In 2011, I graduated from Stonehill College, magna cum laude, with a BA in English. Like most graduates during the recession, I had difficulty finding a job. However, my cerebral palsy complicated my long job search in ways that I didn’t anticipate. I’ve never considered my disability an obstacle. I’m assertive about asking for accommodation, and my alma mater had a flat, accessible campus.
At my local career center, the worker kept clicking on the sidebar ads. “Look!” she exclaimed. “You can go door-to-door in Virginia, selling knives!” Seems legit, right?
Other agencies designed to help people with disabilities treated me as if my time were unimportant. One agency scheduled appointments for me without consulting me, even after I asked them to stop. Then the counselor would yell at me for “not showing up” to my appointment. I’d actually cancelled, and the receptionist hadn’t passed along the message. A worker at another agency immediately started filling out paperwork on my behalf, before she had described any of the services. “We’re doing intake,” she explained.
“Before you do intake, could you please tell me what this program involves, so I can decide whether it would benefit me?” I asked. In both cases, the employees acted as if people with disabilities have unlimited free time and easy access to transportation, while lacking agency over their own life choices.
Like many recent grads, I spent countless hours online, searching for job listings. Most ads promised not to discriminate on the basis of disability, which would be illegal, of course. Some had disclaimers, such as: “Must be able to lift 30-50 pounds.” Whenever I couldn’t see how this fit a particular job’s description, I found this frustrating. The less essential this duty is to the job, the more discriminatory it seems. Is it more important to hire able-bodied people, just in case they might need to lift a heavy object one day, or to have a diverse workforce? Vague descriptions like “Other duties as assigned” and “assist with department tasks” leave room for tasks that might be impossible for people with certain disabilities.
My three year search for work included working over a year full-time at a call center, two years of tutoring, volunteering, and internships, and countless job interviews. Even when I looked like an ideal candidate on paper, I sometimes found that employers expected the ideal employee to drive, lift heavy objects, or get coffee for senior staff members. If they had mentioned this upfront, I probably would have considered these bad fits for me and not applied.
Of course, the logistics of navigating a job interview site, and wondering how accessible it will be, can be daunting. As soon as I was offered a job interview, I always explained that I had a disability and asked about accessibility—for example, whether there were elevators or handicapped entrances. I considered it my “due diligence,” like researching each company and then following up. One interviewer neglected to tell me that she’d have to meet me at one building and walk with me for several blocks to another part of campus. If I’d known this, I would have allowed lots of extra time, so I wouldn’t be exhausted. I could have also asked my mom (whom interviewers sometimes assumed was the candidate or my PCA) to drive me to the correct part of campus. Others touted perks, like standing desks, which I couldn’t use.
“Can you tell me some more about this position?” I asked at one job interview.
“You’d assist with stuff!” my interviewer said.
“Can you be more specific?”
“Whatever the department needed!” the person repeated, and we continued to have this circular conversation.
I’m not trying to single anyone out or assuming discrimination where it might not exist. Like all novice job seekers, I often felt that I’d made a self-sabotaging mistake in an interview or simply wasn’t a good fit. However, even if I suspected that my disability was a factor in my rejection, I knew that the employers would never admit this.
Transparency throughout the hiring process helps employers and candidates find suitable matches. It also prevents candidates with disabilities from having the nagging suspicion that employers are withholding essential facts about the job.
As someone who has now been on the other side of the interview process multiple times, I try to be as clear as possible about which job functions were indispensable and which ones were negotiable.
Employers should also be flexible with their image of an ideal candidate. Maybe no candidate with all the desired qualifications exists, but one candidate has most of the requirements or other skills to compensate. If employers stick to an ideal of a candidate, they can overlook potential employees’ strengths. This can create unconscious discrimination, on either a personal or institutional level.
Assumptions and low expectations can also function on an unconscious level. When I assured interviewers that I would move to the city and use a paratransit service upon accepting a job, they might have doubted it or needed an employee who could start immediately. But this is what I ultimately did.
Work cultures in which employees or interns are tacitly expected to perform tasks not in their job descriptions, such as running errands for coworkers, can be exploitative. However, they’re disproportionately unfair to workers with disabilities and to those who can’t afford to take unpaid internships. Because they’re virtually impossible for so many people, these “gopher” positions and internships should not be considered a mere rite of passage or first step on the corporate ladder but an unfair institutional practice.
The tendency for US Americans to work impossibly long hours or forgo sick or vacation time also creates an environment that disadvantages workers with disabilities. I feel encouraged by the stabilizing job market in general and innovations like descriptive audio on websites for blind and visually impaired users. But Americans with disabilities are still a largely underemployed minority. I have many privileges, including supportive parents who let me move back in with them rent-free and provided transportation when I was un- or under-employed.
I currently work full-time at a nonprofit, and I’ve been here for almost three years. I love my job and the mission of assisting immigrants and refugees, so I’m happy to do extra work when it’s necessary. Working towards a common goal as a team is very different than competing with co-workers to gain advantages over them. The former approach sees diversity as strength; the latter pits people’s weaknesses against each other. No one is entitled to a job. But at the same time, when employers accommodate disability, they’re fulfilling a basic, legal obligation, not being extraordinary, heroic, or charitable.