1993 was a big year for me because it was the year that I was invited by the Inland Revenue to start to make contributions to the nation through a long forgotten concept to me of income tax. The reason for this was that the bank had finally found a position for me. After 28 months on sick leave I was to hand in my £38 a week benefits book and become the first blind employee of the bank.
The bank had identified a position on their flagship internal help desk where they thought I would be able to do a job with the help of the technology which was available to me. The Help Desk was situated in the Yorkshire bank computer centre behind the Yorkshire Bank branch in Chapel Allerton in Leeds, so I would have to move to Leeds, and I would have to go on a one week refresher course to remind me of the job I was supposed to have been qualified to do when I left the Bridlington branch.
However, I was extremely sceptical as to whether this plan would work out. Under normal circumstances it was only the best people in the bank who managed to be selected to work at the help desk as they were the font of all information within the bank; they were the trouble shooters for the organisation. If somebody rang up they didn’t just hope you knew the answers, they expected you to know the answers, sometimes without even explaining the problem fully.
Most of the queries came from the person within the branch with the lofty title of In Charge of Data Processing (the ICDP). I had done my ICDP course in the summer of 1990, but due to me not being able to see the reports which were an integral part of the job I had only ever done it for about 3 days, and to be honest, I was terrible at it. When I went on the refresher course it was all double Dutch to me, but I kept on smiling politely and saying that I was sure it would all come flooding back to me, but the truth was it was never there in the first place for it to come flooding back. If the help desk operatives did not know an answer then they could always refer to the manuals which had every bit of information required for every operation in the bank, so if I didn’t know I needn’t worry, or so I was told.
I was told that the bank didn’t want to cause me any distress re adjusting to working life, so they only expected me to work for three days a week until I was ready to step it up to four days, and then eventually, if I felt I could cope with it, they would like to think that at some point in the future I would be able to work a full five day week. Well, being 23 years old and an international athlete this was music to my ears. Just to make matters even better, they would pay me full salary whatever hours I worked.
I was introduced to my colleagues to be. Apart from my manager, PE, all my colleagues were female, you could almost smell the estrogen in the air. They were all very pleasant but somewhat over powering at first, and it didn’t help that I don’t think that any of them had ever met a blind person before, so I could sense their eyes burning into me no matter how small the task I was trying to do. It took me weeks before I dare eat a yoghurt in front of them; I don’t think either I or they were ready for that spectacle. I knew these feelings would subside as I got into it, and in the end I got on well with them all and they were very helpful.
The plan was that I would get a feel for work again at the help desk for a couple of months and then they would find a permanent position for me within the bank to utilise my management potential, as they were still aiming to treat me as a management trainee. However, despite the positive sounds, the only job they had identified mainly involved answering the phones, and they were supposedly looking at utilising my abilities in their developing telephone banking operations. I don’t think they intentionally wanted to give the impression that I was only good for answering telephones, I just don’t think they understood my abilities. Looking back, it’s not that surprising; 1993 seems like a different age compared to how things are now for disabled people.
An average minute in my working life for the first 6 months or so went as follows. The phone would ring. I would answer it with the following Stetford bank clerk’s response of “good morning/afternoon help desk” with all the fake enthusiasm of a millionaire octogenarian’s young bride on their wedding night.
The caller would respond with “oh, I wasn’t expecting a man”, and then soon get into their problem, which could be anything from a complete computer failure to questioning where they got their toilet rolls from. As soon as they had told me their problem I would say “if you could just hold for a minute I’ll find the answer” and I would put them on hold as promised. I would then immediately shout out “could somebody help me please” and one of my colleagues would rush to my assistance. I would then relay to them the problem as I remembered it, and more often than usual they would want more details which I would then have to get from the caller before placing them again on hold.
As I had to type the caller details into my computer, as well as the question and the response that I gave them, I needed to use a headset so that I could type at the same time as speaking to them. My calls would then be printed out and checked by my supervisor. The phone and the headset that had been provided for me did not have a hold facility, so all I could do was to put the phone on mute so that to the caller it sounded like they were on hold, but I could hear every word they were saying. This was soul destroying. It’s bad enough to suspect you are bad at your job, whether or not this is because of disability issues or not, but to hear your clientele telling all within earshot just how bad you actually are cuts deep.
From what nearly every caller candidly said whilst they were on hold, or rather what they thought was being on hold, they were amazed that a man had been given a job on help desk as everyone knew that men were rubbish at the ICDP job. They could all tell as well that I didn’t have a clue about any of their queries if their frank comments to their colleagues were anything to go by.
