The New Empowered You
This book is dedicated to all of the people who came before me, the people who fought for equal rights for people with disabilities. Although Maria experiences discrimination because of her disability, this is now illegal. Just because it is illegal, however, does not mean people do not discriminate.
Still, the work of many people has made my life easier.
Also, to my parents, my sisters (both literal and symbolic), other family and friends for believing in me.
"You be careful out there, Maria. I know you'll do great on that interview." Florence is my favorite cab driver. She is one of those forty-year-old black ladies who care about all her passengers like they are her kids, but she is not overbearing or mean about it. "You behave yourself, you hear." Florence handed me my bag.
"I'm not too good at that," I smirked.
"Lord, don't I know it!"
"Can I help you, sweetheart?" A man's voice asked. I hate it when people call me sweetheart. I am a twenty-four-year-old woman, fresh out of school with a doctorate in psychology.
"Yes, can you tell me if there are any curb-side check-in people available?" I felt the man's hand on my arm. He started pulling. I dropped my Guide Dog Coco's harness and followed. Coco walked along, bewildered.
"Sir, you can just tell me where they are, my dog and I can find them from there."
"Oh, no, I don't mind helping a bit." He did not ask whether I minded his help.
"She needs your help," the man said to someone. "Maybe you'd better call for a wheelchair."
"I'm fine with without one, thanks." I turned to the man; "I can take it from here." Luckily, he left.
"May I see your ticket, Ma'am?" The woman sounded young.
"Sure, here it is, I'm going to Boston."
"Very good. Do you need a meet-and-assist?"
"Yes, but tell them not to bring a wheelchair."
"Certainly. Please wait here. I'll send someone."
"Could you ask them to identify themselves?"
"Thank you!" It might sound trivial, having someone identify themselves, but if I am going to walk somewhere with someone, I want to know who they are and that they are an employee with the airport. I had only been standing there for five minutes when I felt someone grab my arm.
"Here's the wheelchair. Now if you'll just be a good girl and sit in it, I'll have you to your gate in no time." I thought I told them to not bring the wheelchair.
"Ma'am, I don't need a wheelchair."
"Of course you do. You're blind."
"I can walk just fine. I have my Guide dog and two healthy legs. If you can just walk along with us, we'll get there quickly."
"All right. I suppose it won't hurt to let you have your way." This went much better than I had expected. Sometimes, I cannot convince them that I do not need a wheelchair.
"This way, doggy... come on, this way."
"You can just tell me left or right."
We got through security relatively painlessly. The security people did not distract Coco from her job and they did not ask me to remove her harness. They just let me do my job.
When we got to the gate, the meet-and-assist person spoke with the gate agent. "You take good care of her." I sighed inwardly. I could smell coffee and wanted a latté. I did not expect the gate agent to let me go get coffee. Usually, these employees think they have to baby-sit us too.
"She looks like she can take care of herself."
The meet and assist person offered to stay with me. I declined her offer as gracefully as I could, then when I was sure she was a safe distance away, I left in search of coffee. I found the coffee shop with ease, ordered my latté and returned to the gate to drink it.
I even had time to use the restroom before the flight. The gate agent said I could wait for her to get everyone else on the plane then she could help me, but I told her I could do it myself as long as I pre-boarded.
"Good. I figured you could handle it, but I thought I'd ask. It makes my job easier," she laughed. I smiled. For once, someone listened to me. "I'm just about to start pre-boarding. If you give me your ticket, I'll check you in first. OOPS! Looks like you're not in bulkhead. We're full there. Want me to upgrade you to first class?"
"That would be helpful."
"Your dog doesn't look like she wants to curl under a coach seat. Here's your ticket. Door's to your left. Have a good flight."
"Thanks! Coco, forward." I waved at the gate agent then headed to my seat.
One of the fight attendants intercepted me. "May I see your ticket? I can help you find your seat."
"Thank you!" I handed her my ticket.
"Would you like to take my elbow? It might be easier for me to guide you there." I was shocked. Most people will just grab my arm, like the man who helped me find the agent who checked me in at the curb.
