(This is a repost from 3 December 2013)
Imagine that it’s Tuesday, the one day a week where I am lucky enough to attend an Advanced Nonfiction class at Victoria University (VU), and I’m psyched! I don’t have to worry about air-borne fragrances or solvent-based particles from spray deodorants or solvent-fragrance based hairsprays contaminating the classroom air. I don’t have to worry about having to leave the class due to symptoms bought on by breathing in fragrances that other students may have used. I don’t have to worry about the molecules of these toxins sticking to my hair and clothes, making me sicker later on. And I don’t have to worry about sitting in class while wearing my mask and not even knowing if there are solvent or fragrance chemicals emitting from other students into the air of the room (My sense of smell is virtually blindfolded by the 3M mask that I sometimes have to wear to protect my health… If it wasn’t impeding on the ability of my olfactory sense, then sure, I’d be able to breathe it in and smell it, thus warning myself, but not before getting chronically ill. Sometimes for days.).
(Just so we are clear, you know it’s breathing in these chemicals that cause symptoms, not the actual ‘smell’, yes? Of course you do! Silly me for even asking that. Next time, I’ll ask it rhetorically.)
Imagine being chemically sensitive to solvents, fragrance chemicals and the petrochemicals used as ingredients during the manufacture of designer fragrances, the el-cheapo imitations, and in popular deodorants (like Lynx, and Mum), and getting to go into class each week, safe in the knowledge that (retrospectively) 94% of the time)) people will have made the effort to go free of these products? (Sure the air may smell of scents, due to shampoos, conditioners and roll-on deodorants; and it may even be floating with notes of patchouli and jasmine from products containing essential oils because in our requests to get people to go fragrance free it has been explicitly expressed that it’s preferable for them to use products that contain natural ingredients. I know this is not an ideal situation for some chemically sensitive people but for me, it totally was! An essential oil could never impact on my health in the same way as a spray on fragrance does.)
Imagine that there is a notice in the Student Handbook explaining that some students are sensitive to chemicals and that there are some classes where people will be reminded to be ‘mindful’ of certain chemical-based products.
Imagine the teacher sending out an email the day before to remind the rest of the class to consider my need to breathe air unhindered? Sure, I could wear my mask for the whole class but as many chemically sensitive and immune compromised people know, there are a few problems with this: firstly, the lack of oxygen is not conducive to learning, thinking or contributing to discussion; secondly, there is the limited ability to show facial expressions, therefore, causing a hindrance in communication (not for everyone, a few people, mostly teachers, see past the mask and talk to me as if I am the same as everyone else); thirdly, and most importantly, it can be dangerous in that if there is a lot of fragrance in the room, it then gets on my hair, skin and clothes, and sometimes into the tear ducts of my eyes, but additional to that, if I sit in the room for the whole class, then leave and remove my mask, I become chronically ill due to solvents, petrochemicals and fragrance chemicals being all over me and in my airways. And lastly, what some of you may not know, and I’ve only just recently found this out from the Disability Discrimination Legal Service (DDLS) myself, is that wearing the mask is actually a forced impediment! I have a right to go to class and not wear a mask, just like everyone else. That’s on top of the law that states that it’s Indirect Discrimination to not be able to access the class (or any other area where people have equal access) due to air-borne fragrances.
Imagine the cleaning staff changing to using fragrance free products in the buildings that I use. (Perfume-free Library room and building 10.) And that they are doing this with the intention to change to using fragrance free products in the rest of the university when the other products run out. (Their theory behind this: the chance of fragrance free products impacting on other students health is almost none, the chance of fragrance chemicals impacting on more students health is higher.
Imagine they do the same with the hand soap in the toilets. (You see even if a student comes to school fragrance free, they won’t stay that way if they wash their hands in the bathroom unless the soap they use is fragrance free.)
(Note: Staff at VU have worked every corner of the boxing ring to accommodate and include me in the classes and lectures; and I’ve never had to use the ‘discrimination’ card to force them to fit me in. (I do know that they’ve injected the word ‘discrimination’ right into the main vein of bureaucracy via communications between various departments. All in the name of making shit happen! It’s like they know that I belong there. I really feel like that! Okay, there was this one teacher… but I’m not going to go there, today. This post is about being thankful!)
Imagine how I felt as I went to class, attending to my studies just like everyone else? At times I felt a tad guilty about the trouble people were going too. But do you know what I found? That speaking out about fragrance chemicals and their effects, gives others permission to do the same. No one wants to be a troublemaker. No one wants to complain—or seem to be complaining—about what products people use. No one wants to be seen to be different (for the wrong reasons).
Towards the middle of the last semester, a text went out asking people to be mindful about all staff and students who suffer health problems from these products. And it said that all classes are fragrance free!
