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Disability + employment

An open dialogue with best friends Rebecca and Olivia on the workforce, barriers to employment, disabled people as leaders and more

_COMMUNITY / EMPLOYMENT

Rebecca and Olivia are best pals who entered the workforce at the same time. With the shared experience of disability, Olivia and Rebecca have figured out how to advance their careers in a world that often expects less of disabled people and within a workforce, which does not enable equitable participation. The dynamic duo has set about designing a future for themselves, on their own terms. The pair are represented by All is for All, have been models at New Zealand Fashion Week, brand ambassadors, and successful journalists. In this piece, they discuss their workforce experience, how a job interview is a lot like your dating app profile, and the changes we need to make so more disabled people can be workplace leaders.

ON ENTERING THE WORKFORCE

Rebecca:
When I was younger, particularly when I was starting university, I didn’t envisage having problems gaining employment. That might have been because, at the time, I was training as a Paralympian. I was so used to being treated based on my capabilities.

My ability as a swimmer meant that everyone around me treated me normally. That may have hazed my view when it came to being employed. It wasn’t something I worried about because I thought I was taking all the right steps to become employed. I always saw myself for what I could do. I really struggled as to why anyone would see differently.

The fact that I didn’t consider having problems gaining employment was an ‘ignorance is bliss’ situation. For example, most 16-year-olds were getting jobs at their local mall.
Still, I was training to be a Paralympian, and on the supported living allowance, a form of government support offered to disabled people in New Zealand. It was always presented that I “didn’t have time” to get a job, rather than that student jobs weren’t accessible to me. Almost in a way, my situation distorted my views. As I got older and started to experience more and discuss with others, I understood the barriers to employment; the differing perspectives of disability that I would come to experience and have to navigate in the workforce. I don’t know how I would have prepared to face these barriers, or if anyone really can prepare.

Olivia: It’s really interesting hearing Rebecca’s perspective. I feel so grateful for my current position as a journalist, I feel valued. It’s hard to compare what I thought about getting a job in the past. I guess I always knew that I wanted to be a journalist, so I set out to take the right steps toward that in high school. I took media studies and English at school, then I did the degree that I needed to be a journalist, which is where I met Becs. I had some doubts in the back of my mind, but I knew I was talented and would get a good job, so I always had hope. However, it is disheartening when you get rejection letters because you don’t know if you’re being rejected because of your disability or because you don’t meet the job description.

R: Yes! I’ve been in a position where I’ve been looking for a job and have applied for things and either not heard back or been rejected, I would only apply for a job I knew I was qualified for so I always wonder, “was I not chosen because I use a wheelchair?” I would have disclosed my disability at some point in the cover letter or application. I had an instance where I applied for a role and was rejected pretty much straight away. I later found out that their offices aren’t accessible, they were up a set of stairs, so did they just outright dismiss me and say, “we’ll save ourselves that embarrassment and just not go any further?” Probably.

O: There’s always been jobs that I wanted to do but felt like I couldn’t. For example, I always wanted to be the neighborhood babysitter.

R: Same!

O: Yeah! I’d always remember having so much fun as a child with my babysitter,

“I always saw myself for what I could do. I really struggled as to why anyone would see differently.”

Rebecca Dubber

I feel like I’d be a great babysitter! I can do crafts, I can read stories, but I always felt like if something happened, I couldn’t physically help.

So, I wrote-off being a sixteen-year-old babysitter in the neighborhood.

But a few years ago, a colleague of mine who is also a wheelchair user asked me to babysit his kids all day, and I was like, “oh my gosh, it’s my dream!” We did the whole thing - we played with Legos  and Barbies, I made them dinner, and I read them bedtime stories... For once in my life, I lived out the babysitting fantasy. To an extent, the practicalities of disability limit you, like I can’t be a fire-fighter, but there are lots of positive sides too.

R: I don’t know if you follow The Seated Nurse, but I had a dream of being a doctor and was always told, “it’s not a profession for me” because I’d have to stand up a lot, move through things. Having role models like @theseatednurse is so fresh and so vital because she shows people that you’re not limited to what someone says you can’t do. To have someone in my community who is a nurse and works in a hospital, that’s really cool! I’m not going to become a fire-fighter, but I think it’s important that we don’t let society “decide” what jobs are “appropriate” for disabled people.

There always seems to be a question on a job application that says, “Do you have an illness or disability that could impact your ability to do this job?” That always stumped me in the first instance, because my gut reaction is no. I wouldn’t apply for it if I couldn’t do it, but often it’s not about my perception of my abilities - it’s other people’s perception of me.

