We’ve all seen the statistics. People with disabilities traditionally are underrepresented in the workforce, and, just like people without disabilities, women with disabilities have an even lower employment rate than men. Maybe you’ve contemplated getting into the workforce but believed that you couldn’t do it…that you don’t have the skills to offer, that your disability would get in the way physically or attitudinally, or that your state benefits wouldn’t allow it. Five women, including myself, want to tell you that those concerns can all be overcome. While not every person is suited for every job, there are plenty of types of jobs, whether they’re paying or volunteer, that people with disabilities can do. If you have been contemplating the feasibility of joining the workforce or volunteering, let the experiences of our panel of working women with disabilities encourage and inform you based on their real world experiences.
A Multitude of Job Possibilities
There are many jobs that people with disabilities can do, both inside and outside of the home. I have a full time job at a record label in sales, marketing, and customer service. Having a job in an office allows me a stable work environment where I can set up my surroundings to fit my needs. On the side, I also am a programming and marketing coordinator for a local sports and independence program for kids who use wheelchairs. I work from home, often on the computer. Working from home with the use of technology is another great option for people with disabilities because it allows flexible work hours and the best use of technology that fits the ability of the user. As I have also found by working with kids who are wheelchair users and their families, many times, firsthand knowledge of life with a disability is an asset to certain fields.
Kara Aiello has a degree in social work and has spent many years working in retirement communities performing both social work and therapeutic recreation. She has also performed group work with adults with mental health issues, which spurred her to obtain a certificate in therapeutic recreation so that she could fuse group and activity work with her love of working with in the field of geriatrics. On the side, she is also a journalist, most often contributing articles on topics of life with a disability.
Nancy Turnipseed has been a 1st grade teacher for 7 years. Often non-physical in nature, teaching is another career ideal for someone with a disability.
Motivation to Join the Workforce
What caused these women to beat the odds and join the workforce? Most cited the desire to be financially independent, but our panelists also expressed a deeper, more personal reason to join the workforce: the need to be a contributing member of society helping others, a need that can be fulfilled whether a job is paying or volunteer. Denise DiNoto says, “I need to be able to support myself and pay bills. I never considered not being employed. It was drilled into me as a child – go to school, go to college, get a job to support yourself. It’s just what responsible adults do, or so I was taught.” Kara Aiello echoes this sentiment and also adds that the life experiences employment has brought her have expanded her personal horizons. “I wanted to work, earn my own money and not have to be supported by others, she says. “And it is not just working, but education and expanding one’s life experience that can also contribute to finding confidence to work. I think the more we expand our awareness of what is out there, the more we see what is possible. I have had hesitations in going for new positions when I have worked in one place for a long time, but in stepping outside of my comfort zone with new positions, I have come to realize strengths and passions I would not have known if I did not step out of my comfort zone and apply for jobs I was nervous or scared to apply for.”
Both Jenny and Nancy agree that they always assumed that they would find a job like their peers. Nancy says, “it never really was an option for me NOT to join the workforce. It’s just always been the expectation-that I would graduate high school, go to college, and get a job.” Jenny adds, “I was 16 at the time of my injury, so I just assumed after my injury that I would continue with school and get a job after college.” I believe I learned to love working with and helping others from both my work experience before my injury (babysitting and coaching gymnastics) and work and volunteer experience after my injury. I believe financial independence is probably a big reason for desiring to work, as well.
But being eager to join the workforce doesn’t mean that there isn’t a healthy dose of fear about the process. Nancy explains, “I was hesitant to get a job, simply because I didn’t really know anyone who used a chair who had a regular job. I was worried that I wouldn’t be up for the physical parts of any job. I also worried about depending on others to do parts of my job and being considered a burden or weak link at work. But I was encouraged by my family and told that I was just as capable as any other candidate. I practiced interviewing for jobs and got my education, just like any other person who wants to find a job.” Now, she is proud to be a role model for other women in chairs who are looking to be employed.
If you’re looking to get into the workforce, you may be intimidated as you consider what modifications you might need to do a certain job, both in a physical sense and how your day is structured. While it is true that you can expect to make some modifications, finding a job for which you are well-suited often minimizes the modifications you will need, and there are many wonderful employers out there who are happy to allow your modifications. Be mindful of the fact that, while modifications are to be expected, and emergencies certainly happen, you are an employee like your able-bodied co-workers, and it is up to you as the employee to communicate your needs as clearly as possible and to try as hard as you can to adhere to company policies like arriving on time. All of our panelists have made some modifications to their surroundings so that they can be as independent as possible at their job and have learned some valuable lessons to share.
Denise DiNoto says, “I have had several reasonable accommodations at my various jobs. At one job, I was permitted a flexible schedule and could work whatever hours I chose as long as the work was performed. Another job granted me a reserved accessible parking space. My current employer has provided me a roller-bar mouse and a headset for my phone. I have a flexible schedule, so as long as I arrive within 15 minutes of my start time, I am not considered tardy.” Denise also works with her personal assistants so that her workday is least impacted. “I use 49 hours of personal assistance per week,” she says. “I am very selective in who I hire, particularly for my morning shift. I am upfront with my PAs and tell them if their poor performance or attendance reflects on my ability to be professional, they will not last long as my employee. I schedule my PAs around my job schedule.”
Kara Aiello found that having a career where she is not the only person with a disability has cut down on the modifications that she has had to request. She says, “When working in places such as a skilled nursing home, there are few barriers that I have found because a bulk of the residents use wheelchairs or live with various disabilities themselves. But as someone who does not drive and has to use a driver, I have to make sure I have transportation set up in case my primary driver cannot drive, as there is little room for excuse of why I can’t get to work. I have come to learn that, yes, the job one works with has to make accommodations regarding access for someone with a disability, but the individual with the disability also needs to prepare and show that he or she can do the job, get to work and on time, and simply show that they can do the job fully and are reliable as with anyone. It is a balance for sure.”
