Post Title: Developing Self Advocacy in the Workplace

I left my teaching position at the end of September 2012 because not seeing well made  managing my high school Spanish classes more difficult. Not hearing well in a foreign language classroom added to my day-to-day stress.

The Inconsistent Income of Freelance

I transitioned into freelance writing—taking on ghostwriting “the greatest love story ever told” (the author’s words) in January 2013. That gave me the confidence to begin writing my own memoir, which came out in October 2014. Since then, I have written four more memoirs.

Most authors have a full-time regular job to offset unpredictable sales. It’s really hard to live on such an up and down income—impossible for me to run my business. Maybe if I were a romance or travel writer, I could do better. But I’m a niche writer and speaker—so I needed to find an additional job with a regular income.

I looked for an online teaching job for a year. I had awards from my teaching career but nothing has panned out online—although I had promises of jobs. I was hired to teach English to Chinese children at a very good pay rate—but the Panda Learning Center app had a glitch. The employers strung us along for 2-3 months and finally abandoned the project. The visions of all my home improvement projects slowly vanished and the search for a part-time position started again.

Landing a Job in the Bakery

When I learned about upcoming jobs in my local supermarket, I applied.

What did I have to lose?

The interview went well and I quickly learned I had been given a position in the bakery.

My confidence soared—until the euphoria of having a new job wore off. The problems caused by my vision loss affected us all. I don’t think any of us anticipated how much work it would take to smooth out the challenges. I certainly put all my effort into fitting in and doing my tasks. I felt clumsy. It was like filling a lady finger (those long thin eclairs filled with cream and covered with chocolate). Only all the filling oozed out. So messy. That’s how I seemed to fit in with the tray of perfectly filled ladyfingers of my team.

In the beginning, I stressed about everything, internalizing my failures. On a typical day, I made four or five mistakes ranging from minor (having a loaf of bread cave in or packaging a specialty bread in the wrong bag or label) to major (finishing the day with twelve unsliced loaves of Italian bread).

My self-confidence plummeted. They were all judging me by sighted standards. I apologized frequently.

The Proverbial Elephant in the Room

No one asked me about my sight loss. It was like a taboo subject. We all knew I had “challenges” but no one dared to voice them out loud. No one asked me what I could or couldn’t see. In fact, no one spoke to me at all unless it was to ask a question. “What are you looking for?” “What do you want/need?” One co-worker used to ask “Are you okay?” (her pseudonym for ‘Do you need any help?’) They often told me to speak up. “You’re mumbling.”  Masks didn’t help that situation any. I was timid. I felt excluded from the mainstream work conversation. The questions sounded sharp and impatient. I finally understood how vision-impaired employees felt excluded in the workplace.

I wondered how I could change the dynamics.

But the standoffishness of other employees was only one of the problems. I had to choose which ones to address first.

I knew how to resolve some of them—for example, with objects that are used by multiple people, it seemed easy enough to say, place them back where they belonged each time.

For example, I was looking for a clear plastic container. Finally, my supervisor came over and asked me what I was looking for.   Then she said, “Why, it’s right there.” When I still didn’t see it. She became frustrated. “In front of you.” Two problems surfaced. “Right there” is not specific to a vision-impaired person. Secondly, it was clear—which made it more difficult to see. Instead of advocating and explaining the problems, I apologized.

Becoming a Self-Advocate

Little by little, I began advocating for myself. I remember the day I started. I wasn’t even scheduled to work.

I came into the bakery on my day off to check the schedule. But just five minutes later, I became confused. The path out of the bakery to the employee section had disappeared!

“Amy, what are you looking for?”

I felt ridiculous that I couldn’t find the familiar path.

“The exit,” I said. “I don’t have my cane so I’m disoriented.” I never took my cane into the bakery as my team leader believed it might be hazardous to other employees.

Silence. Then something clicked in my co-worker’s mind.

“I explained my dilemma and the supervisor in charge that day led me around a shipment of boxes.”

After the initial confusion of wondering how I could be “lost” in such a small bakery area, the supervisor in charge realized the cause.  A shipment of boxes had arrived and one of the bakers was unloading them from a trolley. The shipment was smack in the middle of the route out.

I thought there might be another route out and I had wandered into an area I didn’t know.

This event seemed eye-opening for my co-worker to glimpse how limited my vision actually was with unexpected obstacles in the way.

Up until that point, the employees seemed to believe me clumsy, slow, accident-prone, perhaps even dim-witted and definitely not a good fit for the bakery. It’s hard to understand the extent of low vision when someone looks out of perfectly normal-seeming eyes.

An Island of Shifting Sight

Another example when I advocated for myself.

“Where did she go?” I asked out loud after the supervisor disappeared when I was following her. “Uh-oh, she’s out of my peripheral vision.”

I had to explain the way I saw things differed from sighted people.

My field of vision is like an irregularly-shaped and constantly shifting island. If someone steps outside my line of sight, I can’t see him or her. I can only see space. Air. But no person.

It happens all the time at home, but people unfamiliar with sight loss find it peculiar.

Throw Hearing Loss into the Mix!

I recently learned I was losing more of the acuity in my right ear. Perhaps this is due to losing my hearing aid for six-months. After testing me, my audiologist reported it was more difficult for me to distinguish consonant clusters. She noted that hearing loss and sight loss keep pace with each other.