"Sure." She guided me to my seat, asked if I needed anything else then left telling me someone would be back to explain emergency procedures shortly.
"Oh, you're beautiful. What a pretty puppy. Are you taking good care of your owner? Yes, that's a good girl." I felt a hand reach between my legs to stroke Coco.
"Please don't do that."
"I know I'm not supposed to pet her, but I just can't help myself. You don't mind."
"Actually, I do. She needs to work. She needs to stay calm. She can't do her job while you're petting her." I did not mention that I hated having someone reach between my legs to pet my dog. The person left.
"Isn't it so nice that they have dogs for people like you? You can go places now." This person never introduced herself. I did not know who she was. "I'll bet you love being out and about." I wanted to tell her that I had been a successful independent person before I got Coco and I would be a successful person long after she died. I was tempted to be sarcastic with her and tell her it was amazing, I could actually use the bathroom now that I had Coco; I didn't have to wear diapers. Instead, I settled for a much calmer approach.
"Yes, she's a great dog. But I can do everything I want to do even if she isn't with me."
"You just keep plugging on." The woman left and I heard someone kneel down in the aisle.
"Okay, sweetie. I'll tell you what to do in case of an emergency." I wondered if there was a toddler on board by the way she said this. But I soon figured out that she was talking to me. She patted my head and grabbed my hand. "Now, sweetie, if you hear us say to get in the crash position, you just tuck your head down and grab your knees. And if there's a loss of pressure, a little mask will come down and you just cover your mouth and nose with it and put the band behind your head. The exit is behind you. Okay, honey?"
"Sure, I've flown before."
"Now, if you need any help, you just let me know."
Soon, the plane was soaring through the sky and so were my hopes for the future. I thought about all of the work I'd done. I'd tried to go into nursing school, but no one thought I could do it. I applied to forty-two colleges and none of them would accept me. But I still wanted to help people. I knew I could do anything I wanted to do, but I didn't want to fight too many battles. Then, I broke my leg. That ended my nursing aspirations. Nursing takes a lot of standing and walking, but my leg didn't heal properly, so I could not be on my feet all day. That made my decision easy; I would scratch nursing school. I decided instead to go into psychology. I figured I could help heal the mind and heart even if I couldn't heal the body.
When I made the decision to be a psychologist, people said it was a good thing. They said they'd never trust a nurse who couldn't see. Others said I couldn't be a psychologist either. "You can't read verbal expressions. It's nice you want to help, but why don't you just volunteer?"
The thing was, I didn't want to just volunteer. I wanted to be a productive member of society. I wanted to give back. I got a Guide Dog, went to college and thought I'd prove everyone wrong. This is my big day, I thought.
I rehearsed possible interview questions and my responses. If the interviewer asked why I wanted to work there, I'd extol the values of the hospital, how their attention to health care and detail was legendary and how I enjoyed working in a stimulating environment where this attention was applied. If they asked how I could do my job, I'd share all of the skills I'd practiced.
My mind wandered to the first day of doctoral school when the professor said "None of you will receive special treatment. I will not discriminate, nor will I baby you. If any of you need help, I will provide it. But I will not hold your hand. I tell you this, not because I expect you to expect me to baby you, but so you all know that each and every person here deserves to be here and I will treat you that way. I do not want to hear any comments about affirmative action or special treatment. Those things do not and cannot exist here. I will hold you to high standards and expect you to achieve them. But my door is always open."
She did hold us to incredibly high standards, but her door was always open. She forced us to work on body language and reading expressions. I knew I couldn't do that. With a trembling hand, I knocked on her open door. "Maria, come in. There is a chair to your left." I found the plush leather seat and sat down. "How can I help you?"
"I'm concerned about this body language work. I don't know how I can complete this successfully. I was hoping you might be able to offer some suggestions."
"Well, as you know, I won't exempt you from this assignment."
"Of course. I'll have to deal with these things as a psychologist too."
"Right. So how do you plan to handle this then?"
"I'm not sure. For a lot of this I'm probably going to have to rely on sound."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I can tell by voices how someone is feeling. I can tell you're interested and not distracted."
