The Untold Story: High unemployment and hardship

I am a 47-year-old man with a college degree and —oh — I also happen to have a disability. I […]

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.

8 thoughts on “The Untold Story: High unemployment and hardship

  1. Ron Anderson

    Once again you’ve done the job as you always have. Keep it up and some lucky employer will hit the jackpot.

  2. Valerie

    Interesting article, thanks for raising awareness, Steve. It certainly sounds like you were wrongfully terminated by a company that had no appreciation for your skills – shame on them, it’s their loss. Your next employer will no doubt place appropriate value on what you bring to the table.

  3. KJ Detjen

    You are the voice of many out there and it’s about time all of what you said is heard. People with disablities have just as much if not more in alot of cases to offer than those without, and the company who is lucky enough to get you will realize this. Keep fighting the fight and good things will come, this I believe..

  4. Mark Anthony

    Stunning; not the article, or the grace with which it was written, but the casual indifference bestowed upon a seemingly exceptional employee by a “Hollow Employer”. As a department head that works with the ADA on a daily basis, not to mention the individuals with whom it was written to assist, this behavior borders on illeagl. My advice is to stop looking for employment and start looking for an attorney. The unfortunate reality; is that often times folks with disabilities seem to blame themselves for the injustice of wrongful termination and rarely seek leagal advice. Money is a scarce resource and I’m certain that your former employer has his/her snout firmly planted in the public (Federal) trough . . . with those dollars come responsibilities. Start digging!

  5. Burt

    After 13 years of what you say was a stellar employment record with this company, I doubt the company would suddenly change the rules in order to get rid of “the guy with the disability”. Is it possible to consider that you were being held to the same work standards as a non-disabled person and were not meeting those standards? There seems to be another side to this story that is not beig told.

  6. Patricia Young

    Some mission far greater awaits your presence. Believe. I believe in you.
    Thank you for voicing the needs and dreams of those of us who happen to struggle with a disability.
    We have the same needs to self-actualize and reach our potential as every human being. You have said in few words what I have needed to voice for myself for decades.
    Perhaps your first step to far greater goals is being heard, reaching out. BELIEVE.

  7. Jeff

    Steve,

    Thanks for sharing…I have also had an almost identical experience to you.

    Let’s continue to work for employment for ourselves and all who wish to be employed!

    Jeff

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