Employment: A Group Effort and an Attitudinal Shift May Be Required

Hello All,

Welcome to Week 2 in my Series on Disability. This time I’m talking about Employment. Don’t know if you’ve heard much about the job market prospects for people with disabilities but the numbers do not lie, it’s pretty low.

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While I’ve been gainfully employed since I was sixteen years old, it’s only because of the programs that were in place to ensure diversity and inclusion for all in the employment sector.

Did you see/hear what I said, programs in place? The sad reality is, many a person with a disability has been given the opportunity to work simply because there was a federal mandate to make it happen. I wish employers did things on their own and some are, NOW, but that wasn’t the case when I was coming up.

And truthfully, that’s what worries me most about turning over everything to the states so they could “govern themselves”. Well, what are national policies for? To help bring you to another’s way of thinking. Tangent alert: Forget about the fact that many states would run out of money leaving many of us out in the cold but it’s a lot of federal mandates that have made us as inclusive as we are, for some reason we can’t seem to get there on our own. We need a higher standard to pull and push (and incentive) employer behavior and open up the offering letters and doors to groups of people they would otherwise overlook. And though there are mandates and “programs”, sometimes that still (numbers show) does not seem to be enough to bleed more into private sector jobs.

Alas, I’m not really here to talk about politics so much, what I wanted to address was the two sets (really three) of people and groups involved in helping more people with disabilities get and KEEP gainful employment! I wanted to outline what each of us (whatever group you are in) SHOULD be doing to make it happen.

Here are my three “sets” or groups of folks:

