Diva for Hire

by Bethany A. Hoppe

There are 48.9 million Americans with disabilities - that is 1 in 5 people has a disability.  Of those...1 million are wheelchair users.  For every 250 people, there is a wheelie person.  October is Disability Awareness Month, with an emphasis on Employment. Jobs.  Job-jobs.

Have you ever noticed that one of the first things humans tend to ask one another upon initially meeting, is "So....what do you do?"  

In real conversation, that is a total downer.  But it is animal habit, just the same, to try and find something in common with our conversation partner during happy hour beyond the obvious weather.  Sometimes, this code of conduct gets skipped over in my personal encounters, and heads right to the "So....what's wrong with you?"

I wish-wish-wish I could toss out on the card table snarky answers to some of the inquiries:

"Were you born that way?"
"Hell, no!  I was hatched."

"What happened when you were born?"
"The stork crash-landed...it was like...bad."

"Why are your legs smaller?"
"Oh...yeah, that.  I'm a muppet."

"So, what happend to you?"
"What?!  Something happened??"  

Instead I smile inwardly at my own entertaining mind chatter, and then I take into consideration that they, just like me, are searching for a common thing to talk about.  And since my blinged out diva chair is the hot pink sparkling elephant in the cocktail lounge...I cater and politely answer their questions, making sure I immediately follow it up with, "Oh - and I teach at a four year university," ensuring that although they  didn't ask what I do, we can at least back track to the faithful get-to-know-ya standby question.  

I wait for it....

And then smile, somewhat amused as they hair-ball choke on their martini olive, check their knee-jerk reactions along with their coats with the concierge as they process, and blurt out, 'You do??"

"Oh, yes,"  I purr,  "I teach communication.  Rhetoric.  Conversation."  

Prior to being able to have access to a snarky come-back to the hot pink elephant in the room, I was worried.  When I was starting out after high school graduation, I came face-to-face with what felt like the consequences of my interests being in direct conflict with my actual physical ability.  I also came face-to-face with the unwarranted thoughts of others in terms of what they thought I could or could not do, and even what they thought I should or should not do.  

I struggled academically in high school at certain subjects - math was nearly a phobia - actually, it still is.  I didn't think college would be an option for me, yet I also couldn't think of any jobs I might qualify for that actually interested me and fed my soul, which I was also hirable for.

When I say hirable, I don't mean discriminated against, like I was qualified but would simply not be in the running because of disability.  I mean, even in light of the Americans with Disabilities Act, I just couldn't physically do certain jobs, and I was aware of it.  

Ironically, on a Strong Interest Inventory Test (SII), my highest scores were drill sargeant, fighter pilot, film director, and teacher.  Fighter pilot and teacher were very few points apart.  I would love nothing more than being in the cockpit of a MIG, doing "Top Gun" air fighting.  Had disability not been an issue, I probably would have gone into the Air Force.  My creative side wanted to express itself in the Arts.  In Left Brain/Right Brain quizzes, I am (in my own favorite words when it comes to gauging the world) exactly on The Fifty Yard Line.

But, instead of focusing on what could not be physically done within certain fields of work, despite a lion's heart of interest, I did not go for jobs I just could not do.  When it came to the Arts...that was a somewhat different story.  In auditions I always tried to go for roles that were logically do-able, yet didn't specifically call for a female wheelchair talent.  

I can't tell you how many fellow actors, casting directors, workshop facilitators, agents, and producers loved vocally and characteristically what I did...but they could not reason out a way to cast wheelchair talent.  On the rare occasion that tier one directors chose me over the chair...investors would not. 

Back in the world of what most people consider job-jobs, the positions that were suggested to me as I contemplated my future were things I was not interested in.  Computers.  Secretary.  Desk jobs.  Receptionist.  Telephone operator.  Dispatch operator.  Medical data entry worker.

In the event I might be required to select one of those jobs - yes -  I could and would do it because it is  a job regardless that they weren't my passions.  If push came to shove, I knew that if I wanted any semblance of independence, money to pay bills, or a car to drive, I literally could not afford to turn down opportunity.  This made me quickly realize that if my first dream-job of acting was virtually impossible in the late 80's, and my SII scores which indicated my intellectual military strengths weren't a physical option,  I was going to have to go to school in order to become qualified for anything other than a desk job I did not soulfully want.

