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Saying no: What disabled entrepreneurship looks like to me

Scribbling in bed surrounded by hard drives, devices, notebooks, chocolate, and Albi my purple dragon (pictured for reference), is what work looks like for me.

When the pandemic hit and we all started working from home, work became far more accessible to me as a chronic illness patient. My energy, mobility, and diet are limited. Getting dressed, commuting, eating food from Celiac-unsafe kitchens in my pre-pandemic work life were all tolls on my productivity. But in March 2020, that all changed when my energy-sapping daily office routine disintegrated.

It may not seem like the most strenuous thing to put on pants, stick in contacts lenses, and shimmy into work, but when your head needs you to lie down randomly throughout the day, when your belly insists you work horizontally in very loose pants, when your body temperature condemns you to commandeer the air conditioning, when your guts demand the toilet and demand it for a while, working from home and doing away with office-related faffing suddenly makes doing your job a million times easier.

I started my design business at a time when I was too weak to get out of bed, but Covid life had made bed-based businesses possible. No one was meeting anyone. Everything was online. It was no longer weird for me to request virtual meetings or turn down coffee chats. I sold my art on Society6, flaunted my wares on Instagram, garnered clients on Facebook, and sealed deals on WhatsApp. With full control over what the world saw of me through my online presence, I felt liberated and able to dictate my actions without fear of people thinking I was lazy, unprofessional, or just too disabled to invest in as a contractor, partner, or employee.

As I’m recovering and inching bit by bit outside of my bedroom, I’m feeling the creeping pressure to look busy again, especially when I tell people “no.” When I turn down a meet-up, an underpaying commission, or a partnership, I feel like I have to prove that I really am too sick, too out-of-pocket, or too booked-up.

Obviously, I can technically say “yes” and “no” to whatever I want. Obviously, duh. Technically, ugh. But I think women, artists, entrepreneurs, and the dreaded intersectional nightmare of women artist entrepreneurs deal with so much backlash that it starts to feel like we can’t say “no”, or if we do, we better have a damn good reason for being so uncooperative, unhelpful, and unpleasant.

“When a man says no, it's the end of the discussion. When a woman says no, it's the start of a negotiation." I read that in Gavin De Becker’s book The Gift of Fear as a sophomore running the blog at my college newspaper. A senior I did not know had bombarded me via email and my personal Facebook account because he wanted me to run an article advertising some jumpers he was selling. I told him we didn’t publish content like that. So he came back and told me, the editor, I was wrong. Eventually, he emailed my managing editor, and The Men™ sorted it out. My managing editor said, “no”; Jumper Guy left me alone; I reverted to my real work in lieu of inane email-sparring. I hated that it only got resolved because my dude boss had to don his “ally hat”. I hated that Jumper Guy backed off after one sentence from my editor but persisted after paragraphs from me. I still think about how much time I still waste because people think that they can argue the five-foot arty girl out of her “no.”

Gabor Maté writes in When the Body Says No that, “When we have been prevented from learning how to say no, our bodies may end up saying it for us.” What he means here is that at some point, your body shuts down if your brain doesn’t set boundaries. I’ve spent the past decade collecting autoimmune diseases and chronic fatigue syndrome, because I’ve been more preoccupied with being accommodating than healthy. You get where I’m going with this. My mind never told my mouth to say no, so my body took matters into its own hands, and now I’m riddled with various chronic lurgies. Maybe not a surefire causation, but read Maté’s book and you’ll agree there’s logic to it.

Only now as I’ve been working by and for myself without the backing of an editor, line manager, or ally-in-shining-armour have I had to sink or swim… Before when I didn’t say no at work, I could fall back on a colleague or superior to help me out. Now it’s just me with zero team and many examples of how being accommodating has led to autoimmune relapses.

The key I’ve found to eschewing guilt and obligation when saying no is to have the right language. I find that good advice tells you not only what to do but also how to do it, and through great mentors and coaches, I’m building a phrasebook of polite, professional rejections. And here’s the kicker, the phrasebook is short. There are five sentences or so in there. It’s more of a pamphlet. The pithier I am, the more effective I am.

Whereas before, like with Jumper Guy, I’d deliver an apologetic explanation as to why I couldn’t accommodate a request, now I know I can just say, “What you’re doing sounds exciting, but I can’t take that on.” Before, if I was asked to do something that I didn’t want to do, I felt like I had to offer up an alternative, “Sorry, I can’t do x, but let me have a think and I’ll try to do y”, or “Sorry, I can’t do that now but maybe next month?” Pathetic, right? A good tip I have in the phrasebook now is to turn “sorries” into “thank yous” — “Thanks for thinking of me,” for instance . Then, I throw in a “I don’t have the bandwidth right now.” It is amazing how much time I save.

Sometimes it doesn’t work. I’ve learned that a lot of fresh-out-of-college guys treat women like caregivers, even in professional settings — and by that, I mean they expect a mother and a secretary. I’ve turned down peanuts-paying commissions only to be asked to find someone else to do the work instead, do the work when I find free time, or do the work but they’ll find someone else to “colour it in”. All entitled faux-pas. I am 100% confident they would not ask this sort of stuff of a man in the same position. It calls to mind this other quote from Gavin de Becker, “If you tell someone ten times that you don't want to talk to him, you are talking to them — nine more times than you wanted to.” So how do you get them to shhhhh?

Be boring. Repeat your message. Stagnate that conversation. I used to feel uncomfortable with and responsible for silences so I’d fill them with blubbering “okay well how abouts” and “let me see if I cans.” I’m quoting Kim Scott quoting Georgia O’Keeffe in Radical Candor:It is only by selection, by elimination, and by emphasis that we get at the real meaning of things.” The fewer messages you project, the clearer your overall message. Therefore, by diluting my “nos” with excuses, accommodations, and explanations, I was only confusing the situation. No one had any idea if I was willing to to help or not because I would say no then offer help? What?!

I’m no expert yet on saying no and, sometimes I still feel guilty or obligated to stretch myself, to deny myself free time, to overexert myself so that people think I’m hard-working, responsible, or good at my job. But I’m so done with experiences health relapses that very little can persuade me fret over rejections now. And the best part of saying no is that once you start doing it, you realise that very few people hate you for it. All the resentment and blacklisting I imagined would happen to me if I turned people down hasn’t happened. In fact, saying no has made people mess with me less. I feel more entitled to my bed of books, and chocolate, and plushies. I feel more able to channel the limited energy I have to being not only an entrepreneur, but also a disabled person without a point to prove or axe to grind.


Notes and reading list

Thanks for reading. I see a lot of self care posts and LinkedIn discussions about burning the midnight oil, especially in your 20s to “get ahead”. While I understand the arguments put forth for hustle culture and even spent my early 20s wholly engaged in it, it is now not only an inaccessible, but also an unnecessary lifestyle to me. These are just the opinions of one disabled person with one set of limitations. However, I’ve found that upholding boundaries has only made me a more productive worker with healthier body housing a more strategic mind with a better mood. If you'd like to read any of the books mentioned in this blog post, here’s a list of their full titles and authors. Please consider buying from a local or independent bookseller.

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