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Not the workshop I crashed at

“Practitioner Impairment” – When does a Graphic Recorder / Visual Facilitator become unfit for duty?

When does a visual practitioner become impaired to the point of being unfit for duty?

Here’s a matter of ethics.

Nobody wants to be treated by a physician with “physician impairment.” A doctor in a compromised physical and/or mental state won’t be able to treat his/her patients safely and competently. Certainly not a good idea in situations of life and death. In professions like these, it’s critical that people who can’t handle the work well enough (even if temporarily) are taken off the job until their impairment lifts.

In our visual practice field, the question isn’t whether a visual practitioner (graphic recorder or visual facilitator) can become “impaired.” But rather, when does a visual practitioner become impaired to the point of being unfit for duty?

My experience

Not so long ago, I underwent an operation to drain an abscess. Thank God, I had the best hospital care. Apart from regular dressing changes (still ongoing), there really wasn’t anything on paper that would stop me from getting back to work.

Except that I was feeling sluggish post-operation. A month after the minor operation, I graphic recorded for a day and crashed for most of the following week. By the time I was on a taxi home from assignment, I was consecutively giving the driver the wrong directions. Alarm bells, then five days’ rest to recover.

The fortnight later, a most divine miracle happened. I had the stamina to design and run a two-day workshop where I was teaching visual facilitation. It was a marked improvement from my last post-operative outing. But by the end of Day 2 and in the post-workshop follow-up, I wondered if my presence of mind had slowly slipped. Then I faltered.

I would like to say that “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” But sometimes I wonder whether it was just the flesh. For someone who used to work back-to-back assignments (sometimes happening in two different countries), I was craving more rest than I imagined I’d need. Was it the long medical leave that had sapped my energy? Or, am I simply being too harsh in wanting to sprint through recovery?

It was around the same time that a well-established visual practitioner from Australia thought he’d broken his neck. Just as he was getting back to work, he dislocated a finger on his dominant (read: drawing) hand. If I were to summarise his testimony, it was that life is more than work, and self-care is important. Ironically, as an extension of this, I began to question my calling into this field.

Inclusive or Impaired?

In recent years HR has talked so much about building inclusive workplaces. “Turn disability into ability,” they say. You can have a blind coder, no problem. You can have Olympians who happen to be Paralympians (they are celebrated). However, you won’t question whether these people are capable of their jobs. Instead, we gladly rejoice that they have risen to the top of their fields.

Then somewhere in between (a) this ability-centric mindset and (b) the need to jealously guard against “impairment” conflate. But you can only be included insofar as your disability does not impair faculties needed for the work.

Visual practice calls your whole being into action. You hear with your ears, see with your eyes, think with your brain, write and draw with your hand(s). You’re on your feet. Your spirit and soul sense and make sense of the dynamics. Compromising any of these impairs your ability to deliver. At some point, the compromise crosses the proverbial line, rendering us less than ideal vessels for drawing out the big picture.

Ironically, even though our work helps create inclusive and collaborative meetings, it can be exclusionary. Maybe we can live with that aching shoulder, but it’ll give way at some point if we persist. We can work extended hours – but perhaps we won’t quite be paying the needed attention?

If we were physicians, we’d have a responsibility to personally own up or call out impaired physicians in our midst. When is the equivalent moment-of-truth for a visual practitioner?