The Thread: Challenges in Employment
Occasionally, we like to share some of the content of our rich electronic community of DO-IT Scholars, Pals, Ambassadors, and Mentors. Scholars and Pals are still in high school. Ambassadors are people who were once DO-IT Scholars but have now moved on to college and/or employment and support the younger Scholars. Mentors are adults who volunteer their time to support the DO-IT Scholars, Pals, and Ambassadors, primarily through e-mail discussions.
Below are some of the responses to a recent question posed by a Phase I Scholar: "What was the biggest challenge that any of you have faced in employment? How did you meet or overcome the challenge?" I had to make a few minor edits, mostly to shorten the response to fit into an article of reasonable length.
- From a Mentor who has a mobility impairment: There is an ebb and flow, a rhythm, to work. Some days you have enough energy to take on the world; some days all you want is a pillow. Some days you feel like Einstein; some days ya don't (anyone else about to say "Almond Joy has Nuts, Mounds don't"?). Keeping this rhythm at a reasonable level in regards to work productivity is tricky enough WITHOUT a disability. Factor in levels of pain, fatigue, focus, etc... and how those things interact with work, and whammo! things can get a lot more difficult to manage. I find it is important for me to watch my emotional and physical levels. Sometimes I need to go home, grab a drink, some really easy food to cook, hit the couch, and stare at the TV for a night. I may need to be sure to lay a certain way, support a certain joint, etc... In other words, sometimes it's your brain that needs to shut down, sometimes it's your body, sometimes it's both.
Recently I have discovered, though, that you can do the above too much and get into a rut. You usually know you're in one when your life becomes sleeping and working-and nothing else. I find that occasionally, even if I'm tired, I need to make myself go out with friends, hear music, go to a movie, dancing, whatever. DO SOMETHING to revitalize the spark. There are a few friends in my life who basically have this role- and I've told em' that!
- From a Mentor who is blind: Hi all, I think one of the biggest challenges I have ever faced at work was making the technology accessible with speech. On my most recent teams, I have had to use software that could not be easily accessed using speech output and the keyboard. Among the least accessible programs was used to log calls. To resolve this, the Commission for the Blind hired a programmer to come in and check out the software. His duty was to determine if there was a way to make the program accessible. He was able to program the speech software so it would read all the text boxes in the call-tracking software.
- From an Ambassador who is blind: Well, my answer has a bit of a funny spin on it. I'll start off by saying that I'm completely blind. I got my degree in biology, but turned artist in a pretty serious way during college and it's only become more intense. Art is the thing I love and that I know I am supposed to be doing, so in hunting for a job I wanted something that would give me flexible hours, that I wouldn't have to take home, that might allow me to work later in the day so that I could stay up drawing at night, etc. I thought a bookstore or coffee shop would be nice, but much much easier said than done. I actually applied to several coffee shops during that time and found, for example, that my ability to do math in my head and on an abacus was essentially made obsolete by their fancy touch screen inventory computers. And as for a bookstore, I love books, read tons of them, but couldn't actually stalk shelves and all that so I didn't even try. There eventually was a solution. I became a Mary Kay consultant. I control my hours, get to interact with people, can make it a career if I want and not if I want, and still have much time for art.
- From a Mentor with a learning disability: My biggest challenge was finding the courage to stand up and say, "I really am an artist; I really am a writer. And that really is what I'm going to do." For me, employment is not only a matter of finding work that inspires me, but also work that provides me with the freedom to pursue my love for creation. It hasn't been easy. At middle age I completed a degree in English at the University of Washington, thanks to financial aid. I'm not working now, not in the conventional sense, but I've been lucky to have met people who understand what it is I do, and believe in it. I'm looking for work. It has been a disheartening experience, to find people will not hire me based on their stereotypical heuristics. They see my age, not my intelligence, my creativity, my strength. But I've never been one to let a little thing like insurmountable odds stop me. ;) Still, ahead of me are some frightening changes I've never faced, but whatever comes next, I can stand straight, and walk into my future knowing who and what I am. It will be a continuing challenge in a nation where cleverness is valued over intellectualism, where the concrete and the material are valued over the aesthetic and the spiritual, where brute force is more common than creative force. But then, life would be sooooo dull and flat without challenges, don't you think?
