How do you deal with people who make insensitive, hurtful comments about your disability at school / in the workplace?
September 21, 2012 6:55 AM   Subscribe

How do you deal with people who make insensitive, hurtful comments about your disability at school / in the workplace?

I'm a student, I will be graduating next year. I am deaf and am lucky to be able to speak and communicate easily. I study in a school where I am the only "disabled" person.

This morning I went and see the school counselor (I am not sure it's the proper word) whose job -beyond others- is to make sure I get the grants I need so I can follow classes properly and therefore be integrated in the school. Grants are given by the state and allow me to have a Cued Speech transliterator (it's like an interpret but it's not with ASL). I maybe saw the counselor three times last year, that's all. The exchanges were OK, but not cordial. She was already showing some signs of... irritation because of the extra job I was causing. I came this morning to tell her that there was a minor change to make in the contract (because the working status of my interpret changed). She sighed and told me she was fed up with my little problems, to which I replied quite firmly -and probably a bit aggressively- that well, being deaf wasn't a little problem to me and that I need this interpret to be here, in this school. (note : it's a school where only 5 % of the candidates are accepted. If they didn't want the "burden" of a deaf person, well, they just had to reject my application.)
She said "stop let's calm down" then took the contract and reread it. She sighed and told me that she had more important things to do than changing contracts, and complained about the employer of my interpret who was always taking time answering, etc. Anyway she told me she was going to do this, but that she would be happy when this thing will be done.

At the end I politely thanked her, told her goodbye and went out, boiling.

Right now I am angry, anxious, and unhealthy feelings like "do I have the right to be here, in this school / in the hearing society?" are creeping in me.
On the one hand I should be happy : she didn't say no, I'll have my interpret when needed.
On the other hand : do such seemingly simple paperwork should turn into emotional turmoil?

I know I'll encounter other situations like the one mentioned above more often that I want in my life.

My boyfriend and my friends around me suggest I send an email to the counselor telling her I was hurt by the conversation and that I want to make sure it won't happen again.

Is it a good idea? Or will it emphasize my anger and sadness? What would you do?

Thank you in advance for your input!

PS : if it matters, I live and study in France (I'm French). I guess mentalities vary between well, France, the UK, the US, the Netherlands, etc.
posted by OrangeCat to Human Relations (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I wouldn't communicate with her personally about how you feel hurt. She obviously doesn't care.

I don't know the laws in France vs. the US (I live in the US), but in the US there is the Americans with Disabilities act (ADA), which requires that public organizations, institutions, schools, businesses, etc. make reasonable accommodations. I'd have to believe that France has something similar (if not better) in place (otherwise you probably wouldn't have that grant in the first place).

Does the agency that makes the grant have any contacts with you that could perhaps give this person a reminder about what your rights are under such laws?
posted by randomkeystrike at 7:06 AM on September 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Everyone has a supervisor. You've indicated your irritation to the counselor. The next step is to complain to the person she reports to.

Additionally, perhaps your school has an ombudsman to handle student complaints.

Her tone was not professional and it should be reported if you want it to be heard.
posted by inturnaround at 7:07 AM on September 21, 2012 [45 favorites]

I would report it to the counselor's supervisor or boss.

Part of the counselor's job is working with students with disabilities. In her interaction with you, she did not do her job well at all. Her supervisor should know about that.

If your school, town, departement, etc. has a disability-rights organization, I might also copy them on the letter you send to the counselor's supervisor, or talk with them directly about advocating for better treatment for students with disabilities.
posted by jaguar at 7:20 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Are you sure it's because you're deaf, or does she just hate the extra work? It's unprofessional for her to complain to you about her job, but I don't think it reflects on you or whether you belong in the school (you do!). I'm not trying to excuse her actions, just give a different perspective (formed by lots of interactions with people too frustrated or tired to do their jobs without having an attitude and complaining...).

I wouldn't email her. She's someone you have little interaction with, and she's already shown she doesn't care a lot about your feelings. And she hasn't finished what you need her to finish for you.

I think you should be proud of yourself. You were firm with her and focused on getting the contract done, and when you walked out of there you had her agreement to get it done. You have every right to be angry and sad, and those feelings are valid, but the only thing you can control is your own actions and reactions (sorry for the cliche).

(I'm in the US, so take it for what it's worth. And your English is great, I had no idea you were not a native speaker. My French is nowhere near that good, and I studied for years!)
posted by mrs. taters at 7:21 AM on September 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

Hoo! The letter I would write.

This is something you should escallate to a supervisor. You are entitled to courtious and professional treatment, regardless of any disability.

Take the emotion out of it, just state that the person you are dealing with is making your life worse, not better, site exactly what you sited here, and ask if there's someone else you can work with as clearly this person is not an appropriate contact.

Europe isn't as enlightened as the US about people with disabilities, so you can be the one to do so.

Don't take the attitude of one asshole as the attitude of the population at large. Some people may be uncomfortable around you because they don't know how to act. For example, being very verbally descriptive to a blind person, facing a lip reader directly, holding a door for a person on crutches. Ignorance isn't rejection.

Educate people politely, "I'm deaf, I can't understand you when you face away from me when you talk."

Most people would love to get to know you and to assist you when they can. The others, well, they're jerks.

You have the right to be everywhere in the world. You earned your place at the school. Advocating for yourself, not just about your disability, but in your entirety is one of those things you learn as you get older.

Good Luck!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:21 AM on September 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

An email might not be a bad idea as long as you CC it to a supervisor of some sort at the same time. Make sure you include something that could be an outcome, say along the lines of how you want to be treated, " I do not request this equipment to annoy you but because it is vital for me to receive my education, I would appreciate in future being treated with respect and not as a burden, when asking for faculties you are supposed to supply." (or what ever wording works for you),

I am assuming if the government gives them grants for this equipment there are rules and legislation in place in France to help protect your rights, maybe include a link to any relevant legislation etc in the email as well, in a polite non threatening way, but just to let them know that you know your rights.

Also as Mrs tater says, she might just be a bitch to everyone and be grumbling about the extra work, so it might be worth asking around first to find out if she treats everyone like this. In which case your complaint would be slightly different, but I would still complain.
posted by wwax at 7:24 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm in the US, so this may not apply but having been through 7 years of higher ed, I've come across my share of shitty administrators. And the problem always seemed to boil down to an attitude of, "ugh, these students, taking so much of my time!" You should go over this person's head and make it clear that your ability to be a good student there will depend on a solid groundwork and you'll need assistance to make that happen. You're looking for an attitude of cooperation not roadblocks.

Hang in there!
posted by amanda at 7:35 AM on September 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

I don't necessarily get the impression from what you wrote that the counselor's attitude has to do with your deafness, per se. Rather, it seems that she doesn't like doing some part of her job that just happens to have been generated as a result of your deafness. So, in my view anyway, this is not a "disability issue" so much as it is a "do your damn job issue." My guess is that she would have the same attitude if she had to do a similar kind of work on behalf of a student who needed an English language interpreter.

Anyway, I nth those who suggest speaking to the counselor's supervisor. She'd giving you attitude about doing the exact job she is supposed to be doing. Whether she likes it or not, changing contracts and dealing with the employer of your interpret is, in fact, her job. Hey, I'm sure it is irritating for her to have to do a special job for one student that she doesn't have to do for any of the other students at the school. You know what? Too damn bad. If she doesn't want to do that kind of stuff, she should get a different job. Regardless, it's unconscionable and unprofessional for the counselor to show any irritation or weariness towards a student with respect to the very job she is supposed to be doing for that student. I'm sure it sucks to take special orders at Burger King, but they still fire their employees if they sigh and roll their eyes every time someone asks them to hold the pickles.
posted by slkinsey at 7:45 AM on September 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

I was an exchange student to France and the administrators I had to deal with frequently appeared to have similar attitudes, that it wasn't their problem I'd come from overseas and why should they have to spend time on me. From what I've read, this is not uncommon in french administrative positions in general, not just in higher education. However, while I doubt that she was acting like this because she specifically resented your disability, you personally will probably come across this kind of irritation mostly because of situations related to your disability (any time you need some extra accommodation), so it is kind of related.

I don't believe that contacting her to say you'd been hurt would do any good, as she is almost definitely aware already, but it might be worth trying wwax's email to her and cc'd her supervisor - something like "I want to be sure that I will receive the necessary accommodation without having to argue about it each time". I don't know how much your bf/friends' advice is worth if they are not at the same school as you - is there anyone at the same school that you can ask for an opinion?

nb: the noun for someone who interprets is 'an interpreter'. But your english is very good, I was going to ask if you were actually french until I reread the question
posted by jacalata at 7:54 AM on September 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

Your English is very good and I speak approximately 5 words in French, which means I'm going to be liberal with my suggestions for reading English-language materials.

