Post Title: Sight Loss and Poor Leadership in the Workplace
Unrealistic Expectations for Employees with Sight Loss
My first clue that I might be in for a tough time in my work environment came during the interview when the team leader said “I have some concerns a white cane might be a hazard to other employees.” (Because the bakery was so small that someone might trip on it if I put it down anywhere when I wasn’t using it).
As a result, the author who writes about the importance of having a white cane to enhance safe mobility left her cane in the work locker and used it during breaks. How ironic to have safe employees in the bakery but an unsafe one on the floor in the grocery store!
However, when I brought the issue up recently, the Human Resources and team leader looked askance at me. “We never said that.” I blinked, and mentioned lightly it had been said in my interview.
A Positive Start
At the beginning, I thought my supervisor understood the needs of a low vision employee. She told me to feel the difference between various dessert containers. She seemed to be looking for alternate ways of training me—which reassured me.
But that was short-lived. She seemed to think she was being patient when going through various tasks with me. But the patience was only surface-level. Fairly quickly, her real personality came through and it went downhill from there.
Our communication dwindled to a number of questions and frowns directed to me. “What do you need? What are you looking for?” and “What do you want?” Other employees followed suit. They spoke as little as possible and it always revolved around a task. My leader modeled an atmosphere of exclusion towards me. This was highlighted by her vastly different behavior toward others. She bantered and chatted with the other employees in the bakery and even more so with the customers, punctuating her comments with relaxed laughter.
Whether rightly or wrongly, I felt she was cataloguing my mistakes and ignoring the areas I had mastered in packaging bread or desserts.
This was the first position I had ever experienced such blatant exclusion from my colleagues. This article identifies exclusion in the workplace. I definitely experienced the first two behaviors listed.
I believe my team leader perpetuated outdated beliefs and attitudes toward me as a vision-impaired employee. She ignored, subtly criticized, and behaved as if I could do very little successfully (it’s hard to change the low perceptions employers have of blind employees). Her attitudes impacted my work environment. She chose not to answer some questions or was unavailable to answer them.
One day she came into work and said another bakery employee had found bread I had mislabeled, topped with sesame seeds. That afternoon, she had me packaging desserts instead. I assumed that was because of my error. But there was no mention of an exact reason. I could only guess, This had become a pattern between us— changes to my assigned tasks with no explanation why.
I wrote a blog post about being proactive in reaching out for help from an advocate from the Sight Center of Northwest Pennsylvania. If you missed that post, you can read it here.
Penny Guild, the social worker at the Sight Center who liaised between the bakery and me, and I were both optimistic about the positive changes that would result after her visit. She listed specific ways my colleagues and team leader could help me “shine” in my bakery position.
The Letter to the Bakery
When I asked my Team Leader if she had received the letter, she said “yes.” She explained the head of Human Resources, she and I and Penny would meet together. But this never happened and the letter was never spoken of again.
I didn’t know how the letter was disseminated to the other employees in the bakery, if there was a meeting about it to implement the suggested changes or exactly what went down. No one talked to me about it whatsoever. I didn’t expect that response. I didn’t feel I could implement the changes without permission so I waited for the meeting to come to a head.
Change Starts with One Person
When my Team Leader left for vacation, the Supervisor in charge worked with me on desserts. She gave me specific instructions how to package them and where to find the packaging. She took over the bread, which had been primarily my job until my bread mix-up with the sesame seeds.
I really liked working for the supervisor in charge. While we did not chit-chat, she guided me with specific instructions. The letter sent by Penny seemed to impact her positively and she implemented the changes listed—except for having me go out on the floor to stock shelves. She did that herself.
I was thrilled with the direction of my temporary boss. I felt much more valued.
Putting My Best Foot Forward
One morning I received a compliment.
The acting supervisor leaned over the table and spoke directly to me, making eye contact. “Hey, great job with the blueberry bagel and cinnamon raisin bagel!”
I had mixed them up the day before. But she had placed them side by side and told me to look for the blue of bagel in the blueberry one. I took a deep breath. I didn’t want to tell her I couldn’t distinguish colors that well anymore. The blueberries and the raisins looked so similar. That’s what had tripped me up.
“Thank you so much!” I felt buoyed by her words. At last someone noticed and took time to point out she recognized my effort to improve. I had done that task well. I figured it out on my own—by the aroma. Each had a distinct smell. I couldn’t stop smiling after that compliment.
The Return of my Team Leader
When my Team Leader returned, a heaviness settled on my soul. We didn’t speak at all.
But to my surprise, it was almost as if they had made a tacit agreement between themselves that upon my team leader’s return, the supervisor in charge would continue to guide me—and I felt such relief! She had truly made an effort. When I have positive feedback, I am so motivated to excel!
The Enlarged Cake Form
I was so inspired to do well that I went out of my way to adapt even more so to the tasks in the bakery.
As a clerk, I am to answer the phone, wait on customers, take cake orders, retrieve decorated cakes for customers, package and shelve all kinds of bread and desserts. But I had never been trained on the phone, and had never taken a cake order over the two-month period.
After a rare and short discussion with the cake decorator in the break room, I said, “I really want to take cake orders.”
She agreed. “If you’re going to stay in the bakery, that is one of your duties.”
After our break, I shadowed the decorator in taking two cake orders. After that, I took it upon myself to go to Customer Service to enlarge the order form. We made a rough copy and the clerk taped it together. It looked about twice the size of the 8 1/2” x 11” inch form.
At the end of my shift, I sought out my team leader. “I have a question for you,” I said shyly. I didn’t really feel comfortable talking to her.
“A question for me?” Her mouth formed an O—as if she were the last person she expected me to seek out. That struck me strange as she was my Team Leader, at least in name.
“Well, I enlarged the cake order form so I could take orders—since that is part of my duties here and I haven’t done it yet. This is just a rough copy of the form. But I can see it. That’s the important thing. I’ll make a form that looks professional.”
I unfolded the rough draft and showed it to her. “What do you think of It? Will this work?” My heart pounded. I smiled, proud of my innovativeness, yet unsure of her response. I wanted her go-ahead before I spent my own money on creating the forms. I wanted to ask if the supermarket could pay but wasn’t quite brave enough. Maybe for future copies.
“I guess so,” she said.
“Okay, I’ll go ahead then. Yeah, the final copy will look professional,” I assured her.
Thoughts that Day
Yes, I can lead the way in making my own accommodation. I feel so much better about my performance in the bakery! Change is coming. As the holidays approach, I’ll be taking cake orders with my new form. I’ll become part of the team. I’m so excited!
The next step, I have to insist on using my white cane when I shelve breads and desserts on the floor. I can do it. I can advocate for myself. We will become a team and the other employees will see how hard I’m working to fit in the workplace!
At sixty-one, I was still learning and adapting. I felt as young as I did in college—glad I wasn’t set in my ways. Having sight loss makes us wonderfully innovative. I felt resourceful—like my dad. Whenever he had a problem with one of his antique vehicles, he quietly worked it out. Both my parents instilled in me pride in doing a job well.
That day, I swept through the store and out the door with my white cane. I held my oversized cake order form tucked under one arm. Tucked into my heart was the compliment I received—proof with the right motivation and instruction, I could succeed in my job as a clerk in the bakery.
How have you gotten through tough situations where you have faced opposition? Or felt excluded? Share in the comments below.
You have read “Sight Loss and Poor Leadership in the Workplace” by Amy L. Bovaird. © November 16, 2021. All rights reserved.