My first experience of office life was daunting. You might expect one’s first experience of working in an office environment to be pretty gentle: making the tea, a bit of filing, running errands for the boss. Not a bit of it, in my case. Aged 20, with no experience of office life, I was the boss. And, just to add a little spice to the task, I was totally blind.
My job as a community service volunteer at Youth Action York was to persuade a sceptical group of teenagers to give a helping hand to local elderly or disabled people who were struggling – assisting them with their shopping, perhaps, or tidying up their garden. It felt like a challenge, and my teenage volunteers made sure it was.
The phone would often ring, only for me to find the handset wasn’t where I expected it to be. Eventually, I would realise it had been hidden – usually in a filing cabinet or drawer, which may have also been locked.
The teenage volunteers found this very funny – and, actually, so did I. At a time when braille was added to magazines by spraying on small plastic dots, they sometimes took to melting the bottom lines of pages too, much to everyone’s amusement.
I can feel the disability lobby revving up as they read this. That is bullying, they will say, and what’s more, by laughing along with them, I was contributing to my own discrimination. But I didn’t feel like that back then, and I don’t think that now. They were spiky teenagers, and they were doing to me what they routinely did to each other: looking for the weakest point and giving it a jab.
Until I began working in that office, I’d been at a special blind school, where the teasing was merciless, and where I’d learned what real bullying could be like. But many of the Youth Action teens became my first close full-sighted friends and remained so long after I left York. It was the nearest I’d got to acceptance by a group of streetwise kids.
In any case, I found revenge a far more satisfying and effective tactic than querulous complaint. I had a couple of packs of braille playing cards and started to play poker with some of the volunteers on quiet afternoons. I enjoyed a rather good run of luck, and a bit of money changed hands before I let on that, with a very keen sense of touch, you could read which cards you were dealing as you dealt them. My workmates were indignant, but impressed. It’s not true, of course, but as long as they thought it was, and that they had been cheated, I felt honour was satisfied. I’d evened up the score.