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How the Americans With Disabilities Act Led Me to My Future Career

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I’ve never known life without the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

I was born with cerebral palsy five years after the ADA was passed, and to say I took the Act for granted is a massive understatement. It wasn’t until I started searching for jobs post-college that I realized just how many rights the ADA affords me — and the extent to which the Act can be violated.

I had long heard stories of people with cerebral palsy applying to job after job without so much as an interview, but I confidently pushed those doubts to the back of my mind as I began my own job search. I landed some work through a temp agency, but at my first temp assignment, the work quickly dried up when my supervisors realized I couldn’t properly use a letter opener — and I was sent home in tears.

I was soon able to find more temp work, but it was clear that my physical abilities and my mental health didn’t always allow me to reach the goals my supervisors had set out. I successfully completed several weeks at a university bookstore but was told I wasn’t applying barcode stickers quickly enough. At another temp job placement, I had a panic attack at work and was promptly dismissed on account of “being on my phone too much” — despite never having touched my phone outside of lunch breaks. I felt absolutely defeated — as if the ADA couldn’t protect me from the challenges of being disabled and mentally ill in the workplace.

That same year, I opened up about my life with cerebral palsy for the first time and became acquainted with many others who live with CP. As I joined online support groups for people with cerebral palsy, fellow members’ workplace woes constantly seemed to rise to the forefront. I observed as others answered questions about whether or not to disclose disability on a job application (absolutely not — unless it’s required), when to share that you need workplace accommodations (definitely after you fill out your employment contract), and when it was “worth it” to pursue legal action against an employer (almost never). The responses left me feeling disheartened about the struggles I continued to face as I searched for meaningful employment. If the ADA couldn’t protect us in the workplace, who would?

At long last, I landed a job. In my first couple of years in the workforce, I worried about accidentally revealing that I have a disability and that I also struggle with anxiety and depression. Thankfully, that never explicitly happened, but my worsening mental health and my insistence on never asking for accommodations led me to feel stressed and overwhelmed enough that I was eventually fired from a position I’d really hoped I’d keep — two full weeks after my 90-day probationary period ended. I was never given a reason for my termination, but I suspected it was at least vaguely related to my mental health.

Last year, after years of working jobs that never seemed to suit me, I decided to shift my focus and work towards a paralegal certificate. I had no clear idea of what type of law office I might want to work in after I received my certificate, but I felt like employment law might be the right direction. I was fairly certain that I had witnessed some ADA violations in the few years before I had become self-employed, and I didn’t want any other workers with disabilities to go through everything I had. I wanted every worker to have a fair chance at securing gainful employment — regardless of ability status — and I was positive that conducting legal research on employment law cases as a paralegal could help people with disabilities successfully remediate ADA rights violations at work.

As the anniversary of the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act approaches and I finish my final quarter of paralegal school, I’m certain that employment law is the right field for me. I’ve taken an employment law class and connected deeply with the rights the ADA affords workers. I’ve completed my paralegal capstone project — in which I expressed how strongly I feel about helping employers and employees alike work in environments that feel safe and accepting. But my capstone project can never fully reflect the truth behind why I feel so vehemently about employment law: I’ve been one of the many employees with disabilities who have faced ableist workplace practices.

I’ve been turned away from jobs for the tasks I struggle to complete instead of being welcomed for the skills I bring to the table. I’ve felt terrified to be disabled at work — even in a post-ADA world — because employers still ignore the Americans With Disabilities Act. I’d be the ideal employment law paralegal not just because of my coursework and legal writing skills, but also because I’ve experienced potential employment law violations firsthand as a person with a disability.

Thirty-two years after the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed, I no longer take my rights for granted — and I want my future career to help others gain back ADA rights in the workplace. The ADA may still be sparsely enforced in workplace settings, but it’s given the disability community agency to showcase their full potential as employees — and it’s guided me towards my future career.

Getty image by Dave and Les Jacobs.

Originally published: July 26, 2022
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