Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Job Search with a Disability

by Carrissa Johnson

If there is one thing I've learned in life, it's that nothing ever comes easy. Searching for employment as a person with a disability is not different. I've always had a job from the time I was 17 until last year. Jobs I've earned in the past, from my first one at a pizza place in high school, were given to me by people who knew my abilities. Although I did interview or go through the same processes as everyone else for those, I’ve never really experienced something like my current situation.

I clearly remember how I felt when I was told last year that my first professional placement as an employment specialist was ending. I'd been working with a population that I wanted to; I had success, the individuals I worked with had success. So when I was told I had to be let go I was angry and upset. Yes, honest feelings to have, but the organization had lost its funding and there was nothing anyone could do.

I was an educated individual with honors. I had job experience. I had a plan to keep my resume current through volunteering. I knew how to interview: what questions to be prepared for, and how not to over prepare. I knew what was legal and what wasn't, and what resources to call in those cases. I've coached other people on all these things so I thought things should not be a problem.

Getting callbacks wasn't ever a problem for me, and still isn’t for the most part. Approximately half of all the positions that I've applied for over the last year have given me interviews. I clearly remember the first time that I got an interview. It was also the first time I realized that my disability might be a problem as an applicant. The job was for an employment specialist. During my previous position I had spoken with this interviewer over the phone on a professional level. However, he'd never met me in person.

Now any person with an obvious disability has gotten the “stare.” That one “deer in headlights” look where for a moment they have no idea what to say. When I introduced myself, shook his hand, and he made the connection - that is what he looked at me like. The interview was short; I felt like they were firing questions at me as quickly as they could from their list. I let that opportunity go fairly quickly because I realized later I didn't want to work for them anyway.

I've had other silly situations like that. There was one in particular. Before the interview I could hear them talking. They were going over the job description and driving was an essential function of the job. Therefore when I went into the interview I made sure my keys were visible. My license hangs from them in a clear pouch - a small visual clue. I also made sure they knew driving was not a problem. And when talking about my past employment I used words like essential function and ADA. I was very proud of myself. The interview went honestly well. Around a week later I got called for a background check. After that the director called me and she said I had the best references and recommendations she's ever seen of any potential employee. However, they had one problem. The position would occasionally require me to interview individuals inside their homes as part of the selection process for young children. She gave me an afternoon to come up with a way to handle that. I called both my former employer and the job accommodation network, who helped me come up with two possible solutions that would not cost the employer anything except time to see if they would work. One was taking someone with me who could help me inside the home and then leave. The other would have another case manager do those interviews, while in exchange I did things for that case manager. I also thought that maybe there would be an opportunity where I could take somebody with me to let them investigate the home while I conducted the interview outside. I presented all three and also gave them the option of calling the job accommodation network themselves to discuss other options. She politely turned me down on everything and wouldn't even take the number. I later did some investigating on another chapter of that organization who never mentioned those home interviews as necessary.

You have 180 days to pursue legal action. I'm past that point and I regret that now. I regret not going any further because maybe sometimes that's what needs to happen in order to make any changes. A woman's right to vote didn't happen overnight, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 didn't necessarily change things overnight, and the ADA is still young and unless people are willing to enforce it, the law itself can't stand on its own. I'm an educated person. I had another professional give me the advice not to pursue. I can only imagine what others in similar situations feel like. However, as I said in the beginning - nothing comes easy. And we cannot expect others to fight the battles for us. If everyone felt that way there would be nobody left to fight. Nothing would ever change. And history has proven things can change.

Now I take comfort in my most recent “failure”. The position I applied for was exactly what I was doing in my last job, and the interview went well. I didn't get the job. I know two individuals that work in that same organization. They were pulling for me to get the job and I asked one of them if they knew of the reason that I wasn't hired. She told me I was almost hired for the job. The individual that interviewed me asked both of them about me. She was very impressed with everything I've done and was going to hire me. However, at the last minute the director hired someone that he knew. I take comfort in that. Why? Because I was endlessly considered for the position on my abilities. I was actually given a fair shot based on past experience. Because what was supposed to happen did happen, I know for sure that nothing was based on ignorance.

I won't give up. I can't. I need to have a purpose in life. I need to provide for my family, drawing off the government isn't going to fill those two things for me. I need to be independent just like anybody else; as I have been all my life. We're given two choices in life. Everyone is given the choice to give up or to keep going. I choose to keep going.

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