When I graduated from college in December of 2016, I frankly didn’t consider myself unlike any of the other lucky, eager, driven, intelligent graduates I went to school with.
I did consider it an achievement that I had worked for and expected, and I was ready to start my professional career.
I’d obtained a degree in English. I’d participated in undergraduate research, I’d happily joined and engaged in organizations on my university’s campus, and I had participated in many service trips. But that was college life. Adult life is vastly different.
After graduation, a new kind of trepidation set in as I began the job hunt. This anticipatory stress itself wasn’t foreign to me. I am no stranger to adapting to my ever changing environment. But I sensed this time that the journey would be more than a little rocky.
This time something very specific made me hesitant.
That something was the societal stigma around disability- more specifically, around physical disability. I have a mild form of CP, and as such, I use a walker for my mobility.
I didn’t exactly fear my disability would hold me back. I’d always believed that it was and is an asset to me. I honestly thought that it would be in my professional life. Up until now, this is how I had survived.
In retrospect, I realize I may have been too naive.
I was too naive because the real, working world is not set up in the same structure as a university. While schools and universities cocoon us in safety as we learn, the real world does not, truly, have time for that.
Truthfully, looking back, some of these challenges didn’t surprise me at all. And although they were somewhat anticipated, all were trickier than I thought.
Here are 3 major lessons I learned as a disabled person in my first post graduate job:
[Let me clarify that this has nothing to do with the wonderful people I worked for and the mentorship I received, but how our society inherently functions.]
1. Most traditional office work spaces are not fully accessible-
I’d say that most disabled college graduates anticipate this. If you’re physically disabled and you deal with mobility issues every day, you definitely should anticipate this and be ready for it.
I know I did, because it was a chief concern just when I went in to interview for a job, let alone receive an offer. While most businesses and office buildings these days are “ADA compliant”, compliance doesn’t always equal meeting everyone’s physical needs.
“Compliance” doesn’t equate with easy or practical, either. Just because a building has a ramp, doesn’t mean that the ramp is easily accessed by the main entrance of a building. Or, even more importantly, that it will be wide enough or sturdy enough for any mobility device.
[Hint- most of the time they aren’t.]
And while the offices I’ve been in previously have all had people kind enough to make certain accommodations once I worked there, the fact that the buildings had to be altered in the first place simply because a disabled person worked there at that time, rather than already being set up that way, is something that speaks volumes.
If you’re a disabled graduate, coming in on some of your first job interviews, I would recommend asking questions before you even come in, such as: “I use ____________ for my mobility, and I’d like to know about your building’s accessible entrance/exit locations. Can you tell me about that?” Even something like, “I’d like to be transparent with you. I do use _________, and I’m interested in pursuing this opportunity. When I arrive there, where’s the most accessible entrance?” Or perhaps, “Could I call when I arrive so that someone may open a door for me?”
You aren’t wasting their time. You are being proactive.
2. Be ready to speak up and ask the right questions for what you need once you’re on the job-
Once you find the job where you can best utilize your skills, you still need to be forthright about the every day obstacles you might face. This is not the time to be modest about your capabilities.
Of course, we all want to showcase our skills. That is essential for success in every workplace. But you also need to be blunt and clear about things that will allow you to work to the best of your ability, based on your physical capacity. Think about it- if an able bodied girl suddenly twisted her ankle, had a severe allergy, or had an eye injury- would she stay silent? Nope.
Saying you're “fine” when you need a specific accommodation not only holds you back from doing your job, but it will also likely interfere with the entire office, the company’s mission, your colleagues’ responsibilities, and your overall progress.
If you want to be seen as capable, be first seen as vocal. Be your strongest advocate in a polite, respectful manner. If a leader is perceptive enough to ask you what you need, do not brush it aside. Really consider what she or he is asking you. Then present a full answer. If they don’t inquire upfront and you believe they should know, prompt them yourselves.
Leading with phrases such as “In the past I’ve found it helpful when I used xyz, would you be open to that?” Or, “I want to do a good job on this, and I think x would allow me to do that. Is that an option?” are great ways to start. Don’t hesitate to be as specific as you need.
3. Don’t assume that any of your colleagues know anything about physical disability if they haven’t had exposure before. Because they likely don’t.-
Unfortunately, society’s expectations of the disabled, and more blatantly, the physically disabled, are pretty low. That is a serious problem that presents serious stigma for us to overcome.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Recognize that breaking down the stigma, and any negative expectations, can start with YOU. And it begins with you being serious, determined, and frank about all you can offer as well as your own needs.
Rather than looking at this as something that holds you back, really try to view it as something that makes you a dynamic, unique, and valuable asset to the company or organization. The best way that you can truly educate your able bodied colleagues or peers about disability is doing your job well, to the best of your capacity. This means incorporating your entire physical capacity, capabilities, gifts, and goals.
If your coworkers have questions about your disability regarding work, understand that they’re not doing so to be nosy- leaders and companies, once someone has been brought on for a job, truly want to help that person succeed. In being honest about your capabilities, accommodations, perspective, and approach to life and to work, you are helping this company understand the importance of integrating disability into ALL walks of adult life.
Tangible, true diversity in action within the American workplace matters. It matters worldwide. This begins with disabled people believing we have a right to be there in the first place, and taking power in our agency, our voices, and our unique, varied, individual outlook on life. Colleagues and coworkers can only know this when you step up.
Remember, businesses and organizations will improve from honing your skills, viewpoint, and just even your presence on the job.
So, to all the lovely, smart, self-aware, dedicated, vocal, deserving disabled college graduates out there, I have but one final thing to say to you: Consider this entire article a call to action.
If you want a better, more efficient, more inclusive workplace, take those first few steps yourself. Do not wait. Do not expect someone to give you that permission. This is the adult world, the real world, and that permission is not simply granted. It’s seized. Be the first one to ask for it. Be vocal- every time. Be intentional with every question you ask.
Do not hold back, because our companies, our country, and, heck, our world, depend on it. It starts with us. It begins with you. Go out there and prove it. You’ve got this.
Molly Carter graduated from Christopher Newport University in 2016 and has worked as a consultant, writer,& editor for various companies, most recently non-profits. She’s a blogger based in Richmond, VA. In her down time, Molly enjoys reading on long car rides, drinking iced coffee, chatting with her peers, and binge-watching HBO shows. She’s currently working on a coming of age novel centered on a disabled heroine. One day she hopes to obtain a West coast studio apartment and a fur child, (preferably a King Charles spaniel). Contact her at email@example.com.