Stuck in The Middle With You: Being a Middle Child With a Disability

Hi readers,

Brief disclaimer: My ideas will not line up 100% with Leman’s; otherwise I’d be parroting him. They are an *expansion* of birth order theory with Judeo-Christian undertones in appropriate places.

I’m starting the birth order series early in the interest of the Independence Day post. As promised, I’m beginning with middle children because they’re the ones who are overlooked most often. Dr. Leman sometimes describes them as “squeezed out,” and if you’re a true middle (we’ll get to what that means), “squeezed” might be exactly how you feel. Having a disability can tighten that squeezed feeling in a whole new way, but it doesn’t have to.

The Different Types of Middles

Middle children can be hard to pin down, not only personality-wise but based on their position in the family, their sex, and other factors. Let me show you what I mean with some subtypes:

The “Classic” Middle. This is the representation of middle-hood you often see in kids’ books or quick examples. There are three kids, all of the same sex. For this example, we’ll say they’re boys. Oldest Micah is the smartest, the biggest, and the most athletic. Mom and Dad let him do everything first and he gets all the new clothes, shoes, etc. Youngest Josh is coddled because he’s Mama’s “last baby.” He’s cute as a button, so he gets away with everything, and he can charm his way out of punishment. Middle child Chris gets squeezed. He’s not the smartest, the biggest, or the most athletic. He’s too old to be babied and too young to take on Micah’s responsibilities. He gets hand-me-downs and has to hand down his stuff. So Chris may take on characteristics “endemic” to middle kids. He might be the peacemaker between Josh and Micah, or the one who breaks the tie when a vote is needed. He’ll probably become the exact opposite of Micah since he’s the sibling above Chris. If Micah’s an athlete, expect Chris to become great at school, or the class clown, or the nice kid who looks out for little ones. He may or may not rebel, and will probably “play cards close to the chest” since he’s used to getting the short end of the stick or the blame.

The Gender-Based Middle. This is what happens when a middle child is also the first of that gender in his or her family. For this example, we’ll make it a girl. Oldest child Peter will probably take on characteristics of a firstborn–natural leader who can be bossy, list-maker, organized, and so on. Younger brother and youngest child Seth may act like a baby of the family, or he may act more like a classic middle. Why? Because in the middle, you have Gina. Position-wise, she’s a middle child, but she’s also the first and only girl. So she may have middle child characteristics, but she may also act like a leading, organizing firstborn, or a nurturing firstborn who mothers the other kids. Or, depending on how her gender is treated, she may get extra attention from one parent or the other because she’s a girl. (A disability will influence this, too, which we’ll get to). If Dad gives Gina more attention, she might end up as a somewhat tomboy-ish Daddy’s girl. If the extra attention comes from Mom, she might have heightened feminine and/or nurturing characteristics.

-Sharing the Middle. This occurs when you have a family of 3- about 6 children (any more than that and you tend to get into large family dynamics, which can be totally different). You might have two children of the same gender sharing the middle, or one child of each sharing. It’s what you saw on 7th Heaven–Lucy and Simon were both middles. Yet, Simon acted more like a youngest kid because he was the youngest boy, until twins Sam and David arrived. Lucy often felt more like a classic middle because between older, “perfect” sister Mary and cute little Ruthie, she got “squeezed out.” (Of course, if you’ve seen 7th Heaven after the third season, you know Mary was *not* perfect, but I’m speaking from Lucy’s early perspective).

If you have a family where kids of the same gender share middle space, the dynamic may be different. For example, let’s say you have a family of 4 kids: Benjamin, Laura, Deirdre, and Carson. Depending on who’s older and how the parents divide attention, or which parent each girl is closest to, you might get a classic middle or a girl who acts more like a youngest or oldest child. Note, too, that multiple births (i.e., twins) will change the dynamic too, as will a positionally middle child born 5+ years after the sibling directly above him or her.