  1. Employers / Small business owners – that’s ANY kind of business large or small, public/private/federal that is in a position to make a hiring decision
  2. Services Providers and Parents of youth and young adults with Disabilities
  3. I added a group just last night as I was thinking about this post, to separate doctors/medical health professionals from general service providers, and finally, the last group but equally important are
  4. YOU/ME as people with disabilities and our approach to employment opportunity and employer
Employers / Small Business Owners
It’s pretty simple, or it seems to be, but if you say that people with disabilities aren’t “out there” you need to think about where you are looking.  That’s like saying that all the Deaf people didn’t heed any flood and recent hurricane warnings and all you did was put the information the radio. Really, get with organizations that serve these folks and ensure you are putting information the right place.
Expand Your Search Pool – If you are in a position to hire, you should see if there is someone in the pool of applicants with disabilities that can do what you need. I’m not saying to overlook any other qualified person, I’m simply encouraging to expand where you look and your own prejudice you bring to what you believe people with disabilities can do. You can call the nonprofits and other service professionals directly and you can say simply: “I’d like to
Keep an Open MindIt’s important those that in a position to hire, challenge their own notions. This may be related to the chronically ill person you knew as a kid and the equipment and help you may have seen administered to them by others but you can’t allow yourself to then blanket the abilities of every single person with a disability that you meet. And admitted or not, this is what happens. You’ve been watching too much television that’s really met to dramatize and entertain. I mean the movies are FULL of inaccuracies about our abilities. Sure they do good at portraying the way we get around and even how we may feel and act, but they fall short in depicting us in more realistic situations and further fail to show how much technology has played in our lives to help us be more active and adapt to any potential working environment. A movie is but a snippet of life, not the totality of who we are and should be viewed like we view our astrological readings in magazines and papers: “For entertainment purposes only.”
Ask the Applicant I worked at a daycare center in my 20’s. When I went for the interview I was nervous, I knew already that I would have to be put with the “big kids”, and everyone wants the big kids, they are the oldest group in the center that could move out of the way, take instruction and walk of their own recognizance. I couldn’t lift any kids and I couldn’t have grubby little hands reaching for my wheelchair console and taking out the ten other elementary pupils on my first day.
I’m thankful for the employer then that simply came out and said, “We do have concerns about your wheelchair but you seem to be pretty efficient with that thing…” – I didn’t tell her my wheelchair has a name and I love it very much and I never ever refer to it as “that thing” – but alas didn’t seem professional or relevant to reveal this at the time – but they came out and asked and I had a ready answer. Whatever I said, the most important thing was going to be for me to portray an air of confidence and to allay her concerns about the ultimate safety and well-being of the children she was in charge of for the better part of the days. I didn’t think I’d run over any little person, visions of myself on the local evening news with Lester Holt might have come to my mind but I didn’t tell her that, but regardless of my active imagination, I was still certain I could plan a few activities, give instruction, have an authoritative voice, and hand out Cheeze-Its and apple slices with the best of them. I could also caution kids against playing with my equipment and other things that were important. I was hired on the spot and it was awesome. I loved my classroom and my kids. The only thing that kept me from working longer than the two years I was there was the constant germ thing called Strep. I was sick every other month but I tried and it was great while it lasted. Yes, part of acing the interview was about my lovely disposition but I’ve been in situations where that doesn’t always work and so it was our collective response to one another that I credit as the reason for both our successes.
I’m forever grateful to the employer that saw past what she may felt were a kind of limitation, and not only a limitation but what she saw as a possible danger just because of the vital assistive technology I use, and gave me a job anyway. She didn’t dismiss me thinking this would be impossible, dangerous and this was twenty years ago, mind you. I got a chance because of someone’s open mind and that’s more than half the battle.
Next, regarding employers, one of the biggest hurdles I see, especially in the federal sector is a supervisor so stringent on governing their small group of subordinates that they pull teleworking completely off the table. If your concern is that people won’t work when they are home, you can keep that concern because it happens even when people are AT work. Sorry. Holidays are coming up too? 🙂 Good luck.
For us, the ability to telework would up the unemployment numbers for people with disabilities tremendously. I’ll never understand any supervisors view that telework is somehow a detriment. I would beg that you’d have a more happier, productive workforce if you only tried. You need to take a power chill pill.
I am aware that certain jobs do not permit teleworking but I’m also not talking about teleworking everyday, I’m  talking even one to two days a week of telework would reduce so much stress on capable folks that simply need a break from sitting up in our  wheelchairs all day to being able to wear more comfortable clothing to reducing migraines and headaches if they could simply control the fumes, light, and noise as they would in their own home environment.
Side note: Those of you that frown on teleworking by people with disabilities as a reasonable accommodation, may have issues. If you are not disabled, you will never understand what someone who may need assistance, whether mental or physical support – goes through in order to get ready for their day.