I often tell my students that once you get information into your head, no one can take it away.  It cannot be intentionally erased.  If the information happens to be of little importance to you, your brain will automatically defragment it and toss it out while it pays more categorical, labeling, memory attention to the things that do matter to your specific survival, environment, skill set, or personality.

It is my firm belief that the golden ticket for Rolling Divas everywhere, whenever possible, at whatever level...is obtaining some sort of training, certification, degree, or education.  Ultimately, it is fabulous if higher education classes are aligned with your interests and passions.  Whatever you learn, whatever your hands-on trained to do, whatever you read, whatever you hear, whatever you see...is afterwards forever yours.

It can be frustrating.  I often felt that along my educational path that classes were too time absorbant, had too long of a delay before the benefits of it reaped a paycheck. On an emotional scale I often felt like going to school kept me from doing what I really wanted to be doing.  I frequently felt sidetracked from destiny.  I often resented the fact that semester after semester, workshop after workshop, I was tunneled into someone else's time frame, expectations, and theory.  

In the end - I became a teacher.  One of my strong suits on the Strong Interest Inventory.  Something that allowed me to be creative.  Something that allowed me to earn a living.  I love my job.  I adore my students.  I always want to know and learn more about the world around me.  I love to intellectually explore.

Though, I am not your typical academic by any stretch of the imagination.

As my schedule allows, I am currently working towards a graduate certificate in Women's and Gender Studies.   At this time, I am not in a class, as all of the offerings conflict with my teaching schedule, and I have found myself gripping some fabulous live wires in terms of projects and endeavors I am finally able to pursue.  

And there it is - I am only able to pursue them, because at long last...my other educational degrees have brought me to a point where I can have a job-job that funds my fantasy job(s).  I am finally entering that extraordinary phase of long term gain for the years of financial sacrifice, time, and energy put into studies and pro-bono work.

Many people, when hearing professors emphasize education, automatically think we are talking about advanced degrees, and taking classes at four year universities.  And frankly, with me, that is not the case.  


Because particularly for women with disabilities - for the assurance of their independence, their mobility, their safe living environments, their physical and social health...any amount of training (whether on the job, adult classes, technical certification, associates-bachelors-masters-doctoral degrees)...matters.  Simple as that.

Statistically, women with disabilities are in significantly worse condition than men with disabilities - even when compared to our able-bodied female peers experiencing inequality among able-bodied males.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 15% of all American households had a household member with a disability.  Of that, 15% are male, and 14% are female.   Disabled men, ages 16-65 recorded in August 2012 13% unemployment.  Disabled women of the same age group recorded at 17.2%  unemployed.

As women we're all in the same boat when it comes to pay, healthcare, safety, and progress....only women with disabilities are in deeper than their standing gal pals.  What this means is that if there is any demographic (which covers race, religion, and orientation) that needs to obtain the keys to happiness, freedom, and success....it is the Rolling Divas.

According to the Social Security Administration, 83% of the working disabled live with relatives.  Their median income is $13, 323 ~ half of their standing peers.  Women with disabilities are 23% more likely to live in poverty without an education or job training compared to men's chances at poverty conditions at 15% with lesser education and training.

So, girls?  To climb out of poverty conditions, you need more training than the guys do.  And there are fewer of our demographic comparatively.  

Knowledge is Power.  Power is generally Money.  Money is Freedom.  Freedom is Creativity.  Creativity is Healthy.  Healthy is Living.  Living is Life.  And Life is Good.

Go to a career counseling center - and if the associate that helps you is a total bitch and says you're not able to do anything - dump her and find another consultant to work with who gets it.  Utilize your local rehab center, independent living center, office of vocational rehabilitation, temping agency, or local business owners and find yourself a class, a certification, an apprenticeship, an on-the-job training opportunity...a skill set that matches your passions...and head out the door.  Grab the opportunity and run with it ladies...because we need to close the financial, social, and occupational gap between men who roll...and women who roll.

Just like our able-bodied peers, women are making strides around the world at different paces.

You are a woman first.

Go, Diva, Go!

Bethany A. Hoppe is a speaker and author who works to promote women with disabilities in mainstream media, who has a disability herself...Spina Bifida.  She holds a Masters in communication studies and teaches at Middle Tennessee State University.  Bethany writes Raspberry Vogue, a lifestyle blog of a wheelchair diva (www.RaspberryVogue.com).   

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