by Stacy Cervenka
From the Editor: As you will read in the following article, Stacy Cervenka spent the last five years working in the United States Senate as a legislative assistant for Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas. She recounts her experience but also offers practical tips and encouragement for blind job-seekers that can be applied to almost any employment setting. Reprinted from the Winter 2011 issue of the Student Slate, a publication of the National Association of Blind Students, here is her story as well as advice that will help everyone seriously seeking a job:
For the past five years I worked as a legislative assistant for Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas. Throughout my time in his office I advised the Senator and wrote and worked on legislation pertaining to adoption and foster care, child protection, juvenile justice, pro-life issues, disability rights, special education, vocational rehabilitation, Native American issues, Second Amendment rights, Social Security, pensions, labor issues, North and South Korea issues, and, randomly, postal issues. I was also Senator Brownback’s liaison to the Senate Special Committee on Aging.
My time in the Senator’s office was filled with many extraordinary moments. I often felt as if I had once-in-a-lifetime experiences once a week. I co-wrote a bill that is now a law; I sat in my boss’s office and made conversation with Buzz Aldrin; I got a long smoochy kiss from Bono; Senator Ted Kennedy personally introduced me to his dog Splash; and I’m one of the few people I know who have ever actually been inside North Korea.
I’m often asked by blind job-seekers and blind college students what they can do to increase their chances of finding a fulfilling and well-paid job. Although there is no one-size-fits-all secret to success, I believe that blind people can do a few things to enhance their chances of finding the job that’s right for them.
1. Courage (aka Acting Is Believing)
I know that we’re all tired of the worn-out cliché that blind people are so courageous every time we do the simplest little task. However, it does take courage to put ourselves out in unfamiliar situations where we’re not certain whether we’ll be welcomed and how we’ll be perceived. The fact is that negative stereotypes and misconceptions do exist. Prejudice, discrimination, and unfair treatment are very real. Nobody likes to feel rejected, underestimated, or ignored. Therefore it’s understandable that we sometimes shy away from situations that might result in these unpleasant feelings. However, when we avoid situations that carry the risk of rejection, we rob ourselves, not only of many marvelous opportunities, but also of the strength and courage that come from facing our fears.
Applying for any kind of job, internship, or volunteer position carries with it the potential for unfair rejection. However, one way to ensure that you’ll never get hired is constantly to pass up opportunities for fear that you’ll be unfairly treated anyway.
This lesson came sharply into focus a few days ago as I was attending a conference of the Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation. The director of human resources at one of the branch offices told me that he’d really like to hire more people with disabilities. The problem, he said, was that Mitsubishi often posts job announcements on Monster.com and other job databases, but no one with a disability ever applies. He further mentioned that Mitsubishi often has booths at college job fairs across the country, and he rarely sees students with visible disabilities at them. He asked me in complete earnestness why, if there were so many qualified unemployed people with disabilities, he never seemed to run into them at job fairs or through the main channels through which Mitsubishi recruits.
I thought about his question for a while. While I understand that there might be many reasons for this, I think that one is that we’re often so fearful of discrimination that we tend to look for jobs with agencies we already know. We wait for job announcements to make their way across the NABS listserv or into the Braille Monitor with the idea that, if people are posting a job announcement directly in an NFB publication, obviously they’re open to hiring blind people.
Seeking out jobs on Monster or Craigslist is sometimes more risky, since the possibility of discrimination is so strong. We reason that the employer probably won’t hire us anyway, so all of our efforts will be for nothing. It takes a certain amount of courage and good faith for a person with a disability to reply to a mainstream job announcement. The fact is that the percentage of jobs that will be forwarded to NFB listservs and published in the Braille Monitor is very small. In order to make ourselves available to the widest variety of jobs, we’re going to have to get out of our comfort zones.
The courage it takes to apply for a job will certainly serve you well once you do enter the workforce. I remember when I first started giving tours of the US Capitol Building to Kansas constituents who were visiting D.C. I was terrified! I wasn’t worried that I would get my guests lost or that I wouldn’t be able to memorize all of the information about the history and artwork of the Capitol; I was nervous about how our constituents would perceive me. Would any of them ask for a different tour guide? More likely, would the entire tour be awkward and uncomfortable as they tried to pretend my blindness didn’t exist?
However, giving tours helped me learn a valuable lesson that has stood me in good stead ever since: acting is believing! I may have felt apprehensive, but I didn’t have to act like I was. Before my first tour, I took a deep breath, said a little prayer, and breezed into the front office to meet our guests. I acted as though I’d been giving tours for years, made no attempt to hide my blindness, but made no big production of it either. The tour went very well. My nervousness did not dissipate right away. However, after a few weeks of playing the role of a confident tour guide, I slowly became one. I can honestly say that within a month, my blindness and other people’s possible reactions to it never even crossed my mind as I went out to greet guests.
As a blind person in an integrated workforce, you will have to venture outside your comfort zone fairly regularly. This takes a certain amount of willingness to look your fear and apprehension in the face, deal with them, but not let them stop you.