How Disability Influences Your Position:

Whether your disability is mild, severe, or in-between, it will always influence your family position in some way. It doesn’t mean your younger siblings will always “pass” you and jockey you out of position, however. For example, if you have a mild disability and are a gender-specific middle, you still might take on characteristics of an older child because your disability may not significantly affect your IQ or physical abilities. But, your disability may mean your position as a middle child feels different. Let’s break it down:

If you are a classic middle:

You may not feel as squeezed as some TAB middle kids, because disabilities, whether we like it or not, demand attention. In fact, you may have to help your siblings gain assurance that you’re not trying to take away from their important roles as first- or last-born kids. This is where peacemaker traits can come in handy, as can the middle kid’s propensity to be a team player and look out for others. Additionally, you may struggle even more to find your special niche. Don’t fall into the trap of feeling, “My disability is the only thing that makes me stand out from the family crowd.” Find what you excel at and capitalize on it. If you and a sibling happen to have the same talents, do what you can to make it your own. For example, if you’re both musical, perhaps one of you sings and the other plays an instrument.

If you are a gender-based middle:

If you feel pressure to act older than you are because of being the first girl or boy, speak up. Remind your parents of who’s supposed to be the kid. If you’re an adult and feel like this, ask your parents and siblings to help tamp down some of the pressure. You may experience more overprotection because not only are you the only child of your gender, but you also have a disability. You’ll have to make sure your family doesn’t treat you like a hothouse flower, and that you don’t let yourself get too spoiled. (We all deserve spoiling now and then, but arrogant and entitled people get nowhere in life). As with classic middles, capitalize on strengths so that you feel special for things only you can do, not because you have a disability or are male or female.

If you share the middle:

This is a position where you can easily catch a break because there’s another sibling sharing your position, especially if that sibling is of your gender. The two of you can work together to get noticed constructively and to ensure neither of you is overprotected or cheated out of attention. Be aware, though, that sharing this position with one sibling or more might mean you get noticed less than usual, especially if your disability is mild or you don’t require extensive treatments. If this describes you, resist the temptation to retreat into a shell (which, by the way, is different from being a natural introvert). Ask Mom, Dad, or the sibling (s) you’re closest to, to make time for just you.

General tips for all middles with disabilities:
-Don’t let siblings walk all over you in any sense
-If you share space with someone whose disability is more severe: Watch out for resentment of attention they may get, and help them to excel
-If you share space with someone whose disability is milder: Make sure the rest of the family is helping you keep up your self-esteem and reach the life goals you want to reach, not just the ones set for you.
-If you are part of a multiple set and are the only one with a disability: Take advantage of the positive things about shared space, and carve your own niche
-If a multiple-birth sibling has a similar disability to yours: Work together to help each other excel, and make sure you’re getting attention as individuals

Also, remember, it might be clich├ęd, but it’s true: being a middle kid is pretty cool at times. You’ve got older siblings who’ll mentor you, and younger ones who you can teach the ropes. Enjoy your position, because after all, the cream is the best part of the cookie.

Next time, we’ll be looking at those ever-adorable, charming, sometimes annoying, but very necessary: family babies, the youngest kids.


New Series With a Brief Twist

Hi readers,

The next few weeks here on the IndependenceChick blog are going to be a bit odd. I have a new series for you, but it’s going to contain an interruption.

Thanks to Christian psychologist and birth order expert Dr. Kevin Leman, I got the idea to dedicate July to a series on birth order and how disability can affect it, and vice versa. For example, Dr. Leman theorizes that if a PWD is born as the oldest child in the family, but his or her disability is severe, then younger siblings may “pass” the PWD and take on classic characteristics of older children. That’s true in some cases, but not in others, and I’d like to take a look at other situations that can arise. I’d also like to discuss the birth order positions themselves–that is, how a PWD can maximize the strengths and benefits inherent in his or her family position. This can help that person:
(A. Define or redefine identity in the context of birth order and disability, without either one taking over personhood
(B. Compensate for weaknesses brought on by either disability or birth order/family dynamics
(C. Learn more about self and other people/understand and empathize more, increasing ability to be a team player at school, work, house of worship, etc.