Chronic issues are very real, so are pressure sores (which can lead to death-it’s happened) and migraines and bouts of depression, mental breakdowns and etc., and anyone who is further fleecing the government by goofing off at home will be found out through their productivity levels and work output or lack thereof.
Lastly, those of us dependent on physical or mental health support rely on others and sometimes they are not always available. If my caregiver is late or can’t come to work that day, I have a backup but what if a back up isn’t available? I’m very fortunate, I have a close family member that can assist me at any time if they are also NOT out of town. But that’s not the case for many. We are dependent on others, its not simple, it’s a complex network of folks and a very coordinated effort to get up and get going. If my aide doesn’t show up, I don’t just suffer through and get myself dressed and make it happen. I lie in bed, waiting and often praying for the availability of someone else, all the while on the phone calling and texting and once in my life, calling a stranger I don’t know and haven’t vetted from an agency to come in and assist me.
We need YOU as employers to work with us, help be more creative and open your mind to the way in which people with disabilities can get to work.
For Parents and Service Providers 
Sadly, the Social Security Administration doesn’t care what KIND of work you can do, just that you can do any job at all and be paid legally, for it.
I’ve had parents tell me that their child is beneath bagging groceries or working in any capacity for any grocer at all, for that matter. While I understand that some jobs are not what you envisioned, they are still jobs and often, it’s an entry-level position that builds ones ability to learn, capacity to grow and OFTEN leads to other opportunities with more and more responsibilities. We’d all like to be exempt from starting somewhere one may feel is the “bottom”, when we enter the workplace, and instead, choose a route that quickly lifts us up to the top of the ranks but that’s not always going to be the case.
I’ve seen some parents really work with their disabled youth, being a coach and help to encourage and increase their learning and keep them engaged through volunteerism and other opportunities to hone their abilities and get to the next level and I’ve seen others so happy that any employment regardless of what their child is doing, be more than they could have imagined.
It’s not the job, it’s your own view and experience that makes the job good or bad. Is it honest, is it constructive, does the person feel confident and competent to do what they need to do, does the environment foster growth, and the powers that be from staff, to employer, to customer – do they exhibit patience depending on what he/she needs and does the person make a fair wage (not subminimum wages, this is wrong and for us as advocates of people disabilities we continue to make effort to end this outdated practice)  but I’m saying whatever everyone else in the same job is making, is your young adult making that? These are the factors that we should examine, and not however low-lying you feel a certain title or sector is on the totem pole.
You have work, you have social hour and you have a home life. Guess what, sometimes, especially for those with intellectual disabilities, they get their social hour(s) from their work or the people they know through their volunteerism / work. This means, if they have none, you’re already cutting out one more potential source of friends, access to additional opportunities and unique and varied experiences. When there is no work or no place “to go” there is then, a lot of idle time and day support services, unfortunately, have not risen like they have for our aging and dementia / elderly populations. There is also depression and anxiety that sets in when the youth (adult/any age) feels no sense of purpose. Whatever the job is, going to it, making it work, taking instruction and getting a paycheck is dignifying. Regardless of ID levels and functions, I’m positive every person with a disability can see and benefit from a routine that empowers them and cuts down idle time spent.
My point isn’t that everyone needs to work, I want to be clear that are certain disabilities and chronic conditions that will prohibit lots of people from working full time, well what about part-time, what about volunteerism, something constructive and consuming to keep a person engaged, involved and productive? I’m signing up someone every week – sometimes 2-3 applications a week for Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI) and Social Security Disability Income (SSDI). I am no judge of who should and should not be on these programs. My issue is that not working doesn’t mean you get a pass to do absolutely nothing, it simply means you may not be able to handle the rigors of leaving the house every single day and working in a typical environment. There’s a difference.
Lastly, for parents and service providers catering to the needs of people with disabilities – we must challenge the way in which we approach the job search and the resulting job. Unfortunately, some of our levels/limitations call for more creative applications and more problem solving to make employment (whatever that looks like) a reality. In the resources at the end of this blog post, I’ve included four different but very similarly modeled bakeries in the Washington, DC metropolitan area that have come up with their own ways to A. Train a group of people with disabilities, given them instruction and vocational rehabilitation skills and B. Upon a good deal of time learning, engaging, understanding their own conduct in the workplace and gaining instruction in a positive and encouraging environment, many who even get a certificate like they would at a trade or vocational school, they get those trained folks into regular, fully integrated and competitive employment opportunities.
These new ways of approaching employment for people with disabilities have long-lasting implications and many have been started by regular (read extraordinary) Moms’ and Dads’ simply looking for a way to make gainful employment (regardless of what that looks like to everyone else) WORK for their sons and daughters.
