By Sophie Kellam, Communications Intern
I am happy to introduce this piece, the first in a series on employment that I am doing for Disability Rights Center-NH (DRC-NH). I recognize that the transition from school to employment can be difficult for people with disabilities, and I want to share how I look at this process from the perspective of someone with disabilities. I am using this opportunity to discover what resources exist to help prepare people with disabilities for employment as well as to help us find employment. I also want to take this opportunity to explore some jobs that I might be interested in pursuing, jobs like a special education advocate, a mental health counselor, or a housing policy analyst, all fields where I could utilize the experience and interest that I have in disability rights. I am so happy for this opportunity and excited to dive into such a complex topic…so here we go!
As my past readers know, I graduated from UNH last spring with a degree in communications and in the middle of the pandemic. Since then, I have been living at home and interning with DRC-NH. It has been difficult to transition into the workforce with so much going on in the world. I initially took on this internship to be able to do some work that I believed in. Now I am realizing how much doing this internship has helped me hone skills that I can use in my career.
Viewing Disability As A Strength
When finding jobs, I have noticed that I tend to get in a headspace where I automatically try to overcompensate for the things that are difficult for me because of my disabilities. This is a negative way of thinking about things and underestimates what makes me valuable as an employee. As I have learned how my brain works, I have chosen to look at myself in a more accepting and empowering light. When taking a social work class in college, I learned about the strengths-based approach of providing care. It is a conscious effort in therapy and other kinds of social work to look for the strengths in someone and build those up instead of focusing on what is not working. I find this framework helpful because instead of fighting my disability, I look at it in a positive way.
I find it helpful to remind myself of the strengths that make me a unique and valuable person. I have a Nonverbal Learning Disability which means it is difficult for me to process visual information and my processing speed is slower than average. To compensate, I have developed higher than average verbal skills. Through working with what I have and saying yes to experiences, I am excellent at one-on-one conversations and good at communicating. My strengths are networking, thinking outside the box, and the ability to strongly advocate for myself and others. Although these strengths are rooted in my struggles, they are not defined by them.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD is also an important component of how my brain works because ADHD makes it hard for me to focus on tasks and conversations. However, the benefit of having a brain that has selective focus is that I am able to work effectively and relentlessly on topics that spark my creative thinking. I do not assume that I just know things, I take the time to ask questions and learn more. I like to analyze a situation and come up with unique ways of expressing myself through writing. I enjoy analysis because it helps me to use my natural curiosity to see how things are structured and the decisions that were made behind the scenes. This ultimately sparked my interest in writing, which has led me to where I am today.
Social anxiety affects my ability pick up on nonverbal cues and get tasks done because I have to spend time breaking down assumptions that I have about how others perceive me. I have developed tactics to regulate my reactions and get the most out of each experience. One tactic that I use is to take a walk and talk out my feelings with my parents. Getting out of my environment and exercising to release some of the anxiety in my body almost always seems to give me a sense of clarity. I also think about how I come across and therefore am able to prepare accordingly, regulate my responses, and am empowered to address problems as they arise.
Since the strength-based approach is used by people who help us, then it can be a great philosophy to adopt when we advocate for ourselves. It can be used by people with disabilities so that they go into a workplace with the confidence that they are valuable to the workforce. It is important to know that we are valuable and deserve to be treated with respect.
I got this internship with DRC-NH through cold calling organizations that I felt were doing good work. My motivation came from wanting to learn more about myself and help other people who were in a similar situation. I know how important a support system is and I want to be a part of that support system for others like me. This is what makes me well qualified for any career path that I choose to pursue.
Disability and Employment – A Systemic Issue
People with disabilities have unique and diverse experiences and skills sets and they have a lot to offer potential employers, especially when provided appropriate accommodations like remote work options. Employees with disabilities should be viewed as valuable to employers as employees without disabilities. It is mutually beneficial for the employer and the employee to work together to identify accommodations so that the job can accommodate different abilities and circumstances. However, in practice, many people with disabilities are not given the chance to work in a job that provides these accommodations for them.
The difference between the percentage of people with no disability who are employed and those with a disability who are employed is called the employment gap. According to the 2019 Report on Disability in New Hampshire by the UNH Institute on Disability, New Hampshire’s employment gap is 40.2 percentage points. The report also talks about how people with disabilities are less likely to have a college education than their non-disabled peers. In comparison to all of the U.S. States, New Hampshire was ranked 21st place so there is opportunity there for growth. Both this ‘education gap’ and the employment gap leave people with disabilities with less opportunities to provide for themselves and live independently. Theses systemic gaps in access cause an on-going economic divide between people with disabilities and people without disabilities.
I have learned from many teachers, friends, and family who have been able to ask for and accept accommodations to help them keep their careers. It is amazing to have these people to look up to as examples as I navigate my own career path. In a study on the Job Accommodation Network’s website, ASKJAN.org, (a good resource for finding accommodations that you could present for your disability) employers were asked about what the benefits were of having an employee with a disability:
“The most frequently mentioned direct benefits were: (1) the accommodation allowed the company to retain a valued employee, (2) the accommodation increased the employee’s productivity, and (3) the accommodation eliminated the costs of training a new employee. The most widely mentioned indirect benefits employers received were: (1) the accommodation ultimately improved interactions with co-workers, (2) the accommodation increased overall company morale, and (3) the accommodation increased overall company productivity.”
I can see how these benefits can create an environment where there is more comradery and a lower burnout rate in many fields. I have personally experienced what accommodations can do through my college experience. Through figuring out what accommodations I needed and communicating it in the context of each class, I found my voice and found that I was able to advocate both for myself and for others like me. Having to explain and negotiate with authority figures made me more confident in questioning how things are done and hopeful that the world can change to be a more inclusive place.
Workplace accommodations are mutually beneficial to all who are involved. Employment can drastically improve the quality of life of people with disabilities. I have found that I have a great list of accomplishments that I feel show that I have been valued as an employee. An article on the website fastcompany.com explains how getting accommodations can further empower people with disabilities:
“According to a recent study of 140 U.S. companies by Accenture–alongside the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) and Disability: IN–those that offered the most inclusive working environment for disabled employees achieved an average of 28% higher revenue, 30% greater economic profit margins, and twice the net income of their industry peers between 2015 and 2018.”
The fact that employees with disabilities can actually improve a companies’ bottom line shows how vital these employees are to transforming the workplace. I think that there is a great opportunity that the state needs to harness in order to keep these loyal workers here. Including more people with disabilities in New Hampshire’s workforce will improve workplace culture and efficiency and empower the best kind of workers – the data shows this and I have seen it in my own life.
Sophie Kellam is an intern at Disability Rights Center-NH