October 15, 2008

The Employable “Disabled”

Posted in Poetry, Stories, Update at 9:34 pm by Sarah Bosse

The Employable “Disabled” – Handout 

Hidden Disabilities At Work


Today I spoke to employers in my community, clients of the NC Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services (VR), and VR staff during “Lunch with VR” at the Raleigh unit office.  My presentation was titled The Employable “Disabled”.  It received an overwhelmingly positive response.  

Althought I recorded the presentation, I have not found a way to upload the audio to my blog.  If anyone out there reading this knows how to upload an MP3 file to a wordpress blog, please let me know.  : )  

Though you can’t hear the presentation, you can read the general script from which I spoke, posted below.


The Employable “Disabled”

It is such an honor to be here today, representing people like myself who have disabilities.  Thank you for giving up your valuable time to come and support our cause.  Thank you for being proactive in our community and for considering issues that affect not only the Raleigh area, but our entire nation.  You are a part of the solution, as is the North Carolina Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services. 


Mission Statement: To promote employment and independence for people with disabilities through customer partnership and community leadership.

Vision Statement: North Carolinians with disabilities will live and work in the communities of their choice with economic and other supports available to help them achieve and maintain optimal self-sufficiency and independence. 


Vocational Rehab, VR, has been an active part of my life since I was in high school.  VR has provided me the necessary computer and note-taking devices I required to succeed in school, gas for my car to support my job search and frequent doctor’s visits, as well as the mobility devices, medications, and durable medical equipment my medical conditions have required but which I have been unable to afford.  More than that, my VR counselor and I have a strong professional relationship – my counselor has known me for several years and has been my personal cheerleader, a stable anchor amidst life’s storms.  Many times my counselor has seen in me what I have been unable to see in myself, and her impact on my life is one of the reasons I am actively advocating for people who have challenges and getting involved through community service.  Weekly participation in VR’s Job Club fuels me with the motivation to continue pursuing my employment goals.  It provides me with the opportunity to network with other professionals and to brainstorm solutions with those who have similar challenges.  Job Club is a good source of new avenues for career exploration, fresh job leads and free experience offered by VR staff.


Now I would like to address our common cause.  You and Vocational Rehab are here today because you believe that persons who have challenges also have something to offer the community and the workforce.  In fact, persons who are living with challenges day in and day out have unique opportunities to use their life experience to bring desirable qualities into the workplace. 


Perseverance is defined as “steady persistence in a course of action, a purpose, a state…especially in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement.”  Synonyms include persistent determination, steadfastness, constancy, steadiness, and tenacity.  Perseverance is one character trait that a person who has challenges must develop.  Life with a disability is a constant sink or swim fight – treading water is not an option.  Each day presents new challenges, new unknowns, but life must continue on.  The stroke survivor who has hemiplegia, paralysis of one side of his body, must learn to walk again step by step, must learn to use his paralyzed arm again by forcing himself to slow down and consciously open and close his hand during everyday tasks that were once considered easy.  What may seem to you and me a small gain – the ability to stretch out one’s fingers – is to the stroke survivor a monumental victory symbolizing months or years of dedication and hard work.


Ingenuity, creativity, and problem-solving skills are employed every day by those who must navigate a world designed for “average” people.  A hearing student who has a learning disability struggles to capture concepts in class.  She types her notes on a computer during class because she struggles with handwriting.  Whereas most people learn best through auditory and visual presentation, this student has discovered that she learns best through movement.  When she goes home at night, she prints her class notes and begins translating them in American Sign Language, her second language.  This is how she studies and learns best.  Despite her learning disability, she has maintained a 3.95 GPA throughout her last two years of high school and five years of college. 


Joni Eareckson Tada is a well-known disability advocate and public speaker.  She became quadriplegic at the age of 17 as the result of a diving accident.  She does not have functional use of her body below her shoulders, yet she paints beautiful scenes on canvas.  How does she do this?  She puts the paintbrush in her mouth.  Joni writes, “My anger was subsiding.  My depression was slowly lifting….I really noticed the change in occupational therapy.  Weeks earlier, I had stubbornly refused to learn how to write with a pencil clenched between my teeth.  But that was before I met Tom, a young ventilator-dependent quadriplegic who was much more paralyzed than me.  His attitude was buoyant and enthusiastic as the willingly permitted the therapist to put the pen in his mouth.  I was ashamed of my grumbling and complaining.”  She also sings beautifully and has cut several records – when doctors told her it was an unexplainable miracle that she was not dependent on a ventilator. 