One final thought for my parents. I had a young man that I was working with. I have LOTS of young men with autism and all the time my colleagues’ joke that I’m their girlfriend or their mother. Meaning I’m providing a type of support that’s akin to the mother, helping them with managing their finances, setting healthy boundaries with other women/girls and encouraging them toward whatever level of greatness they can attain.
What annoyed me once about the situation with a young man, he went on and on about his dad, his dad this and his dad this. I often wondered did this young man’s father have any idea how much his son worshipped the ground he walked on? Yet because of disability, his dad was inaccessible to him, unavailable, unattentive. They lived in the same house, they breathed the same air, mind you. The mother would become a kind of go-between and the two would rarely speak but see each other daily at meals and other times when they would congregate as a family. The dad, typically functioning, couldn’t find a way to communicate and I’d argue that he lacked the desire to learn and that’s what really ticks me off. Every day I’d hear about the dad and I’d ask my consumer, could you talk to your dad, could you ask him to teach you this or that, could he take you to work one day and see what he does….I’d ask the Mom could he and dad work on a project and I get it, she wanted to leave dad alone, too. I realize there could be deeper issues here but I’m fairly certain that issue is cultural. A type of family not from the US that has a more difficult time understanding the needs of people with disabilities. I’ve met some that even think Autism is something you will eventually “snap out of”. I get it but this happens in all types of families not just diverse ones.
I had a few words for dad, that I couldn’t ever say without the risk of losing my own gainful employment but if this young man, had the attention and the encouragement of his dad, think about the other successes he could have ascertained. Think about the creative adaptations that might have been made if they’d gotten to know and understand one another more?
His dad worked on computers likely for some top secret outfit, the CIA, the FBI, what have you, what did my client want to do? Work with the computer, just like his dad, of course. He thought his dad was great and I didn’t. As a professional, I can only do so much, I don’t go home with these people, I don’t get to reinforce whatever it is I’ve taught them during my limited time with them, I’m counting on you to further drive home principles and let them do something we’ve only talked about or practiced (in some limited way) doing in my office. People with disabilities, yes, even Intellectual Disabilities are more capable than we give them credit for. They are learning despite your unwillingness to teach. I think about missed opportunities. The father could have taught this young man all he knew about computers and coming from the dad he worshipped, likely would have made him that much more eager to learn and translate those skills, eventually, into a grand employment opportunity.
If parents won’t take the time, who will and how can they expect others to take the time to instruct and teach and have patience in a job setting (or any setting for that matter)? If you don’t do that at home, you further perpetuate the stigmas and adversity we already experience in an impatient society and by employers who refuse to hire for their own erroneous reasons, assumptions and prejudice. If dad who helped create the child won’t do it, find another “cool” mentor or responsible friend who will and can be that influence that’s needed, put them in computer classes, find a senior group that’s eager for someone to take them with them to help get on Facebook just to see their faraway grandchildren. Our creative ability to solve is only limited and compounded by a notion that says this or that doesn’t work. It does work but we have to find a way to make it so.
If you already do all this, thank you. I’m obviously not speaking to you. I do know parents who are the greatest advocate for their child (I had some), helping them get everything they need from learning outside the classroom, a tutor after school, a job coach, a day program, a volunteer opportunity, another volunteer opportunity when that first one wasn’t the right fit, to eventually, with great exhaustion, just one spectacular gainful employment opportunity and one open-minded employer, that worked and that stuck with it. I personally, thank you.
Doctors
My message for doctors and healthcare/medical professionals is simple. You cannot refer EVERYONE to a Social Security or other entitlement program. I realize doctors feel all knowing about the human condition and they should feel very knowledgeable, the schooling for their credentials cost a lot. But want to know a secret?
The doctor told my Mom that I wouldn’t write when I was just five or six years of age. How laughable is that? That I wouldn’t be able to write, that my hands wouldn’t develop properly and that my fingers would be weak. My fingers are probably the fastest and strongest thing on my enter body. I mean you’re reading this blog, that I wrote, you’ve likely read one of my seven almost eight books. I type about 90 words a minute and sorry for you, this blog is ridiculously long. I mean if we really listen to these “professionals” we’d be in sad shape. I will say that older doctors more so than younger doctors have this issue but it’s still an issue regardless of age.
Doctors, you cannot put forth your data charts and make blanket statements about ones abilities. That’s my point. One child with what you feel is a poor prognosis cannot then be the poster child for the others to follow.
As someone who gets a person on disability (SSDI) or SSI weekly, I’ve seen steep changes in the requirements. No longer are they handing out monthly benefit checks for whatever ails you. It is getting tougher and tougher to get a teeny bite of these important benfits. Do I agree with their methods of screening, course not but my point is to either do the homework you need or make more accurate referrals or caution people to the best of your ability. You are setting people up, one doctor says apply, the other says I can’t really justify outright disability. Not only are you getting someone/some family’s hopes up falsely, you are likely making referrals for programs whose guidelines you have not reviewed in 20+ years. Things have changed. Regardless of whether you like the changes or not, that doesn’t change the fact that it did.
Finally, a word for myself (a constant way of living to me) and my fellow persons with disabilities
