How Might Disability Affect My Job Search?

I’m hoping to be making a major career change within the next thee months. In addition to all the usual terror and uncertainty that entails, I’ve never had to navigate disability in a formal workplace, and could really use some wisdom. I have chronic pain and noticeable gait changes caused by some sort of vaguely diagnosed autoimmune arthritis.

I’m youngish, reasonably fit, and look “healthy.” I don’t yet use any mobility devices beyond my trusty bicycle. My guess is that I get read as “injured” at least as often as “crippled.” This ability to pass is both good and bad, and I wish it wasn’t an asset in a job search, but it probably is.

In terms of accommodations, I imagine needing pretty basic things, such as a comfortable workstation and the ability to take frequent breaks to move around if I have a desk job. In a more active job, I would need occasional sit-down breaks. I would benefit from reduced hours or the flexibility to work from home during a few bad weeks a year. (In an ideal world, I would work four-day weeks, but wouldn’t we all?)

I’m looking for any tips on how to handle this in interviews and how to proceed once I (hopefully!) have a job offer in hand. Are there questions I can ask about workplace culture that would give me a little insight into if a company is going to be a decent place for me to work without crossing over the “don’t-say-you-are-disabled-because-discrimination!” boundary? Do I need legal disability status in order to ask for accommodations? Any resources you can recommend so that I will be well-versed in my rights if (when?) I encounter difficulties?

But really, Dear Butch, I could also use a pep talk from someone who has been there. I’m feeling a bit defeated before I even start and I know my lack of confidence in myself is going to derail everything about this process if I let it.

Pounding the Pavement with a Limp

Dear Pounding the Pavement with a Limp,

First things first: the pep talk!

I know it can be very discouraging to hear the statistics about disability and employment. And I’m not going to pretend that you won’t encounter disablism when looking for employment.

I was utterly terrified to hit the job market years ago when I was laid off from a large firm and had to face a job search with a visible impairment. I’d heard stories. I had my own fears about accommodations I might need and my own anxieties that these were ‘special rights’ instead of just accommodations I needed to do the great job I always do.

But you know what? The job search, and subsequent job searches, went just fine. I made a few decisions that I’ll explain further down, but I’m going to go ahead and say that, at least in my area, walking with a visible limp and using a cane or crutch to move did not seem to hurt my chances at all. As a matter of fact, every interview I had in that state resulted in a call back or a job offer.

Disablism is REAL, you guys. But it, much like disability itself, is on a spectrum and, as you say, the unfortunate result of disablism is that a person with a limp or a cane is less worrying to a potential employer than someone who uses a wraparound wheelchair and communication device.

In the world of disabled people, you and I are the privileged ones. For real.

Gosh that was a weird pep talk.

TL;DR: You are going to do great! You will not face nearly as much discrimination as you fear!

Which leaves the rest of your questions.

Yes, you need to meet the federal guidelines for what a disabled person is, which you do. From the U.S. Department of Justice’s ADA Guide: “An individual with a disability is defined by the ADA as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.” Look it up if you want more details, but ‘walking’ is considered a major life activity, and being in constant pain substantially limits this ability.

The accommodations you describe actually just sound like good ergonomic practices to me, regardless of impairments. Everyone should be able to get up and move from their desks regularly, or sit down and take a break from physical labor, regularly. This is often written into contracts when a union is involved, and smart companies know they save on Worker’s Comp claims when they follow these guidelines.

A reduced work week is something that is often advertised from the get-go, and these jobs are sometimes hard to fill. Many companies that have 30 or 32-hours-a- week jobs struggle to fill them because people are looking for full-time work.  That said, a 40-hour work week can be possible with breaks and working from home, but only for some jobs.

If you apply for a job that requires you to be on-site such as a hostess/greeter, asking for work from home would not fit under ‘reasonable’ in ‘reasonable accommodations’ per the law. If you have a desk job that involves answering phones, ditto. But if you have a desk job involving writing reports, inputting data, or the vast majority of other office jobs that I know of, email and LAN and all sorts of other commonly-used technology can make working from home a few weeks a year barely register as a blip on a company’s radar.

