Disabled people are a hugely underutilized workforce in the US. More than one in five people in the United States have a disability, but only one-third of working-age disabled people are employed. Employers are losing out on qualified (or even overqualified) candidates and disabled people are losing paychecks due to the stigma and perceptions of what it means to be disabled.
While the situation may seem dire, employment rates among disabled people are steadily rising as the general public gains a more nuanced understanding of disability—and a newfound appreciation for our skill-sets. And as the shape of work changes to better suit able-bodied people, in the form of flexible policies like the ability to work from work, disabled workers will also benefit.
“One of the trends to look for in 2019 to 2024 from all employers is training staff they already have, and thinking outside their normal box, says Janice (not her real name), an employment counselor at the Monmouth County Office of Workforce Development.That includes “recruiting and hiring disabled people…groups that normally have some type of stigma. In this very tight economy, employers have to be competitive,” Janice believes.
Janice declined to give her real name for this article because she was afraid of the possible repercussions during her next job search. She is disabled; her condition is lifelong, degenerative, and expensive. At the moment, she flourishes at her job due to tangible accommodations (squish-grip gel pens, a supportive desk chair with arms) and less tangible ones (the freedom to design her schedule around her energy levels).But her department is losing funding, and Janice may soon be out of a job.
Though employers may just be learning about our capabilities, disabled people are not a tiny minority category. We are woven into the fabric of society, in every industry, every state, every education level. But disabled people often can’t just exist in this world. We have to critically examine how we are existing, and how we can better navigate a world that isn’t really made for us. That’s what accommodations are: methods, tools, and ways to accomplish our goals, whether that’s as common as cooking a meal or important as managing a department.
The coping skills you learn to deal with your disability often translate into valuable professional skill-sets.Look at my professional life, for example. Because of my medical conditions, I’m incredibly organized. I have to be—otherwise, I would never remember anything. Pain and pain medications both stymie productivity and impair memory. On bad days, nerve pain and muscle spasms shoot through my body every few minutes. It’s akin to being surrounded by teenagers who are constantly whacking you with Wiffle bats. The pain is bad, but the distraction is worse. Taking pain medication will dull the pain, but it also turns my mind into a blurry sieve. So I’ve learned to externalize my brain in spreadsheets, to-do lists, monthly analyses, and checklists.
On a corkboard in my bedroom, I’ve pinned up lists of daily non-negotiable tasks (brushing my teeth), approved snacks (granola bars rank highly), and things I like to do (‘doing the dishes’ is mysteriously #4). Believe it or not, I have a tendency to forget about life-affirming hobbies that I enjoy if those hobbies are not immediately in front of me. When I’m fighting to get through a day, I won’t randomly remember something that helped me two weeks ago unless it goes onto one of my lists.
The same principle applies at work. I have a giant corkboard in my office filled with more than a dozen lists. There’s the daily to-do list, the weekly to-do list, the step-by-step processes to send an email blast or update the finicky product software. There are long-term goals and short-term goals and ad campaigns, all color-coded for the appropriate audience or platform.
My bosses love my lists. With just a quick stop by my desk, they can see what I’ll be working on for the next few weeks. My lists help me keep tabs on myself, and by extension, let my bosses keep tabs on me, too. And if I happen to be out of the office, anyone can easily slide into my seat, poke around my meticulously organized folders, and find whatever files they need.
I can only spend four days a week in the office—but that’s a perk. My position doesn’t require 40 full hours of work each week, so my boss only pays me for hours that I’m actually being productive, rather than scrolling on Reddit. I am fortunate to have an understanding boss who shares similar symptoms. We work in a happy synergy.
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