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Navigating the Workforce with Disabilities

A recap of our Facebook chat on launching a career

Job interview from Easter Seals PSA

Easterseals hosted a Facebook panel discussion on launching a career for people with disabilities in October of 2014. Panelists included Patrick Cokley of the Office of Disability Employment Policy; Sara Fair, a college senior who is deaf; mentor Colleen Flanagan of Easter Seals Massachusetts, and a Community Outreach and Employment Specialist Ben Trockman.

Here is an abridged version of the candid conversation with our panelists below. And don't forget to also check out our Easterseals Workforce Development Services for help job-searching.

Preparation Before the Search

Q1:  What were your concerns entering the job market? What did you do to overcome them?

Sara Jane Fair: Definitely concerned about if I can even get a job due to the economy and my Deafness being an obstacle for some employers. I always tell myself that I lose nothing when I apply for a job. The worst they can say is to tell you you did not get hired/get an interview.

Ben Trockman:  Honestly, one of the biggest concerns that I had was being able to keep my Medicaid coverage, while also earning a decent wage. When starting a job – while on Medicaid – you are only allowed to make “so much” money, and keep “so much” money saved in your checking account.

At first, I thought I was only going to be allowed to make around $14,000 a year. In all honesty, that is not the type of wages that I went to college for! Lucky enough, I searched around and found a program called MED Works, which is offered here in Indiana. The program allows a person like myself – disabled and earning benefits through Medicaid – to make up to $81,000 a year. Although, I’m still only allowed to have $2,000 in my checking account, and I am limited where I am able to save my money; still very frustrated.

Actually, I just sent an email today to many different legislators and Indiana encouraging them to change the standards of the “Cap” on the amount of money you are allowed to have, a checking account, and the limit on yearly earnings.

Colleen Flanagan: When I was looking for work I didn't expect barriers. I did experience some however, maybe it was because my obvious disability was misunderstood to mean I was incapable of the job I was applying for. After I learned to be a stronger advocate for my ability to work, more work opportunities came up.

Patrick for the Campaign for Disability Employment: Like many students with disabilities entering the workforce, I was concerned about how to best represent myself and my skills and manage my disability as well. Learning the soft skills that go beyond academic and professional prep was an ongoing process. These are the sort of skills that can make moving into the workplace easier. 

Q2: How did you prepare or are you preparing for your job search? Any special steps?

Sara Jane Fair: Support. Support. Support. I've gotten so much support from my family, my friends and my school. I don't think I would ever have this much faith in myself looking for a job in a couple of months if I did not have any support. My university has a career exploration department for people with disabilities, they will help you find a job or even an internship. This is how I applied for my internship with Easterseals! A lot of universities or support services are willing to help you look for a job that suits you. My local Department of Rehabilitation also one of my biggest supporters for job searching.

Ben Trockman: I reached out to as many people that I knew as possible, and requested a meeting for advice. By “reaching out” I mean networking. That included emails, meetings, phone calls and much more. I most definitely found that networking is one of the most important, if not the most important tool of finding a job, and functioning in society as a whole. You can never know enough people! These meetings included many successful CEOs in the area, and the meetings actually led to my employment at Old National Bank, where I am now a Community Outreach and Employment Specialist; working to help employ people with disabilities in the area.

My responsibilities also include educating the public about disability, and making our community a better place for people with disabilities to be employed. It still is amazing to me that I am employed by a bank to make the community a better place. But, I embrace the challenge, and look forward to making a difference. Quite a task ahead of me!

Colleen Flanagan: What can help when preparing for the workforce is to get OUT, participate in the community, volunteer, don't be afraid to network and meet new people.

Campaign for Disability Employment: I used all of the networks I had available to help find work. College friends, clubs, associations, as well as ties made in internships and past jobs were a big help. This sort of networking is key for individuals with disabilities. As a Howard University grad I was taught that you have to maintain your networks for your success and the same has been true in the disability community.

The Pre-Employment Process

Q3: Did an internship help you prepare for looking for a job or being on the job? How?

Sara Jane Fair: My internship with Easterseals was incredible. I had two other previous internship experiences, and every single one of them I have encountered different accessibility situations. It has truly prepared me for what people will think of you upon meeting you, upon learning your disability, and upon learning how you will communicate. I've fine tuned how I want to request an interpreter—sometimes I make a nice request and at other times, I will demand it. My internships have also taught me to be flexible with people, and I've learned to educate people about Deafness appropriately and professionally.

Ben Trockman: I had the chance to have a few different internships, and they were all vital to getting where I am today.

It was always my dream to be a sports broadcaster, so I did an internship with a local television station, working in their sports department. I quickly found out that the hours did not work for me, and the whole idea of the “one man band” – where one person is required to film, edit, produce and all the other things was just not something I could physically do. Next career…

Then, I had the chance to get involved in PR, and work with Easterseals. I quickly found out that public relations was where I needed to be, and where my skills were best suited. I am able to easily – despite my injury – navigate the computer, make calls, send emails, use my brain to make things as creative as possible, and most importantly work with people to create some pretty awesome things.

