People with disabilities can struggle to find fulfilling jobs that are well-suited to their skills. However, advocacy organizations and government and corporate partners work to remove barriers to help them find meaningful careers. “We know people with disabilities want to work. We know that people with disabilities can work. And so the problem is that there is a lack of opportunity and there are still barriers,” says Tom Foley, executive director of the National Disability Institute.
“In some ways, we’re seeing higher employment numbers than we have ever seen before. And part of that is a flexible work environment,” says Foley. The pandemic’s impact on remote work has increased work opportunities for people with disabilities by reducing one barrier to employment: transportation for people who are unable to commute.
However, there are still many more barriers that job seekers with disabilities face. Here are answers to some of the most common questions about how disabled workers can find great jobs.
How Do You Deal With Lowered Expectations?
Kathy West-Evans, director of business relations at the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation, explains that one of the largest problems facing people with disabilities who are searching for jobs is attitudinal. “In this country, disability has been tied to a diagnosis and a label. And when you identify people by a label, then you start to make assumptions about what they can and can’t do,” says West-Evans. “And my experience is if you’ve met one person with a disability, then you’ve met one person with a disability. Just like any other diversity group.”
West-Evans advises that young people who may have been born with a disability or acquired it at a young age not buy into the stereotypes of what you can’t do. Individuals who come into disability later in life should also feel empowered to pursue their desired career journey. West-Evans says to instead ask yourself, “What do you enjoy? What do you value? What do you want to do?”
What if You Aren’t Receiving Equitable Pay?
Clark Rachfal, director of advocacy and governmental affairs at the American Council of the Blind, advises that if someone is in a state where an employer is trying to pay them less than the federal minimum wage, he recommends they pursue a civil rights complaint through their state, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and contact a national advocacy organization like the ACB or one of 57 designated protection and advocacy agencies located in every state and territory funded by the federal government and chartered to advocate on behalf of people with disability.
How Can an Employer Fix a Job Description That Isn’t Accessible?
Foley says the NDI works specifically on issues of financial and economic inclusion for people with disabilities, and he notes employers should watch out for older “boiler plate” language that still exists on hiring documents. A common one Foley notices is “Managers must be able to lift 50 pounds,” when the job no longer requires this. A “must have valid driver’s license,” requirement for a desk job that does not require travel is another one that excludes a lot of people who have disabilities.
What Do You Say if Someone Asks if You Can Really Perform a Job Task?
If people present questions about whether a person with a disability can really perform a job task as part of the job search, Foley recommends that individuals with disabilities engage it directly. Using himself as an example since he is blind, Foley presents a way for a person who is blind to respond to someone asking about one’s ability to write. “Well, there’s this thing called a screen reader that gives me complete access to email. And as a matter of fact, there’s been a lot of writing in all of my jobs over the years, and I really take pleasure in writing,” Foley says.
What Can You Do if You Have an Experience Gap on Your Resume?
Some job seekers with disabilities might not have previous work experience that others have, particularly at the start of their career in entry-level positions. Pursue scholarships, get job training and attend virtual events to try and fill in career gaps.
To get more experience before you even start your job search, Rachfal recommends the scholarships, internships and trainings found on the ACB jobs webpage. Since the start of the pandemic, Rachfal says the ACB community has also moderated or hosted over 10,000 virtual events, primarily hosted on the Zoom platform. Events are also streamed through Clubhouse (a social media network based on voice), their internet radio service the ACB Media Network, shared via email, and there are also dial-in instructions. You can also ask your smart speaker to “play ACB Media.”
You can also try working with a vocational rehabilitation counselor. West-Evans notes an example of a young man who is neurodiverse and received technical certification, then completed internships through Spectrum Success at Hewlett-Packard, all through collaborating with CSAVR. He was then able to complete a two-week working interview rather than a 45-minute interview to demonstrate his skills to his future team. With the help of a career coach, he was able to get a job working remotely at Dell in his field of choice.
The tapability.org Talent Acquisition Portal is an interactive job portal CSAVR designed to be accessible and has about 31,500 users. CSAVR partners with veterans, the Social Security Administration, the Helen Keller National Center, Native American communities and more. Even more career resources can be found on the csavr.org website. In addition, Foley says that the LEAD Center provides resources and tools to people with disabilities.
How Do You Keep Positive While Job Searching?
Foley advises staying physically and emotionally resilient. “Looking for a job is hard. If you’re a person with a disability looking for a job, then that’s just harder,” Foley says. “You may hear ‘no’ half a dozen times, but it’s that next job or the next job where somebody might say ‘yes.'”
NDI has developed a text campaign called #ResilientPwD specifically designed to help people with disabilities stay resilient. A text is sent to your cellphone twice a week that contains advice on how to stay resilient. Foley also says you need to surround yourself with positive people, and you need to have the tenacity to keep trying to find a job.
How Can You Get Financial Stability Between Jobs?
There are specific Achieving a Better Life Experience savings accounts for people with disabilities to save money for life’s emergencies without putting their benefits at risk. “Many people with disabilities are unable to save money because benefit programs have asset limits. If you have too much money in the bank, then they cut off your benefits,” says Foley. According to the ABLE National Resource Center, states have set limits for these savings accounts that can range from $235,000 to $550,000.
Foley also recommends the American Dream Employment Network, a nationwide employment network that works specifically for people who receive Supplemental Security Income or Social Security Disability Insurance. At the end of the third quarter of 2022, participants in the program earned a total of $40 million.
How Can You Start Your Own Business?
NDI has full-time technical assistance for people with disabilities who want to start a business as well as webinars on self-employment for people with disabilities, says Foley. The Small Business Hub can help you get started.
How Important Is Networking?
Rachfal emphasizes that networking is especially important for people with disabilities. If people underestimate your ability, those connections may be important. As you build up your reputation as a professional, networking becomes equal parts who you know and who is willing to vouch for you. Who is willing to recommend or refer contacts to you for a conversation, mentoring, involvement, engagement and possibly informational interviews.
What if I Prefer to Do Everything on My Own?
Rachfal is aware that sometimes there are folks with disabilities who want to do things on their own to prove that they can. But if there is an easier path forward, these resources exist for a reason. “Organizations like the American Council of the Blind exist for a reason. And part of that is to have a supportive community and network and share experiences and hopefully have a rising tide that floats all boats,” Rachfal says.
Rachfal recommends taking advantage of all the tools and resources that are available to you, including federal and state government programs, resources from nonprofits to aid in your academic pursuits, workplace training, technology training, mentorships, internships. “If you qualify for them, look into them and determine if it’s a right fit for you.”
How Do I Become a Career Athlete?
Rachfal was a Paralympic athlete for Team USA. He and his pilot won a tandem cycling world championship in 2009 racing on a velodrome, a bronze medal in the USA Cycling Paralympic Road National Championships in 2011, as well as another bronze on the track in 2014. Rachfal, who identifies as blind, says most professional athletes, whether they are disabled or not, are fortunate to earn enough money to remain in their sport and not seek an additional profession. Potential career athletes should have a realistic conversation with their coach, agent and whoever is a part of their support network about their goals and if they want to be solely sustained from their sport, engagements and endorsements.
Foley plays goalball and sees a similarity between the sport and job searching. “What really jumps out at me because goalball is a team sport, looking for a job is a team sport as well,” he says. Foley got his current job because he networked, he practiced interviewing with friends and family, and he asked other people who knew about the organization what else he should talk about in the interview. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help and reach out to friends and family and get as much information and assistance as you can,” he says. Foley also notes that, as with competitive sports, you don’t just show up and do it. Preparation for the job interview is key.
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Update 11/17/22: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.