I have just two of the most important things I’ve seen and this actually is a challenge for people without disabilities as well.
1. Staying the course of searching, interviewing for and finding gainful employment despite the constant rejection, and
2. Readying yourself with creative solutions to get your foot (or your wheel or your cane or crutch) into the proverbial job door
When you suffer rejection after rejection (remember I said disabled or not), in the very next interview and the next after that, it is very, very hard not to let negativity creep up on you. AND it’s even harder not to let those feelings come about during the actual interview process. I understand and have witnessed this first hand, even halfway through the interview where I feel the employer is just going through the motions but they’ve already dismissed me for some reason or another.
When this happens, it is how you respond that’s going to separate you. Yes, we’re going to blow a few interviews simply because we’re so over this process that is yielding absolutely no results but try to keep going, get yourself in a job club or group, take workshops that tell you how to remain upbeat and stay engaged. The other things you can do, take a couple of days break to rest, try to go on an interview when something else in your life has been positive or upbeat, talk with a friend to give you a scheduled pep talk to keep going right before the interview, post encouraging words and read whatever you need to read or listen to, prior to the interview to stay positive.
Ultimately, your body readout is everything -even over an awesome resume. They don’t just look at your resume, they are looking at YOU. How you appear and how you come across and what’s it like to work with you and spend time with you for 8 hours a day, long term. This is a one-hour event that can determine your future and I know it’s very hard not to become depressed and that depression makes its way into your interview but you will have to spend time mastering your emotions and presenting and projecting just one more time until you have that job.
Secondly, WE as the person with the most experience about ourselves HAVING the disability MUST exhibit a readiness to offer a solution for any possible problem.
A true, strange story: Do you know that a person I used to ride the school bus with, one day got on the bus and that particular day, we had a NEW driver. My classmate refused to tell the driver how to get to her house. Now the driver had a map and a good idea she’d said, but she’d been called in at the last minute, perhaps our regular driver had taken ill, who knows, but remember this is before GPS. This classmate of mine drove me crazy. The objective when you get in any mode of transit is to GET TO YOUR DESTINATION. So I could not for the life of me understand why this person refused to tell the driver how to get to her OWN house. I felt like I was in the twilight zone.
My then classmate’s response, “Well, you’re the driver, you should know where I live.”
Crazy, right? To this day I don’t understand it.
So, on the bus that day, said schoolmate wanted to be all weird, I wasn’t sure what was happening but I was sure I wanted to get home so I told the driver where she lived, turn by turn. Just call me TomTom. Now, that I think back on it, I should have told her where I lived but this was in elementary school, I think I was in the fourth or fifth grade and it didn’t occur to me to get myself home and let them duke it out. The bus took her home first because that was the route I knew. I was often last so I knew where everyone lived, actually.
We (me and the bus driver) were both grateful. We had a common goal, to get home and end our day. Perhaps my classmate didn’t like her house but I sure liked mine.
This example is to say that if an employer were concerned about ways to accommodate you, YOU should already be aware of whatever possible misconceptions and attitudinal hurdles stand in your way. You must be aware of how and why this or that is not going to work for you and YOU should offer up the path to obtaining whatever it is YOU need AND know just how much it’s going to cost (or have a ballpark figure). This ultimately empowers YOU!
In my job and just living and having to navigate myself and my wheelchair in life, I’ve got all kinds of tips, tricks and “rig ’em ups” in my mind, some cheap old duck tape may even be involved.
I want to be a resourceful woman and a problem solver. If an accommodation is the ONLY issue between you and gainful employment, you’ve got to put it out there and be ready to help make it work. You can’t always (and yes for many budgets -not to mention because of the law- this should not be an issue) and you should not choose this time to act as if this inaccessibility issue is your employer’s problem and not your own. In many cases it’s really only your problem because your employer is already gainfully employed. #ImJustSaying
Of course, you would hope that they care enough and see your value as a potential applicant but until you receive an offering letter, we are just people and our attitude and the way in which we respond makes a lot of difference. It’s really the only thing that separates us if we often appear to possess the same knowledge and experience from resume to resume.
It’s our response – employer, disabled applicant, service provider, doctor and parent that will get all of us employed. We each have a responsibility to create an atmosphere where we look on people’s abilities, remind people of our abilities and where we, as the applicant, also make it easy to be a likely candidate for that one position. One is all we need. Now, what are you doing to ensure a diverse workforce that includes ALL kinds of people?
Good Luck!

Below, a few resources that can only enhance your view of a more diverse but capable workforce and make it happen for any of the many jobseekers with disabilities

National Trends in Disability Employment (nTIDE) – They have an awesome monthly webinars free and open to the public

A few of the many Creative and Innovative Model Programs Created to Employ People with Disabilities. If you’d like to chat more about this issue or discuss anything in this blog post, please e-mail me Teegarner (at) aol (dot) com.

While the above are local to where I lived, I’m certain you’ll find similar models/organizations near you.

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