Without these internships, I may not have realized what exactly I wanted to do, and how I can best use my skills in the workforce.

Patrick for the Campaign for Disability Employment:My first internship in DC started me on the path to disability and inclusion work. Working at the Office of Equal Opportunity gave me an idea of the type of work I wanted to do. My second DC internship at a non-profit, actually led to my first position at of college. Because I had worked as an intern at the organization, another director was willing to give me chance as a permanent employee. Incidentally I had also gotten my internship through my college network, so it was another win for Howard!

One of the best things about one internship I had was that it taught me that I did not want to be doing that sort of work for my career. We have to remember that internships are about learning processes that help lead to healthy career decisions. It is key that individuals with disabilities have the same opportunity to try and sometimes fail as their able bodied counterparts.

Q4: What kind of pre-employment support did you have (resume building, interview practice, etc.)? Any support related to entering the workforce with a disability?

Sara Jane Fair: Like I said, my university had support services for those seeking employment, so I had an advisor look over my resume and give me resources to keep building my resume. I'm a huge social media nerd, so I was on top of my LinkedIn already. A lot of looking online and asking people to review your resume is the best way to go.

I truly have to thank [the National Technical Institute for the Deaf:Rochester Institute of Technology]  for all their help with my career search, I'm currently working with them on finding a job after graduation in December!

Ben Trockman: Most of my pre-employment work was done while in college at the University of Southern Indiana. We practiced resume building, and also mock interviews. Although, now that I am working in HR, I am learning a totally different way to conduct yourself, especially as one with a disability.

A resume is just one way of getting your foot in the door, and in all honesty, it is not the most important way of doing things. Although, don’t forget LinkedIn! The resume can speak to your history and your skills, but if you can set up an interview before hand, with someone who knows the person you may be interviewing with, that is the most impactful. Again, this goes back to networking.

If you are able to talk to people, share your knowledge and interests, show your passion and positivity – then, people will start talking to you and about you. Disability does not matter at that point. If you find the right employer, as I did, they will make those accommodations for you. You just have to get your smiling face in front of the right people!

Patrick for Campaign for Disability Employment: I was fortunate that a lot of the soft skills such as communication, planning, and networking were a part of my collegiate experience. Those experiences are key to the success of any student and especially important for a new generation entering the workplace.

Disclosure of Disability to Employers

Q5: At what point of the job search process did you disclose your disability (if you did)?

Sara Jane Fair: I almost never tell the interviewer I'm deaf, but unfortunately/fortunately my relay services does so for me. Most of my interviews have been via phone since I'm searching for jobs back home while being in Rochester, NY, for my last semester. I use Relay services to interview, and interpreters are required to introduce themselves as the interpreter. I don't mind this, but in e-mails, I usually wait to disclose that I'm deaf until the interview date and time has been pinned down. Then I request an interpreter. If they cancel on me, we all know why it happens and it becomes more sticky for the company. I try to be transparent and honest, but sometimes I need to withhold that I'm deaf to see an employer's true colors.

Ben Trockman: Actually, I never "disclosed" my disability. My employer already knew about my disability, because I had spoken with, and met with the people in charge – HR and CEO of the company – and they knew my situation.

Disclosure is an interesting topic… But it almost [makes it feel] little strange to have to tell of your disability. Meet with the person first – that's what I say. I will say it during this entire chat – networking! It solves those uncomfortable problems.

Colleen Flanagan: I didn't purposely disclose my disability... for me the wheelchair made that obvious.

Patrick for Campaign for Disability Employment: I personally did not disclose my disability until my third job – I have low vision. If I had known about disclosure and accommodations I may have kept that first job. I may have altered my decision to leave my first workplace. I thought that there was no means for me to succeed so I went to try different work. Only later after I met other individuals with disabilities did I learn about how I could be more effective in the workplace and became more comfortable disclosing. This is why people with disabilities talking about their work experience is so important. Using visible networks like @CDE Tweets or [National Disability Employment Month] #NDEAM help share the disability message with people who think they are alone.

Colleen Flanagan: [National Disability Employment Month] is an important way to unite, and support each other because we really all have the ability to work!

Q6: What are the pros and cons of disclosing?

Sara Jane Fair: Pros, you get interviews. Cons, they can reject you and face backlash. You don't get the support/service you need. It's a slippery slope. I tell my friends to decide if they want to disclose or not. It's a difficult decision.

Colleen Flanagan: PRO'S for disclosure...you are being honest with yourself and your potential employer. NO ONE should be shamed of living with a disability, it can be a life characteristic that builds strength! CON'S for disclosure..you are not bringing your full self to a potential employer.