However, there will be a brief interruption to this series around July 4. Why? Because July 4 is Independence Day. That’s an important day for anybody, but especially on a blog that encourages PWDs to find their own independence, whether or not that involves what other people think it should. Birth order doesn’t have much to do with that though, so look for a special Independence Day post. What will it be about? Well, that’s a surprise, but here’s a hint: make sure you have your sunglasses, a shady spot, and a drink with one of those little umbrellas in it. I’ll be bringing a Shirley Temple, extra cherries.

See you soon for our first birth order post. Since they’re the ones who get overlooked most often, I’m going to go out of order and start the series with middle kids. Bring some Oreos–or your favorite cream- or chocolate-filled dessert. (Ice cream with chocolate shell counts, too).

Disabilities in the Workforce Part 3: Workplace Culture Minus the Culture Shock

Hi readers,

Welcome back to the IndependenceChick blog and the final part of our series on PWDs in the workforce.

So, you’re a person with a disability who also has some mad working skills in your field. You prepared adequately all through school, you aced the interview, and now you have a job you love, or at least like. Are you done? No…you still need to adapt to workplace culture. Like any culture, this can come with culture shock. Suddenly there are new rules to follow, new unspoken cues to memorize, and new people who may or may not be friendly. In fact, some may be downright hostile (we’ll get to them). No matter where you work and what your work entails though, you deserve the chance to thrive in workplace culture. How do you do it? Here are a few tips.

Introduce yourself. Remember, even if you have a job coach with you, the job is yours and the place in the office (or field, or whatever) is yours. It is primarily your responsibility to introduce yourself and make social inroads. Coming from an introvert who has made some mistakes on this front, let’s go over some dos and don’ts.
Do act friendly. Some PWDs go into work or any new situation expecting to be looked down on or ignored. Often this is because it’s happened before. That’s hurtful and take it from somebody who knows–it can make starting over hard. Resist the temptation to stay in a shell or act bitter, however. Smile. Make the level of eye contact you can. Ask basic questions–who people are, what they like about working here, and so on. Hang around the lounge on break. Listen in on conversations (politely) to get a feel for who might share your interests.
Do give people their space. If you’ve had a solitary job up to now or are otherwise conversation-starved, you might monologue without meaning to. Again, I say this because I’ve done it. Rule of thumb: listen twice as much as you talk. Sometimes it can be hard to determine whose turn it is to speak; if you’re unsure, say something like, “I’m sorry. What were you saying?”
Do talk about your disability. Of course, you don’t have to say, “Hi, I’m Doug and I have X.” That’s pigeonholing yourself. But do welcome questions and briefly explain what you need. Example: if you are deaf, you might have to remind hearing colleagues not to turn away from you or talk with full mouths because you might need to read their lips.
Don’t spend every break alone. Again, preaching to the past, uninformed me as well as other job-seekers. It’s criminally easy to stay to yourself when you’re new. Spending some time alone is just fine, especially if you’re introverted. But force yourself to socialize at least a little.
Don’t cover your needs. As in, let’s say you’ve been invited to lunch and you order that delicious-looking pasta. But oops, you didn’t realize you’d need to cut it, and you’re not so great at that. The easy thing to do would be blush and stammer, apologize, or send your meal back. If you really don’t want to ask for help, ask the waiter/waitress if your dish can be cut up in the kitchen. But if you’re comfortable, ask a colleague for help. This goes for most situations where your disability might come up.
Don’t use your disability as an excuse to be rude, show up late, be messy, or anything else. Most of us would never consciously do this, but like with everybody else, there are some who would. That will cost you relationships and possibly the job itself.

More tips:

Personalize your space. How much you can do so depends on your workplace’s rules. For example, if the rule is, no personal items on the desk, you might have to settle for a personalized screen saver. If a uniform is required, you might wear modest jewelry. But modest personalization–photographs, work-appropriate colors and jewelry, and so on–clue your coworkers in to who you are. You’re not “that disabled guy/girl”, you’re Bella, who loves painting, or Josh, who follows NASCAR.