I’ve already expressed how much I feel like I belong in this particular learning institution. So much, that I feel as if my experience and my illness have taught others; but more even more so, it’s taught me that that anxiety I feel in the pit of my stomach right before I speak up about the ‘fragrance issue’, that anxiety is a tool. A tool that I can tap into to help facilitate a positive outcome—for me, and/or for others. It could also be a tool that I use to run, hide, squirrel myself into isolation. But no, I use this ‘anxiety’ to spur me on…
Imagine going to class each week and finding that that anxiety has faded into the background. Sometimes mildly humming back there, ready to remind me to remind people of the boundaries. Imagine it just hangs out on the peripheral of my attention, letting me focus on my studies, 100 percent.
Imagine going to class each week and finding—knowing that there is an air-purifier in the room that a teacher or security staff member has kindly, turned on an hour previously. Imagine that Victoria University Disability Services (VUDS) decide to put the air-purifier onto a timer, just to make sure it goes on at the right time.
Now, imagine they put a sign on the classroom door, reminding others that the room is fragrance free and that toxic chemicals contained in personal care products can and do cause and exacerbate symptoms in people who have asthma, chemical sensitivities and those who have immune disorders, and to please refrain from wearing them? Imagine they source that sign themselves, via the Allergy, Environmental Sensitivity and Support Research Association (AESSRA) website, printing and laminating it, placing it up around the building: in the main office and the two low-toxic classrooms.
Imagine that the Professional Writing and Editing Coordinator, along with my help, drafts up a bullet point list of reasons why students could refrain from wearing certain products; what happens to me if I breathe them in (in the short term) and what happens to me if I breathe them in (over the long term); what they could use instead; and of what benefit it would be to them and others if they could do that.
Imagine how validating that would feel…
Imagine VUDs loans out an iPad to me so that I can minimise my exposure to breathing in petrochemicals from the inks in books and on pages. Imagine the possibilities for utilising this as a learning tool? I can take photos of the notes on the board. And I can use it to photograph documents like class room handouts. This way I don’t have to air them later; or curse when the wind blows them away or they get rained on while out airing. OMG, and the books! And the newspapers I can read on it!!!
Imagine one of my amazing teachers goes to the trouble of putting printed material behind plastic for me?
I know, it’s probably a dream, yes?
No, it’s reality.
(And can I just point out that lately my health has been impacted less by printed ink? It’s been a few months since I opened the mail, breathing in ink fumes that are so toxic to my system that just the exposure to the petrochemicals wipes me out for the rest of the day. I still air my mail. Still take precautions. But I’m not suffering such intense symptoms with printed material. (Glossy magazines. Not so lucky. Massive headaches. Small steps, small steps… I’ll get out of here!)
Now, imagine that it’s the end of the last Semester and that I’m two subjects away from owning my Diploma in Professional Writing and Editing. Owning. My. Diploma. Me? Imagine the buzz radiating within. How awesome would that be?
Now imagine that the weekly email that goes out to the students before classes no longer asks people to remember to accommodate me, Michellina van Loder. No, it asks that students please refrain from wearing chemicals so VU can accommodate all the students who suffer with this problem…
Imagine that all the anxiety and fear that’s been eating away at me as I collaborate with people to get my needs met, imagine it’s all been worth it. Imagine that it gave others permission to speak up. Others who suffer asthma, headaches, allergies and many conditions that flare when the person is forced to breathe in fragrance chemicals for hours on end.
Imagine this, my reality…
You see for me, this is a really lucky thing, for I don’t have a great support network of friends and family who will go fragrance free for me. Some will go without it for a visit or two. But these people are never really fragrance free because using fragrance is a daily thing for them. The scent is on every piece of clothing or furniture they own, so although it may give me only a slight headache being with them for a few hours, it’s not a pleasant experience. I guess theirs an element of respect, disrespect rather, that I try not to take personally. But alas… It’s in their cars. It’s everywhere, so even when they try their version of going fragrance, aftershave, perfume, scented-face cream, hair-gel free (they don’t use XYZ for a day), it’s still a problem.
I’m grateful for the few who don’t wear it, won’t wear it throughout their day to day lives.
So this sense of belonging I feel when it comes to attending classes and being a part of VU, it’s an important and valid part of my identity: a student, a writer, a poet, a professional blogger. It’s all wrapped up, right there!
Fragrance is the opposite of a social lubricant; it’s an emollient that rusts away, seizing up all working parts until things are just fucked. And each time you have a discussion with someone who doesn’t want to go without wearing fragrance, the talking—however gentle the persuasion is—causes friction over time. And that there, the resistance, is the rusty beginning of a solid relationship turning into a wasteland of broken hearts and hurt feelings.
But it’s really great that I have this, and I’m so grateful to the staff and students at VU who are up to speed on this issue. Now, we just need the rest of Australia to catch up!
AESSRA’s ‘Thank You for Not Wearing Fragrance Sign that I used for my classes at Victoria University