Jean And Jorts: the extended metaphor for workplace accommodations nobody asked for

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.

An orange and cream cat, looking up to the right with his mouth open, looking gormless
This is Taliesin. He often looks like this.

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*.

a ginger and cream cat lying on a purple sheet, on his side, his head tilted and his paws pulled up by his face
This is a cat. Not a human.

Sigh.

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. 

a radiator cat bed, with the fluffy sack which goes over the wire frame stretched down because a cat is inside it. A small black cat is sniffing at it.
Tal often got himself stuck inside the radiator bed, and Sprite is not nearly as helpful as Jean.

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. 

a ginger cat peeking out of the hole of a material death star bed
Tal in his 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. 

a ginger cat sitting in a sink, squawking at the tap which is not turned on. Captions say there is a cat fountain off to the left side, and a bowl of water down at the bottom.
Our solutions to Tal’s desire for water do not fit his needs, as he tells us at four in the morning every morning.

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.

a blurred ginger cat trying to bite a blue highlighter pen
Tal helps.

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.


Zine cover in turquoise with black writing, and a big cartoonised picture of a ginger cat on his back on a rug, with a small cartoon of a ginger cat being nuzzled by a calico.

Become Unbutterable

Jorts, Jean and the extended metaphor for disability accommodations in the workplace nobody asked for but everyone needs!

Fiona Robertson

Disability! Cats! Memes! Big stretches!
This article is now available in zine form here if you want some extra artwork and a way to completely-not-passive-aggressively leave it around your workplace for ‘certain’ people to see…

26 thoughts on “Jean And Jorts: the extended metaphor for workplace accommodations nobody asked for

Add yours

  1. I have also been thinking about this nonstop since I read the first post, but not with the wit and thoughtfulness you bring here. Thank you!

    (HI TAL YOU’RE SO SWEET)

  2. If anything could have been funnier than the original post(s)–whilst also providing useful comments–then this is it. Bravo!

  3. Ah! I’m so glad someone else saw the same parallel with workplace accommodations! I love how you wrote this. Also, Tai is adorable. 😻

  4. This, SO MUCH!

    I am disabled and haven’t had a job since the 80s (when I could still fake being a TAB) so the fact that Jorts has Jean, a human, and HR department to stand up for him is wonderful.

    I hope Jorts, in his not-so-bright furry way, has opened people’s eyes to not being like “Pam”.

    As well as giving everyone some happiness.

  5. Your sleep deprived brain was right on the money, thank you for getting it down in words!

    Also, Tal is gorgeous ❤

  6. This is amazing. And makes me realise why I so instinctively felt Jorts and Jean. I’m a person disabled by chronic illness who is just about getting to grips with the idea that even though I can no longer function as brilliantly as I did in a past professional life, I can still be brilliant and useful, and that asking for the right accommodations that enable me to be as effective as possible is not weak, or to be pitied, but just effective.

    Thank you so much for writing this and articulating what I couldn’t quite put into words

  7. Who says that a great post like this needs to be all stuffy and a “properly argued piece” to be thought provoking? Thank you!

  8. This is also relevant to immigrants, refugees and minority groups. I observed a (white man) director of a refugee aid organization start a movement to call refugees ‘New Americans’ to avoid saying ‘refugees’, because that is a word looked down on by WASPS. As a former refugee, I tried to ask if he’d spoken with actual refugees about this. He told me most of those people do not have a good or even basic grasp of English so cannot understand the connotations and nuances of the word, therefore he decided ‘New Americans’ is better. I told him I have an excellent grasp of English, and I object to the term. Refugees did not leave their country willingly, they were forced out by war, famine, danger. They identify strongly as (insert nation or ethnic group), and may have mixed feelings about ‘becoming’ Americans- this often involves giving up their prior citizenship, which is an important part of their identity. Certainly, they are not ‘New Americans’ the moment they set foot in the United States, because the path to American citizenship is long and May involve a lot of soul searching. Bestowing the title of ‘American’ on someone is not some kind of honor- shockingly, denizens of other countries feel patriotic, and loyal to their countries, and feel their lands are AS GOOD as America. (TL; DR: The refugees also would prefer to remain unbuttered).

  9. As one who frequently communicates in Tamarian, I am adding “Jorts, his fur unbuttered” to my lexicon. ❤ And please tell Tal that I love him and that he's a handsome boi. ❤ ❤ ❤ ❤

  10. I can’t stop thinking about how beautiful Tal is. I love orange cats. Every one I have ever met has an amazing personality and is full of interesting quirks and would make a great family member. Also, I realize how fortunate I am that I have no Pam in my workplace. My own fur remains blissfully unbuttered.

  11. Delightful. My 8YO has now been introduced to the concept of helpful (& well meaning, but unhelpful) accommodations… he has just been diagnosed with ADHD and is a unique little pickle. This metaphor and the whole Jorts and Jean (& Pam & Supervisor) saga and conversation will undoubtedly help us to communicate as we navigate the butter vs doorstop options in his IEP etc.
    Thank you for contributing!

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