Redefining Disability Challenge – Question 7

Each Wednesday, I post my response to a question from the Redefining Disability Challenge. This is my response to the seventh question in the Challenge. I am not looking ahead to future questions, so I may inadvertently address some topics which will come up later. Here is this week’s question:

Is your work or school life affected by disability? Describe some of these challenges.

Last week I wrote about how my dependence on a publicly funded program for personal care impacts my financial situation and my ability to earn money. To answer this week’s challenge, I will write about my educational experiences as a student with a disability and how my professional choices have been influenced by my disability.

In the United States, all children with disabilities are entitled to receive a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. I was one of the first students with a mobility impairment to attend my small hometown school. My parents advocated for my right to be mainstreamed, rather than receive my education in a self-contained classroom for children with disabilities. I received all of my education in the same classroom as my peers, with the exception of the classes I attended with the other students who were part of the gifted and talented program.

All students with disabilities have Individualized Education Programs (IEP). The IEP is the plan which contains the goals and objectives for a student. Because I had an orthopedic impairment, my IEP had goals related to my physical disability as well as my academic performance. The IEP is developed by the Special Education Committee – professionals involved in the education of students with disabilities.

When I was in eighth grade, my mother began to involve me in my IEP meetings. I read my IEP and the reports from the teachers, school psychologist and physical therapist. I attended some of my IEP meetings in high school where we discussed goals and objectives. Back in the late 1980’s, involving the student in what is now called “transition planning” was a new concept. Thankfully, more and more students are becoming involved in these meetings. My mother’s reasons for including me were simple – it was my plan, my education, and my future so I ought to have a say in the discussions. I remain eternally grateful for her early advocacy to include me in planning for my future.

From the day I started kindergarten at four years of age, I knew my parents expected me to do well in school, graduate, and attend college. There was never a question about my ability to do this.  I remember having a conversation about school with my father just before I stated second grade. He told me, “Denise, you’ll never be able to earn a living doing physical labor, so you have to continue to do well in school. Develop your brain so you can find a job where you can use your intelligence instead of your muscles.” Because my parents and teachers expected me to do well and continue my studies, I expected it for myself. Everything I did in high school was meant to prepare me for further education.

Early in high school, I began to explore colleges and universities. My grades and academic success meant several schools approached me but I was selective in my search. I wanted to attend a small liberal arts college where I would be able to make myself part of a campus community. I did not want to attend a large public university where I would be just a number. I needed to find a school where I would be recognized as Denise, not just another student in the back of a lecture hall. I also needed a small campus which was accessible.

The minute I stepped out of the car in the parking lot at The College of Saint Rose, I knew I had found my next home. At the end of our visit and tour, I told my parents this was the school I was going to attend. They were nervous, and asked how I could be certain when we hadn’t visited any other schools. But I knew St. Rose had everything I wanted. It was accessible, small, academically strong in my chosen course of study, and everyone we met that day had been friendly. I applied for early acceptance, not even considering a plan B in case they didn’t accept me. I was going to St. Rose.

Thankfully, they accepted me because I never did apply to another college before I left for my exchange student year. I started St. Rose excited to throw myself into the college experience. I took full advantage of the state vocational rehabilitation programs which offered assistance for students with disabilities. Book scholarships, tuition assistance, personal care assistance – all helped me fully participate in secondary education. I did not require classroom modifications other than the occasional assistance moving a desk or chair when I had to make a presentation. When it came time for me to complete my student teaching and clinical practicum, the placement office worked with me to locate accessible sites.

I have remained employed full time since completing my graduate degree in 1996. My occupations have always been tied to disability in some way. Disability is my life. My years working as a speech-language pathologist allowed me to help others with disabilities in meaningful ways. When I decided to leave clinical life, I tried cubicle work in an office. But I am too strong of an ESFJ personality to work in a cube farm.

My employment experience is not typical for adults with disabilities. According to the 2012 American Community Survey (the most recent data on their website) only twenty percent of non-institutionalized persons with disabilities aged 21-64 in the United States were employed full time for a full year. The percentage for women aged 21-64 years is even less – fourteen percent.

There are many reasons for the disparities but I am an outlier because those who influenced my education expected me to succeed. I wrote about this last year in a blog post for the US Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Disability.Blog. I was empowered by those who did not see my disability as an educational or vocational barrier.

I will continue to work as long as I am physically able. The financial realities I wrote of last week for this challenge limit my ability to accrue assets, making continued employment a necessity. My current job allows me to combine my passion and advocacy with my skills as a communicator. The taxpayers spent too much money getting me educated to have me stop working now after just twenty years! I owe it to them to use that education in an occupation serving others for as long as I can.

National Disability Employment and Awareness Month

Here in the United States, October is many things. Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Down Syndrome Awareness Month. Spina Bifida Awareness Month. Pastors Appreciation Month (in case you are already aware of your pastor and want to do more).

October is also National Disability Employment and Awareness Month (NDEAM). This campaign is held annually to raise awareness of disability employment issues and to celebrate the contributions of workers who have disabilities. The theme for this year is “Expect. Employ. Empower.”

Earlier this year, I wrote a guest blog post for Disability.Blog – the blog of Disability.gov, which is managed by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy. In honor of this month, and in case you missed it the first time around, you can find it here:

Great Expectations Guest Blog Post

The statistics related to employment for people with disabilities are sobering. There are many reasons for this, and I will save my thoughts on those reasons for another time. If you are in a position to help someone with a disability fulfill their dream of employment, you have the opportunity to offer empowerment. We all feel better when we feel valued.