Someone recently asked me to detail the barriers on my employment journey. There are many laws that are supposed to ensure me non-discriminatory opportunities, but I have run into many types of barriers.
I think one of the misconceptions about employment challenge is that it begins after you graduate. I think there should have been more focus throughout my experience with NC Vocational Rehabilitation (VR). I became a client of VR when I was 16 and at the initial meeting, I expressed interest in possibly going to law school in the future on the recommendation of a local lawyer who took me under his wing (he was a law student then.) My first VR counselor was great; she knew exactly what I had to do to transition into college. The woman who gave me assistive technology convinced VR to pay for everything, not just the bare minimum. For example, when I got to college, I had the fancy professional version of Kurzweil (a reading software), which made college easier. As you know, colleges like to see extra-curricular activities in high school. The one I chose was journalism and I continued that in college. I became good at the journalism and developed skills that I continue to use. VR didn't adjust to that very well. It's not that I lost interest in law school or advocacy. I'm on more boards now than I ever was. It's more that I gained additional interests, which is something a lot of people do in college. My experience with VR is that they aren't good with change. They want you to pick a path and strictly follow it. It is very hard for a sophomore in high school to know what they want to do for the rest of their lives.
Next, I graduated from college with high honors and my caregivers were so tired, they demanded that they needed a break, so I let them have one. I graduated in December and took the month of January off. While they were taking a break, I developed my LinkedIn profile, which was something I could on my own. I couldn't just sit there and do nothing. There is a joke that I wore out three people going to college. Looking back, I don't think it was good that I took that first month off. I should have been putting pressure on the VR people who were supposed to be helping me, but I was burned out with VR, also. I didn't have much faith in them then and I still don't.
The month off was very hard for me emotionally. I am used to doing things and having high expectations, so it was hard to just sit for that time. I have to give a lot of credit to Jim Whalen, who was then the Exec. Director of the Adaptables, CIL. He really took me under his wing. As a board member, I was his boss, but he gave me something to do at the Adaptables, which I couldn't be paid for. I was very active in helping him strategically plan his exit, as he had some personal things going on and had to move out of state, which was very unfortunate for me because the plan was for me to leave the board after college and to join the staff. Since he left, he was not able to hire me, and the new director, after a difficult decision, brought in his own person for an opening, so I lost out on that job opportunity. Another barrier is it really depends on who you know and whether or not they have a willingness and the power to hire you or not. Some staff really did enjoy working with me, I was volunteering four full days a week and teaching their program in four local schools and they wanted me to continue, but I needed to focus my energies on finding a paying job.
I took the Partners in Policymaking (PIP) course and gained even more knowledge of disability advocacy during this same time period.
After PIP, I was very excited about my possibilities. I happened upon a Medicaid event that a friend of mine posted on Facebook and because I had journalism experience, I offered to cover it like it was a news event. She hooked me up with a friend of hers who ran a small local online newspaper called The Camel City Dispatch (CCD). I began writing for them on a regular basis and it felt like a real job, although they were never in a position to pay me. I wrote a regular section that covered local nonprofits. Without exception, every nonprofit that I covered asked me to volunteer in some way... always at my expense, which I did. I was happy to volunteer and had hoped it would lead to something. After a year of this, I realized it was probably not going to lead to anything. Since the CCD was the first to give me a shot, I was hesitant to leave and probably overly loyal. I worked for them for over a year. I would have continued happily working with them, had they been able to pay me, but that never materialized. Once we lost our office space, it went quickly downhill. I'm still on great terms with them and on very rare occasions, write for them.
I'm breaking this column into several parts. The path has been meandering for years now. Stay tuned for more of my misadventures.