Approaching the mid-point in my career and a few difficult conversations with younger disabled people have led me write about what I wish I had knowns at the start of my career. What follows is my blunt career advice for young disabled professionals. I am also including the things Temporarily Able Bodied (TABs) people need to stop saying to disabled people.
Your hidden disability probably isn’t as hidden as you think. Stop telling disabled people to hide their disability when job hunting or at work. Not only is hiding part of your identity bad for your mental health, it usually doesn’t work! I tried to hide it for a while. I was forced to acknowledge that both my difficulty navigating new territory and my eyes not moving and responding in typical ways marked me as different. Being born with a visual impairment is part of my story and it has helped form me. I would far rather take control of my story, even if it mean admitting a perceived weakness, than allow other people to speculate and perceive me through their prejudices.
Yes! You will face discrimination in the hiring process. That is true whether you are open about your disability or not. Many organization discourage disabled applicants from the very beginning of the hiring process. (That is a whole other blog post!). Let them discriminate! It is far better to never get a position than to get a position where you are bullied or where they will find any reason to fire you. With the current state of US labor laws, it is far too easy to fire peopled and extremely difficult to win a discrimination lawsuit. Unfortunately, yes, this happened to me. While I have learned to live with the scars that experience created, partially healing those wounds took a great deal of energy that I could have expended doing something else.
TABs, don’t be unrealistically sunny. Discrimination is real. Don’t tell disabled people they can do consulting on accessibility. Actually, that is part of the problem. Some of us would actually like to just work in our profession. The ADA is a 30 year old civil rights law. Workplace accessibility should be a given. I should not have to worry about being asked to sit through a diversity training that is not accessible. (Yes, I’m serious.) The reality of course is that workplace accessibility is still a major problem. There is a real need for accessibility experts. Unfortunately, too few organization are actually willing to pay for the expertise.
In fact, TABs need to stop giving disability specific job advice. If you are mentoring a disabled person, refer them to a disabled professional in your field. If you cannot think of a disabled professional in your field, ask yourself why. Disabled people make up AT LEAST 20% of the population. We know that is a gross underestimate. Is your field actually welcoming to disabled professionals?
Being disabled adds at lest one extra layer of hard to your life and career. You will have to be more resilient than is typical in your profession. Yes, even if you are “only mildly disabled” or think you present as a TAB. Whether it is your choices of living quarters being limited by a need to rely on public transportation or a mobility impairment or enduring subtle (and not so subtle) digs from co-workers, all of these little things add to your stress level. Your disability may limit your geographic mobility. Some professions more or less require geographic mobility, at least early in your career. You will face discrimination in the job hunt. Be mindful of how much hard you are taking on. It is perfectly ok to decide that the obstacles in a particular field are too much. You don’t have to take on every battle you see.