Nancy Turnipseed has her classroom set up to where she can easily maneuver around the room. “The only accommodation I have to make due to my disability is in the layout of my classroom,” she says. “The desks have to be placed in such a way that I can get between them. This gets complicated when my class size gets too large! I also have to make sure that I can easily reach all of the things that I’ll use throughout the day. I have had to ask a tall student to reach things on occasion!” She also brings up a great point regarding anticipating problems and having a backup plan. She says, “I keep a spare wheelchair at work just in case I get a flat tire. I had to leave school early once because this happened, and I didn’t have the spare chair at work. I was so embarrassed that I brought the spare the next day.”
Jenny Smith says that knowing how many hours her body can take working has been important to her success as an employee. She tells, “my previous job was super flexible with no strict work hours. When I came to Team Expansion, I requested a 32-hour work week. It was the smartest thing I ever did. Life just takes longer as a quad, and I still have time and energy to live life outside of work. If I was working 40 hours a week, I don’t think I could. It was difficult, though. I wanted to prove that I could do the job, and I didn’t want to be treated differently. Yet I had to realize that I do have limitations and that it is wise to set some boundaries in order to stay healthy to keep working long term. On occasion I will work 40+ hours a week, and I’ve experienced skin breakdown a few times when doing that. It has reinforced that I need to stick a schedule that works for me and my body.” She also says that working with her personal assistants around her job schedule is important. She explains, “I have help with a bowel program and showering three mornings a week. I simply have to get up earlier to be at work on time. Finding a personal care attendant that is reliable is harder than having a job! “
While the women on our panel have found jobs that are a great fit for them, sometimes the hiring process doesn’t go smoothly, and, just like in other areas of life, people can be intimidated or resistant to hire someone with a disability. Sometimes, it’s best to move on and have confidence that someone else will see your worth, but there are other times when it’s possible to change someone’s mind. Kara Aiello recalls, “I remember applying for a job in activities at an assisted living facility years back and not getting the job because the administrator told me I could not do the work because I used a wheelchair. They gave the job to someone else who had less experience regarding activities and, because of that, she actually quit the next day after being hired. They then gave me the job, and I helped them to see that there is more than just physical ability in being able to do a job. So yes, when people first meet me I do feel a concern of being taken seriously or needing to prove that I can do the job. But I think like with anyone going for a job, one really has to prepare for the interview, know what the job is about, have the knowledge and confidence that one can do the job and go out of their way to prepare as it is competitive out there. This may be even more necessary for persons with disabilities, but if it enhances confidence and belief that one can do the job, it is worth the work.”
Jenny Smith explains that there will be challenges, but it’s how you persevere from them that is most important. She says, “I don’t think I ever felt I wouldn’t be hired due to my disability but that my environment could prevent me from being hired. For example, I showed up at an interview for a teaching position where the office was in a second floor condominium office building with no elevator. Yes, it was due to my disability that I could not be hired for that position but not because of my qualifications or people’s perceptions. I think attitude plays a role in looking for a job. I scratched that off the list and kept looking without getting discouraged. I was mad due to lack of access but not discouraged in my abilities or disability.”
Our panelists have plenty of advice on getting into the workforce. Denise DiNoto says, “Because my disability is visible, I can’t hide it from potential employers. I have educated myself on how the Americans with Disabilities Act provides me rights, so I know what potential employers can and cannot ask me. I approach job searches as most everyone does I write a good resume and a good cover letter and provide smart answers during the interview. I have been consistently employed since September 1996, so I don’t worry that my disability will prevent me from finding a job. I only apply for jobs I can physically perform and am qualified for.” Denise continues, “If you depend on publicly funded programs (Social Security, Medicaid, etc.), it pays to do your research before you seek employment. Contact a local Independent Living Center, and speak to a staff member about your benefits. Often you can keep your benefits while you are employed, but you have to plan ahead. I believe everyone can find a way to be of service to their community, either through volunteer work or employment. Volunteering is a great way to discover your abilities and interests without risking employment related benefit concerns."
Kara Aiello says, “Find what you love, what you feel you are good at, and network with organizations that can give good training, resume building and interview advice. Learning how to dress, articulate what you want to say or convey in an interview is so important. And if you are nervous about how your disability will be a factor, I think it is good to learn about your rights and the ADA and how it protects you when applying for a job.”
Nancy Turnipseed says, “Volunteer places until you find real employment. It’s good for networking, building a resume, and practice going to work every day. Stay in school, even when it’s hard. Find something you love. Believe in yourself. If you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will either. Prepare for rejection, and don’t let it get you down. Eventually someone will give you a chance, and when that happens, do your best. You will have to work twice as hard to prove yourself, so just be ready for that.”
Jenny Smith recommends, “ Start volunteering. Find what you love to do, and get the experience and/or education required. Then go for it! If you can’t afford to lose SSDI benefits, then volunteer. I don’t necessarily think getting paid is the priority. Having something to wake up for every day, enjoying what you do, and getting to know great people are all so important. Also, acknowledge that this process may be out of your comfort zone. Just because it’s scary or uncomfortable doesn’t mean you should avoid it.“
Benefits of Having A Job
As we’ve outlined, having a job, whether it’s paying or volunteer, has so many benefits. It makes you feel like a productive member of society like your peers, it provides a social outlet, and it gives you the opportunity to prove to yourself and to others that people with disabilities have abilities not always immediately recognized. Jobs give people the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives and to society. I encourage you to look into becoming employed and to enjoying these lifelong benefits.