First, the Cued Speech thing is going to be a bit of a barrier for you in terms of connecting with the Deaf community (based on my cousin's experience) but I recommend you try anyway. If you know either ASL or LSF, I recommend very strongly that you do try to connect with the local Deaf community, mostly because they won't tend to make you feel like you're a burden, and that's really important to your mental well-being. That regular in-person contact with people who treat you like any other person is hugely beneficial.

I also recommend that you at least learn about the Deaf Pride/self-determination/culture/movement (which is largely a North America thing, as far as I know.) You don't have to reject the hearing world or decide "there's nothing wrong with being deaf" to benefit from some of the aspects of this culture.

Finally, I suggest you work hard at general assertiveness and self-esteem stuff. Having a hard time with being abused or mistreated by people in authority isn't just a "disabilities" thing - it's a psychology thing, and you can learn to be more effective and more comfortable in your own skin and in challenging situations.

I also provisionally endorse going to the supervisor, but I know that French administrative and academic culture is often radically different from American versions of the same, so I'm not going to be all "write letters, get her fired, go straight to the top" on this. Consult a local disabilities/student rights organization.
posted by SMPA at 7:57 AM on September 21, 2012

It doesn't matter WHAT her excuse is, her behavior totally contradicted the purpose of her job and made you feel marginalized and unwelcome. Yes, contact her supervisor, ask for the matter to be investigated. What you should do RIGHT NOW is write down everything that happened, word for word, as best as you can remember it.
posted by hermitosis at 8:00 AM on September 21, 2012 [8 favorites]

Oh. You may also find support/encouragement/etc. from the French national Cued Speech association. In English Cued Speech interpreters are officially called "transliterators," but jacalata's right that people who do that kind of work in America are generally referred to as "interpreters" and that's what basically 99.95% of Americans will expect you to say.

It looks like the French word means "encoder," which I honestly think matches up to what a Cued Speech transliterator does a lot better than "transliterator.")
posted by SMPA at 8:03 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I want to let you know that it is not wrong to feel hurt, especially for a while, when someone is insensitive or hurtful. We are human beings, and are designed for social interaction. Our whole entire brain is set up to be very attuned to what other people communicate to us. And, we have been taught to pay close attention, and change our behavior in order to get along, and not cause problems, and so forth. It is not your fault for feeling bad in this situation. It makes a lot of sense, emotionally.

However, it is not healthy to focus on the feeling bad. It is not healthy to dwell a long time on other people's reactions to things you cannot change, or their reaction to your behaviors where you weren't in the wrong.

You have every right to ask for what you want, and you have every right to feel how you feel. As long as you are not infringing on the rights of others, you are doing just fine.

What I tell myself, when someone hurts my feelings over to a request or behavior that comes from my own disabilities (I have mental illnesses - bipolar disorder, etc.) - is say to myself: IT IS NOT MY PROBLEM THAT THEY FEEL THIS WAY. I AM NOT IN THE WRONG. IT IS THEIR PROBLEM IF THEY DO NOT UNDERSTAND THIS. I AM NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR HOW THEY FEEL.

Sometimes I have to say these things many times before I believe them, and some times I have to shout them to myself. They are true things, but I do not always believe them, because I've been taught poorly, in the past.

It is not your fault that the administrator behaved like they were being very put-out by your request.

It is not your fault that you are deaf.

You need support in order to succeed. It is not very difficult support to provide. It is support that they are legally required to give you.

You are a human being who is working hard at succeeding, and you deserve to be treated kindly, to be helped when you cannot help yourself, and to have the opportunity to help yourself when it's possible.

You are just as important and worthy as a person who can hear without assistance, or who can understand what is said in the classroom without an interpreter.

It is OK to feel bad for a while about a negative social experience.

It is OK to decide you shouldn't feel bad anymore.

It is OK to still have trouble feeling OK even after you've decided that you should stop feeling bad.

It is OK to ask for help from a therapist if you have a lot of trouble feeling OK, after you've decided that you should stop feeling bad.

There is a Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) concept called "interpersonal effectiveness" that you might find helpful. There are lots of exercises and ideas out there that can help. A specific strategy called DEAR MAN can work really well to get what you want when you're scared or not sure of yourself. This part is especially helpful for dealing with annoying people who don't want to help you:
  • Reward people who respond positively to you when you ask for something, say no or express an opinion.
  • Sometimes it helps to reinforce people before they respond to your question by telling them the positive effects of getting what you want or need.
  • The basic idea here is that if people do not gain form complying with a request, at least some of the time, they may stop responding in a positive way.
Self-respect is another skill they talk a lot about:

Keeping to your self-respect - FAST
  • F - Fair to myself and others
  • A - No Apologies for being alive
  • S - Stick to values (not do anything I'll regret later)
  • T - Truthful without excuses or exaggeration
I'm going to look and see if I can find something in French about DBT. I've never looked before.
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 8:32 AM on September 21, 2012 [8 favorites]

I'm so sorry this happened to you!

