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Why Normal Is Relative for Me as a Disabled Job Seeker

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I recently went through a uniquely long and difficult interview process twice for a disability access organization where I was not hired. I posted the text of a letter I wrote to staff and leadership in response.

I’ve received no response to my letter. However, in a serious plot twist, I have heard an unconfirmed rumor that they have hired someone with cerebral palsy, and both positions I applied for were removed from the career page at the beginning of February.

I hope they did hire someone with a disability. I wish it would have been me, but I’m glad they are changing the face of their staff to reflect their customers more accurately.

Your paid management and/or leadership must reflect the culture you serve. If you’re working for cancer patients, someone in leadership needs to have experienced life with cancer. If you’re working to end homelessness, some of your managers should have experience being home insecure. And if you’re working with and for a disabled population, your staff should reflect that as well.

I think there is an important conversation to be had about hiring practices in this country. We all know discrimination of all types still exists, even though it’s illegal. All you have to say as an employer is “We’re moving forward with another candidate.” But if you are involved in hiring, I would urge you to remember the humans on the other side of the resumes you see. Especially when you ask someone to come in for an interview, respect the time and effort (physical, mental, emotional and spiritual) that takes. Make sure the work you are asking someone to do in an interview is commensurate with the compensation and workload of the job. Provide honest, direct feedback, especially when asked directly for it.

I have had so many terrible interview experiences. Many I moved to the back of my mind because my optimist side wanted to believe something great was around the bend. And maybe something still is. But now I wish I had made more noise when an interviewer asked me, repeatedly, while walking to an interview space, “Are you OK? Are you sure you’re OK?”

I would have said something sooner to the Portland non-profit director who, after interviewing me for a communications position that had nothing to do with disability, said, “I just think you would be great at working with disabled folks.” It took me until I got back to my car (thanks to interview stress adrenaline) to say, “Wait, did he say that to me?”

Not every interview I’ve had has been that bad. But there is no way for me to hide my disability, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve risen to greet my interviewer and seen that look every visibly disabled person knows — a look that says “Wait, what’s wrong with her?” I’m no longer being seen as a valid candidate, but as a mystery to be solved.

I’ve been recalling a memory in the last couple weeks. I was 15 or 16, going to physical therapy and guided gym sessions every week. It was hard work. One day at the gym my physical therapist came along to the gym to see my process. We sat down in the trainer’s office and I broke down, sobbing that I was tired of this, and just wanted a “normal” life like other teenagers.

I don’t remember who said it, but one of the two women, who both cared for me deeply, said something along the lines of, “I know this is hard. But let’s do it now, and then you can go on to a normal life.”

I know now how relative normal is. I also know how hard it is to know the right thing to say when a teenager is sobbing in your office. But what I wish they would have said is, “You will never have a ‘normal’ life, that’s the truth. Things will always be different for you. Your pace will not match everyone else’s (and then social media will explode and you’ll be confronted with everyone else’s successes daily). You’ll have to work harder. Life won’t be easy, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be good.”

I am blessed beyond measure. The people I have around me love me fiercely. I am regularly overwhelmed with the love and joy I am able to give and receive. I am so deeply grateful. My parents raised me to know I was as capable as anyone else, that I was smart and strong. They firmly believed that when people saw my talents and abilities, the disability would become secondary. I believed that too. And I have seen that happen — but typically only when my labor was free, as in a volunteer setting.

I don’t think there is any kind of shadow conspiracy at play to keep me unemployed. I think it is a far more internalized and insidious problem than that. I come in and am immediately viewed as a mystery to be solved or simply moved out of the way. I am passed over without being properly considered. No one sits down and says, “I don’t want to hire her because she is disabled,” but if there is a candidate who doesn’t cause that question or mystery to arise, so much the better.

I have so many skills that are not being used. I volunteer, I connect, I stay involved in my community. I have a children’s book I would love to see published. I have so much more to say. How many people, disabled or otherwise marginalized, have art, creativity and ingenuity that’s silenced simply because they are trying to figure out how to stay in their homes and how to pay their utility bills?

If you are hiring, please disconnect yourself from the impression that every qualified candidate you see will surely, easily find something else. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told I was not hired, only to have the next sentence be, “But you’re so great, I know you’ll find something soon.”

By now you might have some questions:

You’re disabled. Don’t you get disability?

Nope. Disability payments aren’t determined by your disability itself, but by your perceived ability to work. You’re also very limited on how much money you can make or have at any given time. I was on disability in the past, had it ended because I made too much (it wasn’t much) and so I reapplied in September ‘18, when I was told I should have a decision in 30 days. That decision still hasn’t been finalized, and I was just told it could take another 30 days, potentially bringing the wait time to six months. I have submitted medical records and countless forms. They also may decide I don’t have enough work credits to qualify. Lots of people are trapped in this cycle.

Have you applied with the state/temp agencies/schools?

Yes, yes and yes. I’ve actually done a lot of temp work, which has been a blessing in the short term and an issue when looking for full-time employment. Employers see gaps and lots of temp work and you get the picture.

Why don’t you go back to school?

This might be pride talking, but here’s the thing. I went to school. Then I went back to school. I have a Master’s degree. I have watched my able-bodied classmates get hired in the kind of positions I have applied for. And I have student loans. I’m not saying a definitive no to any more school at any time, but I want to work before I sign up for more study and debt.

Maybe you aren’t actually looking hard enough?

If you have been employed for a long time, you may not remember the kind of energy searching for a job takes. It is repetitive, tedious and extremely disheartening. Once you’ve been unemployed for a while, your life takes on a different rhythm. Being underemployed or inconsistently employed impacts your day to day life. For most people who are employed, whatever happens in life, they have to get back to work. Work is a constant underpinning, humming behind life’s happy moments and the difficult ones alike.

When you’re unemployed for a long stretch, there is no hum behind everything else. There is no consistent thing to return to; instead, you’re fishing — casting your line over and over and waiting for a bite. When life goes out of whack for one reason or another, you can go back to casting, but the water will be different. The weather and the tides have shifted and you’re still in the same spot.

Here’s some ways you can help:

If you have influence over hiring, you have an amazing opportunity to impact both your company culture and individual lives. Look at your coworkers. Who is missing? I promise you, they’re out there looking for work.

Even if you aren’t involved in hiring, you can still help. If you know someone looking for work, first and foremost, ask them what they want and need. Then, if you see something that might work, point them in a direction. If you work at a large company, this is especially important. It’s helpful to say here, apply at Google! But what’s more helpful is to say, I found this position I think you would be great for. If you’re interested, I can contact someone and let them know you’re interested.

If you don’t know anyone looking for a job, please find ways to support disabled creators, artists and workers of all kinds. If you have the ability, pay them for their work. If paying is not an option, boost their signals. Social media is a tool that gets derided, but it can do so much good. Look for representation in your schools, your libraries, your houses of worship and your government. If the representation isn’t there, ask why.

Physically disabled people are constantly visible, always watched and rarely seen. I’m still looking for work. Thanks for reading.

Getty image by Zimmy TWS.

Originally published: April 7, 2019
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