In fact, some people use their disability as a tool to benefit society.  Open-mindedness allows a person with challenges to see possibilities that most wouldn’t dare to dream.  Joni is an effective personal communicator, even from the prison of her wheelchair.  Joni and Friends, her radio broadcast, and Wheels for the World, a ministry providing wheelchairs refurbished by inmates for challenged and impoverished individuals across the world, are means by which Joni has touched millions of lives and shared her faith in Christ. 


Motivation is another key trait that employees can bring to the workplace.  Motivation, like sloth, is contagious.  During Job Club several weeks ago, this topic was on the table.  One client said, “I feel like, because I have a disability, I have to prove myself.  I have to work harder than everyone else around me who doesn’t have the problems I have so that I can show them what I can do.”  Agreeing head nods around the table were noted.  The desire to be recognized as a productive member of the work team is a driving factor for many. 


But there is another aspect of motivation which we need to consider.  A person who overcomes daily difficulties and finds creative means of accomplishing work tasks is a motivator to those who are watching.  Workplace morale is lifted and encouraged as employees are inspired by the successes of those who have more obstacles to overcome. 


I would like to address the issue of “hidden disability”.  A hidden disability is any condition that is not visible or obviously apparent.  This category may include learning disabilities, epilepsy, diabetes, visual impairments, mental health difficulties, repetitive strain injuries, HIV and AIDS, chronic pain or chronic fatigue syndromes, and problems with organ systems.  “These conditions may be short or long term; stable or progressive; constant or unpredictable and fluctuating; controlled by medication or another treatment, or untreatable.” 


Depending on the particular person’s disability and health status, more or less accommodation may be necessary in the workplace.  Because an employee’s health status changes does not necessarily mean that employee’s quality of work will be substandard.  People who have disabilities are often accustomed to their own dynamic health needs and to creatively adapting their lives to meet changes in their health status. 


As an employer, if one of your employees discloses a hidden disability to you, it is your responsibility to educate yourself on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  Resources have been provided on the Resources page of your handout.  You can also find information on the internet about politically correct terminology to talk about disabilities.  For example, instead of saying “she’s bipolar” you could say “person with bipolar disorder”. 


Jackie Hargrove, casework assistant here at the Raleigh unit VR office, has been known to say, “I believe that everyone has some sort of disability.”  How true this is!  We all have challenges, we are all challenged in our daily lives in different ways.  Thank you, Ms. Hargrove, for recognizing that those who have disabilities simply have challenges that take on a different flavor.  You are an inspiration to us. 


Now I’m going to put you on the spot.  Answer this question honestly by raising your hand.  Don’t worry – I won’t be offended by your answer either way and I won’t pick on you.  How many people here today, after talking to me and listening to what I’ve said here would have assumed that I have a cognitive disability? 


I have a learning disability.  What is equally hidden from view is the fact I had a 3.95 GPA and I was the student who learned American Sign Language to compensate for my learning disability.  You would probably never guess that I also have used a wheelchair off and on for several years because of congenital birth defects and a chronic pain disorder.  I’m going to ask you a few questions, but I do not want you to raise your hand or answer out loud.  This question is for you to think about when you go back to work today and as you drive home tonight. 


·   If you had seen me in my wheelchair today as you came in, would you have thought differently of me? 

·   Would you have considered me as employable as the person you see standing before you right now? 

·   Would you have noticed my presentation and communication skills? 

·   Or would you have noticed my wheelchair, or felt intimidated or uneasy around me, rather than noticing the professional skills I’ve demonstrated during this luncheon? 


It is okay to admit the affect social stigma has potentially played in your view of people who have disabilities.  It is important, however, not to minimize the impact of stigma, not to walk away today and neglect to ponder these questions more carefully.  Instead, give it time and thought, and make a plan as to how you can change your perspective and your actions to reflect the abilities of those who face challenges. 



Here’s to Disabilities

Here’s to the deaf who see poetry with their eyes,

Musical lines that rise and fall with the wave of a hand through the sky.

Here’s to the blind who feel the sunrise and hear a smile,

Emotion conveyed through senses highly attuned after a while.

Here’s to those who have Down’s Syndrome,

Who are the first to notice when you’re sad

And wrap a tender arm around you so you again feel glad.

Here’s to those who have sustained spinal cord injuries,

And have learned to more sincerely value the gift of life they’ve received.

Here’s to those who have mental retardation,

They are gifts to us as we see God’s wonders in creation.

Here’s to the children who heard they were “labeled LD”,

They are creative and bright and active

And innocently don’t know what LD means.    (learning disability)

Here’s to the many who have hidden disabilities,

Learning to make it day by day utilizing their capabilities.

By Sarah M. Bossé   10.14.2008  3:25pm


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