Astronaut. Writer. Radio announcer. These are just a few of the answers people give when asked “what did you want to be when you grew up?” Yet in some cases people with disabilities are steered away from their dreams because well-meaning teachers, parents, counselors and prospective employers focus more on what they can’t do than on what they can.
Lisa Busch knew, even at the age of seven, that she wanted to be a writer. Her “love of words and love of stories” led her to major in English.
Realizing her dream, however, was not so easy, because Busch, blind since infancy, had to look for a job without the benefit of good career guidance or the kind of technology available in 2011.
Though she was unable to land a writing job after college, Busch was able to put her degree to good use by working as a Braille proofreader until her husband’s sickness and the birth of her daughter caused her to stop working for a while.
With some reluctance, Busch followed a rehabilitation counselor’s advice and took advantage of a grant to pursue a master’s of science in rehabilitation counseling--a degree that she hoped would lead to a role in case management. “I wanted to work with people, because by then I thought I probably couldn’t use writing as a career.
“But then I graduated and was told I needed three years of experience in case management in order to get case management jobs. And I needed to have a driver’s license,” she added—facts that the counselor failed to mention.
Busch ended up returning to proofreading; she writes for herself in her free time.
Steve Hanamura said that he once aspired to be a radio announcer, a preacher or a bus driver—he wanted some kind of role in which he could be “out in front of people, leading and talking,” he told SHRM Online. Thus, he is well-suited to be president of his own firm, Hanamura Consulting, where training and speaking are par for the course.
Hanamura, who is blind and admittedly ill-qualified to be a bus driver, noted that some disabilities prevent people from doing certain kinds of jobs, while in other cases people are just not good at certain things.
“Disabled people aren’t always good at what they want to do,” agreed Busch. But employers and people with disabilities themselves often won’t know if they’re good at something or not until they try.
“I think it would be helpful if employers could somehow spend time with and talk to more disabled people and find out what they can do,” Busch said.
Internships and mentoring are good, she added, especially if they lead to something. At a minimum, however, such opportunities serve as a useful reality check—for individuals and employers.
People with disabilities are likely to face attitudinal barriers such as fear and low expectations, Hanamura said. Often they lack honest feedback about how they are doing. “I could never trust feedback because I didn’t know if I was really doing [well] or if I was just being ‘inspirational,’ ” he said.
That’s a common refrain among those with visible disabilities: People discount them or regard them as if everything they do is somehow miraculous.
When employers have no experience with disability, they tend to imagine people with the “worst kind of disability,” Hanamura added, such as those with significant impairments who work in a sheltered workshop.
The Disability Track
Those who do seek mainstream employment often find themselves being steered toward disability-related roles.
“It pains me when I hear a student say ‘I’m really good at math or science but people keep telling me to go into a disability services role,’ ” said Alan Muir, executive director of Career Opportunities for Students with Disabilities (COSD), a career site. “How many unhappy people are out there doing something they really didn’t like because people have pushed them into it?”
To a certain extent, this is understandable.
Some employers—and people with disabilities themselves—believe that people with disabilities can understand other people with disabilities better than those without disabilities can, Busch explained, just as some believe that the best substance abuse counselors are those who have a history of such abuse.
Although Hanamura said he didn’t get his first job as a community college counselor just because he was blind, he was asked to help the staff learn how to work with students with disabilities.
In other cases, however, the individual chooses a disability-related role.
Muir, who describes himself as “a person of very short stature,” spent 16 years as a commercial lending officer and trained people how to be account officers and work with customers. Muir said that his height and his use of a walker contributed to his change of career. “I was at a point where I couldn’t go any further without having to travel to New York,” he said, and his wife wanted to become a midwife.
After relocating to Tennessee and spending seven months searching for employment, Muir founded COSD. “I wanted to work with students and had a lifelong disability plus corporate experience,” he said.
“When I was young—elementary school age—I wanted to be an astronaut,” said Beth DeVault, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater who is majoring in health and human performance with a minor in adaptive physical education. She said her parents and teachers made it clear that she could do whatever she wanted to do as long as she put forth the effort to reach a particular goal.
After graduation, she hopes to teach kids with disabilities about sports and physical fitness.
DeVault, an Easter Seals child representative in 1999, has spina bifida, a condition caused by an opening in the spinal cord at birth. “In terms of realistic career goals, I think mine kind of became set for me once I started basketball. … It had such a huge, and positive, impact on my life,” she told SHRM Online.
Yet when asked if her choice of career had anything to do with a preference to be around others with disabilities, DeVault asked: “How would you feel about working in a workplace in which you were the only person like you?”
Why It Happens
Busch doesn’t blame employers for the career advice people with disabilities receive. “It happens with the way disabled people are viewed while they are going through school and are talked to about what their career choices can be,” she said. “Teachers want them to have jobs and are afraid to encourage them in fields where employers aren’t hiring.”
“It goes to the lowered expectations other people have of students with disabilities,” Muir said. “The student has a lot of potential obstacles along the way before they even get to an interview,” he said.
“People have limited opportunities,” Busch said, noting that one proofreader she works with majored in music and another majored in foreign languages. “If you can’t find a job one place, you have to settle for what you can find.
“A lot of people give up—they just give up,” she added.
That’s why COSD encourages college disability services offices to collaborate with campus career service centers—so students will think about other employment opportunities that are available.
“Job seekers with disabilities need to be resilient and present themselves and their skills in the best possible light, availing themselves of all opportunities—even those outside of their chosen fields,” said Laura York, a policy analyst in the Office of Employment Support Programs at the U.S. Social Security Administration, in an October 2010 blog posting.
However, York, who majored in speech language pathology, said in the posting that she was able to land a full-time position with the Kalamazoo Public Schools in her chosen field even though she encountered prospective employers during her job search that reacted badly to her wheelchair and service dog.
“In my experience, the first job is the most difficult to obtain, but successful work experience in one area often opens doors in another,” she continued, adding that “for better or worse, job seekers with disabilities must take the lead in helping potential employers recognize their capabilities as opposed to their limitations.”
“We have to stop thinking about work for people with disabilities as some great objective for them to achieve” as if to say “You have a job! Wow—that’s so cool!” said Chai Feldblum, commissioner of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in a March 2011, interview with SHRM Online. “We should expect that people with disabilities have jobs, just like everyone has jobs, so we can live, pay the rent, pay the mortgage and buy food.”
“You want to be treated like everyone else, but you can’t be because you are not seen like everyone else,” Busch said. “The attitudes have to change.”
Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
Workers with Disabilities Face Steep Occupational Obstacles, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, December 2010
Focus on Ability, Former Easter Seals Child Says, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, December 2010
Disability Employment Agencies Yield Mixed Results, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, November 2010
SHRM’s Disability Employment Resource Page
Campaign for Disability Employment
SHRM’s Diversity E-Newsletter