By Elizabeth Lee
“Let the shameful walls of exclusion finally come tumbling down” is the directive that former President George Bush gave us when he signed the ADA into law 30 years ago, on July 26, 1990.
I graduated from the University of Maryland in 2008, and I can still recall the excitement of that day with such clarity. I remember the nervous anticipation I felt sitting in that huge auditorium with my family and friends in front of me; how surreal it felt to stand beside my fellow graduates as we took our place in the procession line; and the thrill of finally hearing my name being called. I remember how proud I felt walking across that stage, with my cane grasped in one hand and my friend’s elbow clutched in the other, ready and willing to start the next chapter of my life. But what I was not prepared for was the long intermission that would precede this next chapter.
As a recent graduate, I was eager to start tackling the next steps: securing a job, acquiring new skills, taking on new challenges and finding my place in this career-driven world. But as a recent graduate who is blind, I knew that a few of those steps would be arduous to climb.
Every application and resume that went unanswered and every interview that led to a dead-end, made those arduous steps suddenly seem unsurmountable.
About 50 percent of individuals who are blind are unemployed. I don’t remember how I came across this statistic. Maybe someone said it to me in passing or I read it somewhere in an online article. What I can recall is that when I heard this news, I felt shocked and irate, but also determined. I was surprised that the unemployment statistic was as high as it was, and furious at all the societal factors and misconceptions that were keeping it that high. This only served to fuel my determination to find a job.
Judith Heumann, an American disability rights activist, described what she did after facing years of discrimination on account of her disability. She said that she learned to become her own advocate — something I too was beginning to realize. If I wanted to make my mark in the professional world and break down stereotypical misconceptions about people with disabilities, I first had to become my own advocate. I refused to be a part of or contribute to the unemployment statistic. With renewed fervor, I reached out to the resources available to me. I created new networks through family members and friends, kept in constant contact with my counselor at Maryland’s Division of Rehabilitation Services, spoke and met regularly with my job coach at a local employment network and took an employment class at the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind.
I am now serving the disability community at New Editions Consulting, Inc., devoting the majority of my time researching, writing and publishing articles on how assistive technology (AT) products can help different disability groups carry out the activities of daily living, including employment, with greater efficiency and independence. I am able to do this through the accommodations and AT equipment New Editions provides, including a laptop that has JAWS (a screen reader software) installed, and telework flexibility.
A few years ago, transportation became more of an issue for me when the paratransit service I rely on became increasingly unreliable. After experiencing a few too many of these types of delays, I knew it was time to raise the issue to my managers. When I explained the situation to them, their response was quick and understanding. They addressed my concerns and made the necessary accommodations so that I only had to come into the office two days a week and telework the rest.
Given the technological advancements that are available today and having been shown that teleworking is possible, employers should see this time as an opportunity to hire more individuals with disabilities.
At New Editions, for example, during this pandemic crisis where telework has become the new norm, my colleagues and managers continue to use accessible programs and online platforms to help keep us all connected, engaged and involved. We hold team meetings via Zoom, chat with one another through Skype, have Webinar calls using Adobe Connect, and even attend company-wide virtual happy hours together through Zoom, which are hosted by the president of New Editions, Shelia Newman. I am proud to work for a company that not only values and embraces diversity in the workforce, but makes the inclusion and support of individuals with disabilities a priority.
I hope that it doesn’t take 30 more years before more employers stand as advocates alongside us, so that we can fulfill President Bush’s directive and knock down these shameful walls of exclusivity together.
Elizabeth Lee is a project coordinator with New Editions Consulting, Inc, based in the City of Falls Church.