Disability and Restaurant Life
September 18, 2010 § 12 Comments
I hadn’t planned about talking about this so soon, you know. I was going to lay more of a foundation first, give a better picture of what it’s like in a professional kitchen, before I talked about something this personal.
In my post about what it takes for a woman to have a kitchen of her “own,” all I talked about were the externalities. I didn’t talk about another thing anyone wanting to work in a professional kitchen must have: an able body.
Professional kitchens are never designed to accommodate physical disabilities. The equipment built for pro kitchens isn’t designed for it, either. And it probably never will be until and unless some celebrity chef at the top of his game and with access to huge amounts of money to remodel with becomes disabled. In the mean time, to work in a kitchen, one must be able to spend long periods on her feet, get things down from (sometimes far) over her head, carry and handle heavy things (sometimes one-handed), and perform a variety of other physically demanding tasks.
That’s not the personal bit. That bit is something I stare at and poke and at wish I could do something, anything, about. I can’t. I don’t have the money or the time or the clout.
No, the personal bit of disability and the kitchen I know about first-hand is invisible disabilities and mental illness.
I have bipolar disorder, with social anxiety and more general anxiety attacks. (And ADHD, but that’s rarely a problem in a kitchen.) And as I write this, I am having a particular problem with that.
And if I were still cooking, a day like today could mean losing my job.
I woke up an hour before I was supposed to be at work, and it took me five hours to get out the door. During that time, I had suicidal ideations and paralyzing anxiety attacks. Since one of the foci of my anxiety is phones, I couldn’t even touch mine to find out what was going on at work or let them know what was keeping me. Once I was finally able to put my feet on the floor and start my morning activities, I’d do one step, and have to go back to bed. I took a shower, and crawled back into bed for half an hour. Brushed my teeth and hair, put on deodorant and moisturizer, and back to bed for forty-five minutes. Got dressed and downstairs, and was curled up on the couch for another half-hour. Tried to think of something to eat and was absolutely paralyzed by the problem. I had to leave without eating, knowing that at least I could get food at work.
I finally did make it to work, and things got easier. It’s so much easier to pretend that everything’s ok when there are people around, when there are distractions to keep my mind off the anxiety and the awful thoughts. So it got better. But I wasn’t very effective. I was off my game, wasn’t as effective at handling problems, couldn’t touch the paperwork that was waiting for me (it’s another of the foci for my anxiety).
Now, I can get away with that at my restaurant, because I’m the boss, and as long as it all gets done to deadline, I’ll be fine. No one can fire me. I can not come in and not call, and while people might worry about me, I’m not going to lose my job for that. If I were working for someone else, cooking, I would. I’d lose my job — have lost jobs — by being off my game during a depressive episode.
And let me tell you, even the best-medicated bipolar people still have those episodes.
Kitchens don’t really make accommodations. Oh, if they don’t cost too much and they don’t interfere too much, they’ll do little things like buy nitrile gloves because you’re allergic to latex. But if they decide you can’t do the job, without help, without them going out of their way, you’re out. I’ve worked through migraines, having to run off and puke every so often; I’ve worked through anxiety and paranoia that insisted that everyone else on the staff was talking about me, laughing at me, behind my back; I’ve worked while so depressed that I had to clean all of the sharps out of my home. I worked because they needed me and I needed the money. I couldn’t so much as tell anyone what was going on for some of that, for fear they’d fire me for my disability.
I can try to do better for those who work for me, and I can arrange my business to provide accommodations for myself, but this is not an industry that is kind to the disabled.