Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Disabled is (not) My Occupation

A few weeks ago I went to the post office to retrieve a money gram. For those of you who do not know what a money gram is, it's used to send funds internationally. The sender buys the money gram and is given a transaction number which they then give to the receiver so that the receiver can then go to the post office and present to the post mistress or master. The number is then used to retrieve the funds and upon successful completion of the transaction, the receiver is presented with a cheque. Nice and easy, right? It should be, but on this day I had a very interesting encounter with the post mistress.

When I presented the number to her, I also had to present personal identification and fill out a form. My friend filled out the form for me and everything was going well until the post mistress asked me, "What is your occupation? Disabled?" Needless to say, both my friend and I were absolutely flabbergasted. I almost fell on the floor but after a few seconds I managed to reclaim my composure and calmly responded, "No! I am a systems engineer." My friend later told me that in turn I had managed to shock the post mistress. He said that if I could have seen the look on her face, I would have been very happy because one surprise was countered with another. The post mistress immediately apologized.

This has been the story of my life, as well as for several of my fellow blind and visually-impaired friends who are professionals. Society as a whole still does not think that blind and visually-impaired persons can and do work for a living. They either regard us as persons who need to be looked after or they do not have any regard for us at all. In short, we are the disregarded. There are the precious few who do respect our abilities, but I will say that on the whole our society still does not give much credence to our existence.

Similar types of reactions often occur when I go to fill out immigration documents. Everything is going along fine until they ask for my occupation and when I tell them that I am a systems engineer, most do not believe me. Sometimes I need to expand on my occupation. In general, people do not believe that I work for a living and in the past whenever I had to list my place of employment I was often met with total shock. Some of the more notable reactions that come to mind continue to be:

"You work for a living?"
"How can you work when you are blind?"
"May be IBM hired you as a token?"

It has taken me many years of cultivated temper to ignore these types of comments, but it has not been easy. I used to get very upset and angry but not anymore. Thanks to wonderful parents, family and friends, I have learned to ignore the naive statements and have replaced my emotional feelings with a dignified smile and calm response. However, because of my wicked sense of humor, I may just respond one day to the next person who asks for my occupation. "Disabled."

I'm Donna J. Jodhan your accessibility and business needs consultant wishing you a terrific day and reminding you to go out there and spread the word that contrary to popular belief, there are many blind and visually-impaired persons who successfully work for a living.

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