Last month was both National Disability Employment Awareness Month and Spina Bifida Awareness Month. This year is the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. For those who don’t know by now, I was born with the birth defect Spina Bifida and also have several chronic illnesses that affect me in a variety of ways.
I usually don’t talk a lot about having a disability on my business channels except where I’m educating or encouraging on the topics of employment or working while having a disability and/or chronic illness. The irony is, this blog is a month late because October was filled with a lot of work and health issues!
But you know what? These topics are pretty important all year long so let’s not wait until next October, shall we? I decided to make this a two-part series with this blog talking about my own employment experience and why I think I’ve been successful for the most part. The second blog will be directed at employers and abled society to help shed light on disability and employment ideas they need to consider.
Growing up, I always knew that some people with disabilities didn’t work but it never occurred to me that I would be one of them. I started my first successful business when I was 11 and was paying income taxes by the time I was 13 or so.
When I was 16, I was old enough to get a “normal” job (I was prejudiced into thinking that I had to be employed by someone else to consider it a “real” job.) and I was a receptionist at a local water park.
Over the years, I’ve been blessed to be part of that 35 percent of people with disabilities who are actively employed. I’ve had a variety of jobs including reservations agent, front office clerk, journalist, assistant to the assistant comptroller, drive-thru worker, etc. And now, obviously, I’m a self-employed writer and consultant.
Some of those jobs were great, some of those not so great for a variety of reasons. In some jobs, I dealt with “equal opportunity abusers” (meaning they were jerks to everyone.) Other times I chose jobs where I thought “gosh, that will be hard but I can figure it out” but I wasn’t using my best skills so it didn’t go as well as it would have for others who thrive in the required skillsets. And one time, my disability was not appropriately adjusted for and I was fired after two months.
Applying with a disability
When I got each of these jobs, at least when I was a teenager or in my early twenties, it was done pretty much what was the traditional way and that worked best for me. We were required to submit a resume or application in person and I wrote a cover letter for each job I applied for. At first, I purposefully mentioned my disability as a positive because it showed I was able to overcome challenges but also subtly let them know the disability was there. The final demonstration was when I would apply in person and would drive myself. They could see with their own eyes my ability (or lack of), my intelligence, and my commitment.
Nowadays, I think that method would be frowned upon as inviting discrimination and would not even be allowed in many cases because so many applications are done entirely online and people get an interview because their resume and other submitted information triggered the algorithm. That may make things easier but in my opinion, not really better. It also forces the person with a disability to find a way to bring up the need for accommodations, which is often awkward at best.
Trying new things
I think that part of getting jobs as a teenager and young adult is more about finding what you do and do not like rather than finding a career. Most of us do not get jobs in what will be our career at that age and that’s OK. I also think it gives us character lessons and, for me as a person with a disability, gave me the chance to push myself to try a variety of jobs to discover what I could and couldn’t do.
Now, don’t get me wrong. If you know you are terrible at math and counting change (executive function), perhaps cashier work is probably not for you. That said, working as a cashier at McDonald’s in high school was one of my favorite “non-career” jobs. But in today’s fast-paced world, that would not be a wise job for me to try and make into a long-term situation. I would likely get fired for being too slow and getting confused mid-process! I do not regret trying any one of my jobs because they confirmed or disproved my preconceived notions of whether or not I would be good at those skills.
I think it’s also important to realize that your job doesn’t have to be a long-term career, even as an adult. A job is a way of earning your own way, socializing, and participating in society. Finding something new every couple of years if that option is open to you is no longer considered the red flag it used to be. This is especially important for those of us who will, over time, lose some function and stamina.
Focus on what you’re good at
This section will make it sound like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth! Yes, it’s important to try new skills or new kinds of jobs. But once I got a feel for what I was good at and where I could excel, I tended to stick with searching for those kinds of jobs. I’m a natural communicator and problem-solver, but not a natural negotiator. I don’t handle arguments or mean people well so I never applied for those kinds of jobs. How does that translate to owning a business? Most of the time those situations work themselves out. I set pretty clear boundaries and tough clients who refuse to respect those end up going elsewhere.
Even in my career with Jamie’s Notebook, I have tried a variety of services over the years. Some I just knew I would stink at and tried it only because I needed to expand my skills. So of those skills are now the ones I’m best known for. On the other side, there are skills and services I thought I would be great at and even formed my business around them. Over time, I realized they were not a good fit and I refer those requests to trusted colleagues who I know will knock it out of the proverbial park.
Another reason I think I’ve been able to find success is I tend to seek out specific kinds of companies, mostly family or otherwise locally-owned. I often felt lost in the shuffle or like it would be a lot of red tape to get simple accommodations every time I applied at larger companies.
Keep in mind, each person is different and they may feel safer and more respected applying at large chains that will have more experience (we hope) with addressing disability accommodations.
Creating my own job
I think one of the smartest things I ever did in regards to employment was to create my own job. What came out of necessity because of a recession is now the only reason I’m still able to stay at least part-time employed. With my health complications, I would likely not be able to work for anyone else, even if they gave me tons of leeway. I firmly believe that companies should make accommodations, but they need to be reasonable and the employees need to be reliable.
By starting and keeping my own business, I’ve created an environment that works for me. Even as my health has failed, I’ve been able to remain working one-third to part-time.
I’m lucky to be doing something that relates to what I thought my career would be my entire adult life, which was journalism. Now, my writing is a different style and instead of having to remain unbiased, I’m asked to give my opinion all the time!
Don’t think you have that kind of skillset that can be done from home? Consider direct sales. Especially now with COVID, you can do businesses like that entirely online and never have to rely on transportation or any other factor that usually prevents people with disabilities to work.
I know this blog was long, possibly excruciatingly so. My life and work mission statement says I will tell my own stories to inspire others to find their own value and focus in life so that’s what I tried to do with this topic. I know many people who are working with a disability are probably thinking “duh” to a lot of this. But you’re like me, you’ve had the opportunity to figure this out. Who I hope this inspires most are those who are coming into the workforce and not sure if it’s even possible (don’t let people let you assume nothing is possible).