That is, a reasonable company.

Sometimes I feel like my disability is a superpower: companies that want someone to keep a chair warm and Always Be Available Just In Case and pressure people not to take vacations are terrible places to work, and I can easily rule myself out from the get-go.

As for how to ascertain a company’s culture: there are a few ways to do that.

What I always do: is bring at least one crutch to an interview. Both, if possible. I look visibly disabled, and I move through the hallways and watch reactions. Does anyone stare? Do people look away fixedly? Does the interviewer’s face fall when she comes to meet you?

These are all important data points.

If you’d rather not boldly announce your disability like this (and many, many people don’t; a friend of mine who works in a very different part of the country and in a very different industry, who uses a wheelchair nearly full-time, always manages with a cane for her interviews and just shows up in a chair the first day of work and that’s a perfectly legitimate choice, as well), the key way to discover how a company deals with disability is to use this phrase: work-life balance. How do they offer it?

Seriously.

Do they hesitate when they answer? Do they claim that giving you 10 sick days constitutes good work/life balance? Or do they describe their sabbatical program, how they worked with one woman to take time off for the trip of a lifetime, how the company all pooled their sick days together to help a dad of triplets to take more time off after their birth? Do they have formal job-sharing or reduced or adjusted workweeks?

These sorts of policies that acknowledge employees as full, rounded people who matter are the policies and practices that tell you the place will be a good place for a disabled person to work. They will be more likely to see you AND your disability, instead of just your disability. They will already have the systems in place for working from home when needed, and for cutting back on hours or moving them around. They will be able to see your skills and your personality as an asset to them, whether you need accommodations or not.

Good luck. I know this is all very nerve-wracking — searching for work as a member of any minority group that deals with discrimination is. But it is possible, and I think you are probably in a very good position to do it. I hope you can take your time and find the place that is right for you — and more importantly — that you see yourself as the asset you are. No one is doing you a favor by hiring you. They are getting themselves a great, talented employee. Don’t ever forget that.

This letter originally appeared in bitterempire.com on January 28, 2016.

How Do I Handle My Girlfriend’s Racist Bestie?

I have an odd problem. My girlfriend has very few friends, and one of them is a racist. Her friend will say bullshit things about other ethnicities, especially African Americans, Asians, and Jews. This friend of hers is herself of mixed race (African American and white–although maybe that doesn’t matter.) I’ve often wondered if she says these things just for shock value. But maybe that also doesn’t matter.

But it gets weirder. My girlfriend is a Muslim, with Pakistani/Iranian parents, born overseas, but raised in the US. However, her friend, this racist friend, believes my girlfriend is Hispanic, and apparently does not know that her last name isn’t Spanish. I’ve heard her refer to my girlfriend as Puerto Rican. My girlfriend says she doesn’t want to tell her friend the truth because she thinks she wouldn’t approve of her religion and ethnicity. She says she’s been friends with her for so long, over 10 years, and thinks it’s too late to reveal the truth.

My girlfriend doesn’t seem to care. She says people’s racist opinions aren’t her business, and her last boyfriend was a bit of a racist. She claims that she herself isn’t racist (and she’s dated a wide range of people from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds), but she’ll laugh along with her friend, just so things “don’t get awkward.” My girlfriend herself has also made comments about East Asians that bother me, but she’s quick to point out that these are the same comments she says about her own ethnicity (loud, pushy, and don’t keep their neighborhoods very clean.) She admits that she is not a fan of her own ethnic group, claiming they treat women badly, are religiously judgmental, and that she feels most comfortable with assimilated immigrants and “regular white people.” She says that I shouldn’t dictate what opinions she has, and she’s free to dislike her own culture if she wants. I’m a white male, and she says that I’m being judgmental, a complaint she often has about white people with liberal leanings. She says that I didn’t grow up “fighting the racial THING” so I shouldn’t judge how she deals with it. I’ve asked others, and have been told that I’m doing nothing but “whitesplaining” racism to her.

