement's loading dock.

So I dodged traffic for 4 stories through a busy parking garage. The loading dock was locked by a garage door, which had to be opened by security. I was met with another 33-degree slope until I got to the freight elevator.

Bear in mind -- this is the world headquarters and offices for a multi-national and multimillion-dollar company.

The interview was more or less standard but I knew right away that I had no chance for the job. To nobody's surprise, I wasn't hired due to 2 of the most random reasons ever. (Not that I'd want to work there and have THIS type of daily routine!)

After the interview, I had to go UP the 33-degree slopes for 4 stories to return to my car. It was lucky that I am very active in wheelchair sports; "regular" wheelchair users would not survive the return trip.

The worst part about that was how in both cases, nobody seemed to understand what "accessibility" meant and made no effort to understand, resulting in one of the least dignified and most embarrassing job application experiences I have ever been a part of.

Ironically, this famous Vancouver-based clothing company prides itself on promoting positive values, healthy lifestyles and treating each other well. (They even hand out bags to customers with these values written all over them.) My experience was the opposite of that and contradicts the core values they use to promote their image to the public.

"I can hook you up with a job"

I have had well-meaning friends offer to hook me up with a job -- as a waiter, coffee store clerk, construction worker, etc. "The place I work at is hiring," they often say, before suggesting those positions.

To that, I always ask them, "How can I safely do those jobs from a wheelchair?"

It is amazing how many people don't think before they suggest these ideas. The frustrating thing about having a disability is that while you would LIKE to have a minimum-wage job to get some income, it is not possible.

Wheelchair users cannot get minimum-wage jobs even if they hold a university or college degree; we are funneled into blue-collar jobs, which face even fiercer competition.

And many wonder why people with disabilities are often not very rich.

In conclusion

It is easy to build ramps and elevators but the social attitudes towards disability are sorely in need of improvement. I have been to countries where attitudes are even worse but there is one thing that those countries have that the above situations don't seem to have -- sympathy and benevolence.

It appears that people are oblivious to how they are acting yet feel like they are doing all they can. The fact is they're not; otherwise, the above situations wouldn't be so unsurprising to people familiar with disability issues.

People in North America are so content with the idea that we live in an "inclusive" society that there is no desire to improve upon these attitudes. In the above situations, the latter three are from people who genuinely believed that they were doing all they can or trying to be helpful. Ultimately, the utter lack of understanding shows and re-enforces the stereotypes and attitudes people have about disability.

The latter situations above are especially problematic because they involve unemployment. The harsh truth is that people with disabilities are always in an economic recession. Among those with disabilities with the qualifications to work, a huge chunk of them remain unemployed. The employment situations I outlined are only the tip of the iceberg -- despite equality laws, people with disabilities are still locked out of the workforce, either through attitudes or physical barriers.