Go the extra mile. Sometimes this means turning in a project early, or offering to cover for a coworker who’s sick. Sometimes it means asking the boss for clarification even when you think you understand instructions. Some people hesitate to do this because they think it’s brown-nosing. If overdone, that’s exactly what it is; for example, don’t point out how good your work is compared to others’ or show up two hours early just because you can. But done right, it shows initiative and drive.

Never be a doormat. Workplace bullying happens. You’re talking to a gal who went through it, and it SUCKS. Bullies exist to intimidate you, cut you down, and generally make work miserable. Do NOT sit there and take it.

Not sure if you’re being bullied? Here are a few key ways to tell:

People ignore you, or stop talking whenever you walk in a room.
You are pulled into surprise meetings all the time and told what you’ve done wrong. OR, you are told what you’ve allegedly done wrong, but nobody will give you examples or tell you how to fix it.
Your boss or coworkers yell at, harshly criticize, or otherwise bully you in front of others–or alone so there aren’t witnesses. Yet you are disciplined when you try to stick up for yourself.
You experience physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach problems, hives, etc.
You’ve become afraid that anything you say or do will be criticized or that you’ll be fired.

Workplace bullying does not have to be based on disability; whether it is or not, you are within your rights to report it and be protected. However, these red flags may tell you if the bullying is disability-based:

Your requests for modifications are refused or not dealt with adequately.
Your coworkers say things like, “I/we are not sure you can handle the demands of this job,” citing your specific difficulties, in a “compassionate” tone
Your boss or other superiors say things like, “You need to learn to do this yourself/somebody needs to make you do this/if they can do it, why can’t you” (when referencing something they know, and have known for awhile, needs to be modified or that you need an exemption from)
Your coworkers consistently make “jokes” regarding disabilities and expect you to laugh.

Hopefully, this will not happen, but the more informed you are, the safer and more comfortable you will feel. Fortunately, many workplace cultures want *all* people working with them. If you are open, friendly, and yourself, you should be able to get along at work and enjoy your job. If not, well, the workplace itself has work to do.

Best of luck, job-seekers!


Disabilities in the Workforce Part 2: How PWDs Can Help Land the Job They Want

Hello, readers, and welcome back for the second post in the series regarding persons with disabilities in the workforce. Last week, we talked about preparation for the workforce–adequate education, appropriate life skill practice, shadowing opportunities, and so forth. Now we’re going to talk about what happens when the person with a disability is ready to go out and land that first job. How can he or she make sure to not only get hired, but to keep and enjoy the job and advance when the time is right? Let’s look at a few key tips.

Be your own advocate. Because of the way “the system” works, a lot of PWDs get into situations where they’re dependent on Vocational Rehab and job coaches to get them jobs. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Vocational Rehab and services like it. These services were created because a need existed. Unfortunately, that service is often misused. People with disabilities aren’t allowed to speak for themselves in terms of jobs. Instead, the job coach, the Voc. Rehab worker, what have you, goes to the employer and says, “I have a worker for you, but he/she has X disability, so…”

Right away, the potential employee looks incompetent. Right away, the employers’ concern is not what the person’s strength is, but how needy he or she is and how much this employee will cost to keep on. This is highly disturbing to me and makes me angry.

I understand that some PWDs will need help finding jobs, but the situation outlined above is not the ideal. So if you have a disability and you’re looking for a job, be your own advocate as much as possible. Don’t let somebody else set up the interview or attend the networking event for you; you are the one who needs to be there. Once you’re there, express strengths before disability. Talk about the benefits you bring to the workplace culture, not just modifications. It’s your job, not theirs.

Have the proper equipment and know the lingo. Unless your disability precludes all but the basic reading and writing skills–and if that’s true, you still deserve a fulfilling job–then you should know what a resume is, how to write one, and how to go over it with an employer. More schools are going over this for both TAB students and students with disabilities, which is great. Yet, many special education programs still skimp on this because they assume PWDs can only be hired for menial work, and who needs a resume to be hired to wash dishes, right?