- From a DO-IT Ambassador with mobility and speech impairments: Hello. I work out of my house as a Remote Troubleshooter for an assistive technology company. I do their technical service calls about their 5 different communication devices they manufacture. I have been doing this for about two and a half years already. I use a communication device to communicate with. Since the majority of our customers have disabilities, too, being helped by me offers them some hope for themselves to get an education, a job, or both. Before this job, I worked at a library which I loved and was very good at. When they had a job opening, I applied for it, but I didn't get it because I feel and they thought I did my work somewhat slower than the others. Another point I would like to make is that I'm beginning to believe that some employers believe that the government is going to take care of us no matter what because of our disabilities, so why do we need to draw a wage? They're more interested in giving that money to somebody who the government isn't required to support. I know that some of us do need the government's help with medical costs that we couldn't otherwise pay without going into major debt, and to me the government is disabling us that way. I would honestly like to see the government try to make a program just for medical and attendant costs for those of us who can work, but just need help paying for wheelchairs, attendant care, and other medical things. It wouldn't only be helping us, it would also save the government tons of money by keeping people with disabilities working.
- From a Mentor who is blind: I have been in the working world for almost two years now, all with the same agency. My biggest challenge has been to stand up for what I believe is right, even though that meant undoing a lot of work that had been done before my arrival and did not reflect well at all on the colleague who had been heading the project I was working on. I was asked to evaluate a methodology that that colleague had been working on for five years and for which he had received a lot of funding. When I discovered that the methodology did not produce the desired results, I immediately realized that my results would have a significant influence on the fate of this long-term project, and that my results would require me to say some negative things about my colleague's work. After learning as much about the method as I could and double-checking my results in various ways, I finally decided to tell my supervisors what I had learned and recommend that the method not be pursued any further. My supervisors turned out to be very supportive of my results and conclusions, and after a few more weeks of discussions, they asked my colleague to discontinue working on his method. So, dealing with the unexpected amount of responsibility I had was my biggest challenge, and I found that I had to do everything I could to learn as much about the topic as possible, objectively evaluate the situation, discuss the situation with colleagues knowledgeable on the subject, and then trust in my ability to draw reasonable conclusions, even if those conclusions may not be what either I or others were expecting.
- From a Mentor with mobility and speech impairments: I had an interesting conversation with my supervisor about an internship I have at a nonprofit organization. After I got to know her better, I asked her whether she was hesitant about hiring someone with a disability and she was very honest in her response. She said that she was hesitant about it because she was afraid that hiring someone with a disability would somehow make more work for her. She was afraid that she would have to intermediate between me and the rest of the staff, and that she would have to supervise me closer than the other interns.
- From a Mentor who is blind: Being open about my disability (blindness) and up front about the accommodations I need has worked well for me. At the recommendation of my thesis adviser, I attached a brief "personal statement" to my post-doctoral fellowship applications, in which I described the alternative techniques I use to get the job done. I don't know if it helped alleviate any fears, but I suspect it at least answered some questions, and it certainly didn't hurt.
- From a Mentor with a mobility impairment: It is very important to promote yourself as a qualified individual who would add great value to the company. You should practice interviewing and dress professionally. If your disability is visible, discuss issues frankly and how you have overcome barriers and limitations. Discuss any accommodations that you will bring. You may also want to ask your interviewer if he or she has additional questions or concerns. Remember to smile!
It is important to note that it is difficult for everyone to find his or her first job. Try not to assume your disability is what was the underlying reason you did not get the job. During school, try to get experience to put on your resume such as internships and volunteer opportunities. Summer jobs are good, too. I got my first job from my professor because he was impressed with my ability. You might want to start networking even while in college. Your professors and guidance center may be a good connection.
Issues will not stop at obtaining a position. Afterwards, you may need to prove yourself to your co-workers. This happens for all employees not just an employee with a disability. However, I have noticed that sometimes it is more important for a person with a disability. I work with many consumers and customers which is face-to-face interaction. I noticed some people have no difficulty accepting me as an equal. However, it is difficult for others. The best thing is to put someone at ease by showing your skills or talking to them in a friendly manner. Try not to take anything to heart as it is many times a lack of understanding or exposure to person with a disability.