This is all mind boggling to me. I’m very sensitive to racism. This only rarely comes up in our relationship, which is solid and wonderful in all other ways. We’ve been dating for 2 years. I knew of this issue early on in our relationship, I admit, but I let it slide. Not sure what to do now, though.

Fumbling Whitesplainer

Dear Fumbling Whitesplainer,

Oh oh oh oh oh. What a shit show. Never fear, however. I know what you should do, now! I know because I have been there — or at least the butch female version of ‘there.’ So this advice is going to sound hard on you, at first, but it comes from a place of understanding. It does.

Let’s start with the girlfriend: stop mansplaining/whitesplaining racism to her. OH MY GOD. Stop it stop it stop it. I feel for you, bro. I do I do. Reading about how she has to hide her background from her closest friend made me cringe. I get that you care about her. I get that you want her to be loud and proud and Muslim. But she is telling you very clearly how to act with her: so do as she asks.

It is not your fault that you have been raised by our culture to believe that your opinion on everything is very very important and must be expounded on, at great length, all the time. I mean this when I say it is not your fault. But my advice for confused and hurt white guys everywhere is always the same: when in doubt, stop talking. Even when you aren’t in doubt, stop talking. If a woman is talking, listen to her. You have no idea that you have talked over her and silenced her already seven times in the last twelve minutes, because the entire world has trained you to be oblivious to this fact. Re-train your eyes. Re-train your ears. Our racist, patriarchal society has hobbled you and slapped blinders on you so that you cannot see how you are stepping on others and risk feeling uncomfortable about it. Kick yourself and shake yourself free by doing the following:

Stop talking. Listen. If a brown woman who loves you is talking, listen even harder. Listen listen listen. She is so right that you never had to grow up dealing with racism. She has. So stop sharing your opinions about what she should do with this friend and open your mind and your heart and LISTEN. A reminder  that I tell you this as a fellow white person who has had the learn this damn lesson herself. Please listen.

You have been trained, from a very early age, to speak your truth. And that’s great! I wish everyone had been trained the same way. But since we weren’t, it is extra difficult for other people to speak their own truths. And her truth is this: she is comfortable with the people she is comfortable with. She has real and lasting pain/problems with her upbringing you cannot possibly understand unless you listen and listen and listen some more.

Imagine the strength and fortitude it took for your girlfriend — a woman who is so anxious about confrontation and ethnicity and racism that she cannot tell a good friend her true background — to tell you, a white male she loves and wants to stay near her, to back the fuck off.

Honor the request that was probably hard for her to make. Back the fuck off.

Now — as for her friend.

First: of course it matters that she is not white. When white people spout racist garbage, we need to show each other no mercy. None. We have pulled this shit for millennia. We’ve said enough. We’ve done enough. We need to stop it right this fucking minute and we need to call each other out on this hideous crap. But a black woman is different. Yeah, it’s unpleasant and shitty. But if someone is going to call her on it, it’s not going to be a white guy.

But you don’t have to just let that hateful language slide, either. Your girlfriend has decided to do that, and that’s her decision. You are your own person and you can do what you like. I personally would avoid this asshole. I have no patience for antisemitism, racism, or Islamophobia. I don’t think you have to have any, either. If she says crap like that in front of you, you have a few options. The first, easiest, and most factual response is the one I always use: do not laugh. Say: “That’s just not funny.” Give her a blank look. Do not encourage it. I also think it’s fine to tell your girlfriend, when she says crap about East Asians: “I don’t like to hear that shit; please knock it off when you’re around me.” (and then SHUT UP. SHHHHHHH.)

If this friend of your girlfriend will just not stop, saying calmly: “I am not going to listen to this shit anymore,” and getting away from her, is perfectly all right.

Your girlfriend is of course right that it is obnoxious to explain racism to a brown person, but that does not mean you have to suffer in silence when they say racist crap (and remaining silent in the face of racism is tacit approval, in our society). Just please — be brief, and move on.

A version of this letter originally appeared in bitterempire.com on January 7, 2016.