You’d think – after more than 30 years on this planet and having had a ton of really really stupid things said to me – that I would learn not to stick my foot in my mouth. Not so much.
Last week, I posted on Twitter about a topic that is close to home – employment. I had recently seen a blindness organization posting work-from-home opportunities, as well as openings in their industrial shop. I asked why this is, that it feels like we’re being “hidden away” just to be employed. Others pointed out to me about transportation logistics and the desire of some to work from home. It was never my intent to disparage such things, but it could have come across that way… Because twitter’s strength and its weakness is its brevity, I figured I could explain myself and my viewpoint here on this blog… but I want your opinions, too!
Employment is Essential
I’ve written about this several times on this blog, whether it’s describing my own personal employment journey or the perception of blind people (and those with other disabilities) as inspirational or incapable. Many of us have education, transferable skills, and a strong desire to work, yet get turned down for job after job after job. It is demoralizing and demeaning – not to mention discriminatory – to hear that even though you are more than qualified for a job they have chosen another applicant (usually dancing around the word “disability”). This is where grit and determination come in, sometimes (though not always) aided by organizations that either assist in the job search for applicants with disabilities or provide work opportunities themselves. For those whose disability makes it possible, employment brings a sense of accomplishment, contribution and dignity. So why can’t I just be happy that people with disabilities are being employed… by someone?
The Home Office
The modern workplace is ever-changing. Some companies allow employees to telecommute (work from home) on either a permanent or situational basis, providing employee flexibility, lower office overhead, or the ability of employees to care for loved ones. So it comes as no surprise that some disability organizations subcontract workers for these jobs. It’s a perfect solution for those who prefer to work from home, or who have transportation or logistical challenges to come in to an office every day, or whose disability makes telecommuting the difference between being employed or relying on government assistance. And with the disability organization providing or advising on accessible technology for a disabled client/employee, it’s a win-win… right?
Separate Work Spaces
Some organizations provide workplaces (sometimes called sheltered workshops) where people with disabilities can be employed (primarily alongside other workers with disabilities), learn new skills, and be promoted (something that may be more of a challenge in the public sector). It can provide a sense of accomplishment, comraderie, and usable employment skills, not to mention – in theory – the ability to earn an income. But some workplaces (Goodwill comes to mind) have paid their disabled workforce sub-minimum wages. This is not the case in all facilities, but it happens enough to be a real concern. This begs the question: is separate really and truly equal?
One Size Does NOT Fit All
It was rightly pointed out to me that it appeared my initial concerns about being “hidden away” by working at home or in blindness organizations came across as unyielding. It was never my intent. If someone wishes or needs to work from home and/or in a disability-centered organization, it should be their choice to do so. But it is by no means the only way for people with disabilities to obtain meaningful employment. Many disability organizations – particularly those who assist in the job search process – have clients who are happy working, no matter the pay, the job duties, or the employer; others have very specific goals, educational background, and salary expectations. Even if it’s not easy, organizations that assist people with disabilities on the job hunt need to be very aware that both types of people exist, and many fall somewhere in between. It is essential that all who wish to use these services feel welcome, like they are being heard, and not like they’re being shoved into a little box that over- or under-estimates their qualifications, setting them up for failure.
I’ve heard horror stories about highly-educated people with disabilities being referred to a job as a Walmart greeter. I’ve experienced first-hand the frustration of asking for advocacy assistance from disability organizations, only to be told to just take whatever job came along because they didn’t know what to do with me. I am not thumbing my nose up at anyone who works from home or in a sheltered workshop if it is their choice to do so and they are happy, healthy, and believe their work has value even in small ways. But it is not what I want for myself, simply because I like to separate my work from my home life, and I – and anyone with a disability – should be given the opportunity to be “out there” in public if that’s our choice.
So if you work from home and like it? I’m thrilled for you! If you work with other people with disabilities and love what you do? Rock on! If you work in the public sector and have found acceptance there? Keep it up!
For those of you who work in the disability field – teachers, employment counselors, advocates, social workers, even family members – really listen to the disabled children or adults with and for whom you’re affiliated. They may have hopes and dreams and fears that you haven’t considered, and they need you to listen to them and act accordingly. We live in our bodies, we know our minds; we know our capabilities. We likely know the employment situation that is best for us, and should have the freedom to reach for the stars – whatever constellation strikes our fancy.