I hate to kick this off with a "played" adage, but it utterly lends itself to my point. "You cannot judge a book by its cover."
Having said that let me ask:
Is it fair to say that a person in a wheelchair who shows up for an interview, but cannot physically "get in" to the business site because it is not wheelchair accessible (perhaps there is no elevator, a few steps -- even one -- requiring navigation to enter the lobby, or perhaps even a door that's hard to open), is akin to a person with Asperger's who shows up for an interview but cannot "get in" because s/he doesn't understand the nuances of social interaction?
And yes, just as you cannot judge a book by its cover, you cannot judge a person by his/her appearance. S/he may, in fact, have a disability.
I had the great pleasure last month of meeting a young man with Asperger's. I have saved this piece until now because it's National Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month and next month is Autism Awareness Month. I thought it important to bring as much awareness as possible to a dilemma faced by 26-year-old Jeremy Band -- a dilemma, shared by thousands if not millions (estimates suggest that 2-3 out of every 1000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with Asperger's) by riding the wave of these months specifically set aside for recognition.
Mr. Band addressed a large crowd in attendance for Shabbat services at a DC area synagogue. The synagogue, of which Mr. Band is a member, had earmarked this particular service to recognize synagogue and community members who have disabilities, both physical and mental. Asked to speak about his own particular struggles with his disability, Mr. Band took the crowd on a rollercoaster of emotions as he talked about Asperger's, a disorder on the autism spectrum.
Mr. Band has graciously allowed me to quote from his address because his words have so much more meaning than mine ever could.
To start things off, Mr. Band was very matter-of-fact about his disability: "I have difficulties in social interaction, as well as restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests," he said. "I never quite fit in. Whenever I asked my classmates if they wanted to hang out, they were too busy, and the few clubs I joined either met too infrequently or did meet and I somehow missed the invite, or I showed up when we were supposed to meet and found out I was the only person there, again because nobody bothered to tell me not to come ... This has been a recurring problem all my life. Due to my Asperger's making it difficult for me to handle social interaction, or even to seek it out, for most of my teenage and adult years I've only had two real, steady friends."
On the flip side, Mr. Band has excelled academically. He has a Bachelor's Degree in Sociology from the University of Maryland and a Masters Degree in Library Science from Maryland's College of Information Studies. In fact, Mr. Band explained that his disability helped him succeed in school, concentrate on assignments and work faster at homework and schoolwork than his peers. This is "something that has also been to my benefit in the workplace."
A benefit in the workplace - except, he can't get his proverbial foot in the door with a permanent, long-term job because of the social interaction problem. His resume screams, "hire me," but Mr. Band's inability to hit a home run in an interview fails him every time. Or rather, the interviewer fails Mr. Band every time.
So, I steer us back the wheelchair scenario. If the person in the wheelchair "can't show up" for the interview because s/he can't access the interview site, s/he can't get the job. If Mr. Band "can't show up" for the interview because of his social inabilities, he can't get the job.
And, we find ourselves at a disabilities crossroads. What are we going to do about this?
When Mr. Band went off to college, "my parents encouraged me to go to the Disability Support Services office to get a letter for my teachers to explain about my Asperger's," wrote Mr. Band in his sermon. "I took advantage of it throughout my time at the University of Maryland ... [In fact], I asked the Disability Support Services office repeatedly to organize social skills groups and other programs for students with Asperger's. I couldn't organize these social activities by myself - remember, I have Asperger's! But the DSS office never had the time or resources to do anything ... Now that I am out in the working world and looking for a job, people like me need others to help, if they are not able to advocate for themselves."
And that's where I come in, in writing this piece.
Mr. Band can't land that career job he so very badly wants, a job at which he would undoubtedly excel because he doesn't have the tools to "showcase" his abilities. Without an ounce of complaint in his delivery, he says, "I've had numerous interviews for ... permanent positions, only to be inevitably passed over for someone else. I suspect this is because of the Asperger's. The Asperger's makes it difficult for me to establish a rapport with the interviewer, even though I am qualified for the job. This sort of discrimination is unfair for young job seekers like me who want to try and establish a life for themselves ... I've been trying to get a job ever since I graduated from Library School back in 2011, and have so far only managed to get a string of internships ... I've performed well in these positions. In fact, for detail oriented, somewhat repetitive tasks, having Asperger's [is] an advantage."
I echo Mr. Band's following corporate challenge:
"I would like to see ...employers make a more concerted effort to hire people with disabilities ... we need whatever help you can offer us so that we can make our way in the world. While I enjoy living with my parents, and they love having me, I can't stay there forever. But until I manage to land a permanent position somewhere, I'm not going anywhere."
"In sum, growing up ... with Asperger's hasn't been easy, but I'd like to think I've turned out okay for the most part. The fact that I'm standing here telling you all this is proof of that. However, I could have used a lot more help growing up than I actually received, and I bet there are a lot of younger people in your community who could use that help right now. Please, offer them whatever support you can. [I hope I have] helped you to understand people in my situation a bit better, and given you some ideas on how to understand others going through the same things I have. [If so, then] I'll know I did my job right. Thank you."
And, if I have done my job right, I'll end with this question - why wouldn't you want to hire a man like Mr. Band?
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