Does this scenario sound familiar? You enter into a social service agency designated to help people with disabilities, survey the room, and no one looks like they can relate to your struggle? Sometimes you may be met with confused looks, a placating smirk, or a generic answer for all issues. I have always hoped to enter into one of those agencies and see people with disabilities at the desk, answering the phone, setting up events, and running board meetings, but unfortunately that has never been my experience in rural Iowa.
I’m a young professional with various experiences in the private and public sector, I’ve worked in a multitude of areas such as school districts, nonprofits, etc., and I continue to become disappointed and disillusioned with the lack of people with disabilities in the workplace, particularly in areas of social service where I feel a person with a disability can bridge the gap between sympathetic and truly empathetic answers for the people they are serving. I’d love to be able to have a conversation with someone about the daily challenges of a lack of access or transportation who could truly relate to the struggle that transcends what looks good on paper.
I’m continuously worried that the stigmas of the disabled community may have influenced workers in the social service industry. The perception that our community has no voice seems to be reiterated by an industry that does not truly represent our needs. We need the voices of actual people with disabilities to say, “We are strong, independent, and we don’t need sympathy; we need true empathy.”
If anything, years of being a part of the social service system has made me feel more underserved and undervalued. I have been asked multiple questions during interviews with social services agencies that reinforce stereotypes and misconceptions of our community. Several questions about living in poverty, being on Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and I have even been offered volunteer opportunities instead of regular employment (during an interview for a paid position).
I believe we must reframe our misconceptions that just because a person with a disability may have lived in poverty, or Section 8 housing, or received SSI benefits, we cannot serve our own community in a meaningful way. Many of us are looking for employment opportunities and a chance to impact the issues facing the disabled community in a real way.
It’s wonderful that there are individuals out there who feel that they can serve and represent our interests because they have a sibling, husband, wife, or child with a disability. We can learn and grow from these individuals, but I feel the best form of advocacy is asking them to become involved in the conversation in some capacity, by really adopting the belief that any individual can participate in some way.
While I know some individuals with disabilities may not be able to speak for themselves, I feel we owe these individuals a voice from the disabled community. I know the statistics of people with disabilities in the workplace may not be on our side, but every day through news platforms I read stories of very competent, driven, motivated individuals with a disability who have so much to contribute to the issues and challenges facing the disabled community.
As we rethink issues facing the way we view America’s health care system, economy, and diversity movements, why can’t we take a second look of the lack of our own representation?
I also asked that individuals with disabilities comment below about their personal experiences with this issue, so it’s not just my voice being heard on this, but it is others as well. Together, we are proud and united!
Written by Erin Kay