Educating Employers

In college it was required that all majors complete an 'approved' internship along with an internship seminar in order to graduate. These internships were unpaid, and worth at minimum three or four credits along with whatever freebies your supervisors would grant you. I sent out resumes, letters of references, went to interviews, clocked in endless hours at the Career Services office (until my career counselor became closer to me than my academic advisor..) But eventually I got an internship, in fact I really lucked out in that over the course of my four years of undergrad I had three different internships.

Each of them were in different areas that ranged from community organizing to research for an international human rights organization. For each of them I had the same nervousness about applying for, and did so in the same usual way that my peers applied to theirs. One major difference was that after hearing I got an interview I'd take a secret trip (always on my own) to the front of the building where my interview would be held -- just to be certain:
1. I was able to get there on my own via public transportation
2. That the building was accessible
After being satisfied that I could get *inside* the office and was able to get their on my own, I'd return to my dorm room and write something like the following:
"I look forward to our conversation on (whatever day) and am excited to learn more about the work that you do. However I am a student who uses a wheelchair and was wondering if your office was accessible i.e. I would need access to a ramp or an elevator, and an accessible bathroom."

And they would respond positively, (that is - all but one of the places that I applied to.) Once that email was sent that was as much of my disability that I ever revealed in the hiring process. Since the positions I applied to were primarily desk and computer work, I didn't think that there would be any barriers besides the architectural barriers I would have to address. Things like desk height, fire drill procedures, being able to navigate a corridor of cubicles, voicemails that could be translated to text (because I have a hearing-loss), being able to work from home in the event of snow storms etc.. didn't occur to me to ask. And nor were they ever brought up by the person doing the interview. They occur to me now because I have more professional experience - but no one told me about those things I could have access to, I largely learned about them on my own and from those around me.
At interviews I was never asked about why I was in a wheelchair and what my disability was about. I also know that my references never made any mention of my disability in their own letters or referrals either. I assume that this is mostly because the work that I was expected to do didn't have any bearing on my physical fragility. And even though I have no complaints about the internship experiences I've had, they were stellar and I'm glad I have that experience of the hiring process under my belt as an undergrad... it would have been that much more educational and beneficial for me had I known my rights as an employee with a disability. Someone whose rights were protected by the ADA, someone who didn't feel the need to make sure my accessibility needs were met "in secret."

I still have a lot of questions about what employers can and cannot ask about my disability when I apply for jobs. This is why I'm helping Easter Seals MA push for an employment bill. This piece of legislation would give vendors that are contracted to the state of MA not only an incentive to hire people with disabilities, but also to ensure that all hiring managers are educated about the ADA -- and to that extent -- can align their own hiring policies with that of the ADA.
The political issue of people with disabilities is like the political issue of the well-being of children. Rare is the incident when you will ever hear a politician say "I'm against this legislation because it supports people with disabilities..." Everyone, verbally, is in support of doing everything they can do to improve the lives of those with disabilities. Well, then how come 79.2% of people with disabilities are unemployed? And this isn't to say that we expect the employers to be doing all of the heavy lifting. By no means do I expect disability employment numbers to drastically change once the bill is passed, but I do think that there would be less mystery and fear around employment of people with disabilities on both sides of the line. If we educate the people looking for jobs, and those in charge of hiring policies - I do believe that this could change.

I could get into Schedule A and "model employer" jargon... but those are not points that I can personally speak to. Personally I can speak to the fact that when I have updated my resume with my work with Easter Seals MA, and as someone who has a public blog that any potential employers could google me on - I will feel embarrassed and even silly that the day before an interview I had to "secretly" sneak around to make sure that things are accessible; and even then still not know if I have to do any other "prep" work around presenting myself as an employable adult with a disability. My involvement in the disability community isn't a secret, and neither is my identity. I am still waiting for the day when the professional world will respond in kind.
This shouldn't be the reality of things. I should be able to have a better sense of how hiring managers are viewing my application than I currently do, and they in turn should have a better sense of how to talk to me about why their professional setting is a place I should invest my time and talent in. That's the most important part, for me, of the MA employment bill that I am advocating for -- it changes the state of employment for people with disabilities into one that is more mutually beneficial and conducive to everyone's needs.

What about in your state? What legislation or bills in your state are designed to encourage employment of people with disabilities? Let me know in the comments or messages!

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