Tuesday, June 24, 2014


This blog post is a long time in coming and greatly motivated by my stumbling across these two videos. Watch them, and I'll catch up with you after:

There are three huge points the videos make that tie into my focus of this post: Zayid's description of disability as race and disabled people being the most underrepresented minority, Young's statement that believing disability is a bad thing and that it's an exception to the norm is a lie, and the mention both women make of social media's influence on disability.

Working retail has seriously made me think about society's views on disability more, mainly because it's the first time in my life I'm actually interacting with disabled people in a way that, as Young describes, isn't about inspiring objects. Because I live in a metropolis, the diversity of shoppers are much greater at my store than if I were working at a Target in my hometown. Often sales floor team members will do shopping assistance for guests who need additional customer service, not because they aren't completely capable of doing things, but because the world hasn't taken very kindly to people who have a different array of senses or a different spectrum of movement. Never before had I given thought to the fact that no products on shelves have braille on them. Never before had I realized that shopping carts are built for people with a very specific height and movement assumption in mind. I, an unknowing ableist, had spent my life thinking of disability in the way that it was presented in high school - a hurdle to be overcome, an obstacle that must be conquered, not a part of everyday life that was accepted and acclimated to. Perhaps if I had learned about disabilities in a different way, I would have realized much sooner how awkwardly stores are laid out and how narrow aisles are and how, essentially, everything is made with a certain idea of the human body in mind. Instead, I learned about how great Helen Keller was, not so much because of the things she did, but because she "overcame being blind and deaf." And, considering Helen Keller was the only disabled person I remember learning about in school, my knowledge of disability stayed limited until college, when it began to come up in more varied ways. But only in working retail have I really had better exposure and gained understanding to realize just how ableist I and the world around me is.

One of the first things I realized was height. I am 5'2'' and I struggle to reach the top shelves in the store, but often guests ask me for help to grab merchandise because shelves are not designed for anyone under 5ft to reach without assistance. A team member who uses a wheelchair often has others help him with work because there are certain shelves he can't reach. Working with this same team member has been a huge learning experience for me in several ways - for one, it's the first time I'd ever worked with a disabled person in an environment where he wasn't inspirational; he was just a part of the team. However, he is inspirational in the way that he's a fundamental part of the team - without him, we'd spend a lot more time trying to find where merchandise is because he remembers where almost everything is and generally by approximate or exact aisle number. Secondly, working with this team member made me realize how others treat disabled people and how utterly messed up it is.

Last Christmas, I spent nearly everyday working in toys with this team member. He knew the store far better than I who had only been there for a couple of months, but when a customers had questions, they turned to me and not him. Despite the fact that he has the general stereotypical markers of someone with more knowledge - male, older than I - being in a wheelchair overrode this. Often it seemed guests wanted to avoid him or ignore him if possible. This made me angry, especially as it just resulted in me referring guests to him anyway because I had no idea whether or not we had any of those damn Rainbow Looms/Crazy Looms in stock (if you have not heard of this loom thing, then you are a lucky, lucky person. They were all the rage last Christmas).

Doing shopping assistance for disabled guests has showed me similar issues with other guests. While helping a guest in a wheelchair, the guest accidentally backed into another standing behind him. I felt bad, as I didn't realize the two guests were so close to each other, but I also felt annoyed that the guest not in the wheelchair just stood there, not thinking the other guest might eventually back up in the very narrow aisles and that he might be a bit in the way. When helping guests who are blind, other guests either don't move out of the way and get stepped on or over-avoid and look as if they are afraid. Seeing this in others, while it irritates me, also causes me to realize instances when I've done this myself. And it makes me realize that everything I know about working with disabled people is self-taught and that I genuinely hope I'm not doing a terrible job of it.

Like Zayid says, disability is as visible as race. Disabilities cannot be ignored and should not be avoided. I, as terrible as it sounds, used to be afraid to work with people who were disabled because I didn't know how - I'd been told all my life not to treat them any differently, but that's a little hard to do when there are large differences. I didn't want to hurt or offend them, but I didn't know how to balance working with their differences and treating them as I would anyone else. While I wasn't supposed to single them out, they were singled out in a world that exceptionalized them and didn't always make life so easy for them. As Young said, smiling at a flight of stairs will do nothing, and it doesn't matter how nice or positive I am - if I can't do something to treat them as I would anyone else while still respecting their differences, I've failed.

I've failed at this a lot. Partly out of ignorance, but partly out of the structure of our world. I've learned to not be worried about asking what a guest prefers, whether it's taking the elevator over the escalator, or to grasp my arm while we walk, because at least I'm asking and not assuming. But short-comings extend beyond myself  - for example, check-out lanes are rarely wheelchair friendly, stores do not design themselves to allow for chairs, or assistance dogs, or really anyone who doesn't have the assumed sensory and motor perception that dominates our ideas of the norm. I learn from disabled people all the time, but it's what I learn from anyone else - that the world is a lot more diverse and a lot more interest than we accept it to be. And that we should really work on that.

I really enjoy doing shopping assistance because it allows me to spend more time with a guest than I would usually and to have a conversation with them that's more than "How are you doing?" and "What do you think of this weather?" but sometimes it's a bit difficult to feel like I'm doing it properly, as we never received training about doing such assistance, and the faults of the environment (ie: what the heck do we do when the elevator isn't working?) become faults I take personally. Thankfully, I've grown a lot more aware of the ableism around me, but I can't help feeling like I'm still failing, that in some ways I shouldn't even have to do shopping assistance because shouldn't stores be shoppable for any- and everyone? And yet at the same time I'm grateful that my Target offers shopping assistance because I have the sinking suspicion that my hometown store may not and that other stores wouldn't know what to do if someone requested it.

After writing all of this, I am abundantly aware that I shouldn't really be the one posting about this - we should be listening to disabled people, like Maysoon Zayid and Stella Young. We need their representation far more than we need more like me talking about how messed up things are but are not deeply affected by it. However, I hope this post comes across more of a "Hey, look, this is an issue; go learn more about it - because I'm trying to and we can learn together!" instead of a "Ughhh, the world is unfair to people of difference and I'm privileged and I can whine about it for you because I'm privileged" but I'm not entirely certain I've succeeded at that. So I'm going to stop talking now and hope that Zayid and Young's words speak louder than mine and that theirs' are the ones you remember while that mine are just a tangential, correlated piece that contributes, not obscures or undermines.

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