Haben Girma: Why I Never Tell People With Disabilities to "Just Work Harder"
"We shouldn't have hired you." The manager's words sent chills down my spine. When I flew to Juneau, Alaska, after my second year of college, I thought I had this cool job leading tours of the Capitol Building. The recruiters knew about my deafness. My public speaking skills impressed them, and we agreed I would receive questions and comments during the tours through my assistive technology. They knew about my racial status. I checked the box for African American on the application. There was just one thing they didn't know until I arrived at the Capitol. When I walked in for orientation with the other new hires, the manager pulled me aside.
The manager's cramped office felt suffocating. I sat up straight in my chair. "Are you telling me to leave because I'm blind?"
"No. It's because you're from California. These jobs are supposed to go to Alaskan residents."
My stomach dropped. For a moment I just sat there, speechless. "The paperwork showed that I'm from California. We even did the interview over the phone because I don't live here. You've known that for weeks. Why did you hire me if the position was only for Alaskans?"
"We made a mistake. I'm sorry."
Outside, a light rain drizzled over Juneau. People didn't come for the persistent precipitation. People traveled to the city for spectacular scenery, wildlife sightings, and chance to witness the majesty of Mendenhall Glacier. I hiked alongside waterfalls and dipped my toes in glacier water during my first trip. This time I hoped to fit in and find a job like all the other college kids. After the government, the tourism industry is the second largest employer in Juneau. With over a million tourists, about half of them arriving on cruise ships, many employers turn to the lower 48 to try to fill their many Summer openings.
Openings popped up on Craigslist every day. I sent out dozens of applications, focusing on those that matched my strengths in public speaking. Since helping to build a school in Mali, I'd logged in numerous hours speaking to audiences big and small. My experience impressed the Capitol Building recruiters enough to choose me over Alaskans, at least until I walked in with a white cane. The applications led to interviews, the interviews led to rejections. Back on Craigslist, I broadened my search, responding to ads that sought people with strong reading, writing, or analytical skills. The pattern continued: submit an application, brave an interview, then face a rejection. I changed my strategy, responding to nearly all the ads: shelving gift stores, baking cakes, folding laundry in hotels. Rejection. Rejection. Rejection.
When you do everything right and society stomps on you, over and over, it creates a piercing, gut-twisting pain. It causes you to question the conventional wisdom that a person who works hard will overcome all obstacles.
Unemployment rates for people with disabilities are about double general unemployment rates — 9.2 percent compared to 4.2 percent. For blind people, the unemployment rate is around 70 percent. Disability professionals warned me: work hard or you'll never find employment. So I studied hard in school, graduating high school as valedictorian. I spent a Summer at an independence training center for the blind, learning nonvisual techniques for everything from crossing busy streets to using a radial arm saw. I volunteered, both in my community and abroad. The statistic still managed to claim me, leaving me jobless in Jobville, Alaska.
Changing strategies, I reached out to my community for help. My friend's mom recommended me to Rachel, the manager of a local gym. Rachel reviewed my résumé, interviewed me, and hired me as a part-time front desk clerk. On our tour of the gym, Rachel taught me how to use the machines, clean up the changing rooms, and manage the cash register and merchandise. Rachel turned out to be a fantastic manager. My white cane didn't faze her. Whether I used sight or a nonvisual technique was less important than whether I got the job done.
One day a woman walked up to the front desk. "Hi, I'm trying to use a treadmill but it's not working."
"I'll take a look. Which one?" I followed her to a row of treadmills. She stopped by the second machine. Setting my cane down, I stepped up to the machine and pressed the on button. Nothing. I tried the other buttons on the panel. Nothing. Using both hands, I systematically searched the machine from top to bottom. Along the base I found a switch. When I flicked it, the treadmill whirred to life.
"Oh my god, thank you! That was amazing. I didn't even see that switch."
"I didn't either." My cathartic laughter got her laughing, too. Sometimes nonvisual techniques beat visual techniques.
At the end of the Summer, I returned to college with a new outlook on work. I believe in working hard, but I put more emphasis on working smart. When we feel we've hit a wall, it's better to develop a new strategy rather than struggling at the same wall. I went on to graduate with honors from Lewis & Clark College, study law at Harvard, and partnered with a Seeing Eye dog. Now I'm my own boss, working as a disability rights lawyer, author, and public speaker. In 2015, I introduced President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden at the White House's 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This Summer, I spoke at the Berlin Morals and Machines conference and met with Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Employment discrimination and high unemployment rates still haunt people with disabilities. Many work hard, develop impressive skills, and continually face discrimination in the hiring process. Hard work alone will not overcome the widespread discrimination against people with disabilities. Employers need to break down disability barriers. People with disabilities succeed when communities choose to be inclusive. The biggest barriers exist not in the person, but in the social, physical, and digital environments.
Employers that break down access barriers develop a stronger workforce. Numbering over 1.3 billion worldwide, people with disabilities are the largest minority group. Employers are missing out on numerous talented, responsible, and driven workers. Avoid assumptions about what people with disabilities can or can't do. People with disabilities often have alternative techniques that get the job done. The process of developing these alternative techniques leads to strong problem solving skills, fresh insights, and exciting new solutions. People with disabilities drive innovation, sparking the creation of many of the technologies we use today. Employers seeking a competitive advantage should invest in accessibility. These employers gain access to a large pool of talented workers, benefit from increased growth, and facilitate further innovation.