The counselor was inept and insensitive. I agree with the commenters above who say she was probably just balking at having to do the additional work, but that is not something she needed to communicate to you! And certainly not in a way that made you uncomfortable or (rightly!) angry. Besides, that work is part of her job, and it's not your fault if she doesn't like doing the job she is getting paid to do!

I've had to deal with personnel in the public school system, and it can be incredibly frustrating. Students have to navigate a maze of red tape on a daily basis for financial aid, fees, grants, scholarships, etc., and you'd think there would be a bit more empathy from the people within the system, since they are familiar with that maze. Still, amongst the caring and capable educators and staff, you'll find those working at the school because they weren't quite up to professional standards anywhere else. Inevitably, these are also the people with the worst attitudes. They hate their jobs, they grumble at the slightest task, and they get off on taking their job dissatisfaction out on the students, the only ones they have any real power over.

I would bet good money that this is not the first time the woman you dealt with made a student feel responsible for her own problems, and it won't be the last unless someone takes her to task for it and lets her know that IS not acceptable. That's why I absolutely think you *shouldn't* let this go, and should complain to her supervisor.

There might be other students, not as strong as you, who did not stand up to her and ended up not getting the grants they were entitled to because they didn't want to go back and have to deal with this woman again. You'd be doing them all a favor.

Complain to her supervisor, cc her on your complaint, keep the language calm and measured as you did here, and hopefully you will see some closure on this. Good luck!
posted by misha at 9:52 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

So far you have handled this PERFECTLY. Your instincts were dead-on when you thanked her politely and left.

I would suggest that you NOT complain about her to her supervisor or to her directly. Here's why:
--You still need her help until you are done with this school.
--You don't want her to throw any additional roadblocks up beyond what's happened already.
--If her boss doesn't fire her (which I imagine is HIGHLY unlikely based on this one incident), you'll still have to work with her.

I'm not saying she deserves a thank-you card for doing her job, in fact she deserves a swift kick in the butt for being so obnoxious. However, I think YOUR life will be easier if she thinks you are a person who appreciate her work and not someone who is looking for a fight.

At least hold off on trying to attack or reprimand her until after you graduate.

Good luck! Your feelings are totally justified, by the way, I just think you should consider how any action might backfire on you.
posted by tk at 10:39 AM on September 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

Some info on the rights of people with disabilities in France.

And more info with links to official French agencies.

And even more info about special needs education in Europe.
posted by brookeb at 11:22 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sorry she was such a bitch to you. And good for you for standing your ground! You did the right thing, and you DO belong in that school- as you said yourself, if you didn't deserve to be there, they wouls not have accepted you!

Please don't let this person's bad attitude damage your self esteem. Most people do not think any less of you just because you're deaf. Like my mom says, "everyone's got a struggle. Only some peoples' you can see, and some you can't". I know a lot of people with a similar philosiphy.

I suggest you document these incedences in as much detail as you can. Date, time, exactly what you said, exactly what she said. Every single time.

Feel free to actually take notes while you're in a session with her to make sure it's accurate. If she asks, you can simply say (nicely and casually), "I'm documenting our session", or whatever. If she asks why, you can say "for my records," or "for accuracy" or "for future reference" etc. I'm not sure how things work where you are, but around here, it would cause her to shape up in a hurry. And if it doesn't, you have good records you can use in case it does need to get escalated.

I'd hold off on escalating for now, and give her two more chances (unless she does something awful) to correct her attitude. You're not asking her to do anything that isn't her job.
posted by windykites at 12:31 PM on September 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yes, I think you handled it well and should be proud of yourself, too. Saying, "Hey, why are you such a fucking bitch?" might have felt good for about two seconds, and then it would have felt bad for awhile later when you didn't have what you needed and had gotten into a pointless confrontation.
posted by amodelcitizen at 8:53 PM on September 21, 2012

It's good to follow up on this, but perhaps this person also acts this way to other students? I suggest asking other students about their experience with this school counsellor before sending in a scathing report, perhaps you'd be sending in a different kind of scathing report with the support of other students as well.
posted by Hawk V at 11:44 PM on September 23, 2012

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