“Eh, Tracey” a caller once called out to her colleague in her branch, “you’ll never believe this. They’ve got a fella on the Help Desk and he’s bloody useless, he doesn’t have a clue.”
At first I tried to ignore it and not let it bother me, but as such comments became commonplace I got more and more frustrated with feeling inadequate. If they had been particularly vicious with their comments, I would slip it into the conversation that as I was blind I was having to get some help with reading the manuals, and you could almost hear their jaws hit the desk. This was especially so if I also managed to slip into the conversation a response to something they were saying whilst they thought they were not able to be heard. My favourite way of doing this was to say something along the lines of “thank you for your patience while I placed you on hold, but the reason the idiot, as you referred to me, couldn’t find the answer to your problem was because it is the first time I have come across this problem in my short career here on the Help Desk, and being blind makes it a little bit awkward for me, but thank you for your patience”. I probably shouldn’t have done that, but I’m only human.
After a few months I had begun to remember some of the responses to the usual queries. However, these consisted mainly of asking “have you tried switching it off and on again?”! There were a few other responses I had learned, such as if the ICDP could not get the cash at the branch to balance at the end of the night there were a couple of suggestions I could make, but if they didn’t resolve the problem I had to pass the call on to a competent member of staff. I had remembered a couple of error codes and how to deal with them, and a number of regularly occurring problems with filling in forms and inputting data into the computer, but I simply didn’t have the tools to deal with any bigger issues. In short, after many months I was nothing more than a glorified answer machine.
There was another job which I was given to do to keep me busy, probably to keep me from annoying more branch staff than was absolutely necessary. This involved copying computer discs to send out to the branches. These discs were not the three and a half inch floppy’s that I used in the late 90s, or even the slighter bigger forerunners to those little beauties. These were discs that were about nine inches square, and the disc copying machine was the size of a small cupboard. Very state of the art at the time, but not at all suitable for use by a blind person.
I had to stick the relevant master disc into the correct slot (the master discs helpfully having been labelled with Braille), then place a blank disc into the other slot, and then start the copying process. Sounds simple enough, but when you have a desk full of discs and no way of determining which are the yet to be copied blanks and which are the already copied blanks (apart from stacking them neatly in separate piles) then it is a recipe for disaster. The only way I could cope was to avoid any distractions, such as talking to other people, which isn’t a good way to help the hours pass at work.
The other problem with the system was that the machine often hung whilst copying. If this occurred without the operator being aware of this, the disc which was sent out to the branch would be useless, and the operator’s name would be mud. Fail-safe devices were available though. The operator was informed of a hung machine through a series of lights being displayed, but this was obviously of no use to me, and so I had to come up with a work-around. My solution was to sit and count the clicks that the machine made whilst copying. If it successfully got to the required 132 clicks, which took about 3 ½ minutes, then it had copied correctly, if it didn’t then I binned that attempt and started again. I wouldn’t say that it was mind numbingly boring – talking was a sure way of losing count – but if anyone had asked I would have told them so … as long as the clicking had finished! Thinking about it, my colleagues probably didn’t need to ask if I was bored as I’ve always been useless at hiding such feelings.
To make it interesting I developed a game – always important in office jobs I have found. There were two copying machines, one of which was slightly faster than the other. The game was to load up the slowest machine, start it going, and then see if the faster of the two could catch it up. The days really did fly by after I had invented this game I can tell you.
The undisputed highlight of the working week was Friday lunch time, as we would either go down to the head office in Leeds for fish and chips, or we would go to one of the local pubs for a pub lunch. On one such occasion at the Mustard Pot in Chapel Allerton, I ordered my usual cheese burger and chips. Half way through I stabbed into where I knew the chips to be on my plate and transferred the food to my mouth. As I bit into my chips I was greeted by the sour taste of a slice of lemon. I had a simple choice, spit it out and let everyone know what I’d done, or eat it and hope no-one saw me. The avoidance of embarrassment always being at the forefront of my mind, I opted for the latter, and as no-one mentioned it I thought I must have got away with it.