Patrick for Campaign for Disability Employment: Disclosure is a personal choice for every person with a disability. It takes thought and practice. For me it has led to me getting the accommodations I need, but it has also meant I have had to be very open about something I considered to be very personal. Though disclosure in part or whole may give you access to accommodations and individuals with a disability should always be the decision maker in determining when and how to disclose in their daily lives. The National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability offers some great resources on working out when and how to disclose.

Workplace Navigation and Adaptation

Q7: How did you adjust to your work (internship) environment? Were there situations which made you feel uncomfortable? How were those situations remedied?

Sara Jane Fair: I've become so used to adjusting to everyday situations. Being a Deaf person in a hearing world, it's gotten much easier for me to adapt. I didn't have major obstacles at my internships, but I always make sure I communicate with my co-workers or bosses if I do encounter an obstacle!

Campaign for Disability Employment: I did not formally disclose my disability until my third job – though if I had greater knowledge about my personal disability and accommodations it may have altered my decision to leave my first workplace. I had some spectacular fails. I remember going out to ea t with my team and having to tell them that I couldn't read the menu at the fancy sandwich place we went to. As a young professional it was a lesson about planning and my professional image that I had not thought of before. This is why people with disabilities talking about their work experience is so important. Using visible networks like [Campaign for Disability Employment] @CDE Tweets or #NDEAM help share the disability message with people who think they are alone.

Q8: Claudia Gordon, special assistant in the Department of Labor, has said that networking is incredibly important, especially for people with disabilities. Did you network to help your job search/do you plan to? Do you have any networking advice?

Sara Jane Fair: I love networking. It's become one of my most favorite things to do. At first it's awkward and hard, but over time you know what to say and what you want to ask. LinkedIn is an AMAZING place to start networking. I connect with my professors, classmates and co-workers. Then I follow them on social media and continue making connections there!

Also, have fun! Networking is not always business. Maybe you can network based on your interests and you never know where it takes you! Be yourself, enjoy talking to people and it'll take you places!

Ben Trockman: Networking is the way that I got my job today. You can never know enough people in this world. You should always be giving out a card, or talking and introducing yourself to someone new. Follow-up with an email, and let someone know how great it was to meet them, and you hope that you can work together with them in the future. I ABSOLUTELY think that networking – or friendship making – is the most important part in succeeding in life, and especially finding employment.

Colleen Flanagan: My networking advice...don't be shy! Never be afraid to share what you have abilities to do in the workforce!

Patrick for the Campaign for Disability Employment: Networking is key – not only for finding work, but maintaining success as an employee. Not only will you use your networks to find a job, but also remain clued in to the relevant changes in your field, build knowledge and be aware of the work of your peers. Networking leads to working together which is something that [Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez says is a] mutual benefit.

I often practice with my friends and at big functions that can be overwhelming I have a few friends where we network as a tag team. It is more fun and makes it easier to talk to people you don't know. Lastly the thing I tell all my interns is to practice your ELEVATOR SPEECH!

One more thing - Follow up. Keep track of the people with whom you network and make regular contact with them. This can lead to more than a handshake at a party but a contact who can get you a job!

Final Words of Advice

Q9:  #1 thing you wish someone had told you about the job search.

Sara Jane Fair: Don't be afraid to apply to all different kinds of jobs. Like I said, the worst thing they can do is to say no. Be aggressive, put yourself out there and ENJOY the dialogue you will have along the way!

Colleen Flanagan: Job searching can be TOUGH! Wish I had heard more encouragement along the way! Too many people assume pwd's can't, or don't want to, work. I am employed now...but it was a rocky rocky road to get there.

Related Resources from Easterseals

Here are 3 tips from Department of Labor Special Assistant Claudia Gordon on launching your career. 

Find more information on assistive technology and job training here. 

Explore useful resources from the Campaign for Disability Employment, a Department of Labor initiative, here.  

Meet Our Panelists

Sara Fair Thumbnail Sara Fair
Sara Fair is a college senior who interned with Easterseals over the summer of 2014 and is starting her job search. She is also learning to navigate the workforce as a woman who is deaf.

Colleen Flanagan Thumbnail Colleen Flanagan
Colleen Flanagan is a working professional with disabilities who has been through it all and now mentors others as a leader of the youth program at Easter Seals Massachusetts, home of the mentoring program Thrive.

Ben Trockman Thumbnail Ben Trockman
Ben Trockman is currently a Community Outreach & Employment Specialist at Old National Bank in Evansville, IN---a position that concentrates on employing people with disabilities in the community. Ben just graduated last fall from the University of Southern Indiana, and spent the summer interning with the PR department at Easterseals.

Logo for the Office of Disability Employment

 Patrick Cokley
Patrick Cokley is a Policy Advisor at the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), an agency within the Department of Labor that aims to expand employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

Easterseals has partnered with Direct Employers Association, which has a membership of about 800 employers who want to hire veterans and people with disabilities. Through this partnership, Easterseals is offering a job search portal at easterseals.jobs, which features job postings from these employers.

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