People who have disabilities want and need to work just as much as our nondisabled peers. However, finding and keeping a job often feels like an uphill battle for those of us with disabilities. This is not a “poor us” statement. It is practically a fact. Although many of us get tired of always having to work harder, educate employers when we just want to be ourselves and get tired of rejection, we must keep on keeping on. That is how we help level the playing field for ourselves, our peers and those who come after us. We are educated and qualified, and Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted to protect us, we still fight difficult odds to obtain employment. What can we do about this?
In my opinion, we start by not playing the “poor me” card. Don’t get me wrong. I have plenty of days when I do just that. We think positively and build on our strengths rather than focusing on our limitations. What we do is take steps to shore up our qualifications by closing gaps in our skill sets and knowledge bases. We take technology training and continuing education classes to stay up-to-date in our fields. We look for ways to network so that we can say we know people “in the know”, we carefully document our work histories and practice our interviewing skills so we are able to speak articulately about our experiences complete with proof statements about our abilities. I don’t mean to preach or patronize. I am just saying, if we want to be seen as equally qualified and able, we need to comport ourselves as if we are. I am not saying we don’t do this. I am not saying that it doesn’t feel practically impossible. I feel these feelings on a regular basis, just as I am sure you do. What I am saying is that we have to be our authentic selves forward and do what we can, so at the end of the day we can say we did our best. We must consider our end goals. After all, this is no more than our nondisabled peers do.
I have read and heard that if you are looking for a job, you must make this your full-time work. I have also heard that most people send out at least 100 resumes before they even score an interview. This seems kind of like saying “you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince.” This seems like nothing short of the truth. If you are a person with a disability, this seems extremely daunting. People with disabilities not only work very hard to get jobs, we constantly compete with job seekers without disabilities in a saturated market. No matter what, I say persevere, and don’t give up. But, how do we do this without losing spirit?
I read an article once that claimed that job searching is a full-time job. This may be even more true for us than for our nondisabled peers. But the essential concepts are no different. If getting a job is our ultimate goal, we must take this sentiment to heart.
I have found some job search strategies to be especially helpful. First, if I want to get a job, I must get up at a regular time every day, dress for work and set goals for the day and week that I commit to accomplishing. I have learned that, although I see the big picture, the end goal of working, I must break the process down into manageable steps. By doing this, I do not overwhelm myself, I am more likely to succeed with smaller goals, and I get a job that is the best fit for the company and for me.
Working at a volunteer job is another excellent way to obtain employment. On a volunteer job, you are able to learn procedures, get familiar with the people; the dress code and the office culture, and the management and staff get to know you. they are under no pressure to hire you, so everyone is free to be themselves. In this way, you are in an excellent and natural environment to demonstrate your knowledge, skills and work ethic. When an actual job opening becomes available, you are in an excellent position to apply. By this time, you are comfortable with the people, and they with you. It’s practically a shoe-in. Just be yourself. You’ll get the job. It has worked for me.
Attend job fairs and job clubs. Even if you don’t get a job on one of those days, consistently attend anyway. I attended a job club at the Oregon Commission for the Blind. I showed up every time, on time, and dressed for the kind of job for which I wanted to interview. I took notes and offered feedback and suggestions to my peers. Throughout my job search, I consistently came across job leads that applied to my peers and I passed them onto them. A few months later, the Job Club Leader called me. She informed me that she was working on a grant to increase employment outcomes for people who were blind. They were hiring an assistant for her; she was so impressed with me that she wanted to offer me that job.
In another instance, I volunteered at my local independent living center. I found out about a need they had and I found a way to meet it. They were starting a library of donated books in alternative formats. I had recently learned Microsoft Access. So I developed a computerized catalog of available books and a system for checking them in and out. I had taken a communication class at the center and gotten to know the staff. I learned that one employee needed a volunteer coordinator assistant. I offered to help, and when she decided to move onto other duties, I offered to handle the job on my own. Soon, a counselor went on medical leave. The center needed to hire a temporary counselor. I learned about this at lunch and took my resume in the next day and was hired. When the employee on medical leave decided to resign, I was hired on permanently.
In Portland, Oregon, where I live, there is a program called Incight. They recruit disability-friendly employers and bring them together for their own versions of job fairs. These take the form of activities such as critiquing and making suggestions for resumes, intros to companies in actual job fair settings, and my favorite, “Live Resume”. With Live Resume, participants have an interview with a coach to talk about skills,, interests and resumes. This allows Incight to hand-pick strong candidates for employment. When you are selected, you are encouraged to develop a three-minute introduction of yourself, covering skills, experience, interests and noteworthy personal information. Then you come to the actual event where you deliver your speech and then go around and meet individually with the employers that interest you. You don’t walk out with a job, but employers get to know you and will recognize you in the future when your job applications come across your desk. Another benefit of participating in Incight events is that the Incight staff are able to refer and advocate for you.
So, be creative. Be persistent. Be positive. Hang in there. You’ll be glad you did.