Washington, D.C., May 10 – I’m staring back at the wide eyes, nervous shoulders and fidgety hands of the hiring manager. As he interviews me for my dream job, those wide eyes flick down to my wheelchair, then back to my face. His eyes make that journey multiple times and ask 100 questions at once. None of the questions ever make it to the mouth. So, I start.
“And so, with my wheelchair…?” I leave the question open-ended, because I never know where someone’s mind is going to go.
Suddenly, whatever self-imposed seal there was has been broken. Questions come pouring out covered in nervous tension. “What about when we get deliveries, what will you do with then?” “Can you wear professional clothing?” “Is it okay if we have to travel; can you get in a car?” “What if you can’t reach a shelf?”
My interview with the hiring manager, who never became my employer, would have gone better for both of us if he had been aware of the awareness campaign Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb’s Council on Disability ran in March 2018. The campaign promoted jobs for people with disabilities by helping employers feel less awkward. The Council brought people with all kinds of disabilities together to create tips for interacting with people with disabilities, and released those tips throughout the month. Tip number 1: relax. It’s okay to ask questions if you don’t know what to do.
The hiring manager’s unerring Hoosier politeness clashed with his desperate need to find out just how much of a burden I might be if given a job. I have seen every kind of nervousness and heard every type of awkward question from a potential employer. Asking questions that are polite but direct is more appreciated than an awkward silence, a fumbled “politically correct” comment and an eventual brush-off.
RespectAbility, a national nonprofit organization that fights stigma and advances opportunity for people with disabilities, recently released new data that found there are almost half a million working-age people with disabilities in Indiana, and most of them are looking for jobs. Indiana employers on a talent hunt will run into us. Following the Disability Council’s tips will help employers take advantage of a valuable, but untapped—people with disabilities.
Following the Council’s tip number 8, “be patient and listen,” could have helped employers feel more comfortable around Emily. Emily passed the Indiana bar exam and then graduated from IU McKinney Law. After school, she rolled out into the real world with a master’s degree in addition to her law license. Right away she started experiencing job rejections even after earning two degrees and passing the bar exam. Emily has spinal muscular atrophy, a disease that can make it progressively harder to move when she wants to. When discussing why she could not seem to get a job, her professor suggested that people might have a hard time connecting with her in interviews because she could not gesture while she talked. “That’s not something I can control,” Emily said.
Emily and I are only stuck when we do not have our wheels, which is why the Council suggests against terms like “wheelchair bound” or “confined to a wheelchair.” Regardless of how many seatbelts someone wears, people are not trapped in their chair. Rather, wheelchairs are assistive devices that provide freedom and independence.
However, not everyone with limited mobility uses a wheelchair. Sometimes you can not see any outward signs of someone’s disability right away, or at all, such as with Brandy. In her personal time, she has explored more parts of the world than most people I know without any disability. She has flown to and traveled around Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. While she was placing more pins in her map than most people could ever claim, she also was white-water rafting, rock climbing and bungie jumping. As the Council suggests: she does not “suffer” from cerebral palsy. Instead, her disability has paved creative paths through barriers and a powerful passion for life.
Brandy is an employment retention specialist working for Easter Seals Crossroads. She has successfully held her specialist position for years; obtaining the education qualifications, however, was challenging. Brandy was forced to defer her acceptance to university until she had “proven herself” at another university, one with a better accommodation process. After two successful years, she was allowed to transfer and obtain her degree. Obviously very capable, Brandy credits her ability in school to the services she received in school. She worked with teachers that could adapt her education to her unique way of learning and provide any assistive technologies she might need during her school career. If people have the assistive technologies to help them, she assured me, people with disabilities can do anything they want to.
People with disabilities rely on assistive technologies, devices and accessible spaces to live well and independently. Creating those spaces and providing those technologies are easier and cheaper than people believe. The average cost of an accommodation for an employee with a disability to work in a business is about $500 according to the Job Accommodation Network. People with disabilities are successful students if teachers use inclusive methods and technologies in the classroom, such as allowing for extra time on tests for students with learning disabilities or incorporating microphones into their lectures for students who are hard of hearing. People with disabilities are valuable employees if the employer creates an accessible workplace. Once employed, studies show that people with disabilities are conscientious, loyal and gainful employees. With the help of the Council on Disability’s 10 tips and suggested terms, communities can be more receptive to self-advocates looking to be included. As the council says, “words have actions and power.” And as our great American hero, Spiderman, has taught us, “with great power comes great responsibility.”
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