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“On my first day, I couldn’t see what I was being asked to do”: A writer on going blind in corporate Toronto – Toronto Life

“On my first day, I couldn’t see what I was being asked to do”: A writer on going blind in corporate Toronto

What’s the thing about yourself that makes you feel the most insecure? Your pinky finger is longer than your pointer, you have bony knees, your ears stick out—whatever. I want you to think about that thing and hold it in your mind for a second.

Now imagine that, in order to do your job, you have to remind everyone of that insecurity multiple times a day: every time a co-worker shares their screen, every group project, every email. You have to mention the insecurity over and over. How long do you think you’d last at that job?

That’s how it felt going blind at the corporation. It’s not officially called that. It’s a huge Canadian institution that you’ve definitely heard of. I’m not saying its name because, when I started the job, I signed a bunch of paperwork that I didn’t read, partly because navigating the legalese of onboarding contracts is about as enjoyable as sticking sewing needles under your fingernails and partly because—as will become clear—reading fine print is really not my thing.

I have a degenerative eye disease called keratoconus. Starting in my early teens, my corneas began to thin and bulge outward. In the beginning, the condition was a mild inconvenience. I had to sit close to the board during class. I struggled with subtitles. But, in the past few years, the disease has advanced to the point where it can cause real problems in my day-to-day life.

Essentially, anything small or far away is a blur. I can discern the shapes but not the details. A fast food menu is a bright wash of fluorescence. A video game is a Polaroid out of focus. While I can still perform most tasks, there are some things I need to approach differently, like navigating new spaces or limiting my screen time. My difficulties are amplified by the dozens of new programs that popped up during the pandemic to facilitate remote and digital workplaces.

Whenever I talk about my vision loss, I’m expected to qualify its impact in some easily digestible fashion. People tend to think of vision as an all-or-nothing prospect—blindness as complete darkness, sight as everything else—but for half a million visually impaired Canadians, it exists as a spectrum. I’m on the less severe end of that spectrum, but I still run into problems. I can’t always predict what those problems will be or how I might deal with them. Because my vision loss is progressive, it’s all sort of in flux. (I’d say it’s an I-know-it-when-I-see-it scenario if not for the unavoidable pun.)

During my job interview, I didn’t mention my vision loss. I tried to present myself as an ideal employee. I put on my “give me a job” polo, asked questions about target demographics and even made a reference to something on the company blog, which I had perused for exactly 40 seconds before the interview.

I wanted my prospective employer to picture me as part of the team. I worried that mentioning the keratoconus would disrupt their ability to do that. But another reason I didn’t mention my disease was because I didn’t think it would be a big deal. There was nothing in the job description—writing copy to enhance the corporation’s user experience—or the take-home assessment to indicate that my sight would affect my performance. It might reduce my attention to detail, but to be honest, attention to detail was hardly my strong suit even before I started going blind.

In March of 2022, the corporation offered me the job. It was a six-month contract with the potential for renewal. It paid double what I’d been making as a freelance writer. Accepting it felt like a step forward, like I was finally gaining the foothold in adult life that had eluded me for the entirety of my 20s. But, on my first day of virtual training, I realized that my new position would involve working on precise formatting and complicated PowerPoints. I also realized that I couldn’t see the shared screen well enough to understand what I was being asked to do.

I still have a hard time thinking of myself as a person with a disability. Even the word feels strange. That’s partly because this experience is still pretty new to me. But it’s also partly rooted in the unconsciously ableist notion that disability is somehow a personal failing. As though I should be able to bootstrap my way into better vision. Like, if I just tried a little harder, maybe my eyes would work again. 

Even when people were trying their best to help, addressing the problem made me feel like a burden. During a training presentation, I realized that the font on the shared screen was too small for me to read. I asked for things to be zoomed in. The team happily obliged, but even so, I couldn’t see what was going on. I attempted to use the magnify function, chasing the cursor around the screen for relevant information like I was playing the world’s saddest video game. It wasn’t working. In the chat window, I explained my situation: eye disease, can’t engage with the information, don’t know what’s going on. Everyone was very polite. They promised to work on a solution. Meanwhile, I wasn’t going to be able to complete my first assignment. I couldn’t write and format the copy when I wasn’t able to see what the formatting looked like.