Other issues that are struggling are not directly related to my position. The problems are PCA staffing, the extra energy it takes, transportation, and medical issues. Your personal life will play a part in your ability to effectively complete your job.
When starting a new job, try to figure out what type of accommodations would assist you on the job. If you do not have ideas or experience problems right away, contact your vocational counselor about a on-site job analysis and assessment. I made a mistake of not doing this and ending up doing a patch technology job. Extremely frustrating! I even work in the area of assessment and assistive technology. I preach about accommodations but did not do it for myself. Make sure that you receive training with your accommodations as others may have ideas that you have not considered and without training, it will become less of a benefit. Your employer may purchase the items also. If transportation or getting to work are issues, make sure that you have the same equipment at home. I did not do this until later and got behind on projects.
You may want to talk with your supervisor after several weeks. Discuss your job performance and any problems that have occurred. It is important to be proactive. If you feel that you are not being accepted at work, try bringing treats one morning and introducing yourself.
- From a Mentor with a mobility impairment: My biggest challenge has been the day-to-day grind! I am a quad in a motorized chair and currently have six part-time attendants that assist me. I have worked for thirty years at a university and hope to put in a few more before I'm hauled out of here. But, getting up and driving to work everyday is a 2.5 hour adventure fraught with intrigue and disaster at every turn (late attendants, bowel program miscues, vomiting cats, you name it!). I refer to myself as a cottage industry, employing more staff to get me to work and help me live independently than I actually supervise at my job site. Trying to work a life into this endeavor is not easy but as was already mentioned, still pretty crucial to sanity and one's well being. Because of the rigors of this challenge, it has left me with little energy or time to focus on career development. When I started work, there were so few employers willing to hire disabled individuals- I sort of put all my energy into being successful in the setting I was in rather than looking around at potential opportunities elsewhere. I believe it might be better now and certainly hope that it is!
- From a Mentor with a mobility impairment: I personally have no experience working. I missed my chance at co-op this summer because of health reasons. But my work study job was the pits. The person I worked for told me what to do then complained because I couldn't set up appointments with her every day to discuss what was going on. I had classes and physical therapy appointments to work around and she was hardly ever in when I was free. So she really destroyed my confidence in what I was supposed to do.
- From a Mentor who is deaf: It sounds as if this supervisor was hardly fit to work with you. I encourage you to find other people who have a better talent for working with people.
- From an Ambassador with a mobility impairment: My experience with work thus far is that, thankfully, most of my employers have been very willing to work both with me and on my behalf to ensure that my employment experience is a successful one. The main challenge that has been giving me a little headache is with Social Security which labels my status as unemployable because of my disability. The situation got to a point that every time I was paid at work, Social Security Administration required me to send my paystub for the paycheck I earned so they could deduct that same amount from SSI payment for the month. Both my sister, my payee representative, and I were getting really troubled by the entire situation, and after finding out that the person who was responsible for handling my case at the Social Security Office was doing lets say a somewhat less than satisfactory job with my case, I asked around and obtained all the names and phone numbers of everybody who was handling my case in every department I could think of...
With the assistance of a social worker at my out patient therapy clinic, I found the name and number of my DDD case manager and left message after message until I was able to talk to her and schedule a meeting. Through meetings with my case manager, my sister, and myself, I learned that Social Security only allows an individual with a disability to work for so many hours and still qualify for monthly SSI. With the help of my case manager, I was able to submit a request for an extension of hours to work and I was also informed of a new program that DDD is implementing through their department that will allow clients more flexibility with their work hours. My case manager met with the person in charge of this new program on my behalf and e-mailed me his phone number and e-mail address right after she met with me. That is where I am with being employed.
When it comes to getting over challenges in employment, it is best to get all the information on why or why not some things work and others don't.
- From a Scholar with a mobility impairment: I am currently interning at the juvenile justice center in my area and let me tell you, it was hard to find an employer in the legal field who was willing to take me on. I find that persistence and presentation are two things that have really helped me. Keep in contact with potential employers and you'll be noticed for your enthusiasm, thus your more likely to get an interview. (The company may meet with you just so you'll stop calling!) Then once you get in the door, wow them with your skills and knowledge and you will have a good chance at getting the job.