As a person with disabilities, I have firsthand experience with the difficulties of finding and keeping employment. The statistics for people with disabilities are dismal: most are either unemployed or underemployed. Unemployment for people with disabilities remains twice as high as for people without disabilities. Nearly 80% of people with disabilities are considered “not in the labor force,” meaning they are not employed or seeking work.
As a person with several disabilities including autism, non-verbal learning difficulties, etc., I am very lucky to have found employment. However, it was not an easy task, and I experienced many discouraging aspects.
Common Employment Challenges
First, I received feedback that had nothing to do with my work or effort, but reflected upon my disabilities. For example, I received feedback on my attire, which did not allow for the needs of someone with sensory issues. There was no opportunity to resolve this through compromise; instead, it became a warning or infraction.
This is a common situation that people with disabilities face in the workplace. It can lead to trauma, low self-esteem, and anxiety. There were times after receiving this “feedback” that I didn’t want to come to work the next day due to anxiety.
Second, I often felt like my voice was not heard. Often, other people received credit for ideas and suggestions that I provided. This made me feel angry, disappointed and “less-than.” People with disabilities deserve to be critiqued on their actual work and not their disabilities.
Many people with disabilities struggle with communication with coworkers and employers. Personally, I get very confused with social gestures that are not spoken or vague directions.
Others who have disabilities prefer to have no face-to-face interactions and have their responsibilities written on paper. Employers need to recognize that there are different kinds of learners: visual, auditory and kinesthetic. Perhaps employers can ask workers how they best receive information?
We often communicate differently than our neurotypical peers and this can make social interactions confusing and difficult. My current employer, Matthias Academy, has been very accommodating in this area. For example, my coworkers provide me with detailed instructions that are clear and to the point. This allows me to successfully complete tasks without having to guess what they mean.
Comfortable Work Clothes
One of my bigger challenges at work is dressing the part. Many people with disabilities struggle to find the proper clothes due to sensory issues. It takes me a long time to find comfortable clothing—and when I say they're uncomfortable, I mean that the clothes physically feel painful to my skin. (For example, sometimes the seam is not in the normal place—can you believe they make pants now where the seams run down the middle of our legs?)
Often, after purchasing clothes, I refuse to wear them due to anxiety. And even when I do find comfortable clothes, my wardrobe is still quite limited and small. As such, this requires a lot more loads of laundry to be done throughout the week…ugh!
My Wonderful Job & Employer
I was very lucky though, in finding my job today. I work part-time at Matthias Academy as an Assistant Professor. Before that, I was in a work study program. This allowed me to try out the job, without being held responsible for daily tasks.
This also allowed Matthias Academy to learn my strengths, weaknesses, and what did/didn’t work for me. My employer supports me and accepts me the way I am. (My mom calls that a “compassionate employer.”) My coworkers—who I call “my team”—are always happy to work with me. They are inclusive of me and support the decisions I make. They include me in coffee orders and in conversations about job responsibilities.
I could never imagine finding employment that could accept me and my disabilities for what they are. I’m very grateful to be working at Matthias Academy!
I cannot fit everything into this article, but INCLUSION and ACCEPTANCE go a long way in the workplace.