Working From a Wheelchair

"Oh... no, I actually didn't read that."

These were the staggered words of a company recruiter during a phone interview with me a week ago. They called after a brief e-mail exchange about my résumé posted on Craigslist.

The inciting point for that snafu-response was when I answered a question by referring to the paragraph that I had intentionally placed in the Craigslist ad preceding my résumé -- which briefly describes the fact that I use a wheelchair.

Following this, I heard their audibly awkward realization that I would not be able to do the inventory portion of their combination graphic design/customer service/inventory position. There was some backpedaling ("We may be able to split the position... etc., etc.)

Ultimately, I never heard from them again.

After being unemployed for over a year and attending dozens of disappointing interviews, I wrote the aforementioned wheelchair "disclaimer" above my résumé for two purposes. First, to weed out jobs that I may not be able to physically perform in their entirety -- but to a greater extent, in an effort to alert discriminatory hiring managers of my situation and avoid wasting time.

Apparently, it didn't work in this instance.

My job hunts are always a consistent, repetitive cycle: their interested inquiry, followed by multiple successful phone interviews, then palpable surprise and trepidation in-person, usually turning into a not-so-subtle visual examination of my physical condition rather than spoken language about an actual relevant skill set.

I remember swapping stories with an African-American coworker at my old job. We would laugh about our similar experiences of interacting with customers and their bizarre aversions to us -- due to her being tall and black and me being a wheelchair-person -- respectfully. We bonded from this, connected on a common ground that perhaps few other American black/white friends could.

I understood what it's like to be treated as a minority.

Before I continue, let me say that I am not one to cry "discrimination" at every turn. Yet, affirmative action isn't a solution, either. I don't want to be hired "because I'm diverse" and it will make the business look better; I want to be hired because I can do the job well and am a meaningful contributor. However, without affirmative action, I fear this job predicament would be even more dire.

I suppose being hired for reasons of "diversity," is still better than not being hired at all.

I have been forced to perform an extremely frustrating balancing act since I hit an employable age.

During the interview process, should I only focus on what I'm technically supposed to be there for and pretend they don't notice my disability? Do I bring up the disability myself to reassure them or assuage their liability fears? At what stage in the process, if any, is this even appropriate to discuss? If I bring up my disability before they do, will that lead them to have misconceptions about my professionalism? Or will it make them hyperaware and therefore, weary?

Will it seem like I'm "making a big deal out of it?"

I am not ignorant to hiring practices and understand all of the considerations that take place, whether they can be publicly acknowledged or only secretly pondered. Hiring an employee is a monetary investment, and "discriminatory" or otherwise, a company needs to be comfortable that they will receive a sound return on their investment.

How do I say to a potential employer, "Yes, I am in a wheelchair. No, I'm not degenerating or dying. No, you won't have to buy me special equipment. No, you won't have to grant me special sick days, and I promise I won't sue you if at some point I downright suck at my job and you have to fire me?"

There is no professional way of addressing, or even implying any of that.

Consequently, potential employers are left with questions that they can't legally ask. As a result, if there is even a modicum of competition, I am immediately casted aside in favor of the next, uncomplicated, able-bodied candidate -- while being fed the same cookie-cutter line of someone suddenly "more qualified" or "a better fit for the position" just waiting in the wings.

This may have been true in some circumstances, but more than a dozen? Unlikely.

One of the catches of a physical disability such as mine is, even in desperation, I cannot simply apply for a job anywhere. I can't work at a retail outlet as a cashier or as a server in a restaurant, where the "competition" may be more mellow. Physically, I require some form of a desk job. So, by default, I am in a more selective market -- while accompanied by the less than appealing attribute of being in a wheelchair.

These hiring troubles have forced me to seek government assistance numerous times in my life in order to survive between job applications and freelance opportunities. I felt ashamed amongst my family and friends by this unnecessary dependance, causing me to remain relatively silent about my struggles.

Don't misunderstand, I do know the purpose of government assistance programs and am very grateful they exist. They help many people and are indispensable to others. The problem is: I shouldn't have needed it.

I am "disabled," but I can work full-time. I have worked full-time. I want to work full-time. I am skilled. I am educated. I have references. I am healthy, despite my stable physical limitations. I am, by nature, an eager and productive member of society.

Why should I have to live off of the system when I am able to work?

Why do I have to fight so hard for the privilege of earning a paycheck instead of being handed one?

Some customers I would encounter at my old job would make comments, such as "It's so nice seeing someone like you out, working."

What does this actually mean?

What does this say about the way our society views disabilities, especially in a work setting?

I know the working-disabled niche is relatively small and disabilities are grossly underrepresented in the work force.

I know, despite laws, society is inundated with stereotypes and generalizations with not enough people to disprove them. Therefore, untruths run rampant in decision-making.

I also know with every civil rights movement, we discover time and time again, that all groups of people are actually made up of individuals, with individual lives, hopes, dreams, strengths, and challenges.

Preconceived opinions are never fair.

Take a chance on someone -- you may just be surprised.