However, a few weeks later, I did the same thing. As the strategy had served me well, I ate it as before. I was becoming accustomed to the taste and it wasn’t that bad, as long as you ate it really quickly. Another stab and another piece of lemon. How unfortunate I thought. Never mind, at least I won’t get scurvy. A third stab and a third piece of lemon was greeted by hysterical laughter, after which the girls let me in on their joke, them informing me that they noticed me eating my lemon the previous occasion and that they had been waiting for a suitable opportunity to strategically place all of their lemon slices on my plate to see what I would do. I very rarely eat the lemony surprises nowadays, either asking someone to remove my lemon for me or opting to spit it out should I manage to find it with my fork.
The girls in the office were great and didn’t complain, but I still felt like a burden, as everyone else seemed to be doing the majority of my job for me. No wonder they hadn’t wanted me to work every day. To add to my frustration, my prospects of a long term career at the bank were looking bleak. No progress had been made on finding me a permanent position, and thus I was still temporary staff, being paid a fair wage for passing on messages and copying discs. For the first few months I didn’t mind though, as after all, beggars, and especially blind beggars, can’t be choosers.
Apart from the job itself, the only thing that did annoy me was the ruling that due to my special situation I did not qualify for the usual relocation expenses and cheap mortgages. So I was left living with my Grandma M in Cross Green, near East End Park in Leeds, who at the time was a mere 83, with a wage in the region of £8,000 a year. I think me and Grandma M did rather well living together in that small house. M loved to fuss, and was always asking questions about what did I want, what I was doing, what I had been doing, what I was going to do, and was forever reminding me not to be late, etc, the sort of things grandmas do. At times it drove me crazy, and at times I know I drove her crazy and acted like a spoilt brat, but I loved her to bits and knew she was only doing her best to look after me. And to give her credit she did do a good job of looking after me, even walking me up to the off license on a couple of occasions when I was thoroughly fed up with work. My granddad had died about 10 years earlier, so you may think she would have been glad of the company, but I think she used to look forward to the weekends when I would return home to Bridlington and she could get a bit of peace again. She also must have found it very difficult to be at home for 48 weeks a year, as I now realise that at that time she would otherwise have gone on holiday 7 or 8 times a year at least, so she gave up a lot for me. I would return to live with her in 2005 for the best part of three months, and we would fall back into step like I’d never been away.
Racing fans will know that throughout the summer Monday night means Windsor racing night. So every Monday I would return home from work to find Grandma waiting with a daily express to read the racing page to me before I put a few bets on. It was either that or sit and watch soap operas with her at full volume, what with her being a bit deaf. I thought that betting might be bad for my pocket, but at least it didn’t make my ears bleed. I would watch the betting shows and racing results on Teletext through my computer in my bedroom, whilst listening to the soaps on my portable telly at a sensible volume. When I had won or lost a fortune I would go down and watch a bit of telly with her, but she would always reckon she had seen it before or I would sit there cringing in case anyone swore or worse still someone might get their boobs out, which was always followed by a torrent of outrage about how such behaviour could be allowed on her television.
Breakfast was always ready when I got up, my trousers and shirt would be on the clothes horse in front of the fire warming up for me, my packed lunch would be bursting out of the box when I left the house, a coffee would be ready for me when I came in, and my tea would be on the table at any time I liked, even if it was 11:30 pm when I returned home from Hull on track nights.
However bearable home life was, work life was starting to get very tedious. It was clear that I was never going to be fully competent at the job, due to the failings in my support structures, and the progress on finding me a job that I would be good at was non-existent. It appeared that the bank had hit a brick wall in their task of finding me long-term employment. As a result, my commitment to the bank started to wane over a period of months. Whether I did my job or not didn’t seem to matter to anyone: the girls on the Help Desk could answer calls quicker and didn’t get distracted by having to help me from their other jobs if it wasn’t their turn to answer calls on any given day. In short, I think everyone was happier, including me, if I wasn’t there to do my job. Looking back, I believe I was suffering from mild depression at the time; I hated going to work, I hated being so dependent upon others and there seemed no end to it. Starting work again was supposed to make me feel better about myself, but all it did was make me feel worse because my limitations were so exposed.
As these feelings developed, a slight sniffle or stomach ache was all that was required for me to take the day off, and it was amazing how many times I had a slight stomach ache if there was any sport on the telly that day. I didn’t even have to put on that fake “I’m not feeling very well” voice that anyone who has ever worked in an office will recognise. I could almost sense the relief in their voices when I told them I wasn’t coming in, and I’m sure on occasions I could hear the cheering in the background. With me out of the way the girls were free to talk of all things below the waist which for the most time they refrained from discussing in front of me.
But at least I had my athletics to keep me going, and thank goodness I did …..