Education? Check. International experience? Check. Functionally proficient in a second language? Check. Volunteer activities and community involvement? Check. Vocational rehabilitation? Check. Stellar resume with relevant work history? Check. Interview practice? Check. I’m ready to job search!
This was running through my mind in spring of 2014 as I proudly accepted my Certificate of Completion with exemplary status from the Tennessee Rehabilitation Center in Smyrna, TN. I was even presented with an Excellence in Leadership Award by State Representative Dawn White. I thought if anyone could defy the statistics on job seekers with disabilities, it would be me. I applied for over 100 positions. I disclosed my disability up front in a cover letter for some. For others I opted not to bring it up, even though I knew interviewers would notice my white cane. For several prospects, I tried to educate the potential employer of my connection with Vocational Rehabilitation and that they would support us both in ensuring my transition into the workplace would be smooth and successful. No matter what, two years later I found myself still unemployed with not a single offer. I could rationalize why I was turned down for some jobs. I could understand why I was not considered for interview with certain ones. However, as much as I hated to admit, I realized that there were entities failing to see beyond my blindness, or at least they viewed hiring a person with a disability as a burden. I could have become a token employee at some establishments, but I refused to apply for positions that were beneath my qualifications. Working anywhere that viewed jobs for those with disabilities as charity was also out of the picture.
Finally and thankfully, in July 2016, I found the perfect match. Empower Tennessee was not intimidated by my blindness. In fact, my credentials and qualifications were respected and my disability was not only reasonably accommodated, but also equally valued. One year into my role as Independent Living and Advocacy Specialist, we focus on highlighting my skills, talents, and passions while collaborating to accomplish projects. Rather than wondering if I can perform a task, we work together to find practical or, when necessary, innovative solutions to any perceived barriers. I would like all employers to approach job recruitment and placement in this manner.
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. This year I want to challenge employers to expand their hiring practices and incorporate creative strategies such as customized or supported employment, aiming to increase competitive integrated career options. I want to encourage companies to stop thinking of workers with disabilities as second-class employees with accommodation requirements. Instead, embrace the diversity, insight; and learning opportunities we bring as valuable assets that enhance missions, enrich environments, and improve service quality standards. Every job seeker should know your rights, including those that specifically relate to being a worker with a disability; but, employers must also acknowledge and address the lingering discriminatory practices and unfair assumptions that continue to exist. Empower Tennessee serves as an excellent model of how the employee-employer relationship can be utilized to mutually benefit each other and build a strong, inclusive workforce.
by April Meredith, IL & Advocacy Specialist