But it does affect my work. For example, my supervisor instructed me to remove the trays from an empty cooking rack and move it into “a corner.” I had never moved a rack before and I couldn’t find any corners. Finally, I moved it into a space between two full cooking racks.

My supervisor lost her cool and said, “Amy I told you to put the rack in the cooler. And you missed a tray!”

Out of patience, she completed the task herself.

“Oh-h, you said ‘cooler,’ not ‘corner.’ I wondered. I couldn’t find any corners!”

My supervisor gave me a blank look and went off to do more work. She had not understood my problem.

I’ve had a couple other hearing glitches since then and I usually have to reconstruct the conversation to figure out the problem and misunderstanding.

“It’s a Ball. A Roll. Not a Lemon.”

I really got a kick out of a recent situation. A colleague picked something up off the floor and held it out to me. “Did you drop this?” It looked like a tan ball. But why would I have any balls at the bread station? I stared at the object. And all of a sudden I saw it for what it really was—a dinner roll! I hadn’t even noticed the renegade roll had slipped out of my hand when I put together the bag of twelve an hour earlier.

“Yeah, that must be mine. Oops!”

My colleague helpfully said she would go and find the odd-numbered bag.

She sprinted off to the bread shelf just outside the bakery. She called out, “I found the bag with the eleven.”

The supervisor in charge that day stopped what she was doing. “Lemon? We don’t have any lemon rolls.”

“Eleven. Eleven. The bag missing a roll.” She thrust out the partial bag to the supervisor to inspect.

“I thought you said lemon,” she said with a chuckle.

It did my heart sooo good to laugh at that silly misunderstanding—and it wasn’t mine! I forgot to even be embarrassed about dropping the roll.

Life in the bakery can be so refreshing at times—the moments we melt and blend together.

New Hope

It’s amidst laughter I remember why I love working in the bakery so much …  the distinct aroma of sesame seeds as a fresh loaf comes through the bread slicer and I place it into its bag twisting the scent inside with a smooth motion of a twist-tie … feeling the firm asiago cheese topped bagels through my rubber gloves, two to a package… peeking at the bakers frosting the brownies … I’m a part of this wonderful, diverse and busy place!

Trusting the Tried and Tested Recipe

We all want to be accepted. We all want to fit in. If we add the right ingredients, something wonderful will come out of the oven.

I might not fit in to the workplace yet. There are still so many problems to work out. But I’m getting better. I’m doing the hard work to advocate, building my communication skills, and letting others know the challenges. In time, I feel my colleagues will get past the disability issues and see me—the person behind the fallacies of my eyes and ears.

The recipe for inclusion is the same as it’s always been – welcome, friendship, extending elements of trust.

What Makes
a Baker?                                                                                             

My supervisor once told me, “The bakers are the real superstars here.”

I realize I’m a baker, too.

I’m baking understanding into the workplace. It takes a lot of skills to bake well—mixing, kneading, repetition, knowing when to put it in the oven and when to take it out.

I’m learning how to articulate what I need and expect and why, how I can best succeed and letting others know how what ingredients to add.

I’m looking for ways to top our work environment with abundant inclusion, extending it to every team member. Yes, me, too.

I’m a Bread Bagger

I identify and slice though all kinds of bread, then bag and shelve it. I’m not an expert but I’m trying hard to do a good job.

Likewise, I’m cutting through whole layers of sight loss prejudice. People don’t purposely have bias. But when you don’t know or have experience with a disability, it brings misunderstandings and people underestimate what those with sight loss can do.

Four weeks into my training, the supervisor and HR person had a meeting with me. They didn’t think the bakery was best suited to me. When the holidays start, they believe I will be a liability to the team. I’ll slow them down because I can’t see and hear—and more mistakes will come.

I would not have them mis-label me. Although I was seated, I stood up in my mind, and quietly stubborn, stated, “I like the bakery. I’m not giving up. It can be the right place with certain adaptation. I can do the tasks.”

I had to cut through their pre-conceived ideas about me based on the few hours I had worked.

An Illustration of Advocacy

Bagging bread is the most relevant analogy of my self-advocacy.

You start with the basics and grow in skill. I can cut bread. All kinds of uncut bread.

But the process is not smooth yet. The workplace feels bumpy like the vibration of the slicer when I put in a loaf of mini-Italian. I’m almost afraid to place my hand against the soft outer edge because the machine bounces so much. I don’t want to get hurt.

The bread often becomes stuck in the middle and I have to lift the slice guard to avoid getting cut and wiggle the bread out. Sometimes my plastic gloves come out with tiny knicks and cuts—but my fingers remain (knock on wood!) unscathed.

The loaf caves in.  I have to toss it. Some days feel like that and there is nothing to do but toss them. Start over the next day.

The Power of Persistence

But if I persist—and dedicated bakers do—I’ll gain more skills. I will succeed as a baker. When the timing is right and the beep-beep-beep of the oven goes off, we will bake something wonderfully tempting in the workplace.

Everyone will want some. It’ll be that good.

It’s worth it. I won’t give up. I’m going to continue to bake. And cut. And advocate.

Even with sight and hearing loss, I’m valuable to the bakery. I’m eager, respectful and give it my all. That’s more important than perfection right now.

The holidays only give me more opportunities to grow in skill.

That’s the way I see it. Imperfectly Perfect.

What kinds of situations have you had to stand up for yourself? What gave you the courage?

You have just read “Developing Self-Advocacy in the Workplace” by Amy L. Bovaird. © November 9, 2021. All rights reserved.