I had my first meeting yesterday with Brian.
Brian works in my department and I often see him around, but he works in a different area to me, so we had never actually met. By all accounts, he's a lovely guy and an excellent project manager, but the thing that really catches the attention is the fact that he has cerebral palsy*: he is confined to a wheelchair, has a great deal of spasticity in his limbs and seems to have real difficulty getting his words out.
Let's make no bones about this: although I think it is brilliant that we have moved on far enough as a society that this guy is able to hold down such a demanding job, I still find this uncomfortable. Even though I did not have to deal with him directly and only really saw him around and about, his level of disability is outside of my experience and is clearly outside my comfort zone. A lot of this is down to my own insecurity as he is clearly an intelligent guy.... but I was worried about not understanding him if he was to speak to me, and the prospect of interaction was quite intimidating.
Yesterday, we had a meeting. It wasn't just the two of us, but was a meeting of the various forum representatives in our department to pool feedback. For the first time though, I was required to listen to Brian as he spoke and gave the views of the guys he represents. He takes a bit of understanding, it's true, but a bit of concentration and I found that I could make out almost everything that he was saying. He gets this all the time, of course, so for the most important of the points he wanted to make, he had typed out what he wanted to say and gave it to a colleague to read out to make sure that nothing was missed. You know what? Surprise, surprise... he's a perfectly normal guy who enjoys a joke and likes to laugh along with everyone else. I knew that he would be, obviously, but I'm still slightly ashamed of my worries anyway.
One of the topics under discussion at the meeting was the company's scheme that sees everyone working in head office to go out to work in our stores in the run up to Christmas. I usually go out to Oxford for a few days, but this time around I also spent some time in Manchester and in York. Some people hate it, but I quite enjoy it and think that it's pretty important for someone like me to spend more time at the sharp end of the business where the money is actually taken. Anyway..... we were discussing how well we thought the scheme had been organised and outlining ideas for improvement for next Christmas. Brian suddenly spoke up to say how he felt awful every year that there is such a focus on people getting out to support our stores, and he felt that he was somehow letting people down by not going out. He didn't want to be a useless burden on a store, but still said that he felt terrible that he wasn't making the effort.
Now, clearly it's ridiculous that Brian should feel like this. His level of disability makes it frankly amazing that he is able to hold down a demanding office job as a project manager, nevermind anything else. I find a few days out in store physically very demanding, for goodness sake, and I have the full use and full control of all my limbs. Nobody seriously expects that he should get out to store with everyone else, but that he is still somehow made to feel bad about this highlighted to me that, although we've come a long way in creating a more equal opportunities working environment, we still need to choose the words we use to push this kind of thing more sensitively.
You know what? I also find it positively humbling that someone facing the challenges that Brian faces every day still feels guilty that he isn't doing more. I was feeling a bit sorry for myself when we had that meeting: I've got a bit of a cold, I'm a bit run-down, I've been feeling a bit of MS-related fatigue across my shoulders and arms, and I moan and whine about all kinds of other trivial shit.... but there's nothing like a healthy dose of perspective, eh?
* I think it's cerebral palsy, although I could be displaying my ignorance again. He's pretty severely physically disabled, anyway.