Insight into Job Searching with a Disability

Being stuck in a lengthy, ongoing job search is awful. With the exception of a six month stint as a disability management consultant at Best Buy for six months in 2008 (I created a corporate disability accommodations “toolkit” for retail store managers) I have been on the job hunt since I graduated from law school in 2007. I wasn’t naive enough to think that legal jobs were falling off the back of trucks or anything, but figured I would have success in due time. Yet like many, the pavement pounding continues in large part to an untimely economic downturn as well as an oversaturated market for new lawyers here in Minneapolis.

Making the whole process even more challenging though is that I am a job searcher with a disability. In general, people with disabilities have difficulty finding jobs, with less than one in five (19.2%) in the labor force compared to 64.5 percent participation among able-bodied folks. Therefore, many qualified, productive people with disabilities are left unemployed. Thankfully, I have set myself ahead with a law degree, but that still doesn’t discount the fact that my particular job search has to account for a whole litany of extra things that other people don’t have to consider.

The issue of disclosing my disability is always the first hurdle. Try and shrug it off all you want, but it’s hard to not feel like doing so knocks you out of equal competition with other candidates right out of the chute. The disability disclosure options range from letting employers know about your disability right away on the resume/application, to showing up for the interview without mention of it (aka “shock and awe”), to never mentioning it at all. For people with “hidden” disabilities that’s more of a weighed decision, especially if they want to be considered for the position strictly on the merits. Or if you want to sidestep employers who might feel uncomfortable hiring “the disabled.”

But being a wheelchair using quadriplegic means that there is nothing hidden about my disability. So I typically prefer to get it out there at the forefront and hope that my qualifications and/or interview still do the heavy lifting. I’ve done this by working it into cover letters (e.g. my lifestyle yields a unique skill set including quick adaptability and strong perseverance), smoothly mentioning that I’ll need wheelchair accessible parking in order to get to the interview, etc., and my resume has a few disabilities related items too.

That being said, being so upfront has possibly backfired on some occasions on account of certain disability “stigmas” out there that work against me. For example, I once reached out to fellow law school alum who does some disability law work to conduct an informational interview. It dawned on me during our phone conversation that he didn’t think that I could drive myself or do other things on my own around a courthouse. When I enlightened him he said, “Oh, you said quadriplegic so I just assumed you couldn’t move your arms.” Immediately thereafter I started describing myself as “partially paralyzed” instead. But more concerning was how many others dismissed my abilities for that same reason without discovering more? So the disclosure process is tricky.

Being a wheelchair-user, another significant job searching factor is if the work location has adequate accessible parking. And by adequate I mean if it’s close to the entrance, free of barriers, snow plowed in the winter, guaranteed to be open for my use every day, accommodates my van’s ramp, etc. Because not all handicapped parking yields a workable situation for me. Parking ramps can be a big challenge because I can’t always pull the automated ticket out of the machine. And parking lots are tough to negotiate via wheelchair in heavy, snowy Minnesota winters, especially if I need to park and cross the street.

I once had a job interview at a law firm in downtown Minneapolis with a troubling parking situation. First, the ramp heading below the building was very steep and hard to drive down, then getting to the handicapped spots involved a lot of maze like shenanigans, including executing a t-turn in a tight space near other parked cars, only to discover that they weren’t wide enough to accommodate my van’s ramp. Upon exiting it took almost all my strength to hold my hand control brake at the top of the ramp while I waited for the door to open inward before I could drive out. In that moment I decided that even if I got the job I might have to turn it down on account of the parking situation alone.

Next up are accommodations. Although 20% of all accommodations cost nothing and two-thirds cost less than $500, the pure notion of an “accommodation” invokes assumptions of expensive equipment etc. in certain employers, so it still becomes another job searching hurdle in that sense. But even when expensive accommodations are required the ADA is on my side. In the workplace the only accommodations I typically need are parking as well as wheelchair access to my workspace, desk, and the bathroom. But the biggest accommodation that I need is more flexible work hours. At least every other morning I have a personal care routine that can take up to three hours, so by default starting work every day by 8 or 9 am is out the window or I’d have to get up way too early. Everywhere that I’ve worked has been great about working around my schedule, but by the same token it’s wiped me out of a handful of employment opportunities that revolve around a strict 9 to 5 work day. So that is very frustrating.

Lastly, a major hurdle that many job searchers with disabilities face is how heavily intertwined working can be with their medical insurance/benefits. In short, people that are on Social Security/SSI, economic assistance, subsidized housing, or other related programs risk losing it all if they end up earning too much through employment, but don’t earn enough to cover the expenses. Thus it creates a disincentive to work. I’ve been involved with all of those things in the past and it’s a real crappy dichotomy, not to mention a mess of paperwork to go back and forth if necessary. Having all of that loom while you’re fishing for work is not a good feeling.

Yes the job search is crappy for everyone but when you have a disability there is so much more involved, which can be be very frustrating. But I remain steadfast that an ideal employment opportunity is right around the corner and that I can look back at all of this and laugh someday. In the meantime I’ll just keep plugging away and try and stay as productive as I can.

What challenges have you encountered when job searching with a disability? If you have any tips, advice, or insight, please share in the comments below.

4 replies
  1. Leonardo
    Leonardo says:

    ya i feel you on the job market, or lack thereof. i

    The National Org on Disability, while not exactly national, has a budding employment program in 3 states – virginia, some state #2, and some state #3. #4 will be texas. no word on california.

    as for legal work in California, where i live gloriously, there’s tom mundy and the ADA isn’t enforced by anybody except for these peeps.

  2. Mark Schmitt
    Mark Schmitt says:

    I cannot agree with you more on your struggles. I have a fair amount of friends that have either struggled to find a job, are underemployed or have given up. A couple have gone the route of entrepreneurship because it was the only way to start a career. In my own industry, the very one that we get our equipment from, is also not very active in hiring the disabled. I wish you good luck and will keep an eye out for opportunities.

  3. Greg Morris
    Greg Morris says:

    It is tough out there. Make the most of your disability – turn it into an asset. In some fields having a disabled person on the staff can add an extra dimension of experience to the firm.

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