2. Have a Little Faith in the Work Blind Activists Have Already Done
While it’s true that discrimination is still an ugly reality, we need to acknowledge that we are making progress and that society has become more and more aware of the employability of people with disabilities.
I learned this lesson my first day in Senator Brownback’s office. I started as an intern, and I was extremely nervous that no one in the office would trust me with any substantial work. I worried that I would have to work very hard to raise their expectations. However, on the first day, our internship coordinator introduced me to one of the legislative assistants and told me I’d be working for him. Without skipping a beat, he asked me to go down to the Senate Printing and Graphics Office and retrieve a chart that the Senator would be needing for an upcoming speech on the Senate floor. Our office was on the third floor of the Hart Senate Office Building, and Printing and Graphics was in the basement of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. I’d been in the office about two hours, and I had no idea how in the world I’d get there. However, I was not about to tell him that I couldn’t do the very first thing he asked me to do. I must have asked directions every ten feet on my way to Printing and Graphics, but I did retrieve the chart, and my heart soared as I realized that my supervisors had higher expectations of me than I had of myself. That can be a really good feeling and one we as blind people don’t always get enough of.
During the first few weeks of my internship, before I was hired fulltime, I wasn’t always greeted by high expectations, and sometimes it was painful. I remember approaching a legislative assistant a few days into my internship and asking him if I could help him with anything. He thanked me but told me there wasn’t. One minute later, I heard him walk into the intern pit and declare, “I need an intern.” I was devastated. How could this guy not trust me? He’d seen me walking around the office and helping other staffers with various tasks. I was angry and hurt.
However, not long after I was hired full time as a staff assistant, this same staffer sent an email around to several women in the office asking if any of us were free on Saturday night to babysit for his children. My heart soared at the thought that this staffer, who hadn’t trusted me to run an errand for him when I first came into the office, now had enough belief in my abilities to entrust me with his children. Although I had no real desire to spend my Saturday night babysitting, I wanted to take the opportunity to assure him of my capability. I took the job, and thus began a warm friendship with both him and his family.
Blind and otherwise disabled activists have worked hard to get laws passed that protect our civil rights, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act. And we have worked equally hard to educate our colleagues and other employers by example. You might run into more open-mindedness than you think. A lot of us have been working hard to pave the way for you.
3. You Gotta Have Skills
Regardless of how hard you work to venture outside your comfort zone and how much the disability rights movement has paved your way, when the rubber meets the road, you gotta have skills. If you do land a job and you can’t efficiently perform the same tasks as your colleagues, you probably won’t keep that job very long, and, if you do, you’re unlikely to advance within your organization.
In my situation my job required many different skill sets. I needed to be able to do effective research both online and with print media. I needed to be able to use the computer to communicate with colleagues, constituents, and other stakeholders and to write letters, emails, and memos. I needed to be able to travel independently to meetings both on and off Capitol Hill. I needed to be able to take concise, effective notes in meetings with constituents and lobbyists. I also needed to be able to access the information on the handouts and reports the constituents and lobbyists gave me in these meetings.
On a more abstract level, but just as important, I needed to be able to walk into a meeting and both put people at ease and get them to take me seriously. That was one of my biggest fears when I first started taking meetings on my own. The first time I walked into a meeting with about ten school superintendents and school board presidents, all very distinguished people in their forties, fifties, and sixties with over twenty or thirty years of experience, I was terrified that they were all thinking, “Who is this twenty-something little blind girl fresh out of college? We have to meet with her?” So besides actual concrete skills, I had to have at least some people and relationship skills.
Furthermore, as a blind person I had to have a good set of self-advocacy skills. Our office had never had a blind employee before, so I had to tell them what kind of technology I needed, where they could procure it, and how I would be able to handle other tasks like reading the huge amount of mail that came across my desk, giving tours of the US Capitol Building, and shepherding VIP constituents wherever they needed to go. The other staffers believed I could do all these things, but they had no idea how. It was my responsibility as an employee to figure out how I would get things done and communicate any needs I had to the appropriate people.
It’s up to you how you choose to acquire these skills and what exact combination of visual and nonvisual techniques you use, but all blind job-seekers need to ask themselves some serious questions and strive to answer them honestly. Do you have good blindness skills, good relationship skills, and good self-advocacy skills? How will you handle it when your boss dumps a stack of papers on your desk and tells you he needs a report on them by tomorrow? How will you deal with traveling to meetings in unfamiliar destinations with little advance notice? Do you get along and relate easily with people? Are you currently able to advocate effectively for yourself without calling on your parents or disabled student services staff? How will you explain your abilities and your needs to your colleagues, supervisors, and clients in a way that is clear and confident but not defensive or confrontational?
Whether you use visual or nonvisual techniques, whether you acquire your skills through a training center or home-based rehabilitation program or you pick them up from your family and friends, you need to make sure that you are physically and relationally capable of handling the day-to-day grind of a typical workplace.In conclusion, getting and keeping a job takes a lot of work. Acquiring the prerequisite skills, venturing outside our comfort zones, advocating for ourselves and others with disabilities, and educating our employers and colleagues on a personal level can take a lot of time and effort. However, I can honestly say that nothing is more fulfilling than having a job you love.