Wrong. You need some form of a resume. It can be traditional, listing education, degrees, experience, and so forth. If you have a cognitive disability or significant educational gaps, you might need help from a parent, teacher, friend, or Voc. Rehab counselor. I emphasize help–do not let them do it for you! Craft something that talks about why you want this particular job, what you think you can bring to the workplace, and why you’re a good worker.

Additionally, know what the job entails and what is expected of you. For example, I wouldn’t be a good freelance writer if I never put keywords in my work or paid attention to word counts. I couldn’t write fiction if I didn’t know what point of view was or what character development looked like. The same is true for almost any job, even the most simple-looking. For example, let’s say you have a cognitive disability and have been hired to shelve books at a library (moving away from food, filth, and flowers here). Do you need to know the Dewey Decimal System backwards and forwards? Maybe not, but you certainly need to know what goes where and how to properly shelf. You need to know the difference between fiction and nonfiction and possibly other genres. Or, let’s say you’re a member of your volunteer fire department. You need to learn to suit up and get out the door quickly, and take orders from your captain in a dangerous situation. You might need to know the difference between classes of fires, or how to tell what started a fire.

Prepare for interviews. I cannot emphasize this enough, because the interview is where you sell yourself. It’s where you’re met face to face and have to build some kind of rapport to catch the interviewer’s attention. So with this in mind:
-Practice ahead of time. If possible, talk to someone who already works where you want to work, and ask them what an interviewer might want to know. Practice interviewing with that person, or another person you trust. Ideally, school should have somewhat prepared you for this, but you may need to do your own research because even the best career service programs fall short sometimes. And as we know, career services for “special needs kids” often don’t exist. (UGH).
-Set your own interview time–and then show up on time and prepared with resume and other material you may have been asked for. It’s okay if you need help setting up the interview or if someone comes with you–but this should only be done when necessary. Do NOT send a parent, therapist, or job coach in your place, or lean on them to speak for you.
-Go in there like you own it. Beforehand, fill your mind with positive affirmations that you can do this–because you can! Smile. Shake hands as firmly as possible. Stand or sit as straight as possible–I say this because personally, I tend to lean forward a bit for balance. That’s okay. Focus on projecting an image that says, “I’m here and I want to be hired,” not, “I have a disability and am embarrassed of it–please let the floor swallow me now.”
-Answer questions as well as you can. If you need clarification or for a question to be repeated, ask. It’s better to ask than give an answer that doesn’t fit.
-Thank the interviewer for his or her time. It shows you appreciate their effort and are a polite, mature person.

A word on eye contact, sensory issues, and other things that may disrupt interviews: Some people, such as those with autism and Asperger’s, often find getting jobs difficult because they naturally do things that “typical” people consider rude. Remember you’re not being rude–you’re being yourself. However, to put everyone including yourself at ease, be up front with what your interviewer may see. He or she legally can’t ask a question like, “Do you have autism?” But if you introduce yourself and then casually say, “I have autism/Asperger’s, so please don’t take it personally if I don’t look at you”–that can help tremendously.

Dress, groom, and act appropriately. You want to be comfortable, but you also want to dress the part. Ladies, this means a dress or skirt (at the knee or below), or nice slacks and a blouse or other professional top. Guys, this means khakis or other non-blue jean pants and a collared shirt or button-down. You may or may not have to wear a tie; if you’re not sure, call ahead and ask. Show up wearing polished, professional shoes. If you have sensory issues, know what clothing quirks set them off. Is it itchy linen? Leather shoes that pinch? A certain type of sock? Apprise someone you trust of these things, and have them help you find or choose something professional, yet comfortable.

Grooming and acting appropriately are a bit self-explanatory, but you’d be surprised at how many TAB people actually don’t do this. For example, ladies with long hair, you may want to pull it back depending on where you interview. Don’t wear any glittery or overdone makeup. Avoid clothing that wrinkles easily even if it’s comfortable. Guys, wear a belt, tuck in your shirt, and don’t wear jewelry or piercings. And for heaven’s sake, both genders, don’t show off any tattoos. Some employers are cool with them, but some aren’t, so err on the side of caution.

