I guess I’ve been really lucky so far. I haven’t ever been denied an education, job, shelter or any other needs or wants based on my race, gender, sexuality, economic status, religion or anything else. I’m constantly aware of the discrimination problem that exists in our country every day, hour and minute but up until now, it’s been something that happens to other people. That is no longer the case for me.
About a month ago, I got a call from an employer that I have been working for for about 4-5 years. He told me that he was taking me off his roster of teaching artists because of my “lack of availability and flexibility to go to schools last year.” I was shocked. Completely thrown.
“Well, you know that I lacked availability because I had cancer, right?”
“Oh, yes, yes!!! I hope you’re doing better with that!”
This employer and all of my employers got either personal phone calls or, as in this case, a one on one meeting at the time of my diagnosis to fill them in on what was going on with me. I detailed my treatment plan and expressed my desire to continue working throughout treatment but would need certain accommodations.
- I could not work with grades 2 and under. They don’t know how to cover their mouths when they sneeze and spread germs easily. I had to protect what was going to be a very fragile immune system.
- I would need to work around my treatment schedule. Meaning, 2-5 days after my infusion, I will probably be out for the count. But that left around 9 days within a two week period that I would be able to work, unless I fell sick or side effects were worse than expected.
- I did not want to commute to far off places. Spending 2 hours each way on a subway did not seem like the healthiest choice for me because of a) germs and b) the physical toll that commuting in NYC takes on the body, mind and soul.
All but one organization agreed to accommodate my needs, including this one. They even seemed to pledge their support. (The one organization that didn’t make accommodations was because most of the work they had was either with very young children or at a school far away from my home.) I felt so lucky to be working for people that would stand by me.
And most of them did. Going as far as making sure I knew that I would not be treated differently but if the work became too much, to just let them know and they would get me a replacement. They all had my back. I felt so lifted and supported!
Except for this particular organization. If I got an offer for work from them (and I didn’t get much) the tone was that they were doing me a favor. One offer was for a school that needed me at a particular date and time. No flexibility. Unfortunately, I had treatment that day and couldn’t go. Another offer was similar. The school could only accept artists on certain days and one was on an infusion day and the other was a day that I already had work. The third option and one I felt I couldn’t turn down because I didn’t want to piss them off, was so far out in Queens that it took 2 trains and a bus to get there…that’s a 2 1/2 hour commute each way! I ended up driving even though it was a terrible winter. But I did it just to maintain good relations. But taking this job nearly killed me. It was physical work, all day long and poorly organized by the organization that didn’t provide the correct materials which left me scrambling to make it work. It was very hard.
So, out of 3 jobs I was offered, I accepted 1. And it was even one that was on my list of limitations that they agreed to in our in person meeting.
I didn’t mention this to the director who fired me over the phone. But after I mentioned that my lack of availability was because of my cancer treatment, suddenly there was another reason. “And also, you got some luke warm feedback.”
Well, that’s different! I take my work very seriously. It’s my passion. If a school or teacher is dissatisfied, I want to know about it!!!!
“Ok, well that’s serious. Can you be more specific as to what the problem was? I’m always trying to improve.”
“Oh, no. Nothing specific. Just luke warm feedback.”
Meaning…bullshit!!!!! Utter bullshit!
- I have never, ever been reprimanded by this or any other organization for poor work or dissatisfied teachers.
- Aside from notes for improvement and constructive criticism, I have only gotten good reviews in the past.
- They didn’t provide any proof of these comments. I don’t know if they exist.
- They have never expressed any dissatisfaction with my work of any sort in the past. No discussions, no warnings, no probations…nothing. This “letting go” or firing was the first I have heard of it.
But let’s say, for argument’s sake, I did in fact get some luke warm feedback about my facilitation. I would then expect, especially giving my stellar work history, that they might come to me and say, “You know, we got some not great feedback about your work at so and so school. I know it was a really hard year for you. What were your impressions of how things went? Do you think you could have done better?”
The answer would have been, yes. I could have done better at every job I had last year if I didn’t have a body part amputated, followed by 6 months of being constantly poisoned and then being radiated! Those things got in the way of job performance just a little bit, in my opinion. I wasn’t at 100%. But here’s the thing. I still got glowing feedback from everyone else I worked with. I have been asked back to several schools that I worked with last year. One organization has even given me a promotion based on my work in the past year. So, based on all of this, I think the guy who fired me is just trying to cover his ass and not get sued. I think I was discriminated against.
So, what do I want?
I know what I don’t want. I don’t want my job back. I work for so many amazing people who continue to support and love me through all of this. Because treatment is not over. Not even close. I need to be surrounded by good people. I’ve had enough poison in my life.
I also don’t want to sue. Based on the laws that exist in this country, I believe I could and I might even win a suit (based on conversations I’ve had with advocates and lawyers) but that would take time. A lot of time. I just want to get on with my life.
I do want them to understand that they have done something wrong and have broken the law. I think it is important for them to be educated on disability rights in this country and what is considered a reasonable accommodation and what is excessive so it doesn’t happen to someone else.
I am not angry at them. Well, I was angry. Really, really angry. But I realized that part of this happened due to a lack of education. Unless you have gone through cancer yourself, even if you are a caregiver or close to someone who has gone through it, there is no way you can know what cancer feels like. You can’t understand that there is no word in the English language for the kind of fatigue you experience from chemo. You can’t fathom the emotional toll it takes to fight every day. I don’t want anyone to go through this and be educated by personal experience. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
Where the fault does lie is in their lack of empathy. This organization in particular prides itself of the work they do with children with special needs. At trainings, we often discussed how we can use our art to teach understanding, compassion and empathy to our participants, especially those on the autism spectrum. And while teaching it through our art, we should practice understanding, compassion and empathy to children of all abilities. That is their niche, their specialty, their mission. But when it comes to their own staff, to someone who is gravely ill and is in need of help, compassion falls short. In fact, it’s cut off completely. It makes me question what their real motivation is for doing this work? When they can’t practice what they constantly preach! Who are they serving, really? Who are they really in it for?
What I’m doing about it.
If you feel you have been unfairly treated at your workplace because of cancer, you can file a complaint with U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by going to one of their offices or writing a letter. You can get help from advocates at Livestrong if you don’t know what to do or need advice.
Have you ever been discriminated against because of a disability or cancer? How did you handle it?