Hey, lucky day! The meter has already been fed. I put the quarters back in my pocket for another day, and walk to my appointment. I have my wallet in case I need to show ID, water to stay hydrated, a kindle to stave off boredom, and my cowboy hat to protect me from fluorescent lights.
I am about to become part of the “system”. The State of Vermont Division of Vocational Rehabilitation requires an orientation before receiving services. Their website says you can come in and fill out an application, but when I showed up several weeks ago I learned that, no, you fill out the application at the orientation that happens every Monday at 1 pm or Wednesday at 9 am.
So, I am back today. I went into work early and left early. Somehow I ended up with too little time between the two, and I have had to rush. No transition time, no time for Reiki in the car.
As soon as I step into the main waiting room, I am aware of a difference. This is unfamiliar. I don’t know this process. I don’t know what is expected. How often am I faced with the unknown these days? Very rarely. I naturally enjoy routine and stability. My head injury, however, has taken lack of newness to a whole different level. Here, now, I remember – newness takes extra energy, it requires more brain power to navigate.
The friendly and helpful administrator (no sarcasm) gives me a clipboard – of course there is a paper that must be filled out before I can attend orientation. I sit down and dutifully read the sheet of paper… or try to read. Somehow, in this moment, reading has become a whole lot more difficult. The waiting room is full, but people are respectful and quiet, so it’s not a noise issue. Hmmm…. I guess Mary has helped me fill out new forms for the past year. I’d forgotten.
What is needed here? Looking at the shapes of the paragraphs on the page, it looks like they want me to check or initial some areas, and sign at the bottom. It’s not an application, nor a consent form, so it must be something else. I must be more tired than I realized from 4 hours of work this morning… damn. The page just looks like blobs of ink, senseless.
Thankfully, the first sentence of most paragraphs in the English language contains the main point of the entire paragraph. So, I make myself read the first line of the instructions. My brow furrows, my eyes squint in concentration. I read the first sentence through five or six times before it starts to make sense. Okay, enough to get me started. Next, I read the first part of the sentence of the first question — ahhh, comprehension floods me. No, no, no, no, no I am not receiving other types of aid right now, no I have not been incarcerated, no I am not a student. Sign, date. Done in two minutes. Whew.
Once I return my clipboard and sit down again, the feeling of the waiting room starts to seep into my awareness. Nothing creepy or angry – nothing like that. More, a sense of need, a feeling of anxiety. The people around me urgently need the help this office can provide. Many people watch the door where case workers pop out sporadically, hoping they are next. Several new people arrive, generally looking harried or anxious. I start to feel the first prickles of anxiety, too.
As I continue to wait, it sinks in what I am doing – asking a bureaucracy to help me – and I feel scared, uncomfortable. I feel the system surrounding me, not unfriendly but not friendly, large and unknowable. The machinery is so clear, gates and gatekeepers, doors that open or close depending on a form, a rule, a policy. Who I am, what I am doesn’t matter… and to be fair, probably shouldn’t matter… I am a number, a name, a widget to be put through the process.
This shift in experience reminds me of the level of social privilege I enjoy every day. I walked in this office with a level of comfort and security that others can’t. I am white, middle class, employed, a white collar worker. My money, my education, my familiarity with laws and policies and government buffer me from the reality of needing. Even now, I am here because it might help me, not because I need to be. If the process is too frustrating, if I don’t get what I need, I’ll just leave, or complain, or get a lawyer. Options provide confidence, a sense of safety. How much more scary this would all be if I needed, if I didn’t have a choice.
A older woman passes through the magic door, calling for those taking part in the orientation. Myself and one white man in his mid 20s stand up. She turns away and we follow her to a small conference room. Once there, the woman does not introduce herself, greet us, nor shake our hands. I guess professional niceties are not in force. Here, I am another widget being added to the machine. The woman is helpful, polite, clear. But, this is clearly not a social call, nor for anyone’s pleasure.
The orientation is blessedly short – maybe 10 minutes. She engages us to find out if we have any questions. Again I am reminded of my privilege. The gentleman beside me was released from prison last week and needs help getting a bus pass to go to job interviews. Bureaucracy grinds along. He can’t get services until he sees his case worker. His case worker will contact him within one to three business days by email to schedule an appointment. Then, of course, he’ll have to take a bus to the office (again) to maybe get services that day, or maybe at the meeting after.
I have taken for granted my car, my mobility for years. Everyone I interact with on a professional basis has a car, multiple cars, nice cars. There are plenty of cars to go around. Right, that’s privilege, that’s comfort, that’s security. It isn’t a given, it isn’t something everyone, or even most people in the world have. Not having a car makes a world of difference. Distance that is easy for me to cover in 15 minutes will probably take him an hour on the bus. Day in, day out, that sort of inconvenience and limitation would grind anybody down.
Finally, she hands out folders, one for each of us. Inside is an application that we are prompted to fill out. For years, filling out forms has been fun. Or, they were fun, pre-head injury. When I was young, I especially enjoyed properly filling in the bubbles on standardized tests. Strange, I suppose, yet comforting.
Now, somehow, surprisingly, answering questions is a challenge for me. What is my disability? How does it limit me? How do I want Voc Rehab to help? I pause, pushing my brain to think. Come on, this isn’t hard! My hand starts shaking and I can’t remember how to write simple words. Dammit. I struggle to compose a few simple sentences to explain my situation. I writing something down; I don’t know what. I hope it makes sense. Glancing at it before turning it in, it looks like it was written by a 8 year old. But, it is legible. It is good enough. Another simple skill that isn’t simple anymore.
Our orientator reviews our applications and finds them “adequate”. What an interesting word, “adequate”. Do they have to use that word, to make sure no one appears favored? Do they say that to keep from embarrassing people that have barely been able to fill out the form? Is it that we only need to write something in each box, nothing complex, so it is just adequate work?
I don’t know, but I am done. I will expect to be contacted via email within one to three business days, if my worker is following directions. Bill the boss tells them they have to contact new applicants within that time frame, so I should definitely hear from someone. If I don’t, call the office because my case worker should have contacted me.
I gratefully leave, head abuzz, done for the day. I climb into my middle class car, drive to a home I own, and now plan to take a nap made possible because I have a white collar job. The End.