This is the second in a series of blogs I am writing on employment that follow my journey from college to career.
By Sophie Kellam, Communications Intern
The importance of flexibility and accommodations
I just got a position as a mailroom person for a publishing company. I am happy that I have this opportunity. Looking back at the jobs that I had previously, I understand how they led me to where I am now. I think that people with disabilities have unique perspectives because we have circumstances out of our control that demand attention and accommodations. Through advocating for our individual situations and finding a place in the workplaces we feel passionate about, we can pave the way for workplaces to become more inclusive spaces that adapt to the needs of people in the disability community.
I find it helpful when I see people with similar challenges to me in my workplace because I can more easily get the support that I need from someone who knows what life is like with a disability. For example, it is important for employers to understand that what we need from our accommodations is not clear cut and can change throughout our lives based on how our disability affects us at different times. It can be hard to get accommodations when others are not aware or have preconceived notions of what we are going through.
As I have looked at different employment opportunities, I have prioritized places that gave me flexibility and support when it came to my disabilities. I have been lucky since most of my jobs have been supportive and allowed me to learn new things about my disability that I would never have known otherwise. I have seen myself as a capable person who is fully supported by the people that I have worked for. I know this is not the case everywhere and I have heard of many situations when the way people with disabilities are treated tears down their confidence in themselves and their work. It is crucial that people with disabilities have a place in the workforce and for there to be support systems to address concerns that come from having a disability.
Since my priorities have shifted as I have been growing up and learning about my disability, I am grateful for an environment that can provide flexibility when it comes to life outside work. Many of the jobs I have chosen so far were based around my identity as a college student with disabilities first and an employee second. My priorities starting out in the job market had to compete with my need to finish college. I chose jobs where I did not have to take the work back to the dorm with me. College was challenging my disabilities in a way that consumed a lot of my time and energy. It was important that my workplace understood and could work with me on this balance. While a student, I worked at a restaurant called the Dairy Bar and at the UNH Survey Center. These jobs were helpful, but not necessarily the start of my career. While I didn’t focus on creatively satisfying work, I was able to build skills that I now use in my current position, skills like time management, organization, and doing repetitive tasks carefully and consistently.
Finding Structure Around My Passion
After graduating, I had less structured time in my life. I do not react well to unstructured time, and without a set schedule I became distracted and unfocused. It was hard to find motivation over the last year when so many of the things that provided structure and kept me connected to other people were closed for public health reasons. I also felt helpless in a global situation where stressors seemed to crop up every week. I decided to try to make the most of the pandemic and do something that made me feel like I was supporting people and not wasting the time I was given. I am so glad that I set this intention and followed through on this decision, especially since it has been crucial to my mental health.
When looking to get involved and give my post-college pandemic days more structure, I intentionally chose to look for opportunities in the disability field. I felt personally driven to connect with and help people growing up with learning disabilities, just like I did. When trying to find a place to start, I found many resources created by and for people with disabilities that I could learn from and contribute to. I realized that I did not have to reinvent the wheel but rather, I looked for the people who were making a difference through helping others and decided to add my efforts to that. One of the first agencies I identified was the Institute on Disability (IOD) at UNH. It was through an informational interview with the IOD that I was referred to Disability Rights Center-NH and my current internship.
My internship with DRC-NH has helped me to create structure in my days and I have met some adaptable and creative people who bring out the best in me. Through my blog, I help people with disabilities find resources and advocate for themselves as well as bring attention to organizations that are working in disability rights. I have done all this remotely. By identifying my limits and working with what I could handle at different points in my life, I have created job opportunities for myself that provide me with a sense of community when I felt most alone.
Taking My Disability to Work
Now that I am going into a work situation where I have a lot of responsibility, it is important for me to face it with the knowledge that I do have disabilities and need to use the tools I have to make my own path and be successful. I chose to disclose my disabilities to my supervisor when I went in for my first day. She was really understanding and let me know that she is happy to accommodate my needs or explain things in a different way. Even though I knew I had a legal right to accommodations, it was a relief to have this process go so smoothly. It was a great situation because I was able to feel comfortable sharing the things that I have been coming to terms with about myself and how I relate to my disabilities.
For example, in my new job, I have to navigate the mailing facilities in an efficient manner. I struggle with navigation and directions so usually use a GPS and using a GPS is one of the accommodations I arranged for during my orientation. However, since I was driven to the facility on my first day, I thought I could find my way back to it without a GPS. I got a bit lost on my second day and finally used my GPS because I really needed it. It was a mistake to think that I had to prove that I could navigate without my accommodations. I had nothing to prove and part of my responsibilities at work is to navigate my surroundings in an efficient manner. Moving forward I am dedicated to using the tools available to me to make sure I am making good time and fulfilling my responsibilities.
It has been hard for me to admit that I need to tackle things in a different way from those around me but when I ask for accommodations instead of trying to hide my disabilities, I feel more in control of my performance and quality of work. It is important for me to make sure that I am doing the best that I can just like any employee, with or without disabilities. In making sure that I have accommodations and a clear understanding of my job responsibilities, I have been able to build my resume to include experiences that I am confident will help me reach my career goals.
Sophie Kellam is an intern at Disability Rights Center-NH