Jean the cat has been in touch to tell me my initial title was wrong, because people do need to hear it even if they don’t know it yet. As Jean is clearly a sensible cat, I have edited the title.
I tried so hard not to write this, but one of the problems with having a writing brain is that it just goes and does its own thing, running headfirst down dark alleyways and into cornfields to see what connections it can make. After four hours of trying to sleep with my dickhead brain writing this behind my eyes, here you go: Jean and Jorts As Metaphor For Disability Accommodations.
I really don’t have the will to structure this as a properly argued piece because it’s mostly a joke extended well past breaking point, so I’m just going to headline the comparisons and add some pictures of my own very silly orange boy as an incentive to keep reading.
This is almost entirely tongue-in-cheek, though I do harbour a tiny hope it might get the point across to some people as the general abled public have a much greater will to grasp disability in animals than in people (‘look at this doggie living his best life now he has wheels!’ vs ‘look at the poor unfortunate wheelchair-bound human invalid’; Noodle the dog has a variable condition and can do things some days (yay!) and some days needs to rest and be cared for (also yay!) vs ‘you are clearly just faking because you could do this thing yesterday and now you say you can’t’).
Caveat: we are obviously, for the purposes of humour and space, leaving aside the ‘orange cats and ethnic minority sensitivity’ aspects (thought that was just an issue for certain weirdos in Scottish politics), and we are ignoring for the moment the language used very affectionately about the orange *cat* regarding his intelligence or lack of, because he’s a cat and, while we’re mapping reactions, he is *still a cat*.
Ok, let’s do this.
The saga of Jean, Jorts, Pam and the unnamed supervisor gives us both a lot of joy and a useful depiction of different approaches to workplace accommodations for disability. If you are so far unfamiliar with Jean and Jorts, please go and read this and the update, and once you are filled with love for these kitties and the art and poetry they’ve inspired, come back here.
Comparison 1: Match the person to the job
Jean the tortie cat is a smart, sensible, caring employee of what appears from comments to be some kind of facility where trauma is managed. Jorts, while neither smart nor sensible, is just as much of a valued and effective worker, because the job is matched to his skills, abilities and interests. Jorts enjoys belly rubs, sleeping on boots, and getting cups stuck on his head, but his key skill is his friendliness. He is there to comfort, engage and reassure people and he does his job very well. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t have the same skills that Jean has, because she is filling that role and he is filling his.
The idea we all have to be perfect super-employees who can do everything is exclusionary, and many disabled people would be able to have meaningful careers if we were able to match our skills and abilities to work rather than being dismissed out of hand because we aren’t able to do, say, a full-time job or need to work from home, or can’t do heavy lifting even though that’s not part of the job (a standard trick of job requirements to weed out disabled candidates).
Jorts has important, valuable skills and he is being allowed to thrive in a workplace which sees him and rewards him for them.
Comparison 2: Workplace Accommodations
Jorts has an excellent employer who recognises their duty to provide accommodations to make the workplace more accessible for employees who need assistance. It is the obligation of the employer to create access, rather than the employee to ‘fix’ themselves. If an employee struggles to open doors and accidentally locks coworkers into closets because of this, a doorstop is a perfect solution – it doesn’t require observation or permission, it makes the closet safer for both the disabled employee and their coworkers, and it doesn’t require the disabled employee (cat) to beg for assistance every time they need help. Obviously, if you have a human employee who is locking their coworkers in closets, please call HR and possibly security.
Comparison 3: The Pity Project
Of course, the tension in the post arises from Pam’s insistence that Jorts needs to ‘learn’ to open doors, or groom himself, or do the other things which are not in his job description but which are ‘for his own good’ even though he has found support and solutions which work for him. Unfortunately, Unnamed Supervisor’s approach is actually quite rare in workplaces, and Pam’s is much more common. Disabled people are taken on as projects, or as charity. The aim is to teach us to be more ‘normal’ rather than to allow disabled people to determine our own needs and solutions. We probably have a good reason for sleeping in a boot tray instead of on a fluffy bed. I assume Jorts does, because I know Tal here has refused every single comfortable bed I’ve ever bought him in favour of sleeping in weird positions on the edges of shelves.
