“You can’t work here.”

Today we shift from one viewpoint to the other: From the “You can do it!” attitude expressed by Eliza to the “You don’t fit in.” attitude of a major corporation that has a problem with those of us who don’t conform to their image.

Riam Dean was hired by Abercrombie & Fitch’s (A&F) main store in London, and presented with a copy of the Employee Handbook. In the Handbook is A&F’s “Look Policy”, which very carefully describes the appearance that they want their employees to present. A&F Staff are to present a “natural, classic American style,” the policy insists. Although all employees dress in Jeans and a Polo shirt, Riam was allowed to wear a cardigan sweater to disguise her artificial arm.

Sweater? Disguise an artificial arm? I smell trouble….

The trouble didn’t start until a few days later when A&F’s “Visual Team” showed up. The Visual Team are the Enforcers – they monitor A&F stores and employees to make sure they all meet the perfect standard. Since Riam’s sweater is not standard issue, they began to demand that it come off. Riam stood firm – after all, she did have permission to wear it – but before the hour was out, she had been reassigned. To the stockroom. Because she was violating the Look Policy.

Riam quit A&F and she’s suing them for disability discrimination. (Good! Go get ’em, Riam!) But take a look at what she says in some of the court documents:

It made me feel as though she (the store manager) had picked up on my most personal, sensitive and deeply buried insecurities about being accepted and included. Her words pierced right through the armour of 20 years of building up personal confidence about me as a person, and that I am much more than a girl with only one arm.

Now, replace the phrase “only one arm” with “a heart defect” and read it again. For a lot of us, it hits close to home.

A Congenital Heart Defect (CHD) is a “hidden disability” – usually the general public can’t tell that we are disabled. I know the physical signs of Cyanosis and what to look for – the blue fingertips, clubbing, slightly bluish tinge to the lips – and even I miss the signs sometimes. And not all of us are Cyanotic, so we are truly hidden. Unless there is a lot of physical activity involved, you may never know there is anything wrong with us. So if we are ever told “You don’t fit in here,” it seems to be more of a shock to the system.

Riam was… withdrawn and sad. I had never known her like this. She has a totally positive ‘can do’ attitude to everything, yet she seemed broken by this.

Although we can’t explain discrimination, CHDers can’t let it shake us. We have to internalize it not as a problem that we have, but as a problem the discriminator has. Our life may seem to be a real roller coaster ride  at times, but it is still our life. Someone who tries to discriminate against you beacuse of the way you look, your color, your gender, or your health is attempting to control your life. This is not acceptable, not even for a moment.

“I don’t want their money,” Riam said after refusing a settlement that would bind her to a non disclosure agreement. “If I accept their money, it means I can’t talk about it. And they will treat somebody else like that in the future again.”

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