One step at a time. Ascending the stairs to the University building I am quickly overtaken by ‘bright-eyed and bushy tailed’ students. I have to concentrate and stagger with every step, feeling a whirling sense of vertigo. My legs are not cooperating, my eyes are playing tricks, but the challenge is to look unflustered. In this time of stress I feel inexplicably nostalgic. Twenty-five years have now elapsed since stepping up onto the rostrum: the first student member of the BIFM (together with Marie Puyberaut – now Head of Global Research at JLL). It all seems to have gone so fast. Today my staggering achievement is simply to reach the top of the stairs.
Approaching the glass doors I become aware of security men either side of me. This is clearly not part of the ‘meet and greet’ routine. One of them steps forward and challenges me:
‘Can I help you sir?’
The great thing about the English language is that the same phrase can mean so many different things. Clearly this was not an outreaching of hands to help me to my office. This was definitely a ‘challenge’ to establish what I was doing there.
‘I’m trying to get to my office – like I do every day. I’m Professor Edward Finch’
The grinning between the security team stops abruptly. I didn’t appear to be drunk despite my staggering walk. I also appeared to have good reason to be there. I then felt the urge to explain myself:
‘I’ve got Multiple Sclerosis. It affects my walking and my balance.’
A profusion of apologies then ensued. They had clearly got it wrong and I wasn’t an early morning drinker. Perhaps they were now concerned I would take some disciplinary action through the University. Of course, I wasn’t about to do that. After all, I’m a facilities guy as well.
But that was a day of revelation. It was clear that I was making a bad job of disguising my situation. I would have to go public. More than that, I would have to start using a device to tell the world I was not drunk. Rather than use a stick I opted for the more robust option of a rollator (a wheeled version of the Zimmer frame). Within six months I would have to succumb to using a wheelchair.
I thought I knew something about facilities management. I’d written numerous books, edited various journals and written many academic papers over the years. Dealing with my disability in the workplace had changed everything. It was no longer a technical challenge, nor was it a management one. Instead, understanding the societal aspects of FM had become my own personal challenge.
We talk about understanding the user. In reality, users are far from being a homogenous crowd. Like culture, the health of workplace employees is variable, often hidden and inconstant. The ageing workplace further amplifies this complexity. On reflection, I welcomed the opportunity to engage with the security staff. In that interaction they learned to share my struggle.