Surviving Inaccessible Work Retreats

"I just want to lie on the beach and eat hot dogs. That’s all I ever wanted."
‘Beach Games,’ The Office

Networking occurs outside of the office as much as it does inside office walls. It’s much easier to ingratiate yourself to a superior over a round of golf or in front of a toasty campfire. A campfire? Yes, a campfire. I’m talking about the dreaded work retreat.

From the mind-numbing icebreakers to that one person who won't stop volunteering to share, work retreats are agonizing. Still, they're a rite of passage. And it's fun to see how people interpret a "wear comfortable clothing" instruction.  So everyone sucks it up—you carpool to a remote location, spend hours brainstorming ways to turn abstract ideas into revenue, and once daytime activities are over, you eat, you drink and you bond.

Or, in my case, you simply don’t go.

I worked for a firm that held a hike every summer. One of the founding partners was an extreme sports aficionado. As a result, the hikes were held in exotic, remote locations, and the trails were chosen based on their difficulty. At the end of the firm hike, participants were treated to a sumptuous feast at a luxurious hotel. One year, the hike took place in the Alps.

Every year, I wanted to go. The hikes sounded fun. But I never went. A full day of hiking on a challenging trail was something that, because of my disability, was always going to exclude me.

Maybe the hike is an extreme example from an extreme workplace. Most retreats are neither extravagant nor demanding.

But even humble retreats pose access problems.

A retreat held at a rustic lodge promised accessible rooms. I know because I called ahead to confirm that the rooms were accessible.

Once I arrived, I realized that the “accessible” room I was assigned to was on the second floor of a dormitory with no elevator. To reach my room, I struggled up a steep path with no handrail. My room’s bathroom was also a problem. Instead of handlebars, its shower was equipped with a flimsy plastic chair that looked suspiciously similar to the plastic chairs in the conference room down the hall. Late night socializing took place at a cabin with a lakefront view. The cabin was completely inaccessible. The person who planned the retreat told me that it wouldn’t be held against me if I left.

I live in a world that poses daily accessibility challenges. I cope by toughing it out. No disabled parking spots close to my workplace’s entrance on a cold, icy day, when my knee is swollen to the size of a small melon? I’ll pull into a spot in the parking lot’s nether regions, and limp towards the accessible entryway, stepping gingerly over patches of ice. The soundtrack to my painful journey is a string of f***s muttered sotto voce. Once I reach my office, I’ll shut the door and elevate my knee. I’ll close my eyes, hoping the wave of pain will pass. Sometimes I’ll say a prayer, begging for the physical and mental strength to make it through the day.

The most humiliating part of the inaccessible retreat was enduring pain publicly. When I schlepped myself up a hill to reach my bedroom, my pain and my disability were in plain view. There was no time or place to collect myself. Everyone witnessed my agony.

It shouldn't be this bad. The Americans with Disabilities Act is almost 30 years old. It’s not difficult to hold a retreat at an accessible location.

If your retreat options are all accessibility minefields, just do it the easy way: at a bar, with drinks the company buys and a table large enough for everyone to have a seat.

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