The Long Walk to the Coffee Shop

My rollator walker is my freedom. There’s no question about that. It allows me to observe the world while I’m walking instead of constantly looking down to avoid pebbles or cracks that might (and do) send me reeling.

Liberating as it is, the rollator has its drawbacks. It’s big and bulky, and it’s forever a challenge to figure out where to stow the dang thing when I’m at a concert or in a restaurant. And when I’m walking down the sidewalk, I’m often either parting crowds or zig-zagging to get out of people’s way.

Still, I’m rarely without it and until I retired a couple of years ago, I took it to work every day. And because I worked in a government agency that investigates employment discrimination complaints, I knew my boss and co-workers understood that the device was an accommodation protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

But as those of us with MS and other disabilities know, once we get in the door, we can still be isolated from the daily workplace rhythm. For example, in the latter years of my career, my co-workers started taking daily morning walks to a nearby coffee shop. They walked three long blocks down a gentle hill in heavy traffic. None of the others had apparent disabilities, and they filled the sidewalk and moved quickly. For safety reasons, as well as the knowledge that I would always end up walking far behind them, I didn’t join these daily coffee fests.

It was always somewhat awkward when I ran into the able-bodied “mob” and saw the forced smiles and downcast eyes, especially on the part of my boss. But I could live with that. The problem was when I began to realize that these daily strolls had sort of been taking the place of staff meetings, and people often used the time to discuss work-related issues. Sometimes those items were important, and I would only learn of them through casual remarks made by others during the day. In addition, as everyone who works in an office knows, these activities can create and deepen connections that are invaluable in the course of a career.

I tried to hint a few times to my boss that the situation made me feel left out, but nothing changed. And after all, what was it I really wanted–to tell them they couldn’t go or that they had to walk slower during the times I joined them? Absolutely not!

As with most workplace accommodations, a little thought and sensitivity could have changed everything–they could have had regular staff meetings and other “accessible” ways for staff to get together. That’s what I told them during my retirement party, and my understanding is that this is exactly what they have started doing.

I won’t pretend for a moment that this was as important as the other workplace battles I fought–such as finding a system to make sure everyone gets down the stairs in the event of a fire. But I’m glad that the next person with mobility limitations that works there will not have to go through this daily indignity. I guess that’s what it means to change the world one “step” at a time.
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Helen Russon

Helen Russon is an (inactive) attorney who teaches disability law and has investigated many civil rights cases with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries. She has also written many articles on disability issues and done other volunteer work with her local chapter. As a person living with MS, Helen wants to share both her expertise and experience. She is careful to emphasize, however, that nothing she writes is intended to be legal advice. It is general information to help point readers in the right direction.

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  • Derek   Jan 2, 2020 11:28 AM
    Hi Helen,

    You said the situation made you feel left out. I have MS as well along with Cohn's disease. My office has food at least 3 times per week of which I can have none. I never feel left out. The consequences of eating the food far outweigh the benefit of "being involved." MS and Crohn's are my burden to bare and I would not expect others mold their reality for me to fit in. While both disease have cost me a lot, like my military career I have decided not to be bitter about what cannot be.

    In the ancient world a disabled philosopher said "Sickness is a hindrance to your body not to your ability to chose, unless that is your choice." Epictetus

    Chose not to feel left out and you wont be. Change your frame of reference on everything. I believe this is necessary when living with chronic illness. No one owes us anything. We must be stronger than rest and more resilient.
  • Barbara Gordon   Jan 2, 2020 3:55 PM
    Reading this article reminder me of a course I took at a local community college, On the outdoor field trips I was always last. I'd brought a "chair" to set up during talks by the prof but I still felt a bit out of it. the course went well but I realize that I do have a disability and though I can still think and learn I have an extra burden I take with me.
  • Melissa   Jan 2, 2020 11:37 PM
    I travel for work but can no longer keep up with my colleagues when we travel. I avoid traveling on the same flight as others because I use wheelchair assistance at the airport. No one at work knows this. Once I get to my destination I can’t go to socials or icebreakers because I’m exhausted and need to recover for the next day’s work demands. This has been hard for me to accept because I genuinely like interacting with others. These socials are important in my line of work. As time goes on I find it harder to go to office luncheons, dinners or any other activity requiring mobility by foot because I am a slow walker. I have adapted and learned to excuse myself from these ‘outside’ work activities when I have to. Early morning meetings are brutal for my body and I’ve had to speak up about a delayed arrival time in the morning. I have this accommodation in my place of work but gets complicated when I work remotely. Interactions in the current workplace have changed and aren’t just limited to ‘office time’ nor office stuff. So the conversation about inclusion in the workplace needs to change and adapt to capture these new modalities of interactions and ensure equal access and advancement opportunities. I’m convinced that my decreased involvement (less visible) at work has impacted my ability to influence others and my contributions and achievements have been overlooked. I don’t think this has been intentional but a consequence of today’s work structure. I like my work and my team. I choose to remain employed for financial reasons mostly, and I continue to adapt to my employment circumstances. Let’s see how much longer I can hold on!
    Thank you Helen for sharing your story!
  • Kevin Keplinger   Jan 3, 2020 3:29 AM
    Hi Helen,
    Just wondering if you've ever heard of HSCT?? If not, then I suggest listening to HSCT Warriors Podcast. It's a great way to start learning about HSCT which is the most effective treatment for MS.
    Best wishes, Kevin