What they think disabled people can do. I remember having a discussion with someone who helps disabled people gain employment, he said that he’d helped a young woman, but the agent turned around and said: “We want to give her the job, but don’t have a disabled toilet, so we’ll just give it to someone else.” The point is, how does the employer’s attitudes towards the disabled person impact the ability of disabled people to gain employment? In that instance, it was clear the employer felt that not having a disabled toilet would affect the employee’s ability, but they made no effort to solve it. Oftentimes, it’s a simple solution - but it’s about whether people are going to make an effort or just put it in the too-hard basket.

It’s definitely an anxiety point in the interview process because I am at the mercy of someone else’s perception of my abilities. For a non-disabled person, if they are the best candidate, they are usually offered the job, but for a disabled person, often being the “best candidate” is not enough. And knowing that as a reality, definitely sometimes makes me anxious.

O: Before starting with my current employers, I was flown down by them to speak to their staff about disability and inclusion in the media. So, later when I went for a position there, I thought they might remember me, which made me more confident. I did a job interview with them via a Google Hangout as my potential boss lived in a different city. I can’t remember if I disclosed my disability on my application because I sometimes did and sometimes didn’t depending on how I was feeling and how the questions about disability were asked.

“Disability is a strength, but I don’t want to solely be in a position because I am disabled”

Olivia Shivas

Having the interview over Google Hangouts meant my wheelchair couldn’t be seen, and there weren’t any physical barriers. Still, after the interview had finished, he mentioned remembering my talk - which meant he knew I was in a wheelchair. Our history said that disability wasn’t really an issue. But to be honest, I ended up being more worried about the other questions he asked me, I froze up with normal job interview nerves. I remember telling Rebecca that when I was asked about my strengths, I said, “Because I have a disability, I am a natural problem-solver, I have to do it every day. So, I think that’s a workplace strength.”

Having the interview over Google Hangout also made me more confident because I didn’t feel like my wheelchair was ‘distracting.’

R: Yes! In our experience, video-chat is an equalizer. Another equalizer is building a relationship. Four of my significant working opportunities have been the result of relationships, where I have gotten to know the employer. Liv and I like to draw parallels between job-hunting and dating, when you’re putting yourself out there on a dating app like you would in a job application, you want people to take the time to get to know you before they pass judgment. Building a relationship with an employer, which then turns into employment, is much less daunting. More employers should be willing to build relationships with our community. Everyone who knows me knows that my disability doesn’t prohibit me from workplace success - provided there is an accessible environment.

O: I have a bit more experience applying for jobs cold, without people knowing me. When I was job-hunting, I applied for 25 roles. Many places don’t reply, but I think that’s normal, whether or not you have a disability. I got a few job interviews, but I knew most of those roles were not a good fit after the interviews (not necessarily because of my disability). But the best ‘cold’ interview I had was one where I didn’t mention my disability in the application. However, once I got an interview, I thought, ‘OK, this is when I can ask about accessibility.’ I did the interview, and I clicked with the employer, then at the second interview, I thought about accessibility logistics such as car parks and office access.

I’ve had positive experiences going for jobs without a relationship being present first, but I have had awkward moments. I always consider that the interview may not represent what it is like to actually work in the place.

I feel grateful that my first job, fresh from university, was in the disability media sector because it meant I didn’t have to worry about the disability stuff as much. There were quite a few disabled people at that workplace, and when the wheelchair technician came in, he’d tinker with everyone’s chairs on the same day. It was lovely to know that work events and spaces would be accessible because many of us were disabled! At a ‘mainstream’ corporate company out of the disability sector, you’re less sure. I went to a work Christmas party while working for a ‘mainstream’ company, and the venue wasn’t accessible - I had to be carried up the stairs! After that, they were a lot more aware of having events at venues that are wheelchair accessible. But I enjoyed working in a disability sector role because it removed that worry and meant I was surrounded by people who understood my experience, in a way that non-disabled colleagues couldn’t. But, it’s also important we don’t pigeonhole disabled people to only ever work in the disability sector.

R: I also think that working outside of the sector, you’re often the person people come to as an advisor for disability, just because you’re the only disabled person in the office.

O: Yes! Sometimes, in both the disability and mainstream sectors, you can feel like you’re filling a “quota” of the number of disabled people they need. Disability is a strength, but I don’t want to solely be in a position because I am disabled. As a journalist in mainstream media, I feel like I am making a difference in my current job.