“Acting appropriately” is kind of loaded for PWDs. So many of us have been taught that “appropriate behavior” means sit down, shut up, and comply with everything you’re told no matter what you think. Well, that’s not what appropriate behavior really means in school, and it’s not what it means in the job market. So keep these things in mind:
-Ask questions when you need to–but alert the interviewer first. Say, “Excuse me” or “Can I stop you/ask about that?”
-If you’re not sure whether to say or do it, don’t. For example, don’t ask the interviewer anything personal, or change the subject in the middle of the conversation. Don’t call the interviewer by his or her first name unless asked (even if you’ve heard this person prefers first names, as sometimes happens). This is where practicing comes in handy.
-If at any point you feel uncomfortable, you can and should say so. You can say, “I’m sorry; can we come back to that?” or, “I don’t want to answer that; it’s too personal.” If you feel an interviewer has asked an illegal or otherwise inappropriate question, it’s fine to make a polite excuse and walk out.
-Stimming or dropping eye contact is okay if you need to; just alert the interviewer before it happens. Also, don’t consciously use stimming or coping mechanisms to avoid questions or answers.

I could probably write an entire book on this, but hopefully, that’ll get you started. Remember: you belong in the workforce and can succeed there, at jobs you actually want and enjoy. Come back next week when we’ll be talking about workplace culture–how to feel confident in your new workplace, make friends, and enjoy yourself.


Disabilities in the Workforce Part 1: How PWDs Can Prepare Themselves for the Workforce

Welcome to June 2015 on the IndependenceChick blog, readers. Technically it’s still spring, but summer will be upon us before we know it. For anyone above the age of about 14, summer is no longer just about having fun. It’s about finding and getting the coveted summer job, or continuing to do well in the job you have. Persons with disabilities should have these same chances but as we know, they often do not. In the United States, the unemployment rate for PWDs is still discouragingly high. New programs and laws exist to help combat this; if you’ll remember, we talked about the ABLE act back in April. Yet a large number of PWDs continue to function “outside the economic mainstream,” and the programs set up to help them may have flaws that don’t allow everyone to get help. (For example, a program aimed at eliminating sheltered workshops in favor of menial community positions may not be appropriate for someone with Asperger’s syndrome).

So while we’re waiting for programs to get off the ground, laws to be signed, and what have you, what can we do as citizens to help PWDs find economic fulfillment? Actually, let me amend that question. What can the persons with disabilities themselves do? I don’t care how mild your disability is or how much you appreciate help; having a disability can make you feel powerless. I’m starting a post series that will help end this powerlessness. My goal is to show PWDs that they deserve places in the workforce and can get them. The first step in getting there, though, is preparation. So let’s talk about some concrete things PWDs should do to prepare for the workplace.

Begin early. To me, one of the most frustrating things about having a disability is that from the time you’re little, you’re not expected to do what other people can. Temporarily able-bodied children are educated for twelve years with the expectation that they will take their places in the workforce someday, often after university training. On the other hand, children with disabilities are “educated” until about eighth grade (the exposure they get to real academics varies based on disability, support, and expectations–which sometimes suck). After eighth grade, many of these students are sent to “job sites” during the school day to work at tasks in which they had little or no say. They are not allowed to work the way a TAB person would because work is tied to their IEP or IHP goals, which are then used as discipline if anything goes wrong.

Let me speak from experience and tell you, having a mild disability doesn’t get you off the hook, either. I got a “real” education, went to college, and went to grad school. I loved the classroom. Yet I still wasn’t able to work after all that school because I didn’t have the motor skills for waitressing or janitorial work or what have you. Yet I wasn’t considered smart enough or good enough, or in possession of enough “people skills,” to work at an academic job. Sometimes I wondered, would I have been better off sent to a job site like a community center or restaurant or store, to mop floors and stack chairs?