"You're right. But you've also had several hours of hearing my voice. How do you know you can tell this with a client who you just met?"
"Doesn't body language vary?"
"Sure, but there are some constants."
"Yeah, there are with voice too. And you can tell a lot about words people use, too."
"Okay, give me examples."
"Okay, someone who's upset or nervous might talk more quickly. If they're using words like hate, hurt, or ticked that's a clue that they're upset too. If they're talking slowly, they could be sad, or struggling."
"Great. That's how I want you to handle this. I don't care if you use the body language. I do want you to learn it, though. That way, if you're in a counseling session and someone is describing the body language of someone else, you can at least attempt to relate."
I snapped back to the present and thought again about the interview. I would tell them about using a tape recorder and journaling after each session. I would tell them how I could use my note taker and laptop to keep accurate records. I could show them how Coco and I work and explain her therapeutic value. If they still seemed hesitant, I'd explain how the fact that I cannot see can be an asset when dealing with people who have body image difficulties.
Finally, the plane landed. The more helpful flight attendant told me I'd have to wait until everyone else had deplaned and they'd help me. "Ma'am, could I please have you let me go? I can find the luggage carousel. I have a job interview to prepare for."
"Sure, are you sure you don't want assistance? I can arrange something."
"If you can do it so I can get off quickly."
"No problem. Good luck on that interview."
Luckily, the walk through the airport was much less eventful this time. The person assisting me actually asked me if I'd like to use the rest room. I took that opportunity to prepare myself physically for the interview. I put on my lipstick and eye shadow.
I took a cab to the hospital and found the elevators up to the tenth floor. I had not told them I am blind, so I expected them to be surprised, but I did not expect to be treated the way I was.
"Are you a patient?"
"No, I'm here for an interview."
"Oh, I see… What position?"
"General Psychologist. I'm Maria Michella."
"I'll be back." I heard the man leave, then the sound of frantic, quiet voices behind a closed door.
A woman's hurried footsteps made an intense crescendo as her high-heels came closer to me.
"Miss Michella… Please come with me." I was surprised not to be given a hand to shake, but I obliged anyway. Maybe she was waiting until we were in her office. "You didn't tell us about your condition. We're sorry. We've filled the position. Such a shame you've come all this way. Please, accept my apologies. I'll show you to the door." She grabbed my arm firmly and dragged me toward the door.
After she slammed it, I stood outside the door, trying to collect my thoughts. Why couldn't they have called? Why didn't they interview me anyway, at least giving me a chance to show what I could do? She didn't even introduce herself! That would have been nice! I don't understand. Someone hurried past me, entering the office I'd just left. "I'm Cathy Smith. I'm here for an interview."
"Cathy, come in! You're the first interview we've had for the General Psychologist position. I'm pleased you've come." I told Coco to find outside, choking back tears.
I went to dinner with friends, but I hardly tasted the lobster or heard the conversation. Even though the menu was in Braille and my friends treated me like a normal person, I couldn't shake the sad feeling of inadequacy.
In the time since I'd left Florence's cab, I'd encountered so much prejudice and paternalism. So many people seemed to be out to get me.
I checked into a hotel room and decided to read my email. My spirit soared when I saw an email that looked promising:
From: Judy Clark firstname.lastname@example.org
Subject: An exciting opportunity!
Dear Ms. Michella:
I am excited to tell you that after much consideration, we have decided to offer you the chance to possibly receive employment at our Portland campus. Your credentials are impressive and we look forward to working with you.
However, we are concerned about having a blind psychologist. We are unsure of your ability to carry out many of the tasks a counselor might complete.
Your professor from college has assured us you would fit the bill nicely. However, we would propose a few trial options:
Option One: You could work with one of our supervisors, putting in extra time where we could test your abilities.
Option Two: You could volunteer with us for six months so we can ensure this match will work.
Please get back to me at your earliest convenience!
Human Resources Manager
Come see what empowerment really is! Work with one of our counselors to see the new, empowered, respected you!