Put Your Experiences to Work

By: Robert J. Gregory

If you are or will be a job-seeker soon, then you can put your experiences with a disability to work for you and for a prospective employer. In fact, you can also seek to upgrade your existing position if you are currently employed. Learn how to get or create that job that you want by taking advantage of your precious personal experiences.

When you stop and think about it, many people with disabilities manage to survive under conditions of adversity. The sometime negative social responses to "disability," the lack of appropriately designed environments, the fears by some that disability is catching, the imposition of medical models such as institutionalization, and other situations make life difficult for many people with disabilities. Quite naturally, then, a person with a disability must evolve effective strategies and tactics for living that not only permit but enable him or her to cope with the problems that everyone faces.

But, people with disabilities invariably have some extra or additional problems, as well. These strategies mean that people with disabilities have survival skills that others may lack altogether. Here are skills that may be of special interest to employers during highly competitive times and indeed, valued by all members of a community.

Attending to details and planning. Many people wander through their day with relatively little awareness or attention to details. Not so for someone who is a wheelchair user, for example. To get through the day, he or she must plan exactly what to do, when and where to do it, and what energies and equipment the activity may take. The extensive planning necessary is essential to conserve limited energy, to assure that, for example, a return home to get something forgotten is not necessary, for it may take half a day and a lot of energy to manage the additional activity. That attention to detail is important on many, if not most, jobs.

Persuading others. People with disabilities quickly learn to work with others creatively, and because they may be reliant on the good will of other people, they develop skills in being able to empathize with, understand, and persuade or at least get along with, others. People with disabilities may have to maneuver others to get what they need and want, in gentle but persistent ways that keep peace and harmony in interpersonal relationships. Teamwork, getting along with others, and working together are all mantras for employers, and those with such skills are highly valued.

Keeping a proper perspective on equipment. Many people with disabilities need to use equipment- wheelchairs are one such device - but a wide range of other aids, appliances, and pieces of equipment are essential to movement, appearance, and amenities. People who have never relied on equipment may become technology oriented, to the detriment of their own goals and behaviors.

Technology, for a person with a disability, quickly assumes a proper place, that is, a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Being familiar with, able to handle and fix, and use various items of equipment without becoming overly enamored with technology is a valued ability.

Balancing energy levels. Matching energy levels with goals when only a limited budget of energy is available is an increasingly important issue. Given the increasing costs of energy of any and all sorts, the limits of resources available, and the need to conserve, people with disabilities have often thought through the fine balances required to ensure goals are met with minimum energy, expense, time, and use of resources. Most people without disabilities never or only rarely deal with this situation. Such skills are an asset.

Handling adversity. Can you handle adversity? Skills in dealing with problems are important in any business or industry. The ups-and-downs of daily life in business and industry are many. People with disabilities have dealt with, and frequently continue to deal with, adverse conditions.

Coping and managing. Coping and not succumbing are automatic responses of people with disabilities, particularly after coming to terms with either a traumatic onset or congenital disability. Managing to survive, adapt, and cope, becomes a lifelong habit and pattern. People with disabilities have often learned to cope and manage, frequently far better then those who take such skills for granted, and with style and expertise. Adaptability is important in the coping process.

Focusing on the important. People with disabilities focus on what is important. Time, energy, and other constraints may be limited and therefore a clear focus on important matters is essential. As a result, the skills and abilities to focus may be a determining factor in selection for some jobs, and an important factor in most.

Appreciating diversity. Handling diversity is a skill, even in a society often oriented towards conformity. People with disabilities are frequently unique, by virtue of their particular disability, lifestyles, and the patterns of living each uses to cope with an intolerant society. Many people with disabilities have had to handle issues relating to diversity and as a result have an appreciation of the values inherent in diversity. Employers have both jobs that require conformity and some that demand diversity.

Accepting alternative paths. Many people with disabilities realize that following the mainstream is not always the best goal for them, there are alternatives that can and do work. Not only are alternative goals possible, but many alternative means can be found and used to achieve whatever may be required. Creative solutions, as well as meaningful directions different from those of the so-called mainstream, are frequently found among people with disabilities. These skills in devising and following alternative paths are valuable assets.

Trusting others. How are you with trust? Could you walk across a busy street with a blindfold and guide dog? Could you manage to use a blindfold and take a walk? Could you get along with caregivers, attendants, and other professional aides with whom you must establish trust? Many people with disabilities have learned to trust their own senses, abilities, and bodies through wide experiences of interaction with others. They learn to trust other people as appropriate, sometimes carefully assessing a workable level of trust, which is not a simple matter.

People with disabilities may have a special appreciation that life is not always the best that it can be. They can and do appreciate, however, what is good for them. These skill areas do not necessarily apply to all people with disabilities and neither do people without disabilities lack such skills. However, many people with disabilities do have an abundance of skills, abilities, and experiences from which all people can gain.

Employers in particular, who often need to be cautious in selecting appropriate workers, may find that people with disabilities have many exceptional assets and skills that will prove valuable in their setting. If you are currently employed in a less than satisfactory role, you may want to make sure your supervisors know that you do have significant and valuable experiences that just might be of enormous value.

Careers & the disAbled Spring 2002