I say no, for myself and for others. I think that truly training people for the workforce involves academics and life skills, and it needs to begin early. In other words, let’s say you have a small child with Down Syndrome who struggles academically. To be prepared for the workforce, he should still get all the academic exposure he can, even if that means simply auditing classes with peers. But don’t wait until eighth or ninth grade to send him to job sites and teach him to keep things in order. He should do chores at home as soon as he’s old enough–tasks that are appropriate to his level. He should work with peers to complete life-skill based tasks at school and in the community. From the time he is little, this child should feel part of the team. You have to start early, not when the kid is 13.

And what about somebody like me, who has a mild disability but is physically affected, or struggles socially? Stacking chairs probably won’t help the situation. But discussing career plans far before high school might. Cognitively appropriate shadowing opportunities, one-on-one cooking lessons, and so forth…that might help. The goal for the person with a mild disability–for any person with a disability–is not to demean, but to unite talents and weaknesses so together, they can create a well-rounded worker.

Know what you want. It discourages and mystifies me that by the time they reach high school, so many students with disabilities don’t know what they want to do next. Often, this is because they’re not expected to progress much beyond high school. That diploma–or more often, certificate of attendance–is “the beginning of the end,” as Kathie Snow says. What happens is that teachers, therapists, vocational rehab coaches, and others decide what jobs the PWD will help. As another disability blogger put it, these jobs usually involve one of the three F’s: food, filth, or flowers.

Now, again, there’s nothing wrong with being a food worker, a sanitation worker, or a florist. The problem happens when PWDs are limited to these three areas, or similar ones. If you have a disability, and you’re going to be a fulfilled member of the workforce, you need the chance to express and seek the kind of job you want. Loved ones, teachers, others: this means giving the PWD the means and opportunity to communicate, and not using “noncompliance” as an excuse to stop listening. Person with a disability, this means being assertive and as detailed as possible. Where and when you can, explain what you like about the fields that interest you and why you think you’d be a good fit. At the same time, don’t be afraid to say, “This field isn’t working; let’s try another job site, or shadowing opportunity, or whatever.”

Know what you need. Often, children and teens with disabilities rely heavily on parents, teachers, and others to explain the modifications they need and enforce compliance at school or at work. I know I did. I’m introverted, and whether or not you agree with this, my CP has caused me a lot of shame. I felt it was easier to let my mom or dad explain what I needed because people would listen to them. They wouldn’t listen to me.

If this describes you, stop right there. The workforce is different from school. There are no IEPs. There are no therapists or teachers. You have to become your own advocate. Part of that is learning what your disability is and what your modifications are. Once you know them, you need to be able to express them as well as possible–with assistance where needed, but independently when you can. Legally, prospective employers cannot ask if you have a disability, even if signs are visible. But in order to succeed at work, you should be up-front with employers and explain the modifications that will help you do your job well.

Additionally, remember you have rights. It is against the law to discriminate against employees with disabilities. This includes verbal and physical harassment, extortion or denial of pay, isolation, and many other cruel examples. If you find yourself the target of bullying because you have a disability, speak up and get help to stop it.

Practice confidence. You can do this verbally, asserting your wants and needs at school, at home, and with friends, no matter how you communicate. You can do it physically and mentally too, developing your talents and strengths. I get a confidence shot every time I write, watch Jeopardy, or practice a foreign language. Being a worker with a disability means you’ll have to acknowledge what you can’t do sometimes. Yet this should be a footnote, not your whole resume.

Surround yourself with people who’ll work with you, not on you. Working “on” someone means focusing wholly on what they can’t do, inundating them with prewritten goals, and all that other brouhaha we’ve talked about. Working with someone means coming alongside them, cheering them on, supporting their dreams and making them real. You need to identify these people early, as a child, a teen, and a young adult. This will decrease your vulnerability to bullies and other undesirable people. It will also raise your confidence. Whether your supports are parents, friends, teachers, or even pets–they’re there for a reason. They can work with you so you will succeed at work, and succeed in life.

Tune in next week when we discuss some things persons with disabilities can and should do to land that first job–which can lead to a dream job.