Without proper training, I lacked the knowledge to start projects. Someone from another department who didn’t know about my vision problem would ask me to do something—a seemingly simple task—but it was like trying to teach someone fractions before they’d learned to count. The best I could do was stammer an apology and explain about my vision. No one got mad. Inevitably, someone would share a personal anecdote about a distant cousin with cataracts or a family cat that started to go blind in its old age. I think this was supposed to make me feel better.

When I told my boss what was going on, she was determined to find a solution. She set up a meeting with the corporation’s disability coordinator for the first available date. The first session—and there would be multiple sessions—was weeks away. 

In the meantime, I was paired with another co-worker to help me get started. During one-on-one meetings, they tried to walk me through the work, blowing up the text and waiting patiently as I attempted to see what was going on. I squinted and strained. I brought the computer closer to my face, but my vision was like a radio frequency stuck between stations. The information was organized in flow charts and formats that looked, to me, like Magic Eye posters. I’d end these meetings with little to no progress, my eyes dry and tired, still feeling impossibly far away from actually doing any work. It went on like this for weeks: training followed by frustration, rinse and repeat.

At times, the whole thing seemed almost funny, like a George Costanza situation:

What’s your job?

Well, every time my boss gives me work, I remind them I don’t see well.

And they pay you for that?

They pay, Jerry!

Still, the situation weighed on me. I was getting paid, but I had the impotent feeling of not being able to work. I wanted to let it go and trust that things would improve, but my mind doesn’t work like that. Instead, I’d spend hours in a feedback loop, feeling guilty about not getting work done, frustrated that this huge institution wasn’t moving faster and embarrassed to have to constantly talk about my eye disease. Meanwhile, I was quickly approaching the halfway point of my contract.

On top of all this was the realization that, regardless of what happened with the job, this was just my life now. Because of my vision loss, there are things I’ll have to do differently or maybe won’t be able to do at all. I can’t drive anymore. I’m losing the ability to see people from far away and up close. Writing, in one form or another, is my job; if I can’t see well enough to do it, how am I supposed to support myself? And, as a person whose identity is tied to the ability to write, who am I if my vision takes that away?

The meeting with the disability coordinator finally happened in my third month on the job. I came to the appointment hoping for real solutions. They asked me questions about my vision, trying to get an understanding of my challenges with the corporation’s formatting and the programs they used. They asked what tools I might be able to work with in order to make the job accessible. They asked a lot of things.

At previous jobs, I’d used my phone to see my work better. To do this at the corporation, I’d need to go through a three-step process that included submitting multiple forms to my supervisors. I also normally used a text-to-speech function, which was blocked on my work computer. To unblock the function, I was told, I’d need to travel to corporate headquarters. The accessibility team might be able to send me a monitor with a bigger screen, but they were currently on back order with an expected wait time of about two months. For security reasons, working on my preferred accessible writing programs wasn’t an option, but the accessibility team was confident that, with some trial and error, I’d find a workable solution. Maybe we could look together online for some apps that might help.

I knew that everyone was trying their best to accommodate me. I also knew that I couldn’t keep doing this. It had been three months since I started the job—three months of constantly trying to make things work in an environment that was clearly not designed for me. I was now halfway through my contract without the assurance that anything could change. So I decided to quit.

I didn’t want to. I was earning more than I ever had, potentially more than I ever will. Leaving without a solid backup plan, with a recession looming, made me want to throw up. But having to advocate so forcefully for myself and constantly discuss my biggest insecurity with strangers—all while worrying about whether I would ever be able to do the work—felt worse.

I don’t think the corporation is evil. It didn’t treat me maliciously, and it generously paid out three weeks when I gave my notice. It’s a very big ship with tons of moving parts. But, even at an institution as big as the corporation, with resources dedicated to the cause, accessibility isn’t guaranteed. I’m a person who has a relatively high degree of sight compared with other visually impaired workers. I think about people who see even less than I do and what their experiences might be like. I wonder if they’d even get hired.

I’m not excited to be looking for work again. I’ve been thinking a lot about whether to mention my vision loss in interviews. It shouldn’t be an issue. Access needs should be built into every workplace, but in reality, that’s not the case. I worry that this story will repeat itself with future employers. I worry about the disease progressing. But, for now, I’m tired of talking about it. Instead, I just squint and try to smile.