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  • Writer's pictureLeanne Taylor

What I was Hiding Behind Zoom

Updated: Feb 24, 2023

The COVID-19 pandemic affected many of us in ways that we are still beginning to understand. I want to discuss a bizarre circumstance that I found myself in because of the COVID pandemic and how it forced me to decide how to present myself as a wheelchair user in the world of work.

To catch you up, in 2018 I went over the handlebars of my mountain bike, breaking my back at the eleventh thoracic vertebra and becoming completely paraplegic. Paraplegia affects my life in many ways, but the most noticeable change is that I zip around the office using a manual wheelchair. I work for a relatively small, close-knit, compassionate, organization (a pharmaceutical company called Medicure), so when I returned to work post-accident it didn’t seem to phase anyone that I had traded in my heels for wheels. My coworkers treated me with the same warm respect they always had, while finding subtle opportunities to make my life easier. They shovel the snow from my parking spot and installed accessibility buttons on the doors. The transition felt seamless.

It wasn’t until I started working with outside vendors that I realized that the Zoom-based meeting culture necessitated by the pandemic presented me with a unique conundrum. My disability wasn’t apparent to those who were meeting me on Zoom. Of course, no one asked, so I didn’t tell anyone. This seemed like a fine arrangement, but I must admit, it made it hard for me to connect with people. A simple question like “What did you do on the weekend?” would have me squirming. For instance, I could say that I went for a bike ride; this was true, but felt like a lie of omission if I did not specify that I did so in my adapted handcycle since I had lost the ability to ride a bike in 2018. I could say I went handcycling and risk being asked to explain my sport, my equipment, and ultimately my disability. But frankly, I didn’t know how. I was scared of how people would react. Would they treat me differently? Respect me less? Trust me less to complete our shared work?

This made me think of the millions of people with invisible disabilities who must so frequently ask themselves whether they should disclose their disability and accept any adaptations they may need or remain hidden to avoid the stigma associated with their disability.

At first, I chose to stay hidden behind the Zoom lens. I felt like the man behind the green curtain in the Wizard of Oz. But just like the man behind the green curtain, I was lonely. I wasn’t connecting with the people I was speaking to, and it made me sad.

As time went on, the sport I was participating in went from a recreational activity I was using to stay in shape, to a full-blown career. I was competing on the international level and a Google search of my name would pull up pictures that featured a sweaty, intense looking Leanne, with very thin legs, operating some unique adaptive bike-ish thing. I was busted, and very quickly, my fear became a reality when my first contact came across one of these pictures and the associated article.

My contact knew I was out of town, but I had not disclosed that it was for an international paratriathlon competition. He said something along the lines of “Hey, are you travelling for one of those paratriathlon races you do?” I was immediately covered in sweat. I don’t know why. I am not ashamed to be a wheelchair user or a para-athlete. But with this simple comment, my two worlds were coming crashing together and I didn’t know how the puzzle pieces would fit. I was backed into a corner, so of course I told him yes. Immediately, he enthusiastically jumped into a string of questions. He was excited and impressed. When we had finished talking about paratriathlon, just like that, we moved on to our business. Nothing had changed. I was not immediately pitied or considered to be less capable (as often happens to disabled people). It was business as usual.

Slowly, I started to let other contacts become aware of this part of who I am. This helped form my attitude toward business and partnership.

Now when I introduce myself virtually I do not hide my disability or any of the other “flaws” that make me human. Instead, I present myself honestly, as a Compliance Officer. Who loves her job, but sometimes gets overwhelmed by it’s demands. Who loves solving problems, but will need help if there is math involved. Who cares deeply about her work, but also can’t wait to get to the pool for her next training session. Who cannot walk, stand or reach the highest shelf, but can offer great value to an organization like Medicure who does not let ableism or bias impact the way they see their staff. It’s a risk, there are still some people in the world who assume that those with disabilities are capable of less. But I would rather face the challenge of proving them wrong then hide who I am for fear of their bias.

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