In my early 20’s, I was a poster girl for inspiration.
Armed with a new supposedly, “in-demand” practical and marketable business degree, my adage to other people with disabilities was just be positive and you too will get a job.
I grew up with a physical disability and with others’ attitudinal barriers towards accepting my disability and abilities. Therefore, I knew that it would probably not be smooth sailing in securing employment. However, I was young, full of vim and vigour, and psychologically stoked up on people telling me how great I was and that I would have a great career. I also felt very confident in myself, and my abilities and accomplishments. I was breaking down disability related barriers and stereotypes all the time and had let no one stop me from pursuing my hopes and dreams. Now with a degree, I thought I had this ticket to financial and personal freedom and independence. Little did I know that the employment barriers (and its effects) would be one of my life’s greatest hardships and emotional upsets where I would continually face rejection from others and uncertainty regarding my future. It would affect almost every aspect of my life.
During this period, I did plenty of volunteering and accepted wage subsidies just to “get my foot in the door” and earn some money – besides I was young and needed the experience, and that was what one did, I thought. Even after receiving my degree, I was continuously seizing every opportunity to advance my education and taking additional courses and training that would supposedly make me “more marketable” and give me that edge over my competitors. I also knew that I had to do this, because as a person with a disability, I had to be overqualified for many positions that I was applying to just so some employers might interview me. My first job and introduction to post-degree employment was part of a youth hiring initiative, and the moment the employer met me, he said, “Oh you have a disability. We can get a wage subsidy for you, and then we will have more money.”
Meanwhile, despite what was not going on in my career, I needed to have more fun and balance in my life and something to look forward to. I took up downhill skiing and was having a great time, and found a great opportunity to demonstrate my career skills there.
The media interviewed me several times regarding my participation in and promotion of disabled skiing. I was referred to as being courageous, happy, funny, inspiring, and triumphant despite not knowing me that well. Skiing was “cool and uplifting” and not controversial. It heavily relied on image, and when paired up with a sporty, fresh faced, and “inspirational” person with a disability who had a sunny disposition, it made good copy, as it was a “feel good” human-interest story. I knew back then that those in the disability movement had to fight just to get any coverage on the really important and relevant disability issues like injustice, poverty, unemployment, housing, education, transportation, health, access, and discrimination, whereas I, more often than not, just had to say “skiing”, “fun”, and “recreation”, and I received coverage.
As years passed, my former classmates were getting the real jobs, promotions, and moving on with their lives, and I was not despite having as much if not more skills and experience. In fact, I was still being told that I needed more experience which was a plausible thing to say to someone still under 30 (or to anyone who was naïve). However, I began to realise that for many employers, that was their safer way to reject me when I knew that they were hiring my peers without disabilities who did not have the experience or the requisite skills for the job. (As an aside, once I had hit my mid 30’s, it seemed there was an overnight change in the type of rejection line I was receiving – one day I had “not enough experience” and the next day I had “too much experience and would be unchallenged by the job.”)
Even with my intense job search efforts (including using supposedly effective job search strategies and inventing a few of my own) and not limiting myself to certain industry sectors and positions, I was still hardly getting any real job interviews. When I did get interviews, some employers had commented that they thought I had a disability because of where I had worked. Some employers even viewed my volunteer work experience as not being “real work” even though it was the only way that I was going to get experience at that time. I found that about 90% of the time, I was interviewed by organisations who were suppose to be practicing employment equity or had received a wage subsidy to hire an “employment disadvantaged” person. I was only getting short-term, low paying wage subsidy positions and no offers of real jobs for real pay. [I had 4 wage subsidy positions. All the organisations that hire me under subsidy had a history of not keeping people on after the subsidy had ended. Some had elements of being “make work” positions, and/or exploitive of me and the subsidy (free or cheap labour), which, of course, did not make me feel very good. I felt demoralized, and at times, very much used. Some employers knew they were getting a very good deal in hiring me under these programs, as I knew what my market value was worth in applying my talents. If I were not being marginalized, my market worth would be much higher than what I was actually being paid.]
Something was wrong. Having an excellent résumé, skill set, ability, attitude, initiative, work ethic, and doing well in interviews, and being personable, talented, and having a great reputation of being able to work well with others was still not good enough. Furthermore, when some interviewers would straight out pass wrongful judgement on how my disability affected my ability to do the job, I knew the espoused values of hiring on merit, skills, knowledge, and ability had probably taken a permanent leave from many employers.
One cannot live on being seen as brave, inspiring, good humoured, and triumphant when all one is being thrown are crumbs. Many people are led to believe that things are fine for people with disabilities when it hides or glosses over the true realities facing them. Furthermore, no hollow words of praise or paying for special disability recognition and inclusion events will do, if real active commitment to the inclusion and support of people with disabilities in employment is absent. Getting the keys to the car seems meaningless, if no one will allow you to drive.