ON BARRIERS TO EMPLOYMENT

O: We need to remember too that everyone’s experience of disability is different. For example, I can drive, which is a privilege in my work experience, and makes it easier for me to get to work. I live a 7-minute drive to my office, whereas taking the bus would take much longer and be more complicated. For many disabled people, not driving is a barrier, so remote working is such a valuable option.

R: Another barrier is the lack of visibility of disabled people in everyday workplaces, it’s a bit of a unicorn. You know, day-to-day, most non-disabled people won’t see or interact with a person with a disability, and often when they do, they act really weird! They’re blown away if they see you on the street, the sheer fact that disabled people aren’t the norm in working environments is part of the problem. It means the consideration of disabled people isn’t the norm and nobody is prepared to deal with it, because they’ve never had to. The easy out is just to turn you away.

I’ve learnt it’s best to start working with organizations you know have a robust, broad diversity and inclusion policy. I always research organizations I work with to see “what’s their stance on disability”. If they had nothing, I knew it might be a 50/50 shot, but if they did have a robust policy, I’d call them out on it in my discussions and interviews with them. I’d say, “You have this policy, so I can help you live up to it.”

ON DISABLED PEOPLE AS LEADERS

R: People have narrow viewpoints about what disabled people can do in the workplace. I often had to articulate to people that I wanted to go to university, not just work in a desk job. To some people, this was unexpected. Often it feels like people think that because I am disabled, I shouldn’t be ambitious - and I really rebel against that.

O: Yeah! We need more disabled people as leaders, I am proud to be in a position where I can influence my workplace. I will soon be giving a presentation about disability narrative framing to our editorial staff. It’s important to advance my career and be of influence so I can make space for others and serve others. Training the journalists about disability in the media and practical things, like accessible interviewing, is my way of ensuring we do better for future generations of disabled people and put an end to negative stereotypes.

R: How cool that you might lead the change where we end the term “wheelchairbound” or “suffers from”!

O: I know, right! I think it totally makes a difference to non-disabled people to be around disabled colleagues. Often, it’s about everyday conversations. For example, there’s a burger joint down the road from our office, but I can’t get inside. My nondisabled colleagues were super surprised by this and started recognizing a lack of access in a new way. Conversations like that really increase awareness, which I think is important and makes people think differently about disability issues. I think we bring a different perspective, which makes workplaces better.

ON HOPES FOR THE FUTURE

R: Working from home is also something that can really make workplaces better and more accessible, Covid-19 illuminated this, but disabled people already knew it was true! I think it’s also crucial that people are flexible on sick-leave, because you might have someone really great, but needs to take time off due to chronic illness. I think there’s a notion that people would take advantage of this, but studies have indicated that companies who offer flexible sick leave, have noticed the amount of sick leave that’s taken decrease

O: Also, when you think about it, people with pre-existing conditions face more prejudice than the average employee, who could get sick at any time. At any point, a person can get an illness, this would be dealt with by the employer at the time, but knowledge of a pre-existing condition often prevents the employer from giving a person with a chronic illness a shot.

R: This also comes back to having a robust diversity and inclusion policy. People’s perception of inclusion differs from workplace to workplace. Disability is very rare in these policies - it’s generally left off the list. There needs to be more intentional inclusion of disability and accessibility in these policies, which speaks to workplace flexibility and accessibility provisions - because the provisions we offer disabled people also benefit new mums and older people. In the first instance, policies need to be clear, they want to be accessible, and here’s how they’re going to do it. Ultimately, we need to educate people to understand that employing disabled people is not scary, and we need to ensure attitudes shift, to understand this. We do that by ensuring we make ourselves visible. Fear is a huge reason we’re prevented from moving forward; we can use social media tools to break that down.

O: Yes! Also, a lot of it is ignorance! My friends have told me that I’m the first disabled person they’ve known or been friends with! One friend said to me, “When I first met you, I didn’t know what to do - I thought, ‘do I hug her?’.” She was telling me all of this, and I was like, this is so funny! We must break down that ignorance. We don’t need to prove our abilities, but we need to make sure that people understand that disability does not remove our capacity to participate in a full life.

R: Yes. I also think that when we break down any ignorance and fear, we allow people to break free and start thinking independently from the centuries of negative connotations that have plagued the disabled experience.

O: Yes, and by doing that, we make sure that every person feels that they can be part of the workforce. There are always some doubts, but I think both mine and Rebecca’s will for the future is to help ensure every disabled person feels like opportunities are open to them in the workforce, to the same degree as they are to non-disabled people. And not be bound by other people’s negative stereotypes of disability.

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