I am a 47-year-old man with a college degree and —oh — I also happen to have a disability. I was born with cerebral palsy.
I worked as a professional for a St. Paul non-profit company for 13 years until I was let go. At the end of November, 2009 I joined the millions of unemployed in this country.
I worked for a company that works with adults with disabilities in the Twin Cities. Thirteen years ago when I began my career I was hired into an entry-level position as program assistant. The person who hired me, (no longer with the company) did so based on my qualifications. He also saw potential for me to move into a higher level position. Within six months I was promoted to the position of case manager and was given a caseload of 20 adults with severe physical and developmental disabilities. I was responsible for developing their social and vocational skills.
During my 13-year tenure with the company I held the positions of community integration specialist and job developer. Also, I conducted disability and diversity training for the company’s staff and other companies and organizations throughout the Twin Cities. Additionally I represented the company at various job fairs and for Chambers of Commerce throughout the metro area. I joined the Eagan Rotary.
I was a co-founder of the company’s first self-advocacy group, run by and for employees with disabilities.
During my final three years my position was became exclusively that of job developer, which had been about 1/3 of my past job description. During the final six months with this company, my job changed again. I took a 17% pay cut and was told that I had been reimbursed disproportionately and could make up the difference on commission. I was ultimately let go—terminated due to my inability to fill their new quota of jobs for the people we served.
This is not a new story. Our nation is in the throes of high unemployment and economic uncertainty. At the time I was let go the national unemployment rate was hovering right around 9.8%.
I’ve now been unemployed for more than a year. During this time, I have done and continue to do the things everyone who is unemployed does; connected with different agencies, networked with professional and personal contacts, filled out applications and had a number of interviews. I also began volunteering at Gillette Children’s Hospital.
We have all heard stories on how our nation’s unemployment is affecting almost every minority group in our nation. But I haven’t heard anything in mainstream media about how severely unemployment is affecting people with disabilities. It is a dramatic story of high numbers and hardships.
As of now, I believe the national unemployment rate is holding right around 9.4% with Minnesota’s rate right around 7%. While these are extremely high, we in the disability community know that unemployment rates for people with disabilities are much higher.
According to Minnesota Association for Persons in Supported Employment (APSE)—Minnesota First, “A generally accepted estimate of the unemployment rate for working-age youth and adults with significant disabilities is 70% or higher—the highest unemployment rate of all minority populations.”
The 70% cited encompasses a wide range of people and disabilities. That rate varies greatly within the disability community. The end results however remains the same: the unemployment rate for people with disabilities continues to be much higher than the national average and rises along with the national rate, yet mainstream media remains silent on this issue.
People with disabilities have the same responsibilities as non-disabled people: mortgage, rent, food, car/transportation, childcare, taxes, etc. People with disabilities have the same hopes and desires for good paying jobs that contribute to the communities in which we live.
Twenty years after passage of the ADA there still seems to be a perception that people with disabilities can’t or have no real desire to be gainfully employed. Companies have policies, mission statements and vision statements that encourage and promote hiring people with disabilities. Many companies in the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota do actually put these policies into action. However, there are still many companies, (for profit companies and non-profit companies) for which those policies, mission and vision statements are merely words.
When I was let go, I was the only staffer with a significant disability. Surely one doesn’t miss the irony that this is a company with a primary mission to “assist people with disabilities reach their personal goals and potential.” I was let go because I was no longer “the right fit” for the position. I applied, but was not considered for a different position, (case manager) within the company, for which I was qualified—and in fact had held at one time. At the time, I was told it was because they were “moving in a different direction.” And in this context, I’m still not sure what that means.
The direction we in the disability community need to continue to move, with respect to employment, or lack thereof, is in making it clear to employers of the significant contributions we make, economically and socially to our communities, our state and our nation. The ADA is more than just words. That reasonable accommodation requires only that: reasonable accommodation.
Like many others, I’m actively pursuing employment. I look forward to my next opportunity to do meaningful work, to use my many skills, to support my modest life-style and to contribute to a greater good.
“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson.