It's happened too many times for me to count. A well-meaning person asks me if I work. It’s automatic. They take one look at my disability and motorized wheelchair, and think: “this person couldn’t possibly work.”
It would be easy to take offense since I have worked continuously and advanced in my career since graduating college (and later graduate school) 20 years ago. But I understand the assumption because it is everywhere in our society. “People with disabilities can’t work / shouldn’t work/don’t want to work.” Or some variation. Like many myths, it’s believed often without question. But it is just not true.
I was diagnosed with severe rheumatoid arthritis around age two, so don’t remember a life before disability. As a small child, I remember learning to manage pain, grapple with fatigue, and live with a gradually worsening disability.
Around age 10 I started using a wheelchair to help with my mobility. This device became a tool for independence, not the anchor of limitation that most people see when observing a wheelchair. I had more energy and opportunity to do more.
During high school, I prepared for college, just like many of my fellow students. My parents expected me to find a career and establish an independent life. They knew I would face challenges with my disability, but it didn’t matter because they wished the same for me that all parents do--happiness and fulfillment.
Joining the Workforce
If you don’t count helping out in my mother’s office and an unpaid college internship of entering data from a psychological study into an antique computer, my first job was a paid internship at a small nonprofit the summer before graduating college. I was so excited! I lived on my own in a new city, went to work, and felt like I was not only earning my paycheck, but making a difference!
Working and contributing to my society was something I realized I had been dreaming about for a long time. I wanted to prove my worth and contribute to a mission. For me work has always been more than income--it’s also about helping others.
Since that first job, I have never questioned my ability to work and contribute to an employer’s mission. The nonprofit hired me full time after I graduated from college and I have worked continuously since then for a variety of employers. My skills grew from experience and a graduate education (earned while working full time!), as did my level of responsibility and professional reputation.
I’m an active member and past leader of a local professional organization for my industry (public relations and communications). And I am always interested in learning and developing my skills.
The Realities of Working with a Disability
I can’t say it is always easy working with my disability. I know that I have not been hired because people saw my disability as an obstacle to employment rather than as an asset. I sometimes struggle with my health, related to my disability, but have been fortunate to have employers and supervisors who supported me because they knew my value.
I believe my disability brings many qualities that employers need. I can often bring a different perspective to looking at and solving a problem because of my disability. This is a skill I use every day in my personal life!
Several employers have appreciated my tenacity. I just don’t give up. I’ve learned to hang in there and keep trying--that is how many accomplishments are achieved in work and life.
Perhaps most importantly I have learned to appreciate the little things and live life with a smile. Through my personal challenges, I know a bad day will end and that little victories can feel huge.
Why Employers Need to Hire More People with Disabilities
In many ways, hiring people with disabilities is one of the last barriers standing for an inclusive society for all. Only 30 percent of people with disabilities are currently employed, compared to 70 percent of people without disabilities. If we can learn to appreciate the unique skills of people with a variety of disabilities, we will finally be tapping into the widest talent pool available.
Since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act when I was a teenager, I’ve witnessed a lot of change towards the inclusion of people with disabilities. Our communities and transportation are now widely expected to be accessible and available to all.
Now it is time for our workplaces. I don’t say this just because it is the right thing to do (yet it is). I say this because it is the smart thing for us to do. If we really want to create, build, and develop then we need the full scope of talent--including people with disabilities.