A Matter of Form & Custom
at the Post Office
A TRUE STORY!
by Sally Rosenthal
I'm among friends here, right? So, can we talk? Let me fill you in on the life of a disability book reviewer. It's not all glitz and glamour, but there are the occasional rewards to make contacting publishers for review copies and meeting deadlines worthwhile. Besides reading some excellent books (and the not-so-frequent bomb), there's the thrill of a byline, a check (sometimes), and notoriety in some very small publishing circles. And let's not forget the opportunity for discrimination at the post office.
Discrimination at the post office? If that sounds like a new one to you, you're not alone. I wasn't aware of it, either, but I pride myself on being open to new experiences--even the bizarre ones that sneak up on me as I go about my daily routine. I never know where I'll come upon an idea for an article, after all.
I just didn't expect that idea to take shape one day as I stood in line at the post office, clutching the review copy of Nancy Mairs' Waist-High In The World (see, "Way beyond Klara and Tiny Tim," Nov./Dec.); Mairs' on-target depiction of life as a disabled woman was about to make a transatlantic trip to a friend in England. A wheelchair user who shares my love of cats, books, and husbands with post-polio syndrome, Linda was unfamiliar with Mairs' work but would, I knew, enjoy the book. When I heard the clerk bark, "Next!" I moved toward the window.
Placing my package on the counter, I went into my automatic spiel: "I'm blind and need some help, please, in filling out the customs form for this package." Although I have been disabled all my life with cerebral palsy, midlife blindness has forced me, often reluctantly, to ask for help. Like Blanche duBois, I have come, in some instances, to "rely upon the kindness of strangers." Unlike the Tennessee Williams heroine, I'm relatively new at asking. So I try to be as explicit and polite as possible. Usually people respond with a bit too much of that kindness, but I've learned to chalk that solicitude up to the realities of living as a blind woman. So let's just say that I wasn't exactly prepared for the clerk's response.
"We don't do that, lady."
"Excuse me?" I asked.
"You heard me. We don't fill out forms. It's against policy," he snarled.
So much for the kindness of strangers. "So, how does someone who's blind mail this package?" I queried him, feeling a strange new sensation very unlike the embarrassment I would have felt for most of my life in such a situation. Raised with the double whammy of an English mother who preached civility above all else and the social stigma of being a disabled woman, I, in the not too distant past, would have blamed myself and felt worried about the people behind me in line.
Not this time. I noticed, with amazement, that I was icily calm--and enjoying it!! I suspected that Nancy Mairs might also have enjoyed the implicit irony involved. Disabled but empowered, I had the ADA on my side. I was going to mail this book about discrimination come hell or high water.
Mr. Not-So-Helpful started stamping letters, ignoring me. "I find it really interesting that the U. S. Postal Service, a federal agency, doesn't comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act," I said conversationally, adding a little ADA education before asking to speak to his supervisor.
My mother-in-law, who had been buying stamps at another window, became aware of the ruckus and appeared by my side.
"She's with you? Good! SHE can fill out the form," stated the clerk with finality. I decided to mail the package and call his supervisor from home.
Rather than diffusing my anger, however, my later phone conversation with the supervisor fueled the flames. "Yes, that's our policy, but I guess the fact that you're blind might override it," he mused. If the clerk was rude, his supervisor was clueless.
Somewhat deflated, I hung up and decided to use work as an escape while deciding what, if anything, to do. Sue? Write a letter of complaint? Eat a container of Ben and Jerry's ice cream?
Married to an attorney, I know that lawsuits are time-consuming, expensive, and rarely bring the justice one seeks. And, I realized, I wanted justice. And my -- our -- civil rights. "I should at least write a letter," I thought, even then begrudging the time and effort such a letter would take.
As I gazed at the article I was writing, though, I knew that a letter was unavoidable. I was reviewing a collection of children's books about disability -- all written by children with disabilities. Feeling ashamed that I, a disabled adult, was reluctant to write a letter to dispel discrimination when these disabled writers two generations behind me were putting their lives into books, I wrote to the supervisor, explaining the civil rights violation that had occurred, asking for an apology and a reassurance that the clerk in question understood the issue. I copied it to my two senators and the Postmaster General.
Within a week, a contrite (and probably wary of lawsuit) reply arrived from the supervisor. No word yet from Washington, though.
Never mind. I have some more packages to mail overseas. I'm looking forward to a visit to the Post Office. Maybe I'll drop off a copy of Mairs' book for employees to read, too.
Sally Rosenthal is a freelance writer who frequently reviews books related to disability.
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