Why We Must 'Be Fearless' as Disabled People Searching for Employment
I grew up in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, Australia, where there was one disabled accessible railway station a 25 minute drive up the highway and there weren’t any accessible buses. Or even regular buses. My parents trudged up and down the Mountains to look for a primary school suitable for me to go to, and at the time the only school willing to take me on as their first disabled student was Lawson Public.
My disability is called neonatal flaccid paraplegia. It came about due to a stroke I had while being born. Since I was 3 years old, my disability had me using braces and crutches to move around. It would often leave my legs bleeding and raw after a day at school. They used to tell my parents that there would be a day I would be walking with braces and only one crutch. I don’t think anyone in the late 80s really knew much about what to expect with a progressive disability. Now I’m in a wheelchair full time, and I look back on that and think how wrong they were.
A week after my 16th birthday I got my learner license to start driving. I was so excited. The day I got my first-tier provisional license and figured out the best way to put my wheelchair in the passenger side and drive myself to the shops was one of the most liberating feelings I’d experienced. I thought from then on I would be able to get work easily, and moving to a different house wouldn’t be a problem.
How naïve young Susan was with all of her positivity. The reality was harsh. People had either an over-expectation of me to achieve something great, or had underwhelming expectations. Even when I had nailed a phone interview, some employers would sit back stunned when I came in for a face-to-face interview. Some employers would make their receptionists cancel interviews and ask me to “wait for a call back to reschedule” as soon as I asked if there was disabled access to their workplace. Some employers hired me to meet a quota. I would search advertisements for places who specified “We are an equal opportunity employer” just because I felt safer to apply.
I’ve only had a handful of jobs, mostly in admin, but that wasn’t due to disinterest. When I turned 19, I decided I would go up and down the mountains handing in resumes. Some looked like they had genuine interest, and others took the resume from me out of politeness.
A year had passed and I felt defeated. I couldn’t physically do the most readily available jobs, like being a waitress or a bartender. At the end, I remember going into a workplace and handing in a resume and she looked a little awkwardly at me. In the end I said, “You won’t hire me, will you? Is it because I’m in a wheelchair?” She said yes. At least she was honest.
That’s when I knew I had to leave. A part of me always knew that if I wanted to get a job, I needed to move away from the mountains and into the city. It would be a lie if I were to say that I wasn’t left bitter and cynical. I began to believe my life was nothing more than accumulating a small government pension every fortnight because of the lack of job opportunities. For a very long time I worried about whether I’d ever be hired again. It took three years to find the job I have now, two of which I was actively looking.
There are a few things that really irk me like building access and the state of disabled parking, but the state of disability employment is unequivocally number one. I can only surmise that people are hesitant to hire someone with a disability because it is different to what they have encountered before. There are a lot of factors to consider when hiring someone with a disability, but it doesn’t mean the employer has to feel like they have to “take care” of us. We can look after ourselves if we have physical access and our (usually simple) needs for accommodation are met.
I believe countering this problem will take some very blunt governmental policy changes, starting with building access. We can’t be hired somewhere we can’t get into. It limits the already limited scope of opportunities. It will take employers who are confident in our abilities as skilled workers. It’ll mean that employers have to be confident we can climb a career ladder. It will need the support of the people who lead this country and those who are willing to stand up with us. It isn’t any good having one token person in a wheelchair at work and patting yourself on the back for a job well done because you’ve made the equality quota for the year. How long can you ignore 20% of the population, most of whom are able to work if given an equal opportunity?
We as disabled people also need to be fearless, because disability isn’t contained to one particular gender, ethnicity or religious background — it affects everyone. If not for ourselves, then we must be fearless for the next generations who need us to pave the way for them, and show that we are contributing members to society and we can make a difference.
Be fearless with us and for us.
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