On Disability Employment: Being My Own Boss

Beth her fifth Seeing Eye dog, Luna. It’s their Seeing Eye graduation photo, taken outside the Seeing Eye School in Morristown, NJ in January, 2020I lost my sight five years before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. When I could see, I was the assistant director of the Study Abroad Office at a major university. That all changed when I was diagnosed with retinopathy –a rare disease that damages the retina. Eye surgeries we hope would save my eyesight proved unsuccessful, and when I met with my boss to discuss my return to work, she was evasive, never suggesting I couldn’t come back, only that we should wait a little longer, and that I should make time to learn Braille and develop new daily living skills first. That way, she reasoned, I “wouldn’t embarrass the office.”

After that? She put me off long enough for my employment contract to lapse and she simply didn’t renew it. We never had an honest discussion about the situation. She never voiced her specific concerns, and I never had the chance to assuage them.

After that, persuading other employers to give me a job was an uphill battle. I completed classes to learn how to use a talking computer, and Mike and I started spending our Sunday evenings together scanning the “help wanted” ads in our local newspaper. “Commercial airline pilot, probably not,” he’d tease, somehow managing to lighten up the dark mood that set in when I looked for work. “But here’s one,” he’d say sincerely. “Animal poison control hotline, maybe they’d hire you.”

When I emailed the animal poison control hotline the next morning for details about the job, I didn’t mention anything about my blindness. In their email response, they explained that the job required phone and computer work. Phones and computers are good with me: phones for obvious reasons, computers because any common PC or Mac can be equipped with speech capability.

I wrote back telling them I’d be available for graveyard shift, and they enthusiastically suggested I visit the office to fill out an application.

I was driven to the interview by a friend, and as she helped me with the printed application form you could hear a hushed, angst-ridden conversation in the background. The receptionist came and went. Another woman emerged from the back room, disappeared again, then finally, without so much as greeting me, launched into a shrill speech on how the job required legal forms be filled out for every phone call that comes in. When I explained how I could use my talking computer to create digital versions of the forms, complete them on the computer and print them out, she just sighed. “We’re in the process of computerizing and hope to be done in a few months,” she said. “But right now, it just won’t work.”

A few months passed. Mike spotted the ad in the paper again. I emailed the same contact and asked for another interview. No response.

This sort of treatment happened more times than I care to tell about. I don’t take it personally anymore, but it still can be painful and confounding. I’d love to tell you that all of this has changed since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, but current conversations with job-seekers who have disabilities tell me this kind of experience remains more of a rule than an exception. On the face of it, things may seem to have gotten better. And it has, in some ways: since passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, the accessibility of public spaces continues to improve. But when it comes to hiring, as with other bigotries, changing the law is one thing, changing hearts and minds is another.

So how did I ever find work? Mike surprised me one Christmas with a talking laptop for home, and I became my own boss. I started writing, submitting my written pieces to magazines and National Public Radio, getting published in bigtime magazines and newspapers and ended up regularly recording essays for WBEZ in Chicago. Those successes boosted my confidence, and I found myself eager to get on with life.

When friends suggested I write a book, I accepted the challenge. A book project would force me to finally gather my cassettes, floppy discs and other computer journal entries together in one place. If I managed to get published, maybe I could parlay my literary success into a speaking career.

My memoir, “Long Time, No See” was published by University of Illinois Press in 2003, and the success of that book led to part-time work giving guest lectures at universities, leading memoir-writing classes for older adults in Chicago, and visiting elementary schools to talk about disability awareness.

In 2005 the Vice President of Digital Communications at Easterseals National Headquarters heard one of my essays on National Public Radio and hired me as a consultant to moderate this blog. I’ve been enjoying this work ever since.

I do all my work as a consultant now. My husband Mike helps me with technology issues, I enjoy mixing my work day with teaching, editing, writing and giving occasional on-line and in-person presentations.

My advice to people with disabilities looking for work? Put yourself out there, try new things, accept challenges. Give employers a chance to see what you’re capable of. After a while, they can’t help but notice.


 

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  1. Jonathan Carter Says:

    I need help with information so I can take care of my blind father.


  2. Jonathan Carter Says:

    I’m looking for help from Easterseals because my father is blind and my mother can barely walk some days. I’m ready to take care of them full time I need help getting into the program so I can receive payment for there care. Please help.


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