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.



    1. Not to brag or anything, but I agree because that’s something I’d like to do. Most of today’s professorships require a Ph.D. though, so I’d have to get one. It’s on my list. 🙂

      1. True true, that’s why I’m bothering with my PhD right now. But there are some options for Masters degrees, although they’re pretty slim. All the same, good luck with it, because I think you’d be great!

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