I am not broken. I don’t need to be fixed. I am not a drain on society. I am not a leech on the welfare system. I am not incompetent, lazy, or unfit to be in the workforce. I don’t want your prayers, pity, or the spare change you hand me when you see me on the street in the rare moment that I’m wearing sweatpants and don’t have my hair done.
I am among the 11 percent of disabled Americans who are college-educated and part of the American workforce.
Raised in Prince George’s County, MD, I graduated from the University of Maryland in 2012 with credentials that I thought would position me to line up a great entry-level job: I had interned at the White House and on Capitol Hill; founded a nonprofit, Project Ascend, to fund college scholarships for disabled youth; and traveled to Guatemala to report on international women’s programs for Marie Claire. My mentors – from Claudia Gordon, the first deaf, Black, female attorney in the U.S., to Maria Town, associate director for the White House’s Office of Public Engagement – told me my résumé was great. I’d been honored for my social justice work by the Clinton Global Initiative, Intel, MTV, and Essence magazine. Glamour had named me among its Top 10 College Women in America in 2012.
But as my able-bodied peers started collecting signing bonuses and kicking off their careers, I could not for the life of me land a job. I spent months applying, seeking advice from my network, and meeting with people whose jobs I aspired to. I’d talk them through my approach and show them my résumé, and they too were unsure why no one was biting. But they were missing my one big differentiator: a 200-pound motorized wheelchair.
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This is when I started to realize the sad truth of the world we live in. Despite anti-discrimination laws, countless employers refuse to interview or hire disabled candidates because they, consciously or not, assume we’ll introduce certain complexities into their offices – that there will be a need for special treatment and expensive or inconvenient accommodations. And getting through the door is only the beginning. When it comes to government organizations incentivized to support affirmative action and hiring initiatives, evidence points to disabled employees leaving at three times the rate of those without disabilities.
The bottom line is that despite legislation proposed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), disability employment discrimination is alive and well. Our President Donald Trump, publicly mocked a reporter who suffers from arthrogryposis, and let’s not forget that his properties have been subject to at least eight lawsuits for violating the Americans With Disabilities Act.
I’m not broken, but the system definitely is. We still have a lot of work to do in order to make serious change to our workforce. Let’s start with this:
1.Think in terms of ability, not inability.
Instead of continuing to focus on what individuals with disabilities cannot do, focus on what we can do. A person with paralysis may not be able to walk, for instance, but that doesn’t mean that his or her intellect or creativity has been diminished. Know that difference. Physical limitations don’t hinder someone’s ability to code, launch media companies, manage projects, be software engineers, free a thousand slaves, or become the leader of the free world if given the opportunity. Those with intellectual disabilities can also contribute to the workforce. They can be doctors, lawyers, influential activists, video-game designers, and much more.
2. Check your unconscious bias.
I know very few people who consciously think, “I look down on someone because he or she is different.” But enter unconscious biases and prejudices, which are part of the human condition. A large-scale European research study, for example, found that two-thirds of Brits feel uncomfortable talking to disabled people. More than one third assume disabled people are less productive than others. As an able-bodied person, you must make a conscious effort to check your privilege and combat these thoughts. Don’t feel sorry for me because I use a wheelchair. Talk to me because I am a smart, interesting person. Give me a chance to turn your preconceived notions on their head.
3. Practice blind hiring.
One of the most successful ways to create an inclusive workforce is through blind hiring. In keeping with my experiences and those of my many impressive and talented friends with disabilities, studies continuously show that people of color, women, and those with disabilities must be more qualified than White males to have a chance at landing the same jobs. Equally understood is the fact that as diversity in business grows, so too does profit, innovation, and creativity. If you are a hiring manager, you have the power to change the system. See what happens when you scrub inbound résumés of information that could hint to gender, race, or disability, and make your decisions from there.
4. Don’t act like accommodations are “special treatment.”
For most of my public-school education, I had a 504 plan for disability accommodations. But it was rarely as accommodating as it was embarrassing. My teachers regularly and nonchalantly revealed my confidential medical information to my entire class, instructing students to be “extra nice to her.” Kids, of course, generally responded by doing the exact opposite. Classmates used to throw things at me on the bus, noting that it was annoying that I got picked up in front of my house while others had to walk to the bus stop. I had an extra set of books for home-tutoring on those days I couldn’t come into class, and some kids called me lazy, mentally retarded, and stupid, while others commented that I didn’t look disabled. Trust me when I say that I could not have felt less special, and while I’d hoped this type of thinking and taunting would end in adulthood, I’ve witnessed it plenty in the workforce. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers provide reasonable accommodations – telework privileges, flexible work hours, adjustable-height workstations, and use of interpreters – and many employers and employees view this as special treatment. A friend of mine puts it well: “If you want to take my parking spot, take my disability too.”
5. If you see something, say something.
I’m not asking you to start a protest to fight employment discrimination. I’m looking for a basic act of humanity. If you see an employee with a disability being mistreated, report it (anonymously if you wish). If you hear a friend or colleague say something derogatory about someone’s wheelchair, speak up. In my few years in the workforce, I’ve witnessed managers and supervisors emotionally and verbally abuse disabled employees. Creating change requires more than people with disabilities standing up for their rights. It requires that you join us.
6. Recognize that this is your fight, too.
You may not think of yourself as disabled, but there are a wider range of disabilities than you likely realize. A disability can require using a walker, wheelchair, cane, or crutches, but it can also be less visible. Depression, cancer, diabetes, bipolar disorder, stuttering, vision loss, anxiety, migraines, kidney disease, and any type of chronic illness are disabilities. You could become disabled at any point in your life. The growing disability-pride movement encourages people to stop thinking about their differences as Scarlet Letters of shame, and I invite you to take part in it for your present – and for all of our futures.