A Sad Stat – Employment with a disability

A blogging lifetime ago (read: two years) I shared about the struggle of maintaining employment while still receiving the benefits I need. But let’s say you get past the income limits and the technical barriers of finding transportation and – let’s face it – the energy to maintain a full-time job. I’ve seen a pretty large number of my friends with disabilities share their concerns they have with finding and maintaining employment and earning the same respect as their able-bodied colleagues.

These fears are founded in a very scary reality. In 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the unemployment rate for people with disabilities at 10.5%, over double that of people without at only 4.6%. Many factors play into this: lack of access to education and careers is a huge one. However, there are several smaller, more manageable things that people with disabilities can do to make their job search more fruitful. I consider myself extremely lucky to work at a job I love, and truthfully wish everyone was as fortunate!

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What is this “dream job” I speak of? I work at Bath Iron Works – the world’s best shipyard. Photo by Josh Gerritsen

While I can’t create your dream job, I can share some of the things I did during the hiring process that I like to think helped me land the job. Some of these are disability specific, but overall I think they’re pretty good advice in general.

  1. Be upfront about your weaknesses

I chose to disclose my disability in my cover letter. There’s some debate in the disability community about whether this is the “right” way to do it but I (sit) by my choice. By disclosing my disability, I opened a dialogue and also demonstrated that it was not something I am ashamed of or try to minimize. Spinal Muscular Atrophy is very much a part of who I am – it has given me a skill set that I never would have otherwise developed. Addressing the elephant in the room also meant that I wasn’t going to catch the interviewers off guard when I got there. The interviewers would (ideally) have had time to process and adjust to the idea, so the interview itself could focus on more of the job-related issues.

2. Be confident

Don’t let your preconceived ideas of how the job market looks as a person with a disability affect the way you go into your interview. My mom will tell you that, as a general rule, self-confidence has never been something I lacked. A lot of this comes from the whole “fake it till you make it” technique – tried and tested. I have never let the fact that I’m in a wheelchair detract from my other skills. I may use self-deprecating humor to address it (“what’s your greatest weakness?” “I’d have to say stairs”) but my family has never let me forget that I have a lot of skills not at all impacted by my SMA.

3. Don’t volunteer more than is needed

Having been at my job for a little over a year now, things have come up that require accommodations that I hadn’t considered – because I hadn’t tried to. If you’re capable of performing the basic job functions with only reasonable accommodations then those can be addressed after you’re hired. The ADA is there to protect you…don’t bring up too many “what ifs” during your interview or in follow-up conversations. My current job may not have hired me if I had mentioned all the things I needed help with (electronic textbooks, elevator door renovations, additional handicapped door buttons, etc), but I like to think that the quality of work I do makes it worth their time.

I’m not a hiring manager, or someone who has been to hundreds of successful interviews. My word isn’t gospel, or even backed up by all that many life experiences, but I do hope that at least one of these points gives you some confidence going into your next interview. If you have any other tips, feel free to drop it in the comments!

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You’re fired

You know those shirts that say “I run better than the government”? I need one. And I can’t even walk. If I did my job as poorly as any given government agency, I would have been fired years ago.

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This past Saturday I received an envelope from the Department of Health and Human services, which is never a good thing. Inside was a letter telling me I had been deemed ineligible for MaineCare services. MaineCare, Maine’s version of Medicaid, is the only insurance carrier who covers Personal Care services. That means that private health insurance – like what you receive through your employer – wouldn’t cover it (which is a topic for another post). Because of the income limits on Medicaid, that means many people with disabilities have to hover around the poverty line just to get the care they need. Some states offer a “Buy-In” plan, which means that those with disabilities who make “too much” can pay a given amount to remain on the state insurance.

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What the government thinks people with disabilities do

One of the easiest ways to qualify for MaineCare is to receive SSI (Supplemental Security Income), which is given to any number of groups who qualify based on ability to work, and income. Because I make “too much” (trust me when I say it’s not that much), I no longer am eligible for SSI to help me cover my extra disability expenses associated with maintaining employment. When I found out I would likely be found ineligible for SSI, I confirmed with several people at both the Social Security Administration and DHHS that this would not affect my MaineCare services which I rely on for both health insurance and my personal care needs. I was told that it would not.
What I was not told was that I needed to fill out new paperwork to determine my disability status. I was not told that I would have to return paperwork to ensure I was disabled (despite filling the same paperwork out probably 10 times over the last 8 years) in less than a week or else I would lose my medical coverage. I was not told that I would receive a letter telling me I was ineligible, or that that letter wouldn’t include any explanation as to how that determination was made, or that that letter would have nothing but a link to the Health Insurance Marketplace – a marketplace full of insurance carriers who don’t offer anything that I need. I was not told that I would have to spend my Monday morning repeating my social security number over and over again as I was transferred from department to department to figure this out.

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A representation of what it feels like every time I call a government agency

In any private organization, somebody would be held accountable. But this isn’t a private organization – it’s the government. So really, I expect nothing better.