Working with a Disability: An Insider’s View

By , December 1, 2011

It can be a challenge to a find a job, especially for a person with a disability.  For me, post-college work experience has been one of continually testing the waters to find the right fit.  All people, especially those with disabilities, benefit from a safe and supportive work environment where they can learn and grow, be successful in their jobs and deliver results to their employers. This isn’t always easy to find.  But I think I finally found it in my work at JJ’s List.

Where my search began
I graduated from college three years ago and have been seeking a full-time job ever since.  When I graduated, I thought that because I was no longer using the school’s learning-disability services, it meant that I was no longer a person with a disability.  I thought that I could just go out into the work world like my peers without disabilities.  But simply leaving school doesn’t mean the challenge of having a disability goes away.  I still need support to understand the written word, and I learn best when information is presented orally in order to process information and formulate my thoughts in a clear and concise manner.  I also have a speech impediment, which requires a little extra time for me to express myself. 

In my first job out of college, I worked as a pre-school teacher’s assistant.  Shuttling between two 16-student classrooms within three hours each day was overwhelming for me.  I never said a word, though, for fear I would lose my job.  In retrospect, I should have asked for accommodations to help me perform better.  When my job was eliminated due to budget cuts, I moved on and soon learned how having a disability can be an asset in the workplace.

Where my abilities shine
Because I have a disability, I can relate to other people who have disabilities, whether I am providing a service to a client or to a fellow employee.  After my pre-school job, I volunteered at a local assisted living residence.  There, I was in a unique position to understand and help the residents because, like them, I use more time to process information and to do certain tasks.  Therefore, I understood how important it was for the residents to be given the time they need to complete the tasks at hand.  I was an asset to this organization’s team because of my disabilities, and I was helping the clients of the residence feel happy.

Later, I worked as a part-time administrative assistant at a non-profit organization that serves people with disabilities.  My job was to answer phones.  I was nervous about the job because of my speech impediment.  But the staff was encouraging to me and helped me learn different voice techniques to help me speak clearly. The staff treated me with respect and as a valuable asset to their team.  Their high expectations of my work helped me compensate for any weaknesses and build upon my strengths.

Where I am today
Recently, I started working for JJ’s List.  We run www.jjslist.com, a website where people can share information about the disability awareness of businesses in service and/or employment.  We also work with people to build on-land and online communication skills for employment readiness and community integration, and we train businesses in disability awareness.

I began as a volunteer but treated it as a job.  I worked hard and offered my help as often as possible.  As I built my skills, the JJ’s List team started relying on me more and more. Recently, I landed a part-time post as Office Assistant Apprentice.

I took the job because I felt the organization had a strong understanding of my disabilities. I also realized that this work environment would be a safe place in which to learn and grow.  When I first began work, I kept asking questions because I didn’t trust my own judgment.  JJ would consistently respond to my questions by asking me, “What do you think you should do?”  She clearly wanted to empower me to think about possible solutions first and build confidence and trust in my ability to make a decision.    

The most challenging part of my job is communication.  When I read my work out loud to myself, the document looks correct to me even if it is missing words or letters.  One of my doctors gave me a tip on how to compensate for this learning disability: create a word bank to use whenever possible and change the names and certain details when necessary.  At JJ’s List, I put this technique into action.  The team at JJ’s List has created templates that I can use to send emails.  I just plug certain things into the emails and they are ready to go!  There may come a time when I will have to correspond with clients without a template.  When that happens, we will find a new technique I can use.  The point is, JJ’s List is providing the simple accommodations I need to perform my job well.

I have big responsibilities in my job, such as managing the back end of our website, signing up new businesses in the Disability Awareness Directory, and communicating with businesses and reviewers about what is going on at JJ’s List.

I feel lucky to have a job where my boss is also my mentor. She sees potential in me that I am just starting to realize in myself.  She says I am helping her improve her own disability-aware interaction skills.  That’s the best part, because oftentimes in the workforce, it is the other way around: you always want to prove to your boss that you can do the job, but they often don’t realize they can learn something too.

Through all my part-time work experiences, I have gained a better understanding of my disability, how it can affect my work performance and how it can enhance my work performance.  Today, I am a better self-advocate, which helps my employer and me.  My confidence in my work has improved.  I’m beginning to trust my own judgment.  I have come a long way since my teacher’s assistant days.  As I build the skills I need to land a full-time office job, I know that the more I test the waters, the closer I’m getting to the perfect fit!

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Author: Sarah Armour

Sarah Armour is an active self-advocate who helps build community inclusion for people with disabilities through volunteer work and as a member of the JJ’s List Disability Awareness Players, where she helps conduct disability awareness training with businesses. She currently serves as Office Assistant Apprentice at JJ’s List, a non-profit organization that connects the disability marketplace to the business community. Sarah loves dogs, reading books and spending time with friends and family. She graduated from Loras College in Dubuque, IA, in 2008 with a B.A. in Sociology. Sarah lives in Evanston, Illinois.