Oh, except the Death Star. He’ll sleep in the Death Star.
I got lost somewhere, hang on.
Yes. People like Pam are well-meaning. They want to help us, and think this is the way to do it. However, it shows she does not see Jorts as a coworker equal to herself, worthy of respect and autonomy. From the thread responses, it seems like she has worried that Jorts’ lack of specific skills might make him less valued to her boss than Jean, who has been there for some time and has more well-recognised skillsets, but Pam has missed that everyone else already does treat Jorts as an equal member of the team and it’s her fixation on his ‘failings’ which is causing her concern. This is a Pam problem, not a Jorts one, but that doesn’t mean Jorts doesn’t get hurt in the process of being used as a fixer-upper.
Comparison 4: Margarine vs Butter
And it isn’t just Jorts who gets hurt. Jean has had a deeply uncomfortable health issue triggered which required medical treatment. This could be looked at as an example of a phenomenon known as the ‘disability dongle’, a term coined by Liz Jackson to describe abled people deciding to invent something they think will help disabled people, without considering the disabled people’s needs or how it will actually work in practice. Usually we’re talking about robot exoskeletons to climb stairs instead of, you know, ramps and lifts, and the disability dongle is typically a tech solution, but I’m just going to squint a bit and make it fit. Pam identified something she sees as a problem: Jorts not grooming himself very well. Even though Jorts has already worked out a solution for this – Jean helps him groom himself and seems happy to do so, and the employers are willing to get grooming care support if needed – Pam thinks he needs to be taught how to do it, because she assumes the issue is that he doesn’t know rather than there’s some kind of other barrier. She looks it up and finds the butter solution used by some people who have cats who do not have a Jean to help.
Now, here’s the thing: instead of using butter, which is at least a recognised (if somewhat arbitrary) solution, she decides that margarine is a reasonable substitution. She does not check whether cats are able to consume margarine safely, or what the side-effects might be, because she assumes she knows what she needs to know. Margarine can be substituted for butter in cooking, so must be the same when applied to cats, right? Poor Jean will tell you this is not the case, once she is allowed out of the closet.
Abled people spend a significant amount of time designing things they just assume will work for disabled people because they think that disability awareness is a matter of *morals* and not practicality. They think that ‘being a good person and having good intentions’ is enough to understand what’s needed, because they’re trying, and that’s the important thing. Nope. The important thing is that it actually provides a solution to a problem, and if you don’t speak to disabled people before buttering them with margarine, you may find a horde of angry people who don’t really care that you thought you were doing a good thing with your weird ramp if it’s so steep it’ll tip a person into traffic, or your metal studs in the pavement help one group of people while providing a major slip hazard for others.
So what have we learned here:
1 – workplace accommodations are the employer’s obligation and should be suited to the needs of the employee in a way which provides dignity and fairness
2 – most people have skills and abilities which are valuable and, if they are not forced into a generic box where they are expected to show capacity they don’t have, will thrive in the right role
3 – hiring disabled people is not charity – we provide value and labour – and we are not there to be ‘fixed’ or to learn how to be ‘normal’. We are there to work, and we are human. I mean, Jorts isn’t. He’s still a cat. You get what I mean though.
4 – actually speak to disabled people about what they need before implementing your own ideas about what you think will benefit us.
5 – do not apply margarine to your coworkers
6 – my brain is ridiculous but I’ve done it now so I’m going to bed.
Edited to add: in the wonderful way #DisabilityTwitter has of doing things, ‘are you actually helping or are you buttering the cat?’ has been created as a way of asking ‘is the thing you’re doing because you want to be helpful actually hurting people?’
And a friend has created the Tamarian phrase ‘Jorts, his fur unbuttered’ to signify a person whose access needs have all been met and who is supported.
I love people. And Jorts, Jean and their humans.