How Can I Work Here? Disrupting Institutional Obstacles to Access, Disclosures, and Change by Anonymous

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First, there is the nervousness that mixes with excitement, a bubbling in my gut when I start a new project, a new adventure, and especially a new job. The bubbling is like a chemical reaction and the fizzy stuff is energy that makes the drive to perform “normal” more intense.

At the very beginning, my body betrays me. It gets me to my first “real” art job in the mornings even though I’ve either not slept or have overslept the nights before and I don’t feel the tiredness or the ache. At the beginning, my body sends me few signs and I think that maybe I don’t need to have a conversation with my boss about my mental health. After all, I’m only working part time. It shouldn’t be so bad. And I take the low pay, no benefits, no vacation job because it is part time and it is close to my house, so I won’t have to take transit and all the days I need to spend in bed can be the days I don’t work. At the beginning, I’m still recuperating from an illness, so I don’t walk or drive to work, but take the seven minute, $10 Uber more times than anyone knows.

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Sometime early on, but not at the beginning, there is a trigger or maybe there is no warning, but the bubbling abruptly stops. I am engulfed in the familiar: my depression is the kind that washes over everything, a shadow stretching out across the places I move, catastrophic waves that beat everything down.

I keep working – it is too early to not. I build relationships with artists, I organize events, I write grant applications, and I talk all the time. Hopefulness falls out of my mouth as I make plans for the coming seasons at the institution. But I mistake my facilitating queer and trans presence with meaningful change taking place within the organization. In the slides I prepare for a public presentation, I try to trace a queer history within the organization, finding mostly (almost exclusively) whiteness. I make the slides look good, I speak with commitment, I keep working.

But I am worn down: my “chronic mental health condition,” as some reports call it, one side of an iron scale balanced with institutional failing, is heavy on my chest. I keep working.

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I teeter. Weighing the pros and cons of a formal disclosure, something beyond the standard line in my bio (“lived experience of mental health issues”), I read the HR manual, curled edges in a binder. I find no answer. I look for signs in the ways my colleagues speak to me. I re-read the policy on accessibility. I look for any hint of disability justice, the way I’ve learned it through the writing and speaking of Mia Mingus, but I find none. I notice that when we talk about “access” here, it refers to being an organization that is open to the public. I think about how getting to the building is one thing, but access to me means so much more. I teeter.

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In an email exchange about answering questions posted on social media on whether the organization provides accessibility support such as ASL, I find myself shouting into a cave whose depths I can’t understand. Or maybe shouting into my pillow. We don’t have the budget for this, I’m told. End of story. My asking for a conversation about how we can be a small public institution, be underfunded, and yet still find a way to understand disability justice and think about access ends in muffled exasperations. I try to cry at home, but I don’t have privacy. In the shower I try, but my body protects me maybe, and puts up a wall, knowing that without mental health supports (I have not had any for some time), I will not be able to manage the tide.

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After a particularly difficult meeting, where we all use words as weapons, constrained by serious operational issues, I send an email trying to repair. I end up disclosing. My boss recommends  that I not share personal issues via email. The message is received, I stop talking. I put my head down and work. Longer hours, later nights. The summer passes, the fall stretches past me. I go away for the holidays, and something shifts – the misalignment rubs me raw and I resign.

I am no longer employed by any organization.

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Read the mission, vision, or values of arts organizations and you will feel encouraged. Attend an AGM and their annual report describes a space of hope, tangible change, celebration even. If you ask the workers – programmers, assistants, curatorial staff, volunteer coordinators, event organizers – a different kind of report could be made. Less glossy. The barriers or obstacles for staff, students, and volunteers who are disabled, including those like me who live with mental health struggles, are giant walls. They are on wheels perhaps, but they are lumbering – moving at a pace that doesn’t allow for us to be safe or supported, or to even know we can be who we are while at work.

Here are some questions that arts institutions and those who have decision-making power within them can consider:

  1. What do you do to create a space that welcomes people across spectrums of experience to be as “real” as possible?
  2. What processes are in place to support staff, students, and volunteers who may be dealing with episodic disability?
  3. No matter your budget, can you reimagine what supporting staff, students, and volunteers could be, could feel like?