On my 18th birthday in September 2017, I suddenly was thrust into the world of being an adult who had Cerebral Palsy. At the time, I was a high school senior preparing to graduate in June. I was looking forward to going to college and getting a job. I applied to a couple of local universities and ultimately attended Westfield State University. I was unsure of what I wanted to study but was pleased that my hard work was paying off. When I went off to college in the fall, I was filled with optimism. That optimism quickly turned to worry as I discovered that there were challenges.
The first challenge I faced was a lack of adequate care assistance. In my first three semesters of college, I went through a new PCA every semester. It’s exhausting having to find and then retain personal care assistants. It was hard because my first PCA was constantly running late. She also lived 40 minutes away from me. This always made me nervous because I didn’t want to miss classes. This PCA sometimes also made me feel like a burden. It’s not a good feeling when your PCA makes you feel bad just for existing in your disabled body—especially given the fact that she was being paid to help me. The subsequent PCA worked well until I let her go due to personal issues. The third PCA had unreliable transportation. It wasn’t until 2018 that I discovered just how difficult it could be to find good PCAs.
Disabled people must be sure that their home health staff is dependable and hardworking. Disabled people shouldn’t be wondering how they will get to the doctor, grocery store, or church or if they will eat their meals. They deserve to participate in their communities. Personal care assistants and other home healthcare providers play a vital role in ensuring disabled people have access to their communities.
In the classroom, I enjoyed pursuing subjects such as psychology and mass communication. So much so that by the end of my first semester, I had declared a major in communication. I knew that gaining experience in your chosen field was necessary. The summer after my first year of college, I tried to coordinate a work experience with a local press company. Unfortunately, the woman who runs it works from her home, which isn’t accessible.
After this, I began to research the employment statistics of disabled people in America. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 19.1 percent of people with disabilities (regardless of education level) worked in 2021, up from 17.9 percent in 2020, which means that approximately 80% of disabled people are unemployed. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 28.5 percent of college graduates with a disability were employed in 2018, compared to 75.5 percent of non-disabled graduates. Reading these statistics made me question why I’d pursued a college education, to begin with. The more I thought about it; I realized that throughout my life, I’d seen very few people with visible disabilities working in their communities. I can’t recall ever seeing a grocery store clerk using a wheelchair or walker. I never had a teacher in a wheelchair, and I rarely saw actors with disabilities in mainstream media.
Children with disabilities need to see people who look like them, so they realize what is possible when they grow up. Job shadowing or interning is another way for disabled people to explore different career paths. Looking back, I wish I could’ve done this as a teenager. Exploring different career paths would have helped me decide what I would do well and what careers I wasn’t suited for. I knew I wouldn’t be a police officer, but maybe I could have been a criminal profiler or forensic lab technician. I wouldn’t be a nurse, but perhaps a medical researcher instead. I didn’t want to end up in a sheltered workshop where I’d be performing menial tasks for a subminimum wage.
As a teenager, I discovered that social media could be a fantastic way to connect with fellow disabled people. Reading blogs and discussions from others with disabilities made me realize I wasn’t alone. Knowing that it wasn’t uncommon to be discriminated against by employers because of my disability made me feel better. I wasn’t the only disabled person who struggled to become gainfully employed.
Non-disabled people don’t understand what it’s like to be disabled, no matter how hard they try. Hearing them tell me that discrimination wouldn’t happen to me was unhelpful because I knew it was happening. I couldn’t pretend that society would welcome me and understand my needs automatically. I have always needed to prove myself to people. Since I was young, I’ve always felt like I needed to prove that I belonged in the world.
Disabled people of all ages deserve to live their lives to the fullest. They don’t need to sit around at home. Sadly, society often makes it difficult for them to work, volunteer or attend higher education. Attitudes surrounding disabled people need to change. When I’ve applied for jobs and mentioned my disability, employers refuse to interview me. If I’m lucky enough to be interviewed, barriers such as inaccessible workplaces or a lack of experience prevent me from being hired.
I have been rejected by grocery stores, movie theaters, and fast-food restaurants. I was even turned down for a job working on testing the accessibility of websites and software. Disabled people can work and be taxpaying citizens. Employers won’t know that if they don’t give disabled people a chance.
Allarakhia, Hawa. “Employability and College Graduates with Disabilities.” Diverse Education, Diverse Education, 5 Aug. 2019, diverseeducation.com/article/151429/.
“Persons with a Disability: Labor Force Characteristics Summary – 2021.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 24 Feb. 2022, https://www.bls.gov/news.release/disabl.nr0.htm.