Future Reflections Special Issue: The Teen Years
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by Stacy Cervenka
Reprinted from The Student Slate, Spring 2011
From the Editor: Stacy Cervenka spent the past five years working as a legislative assistant in the United States Senate. In this article she recounts her experience and offers practical tips and encouragement for blind job-seekers.
For the past five years, I worked as a legislative assistant for Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas. I advised the senator 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 postal issues. I was also Senator Brownback's liaison to the Senate Special Committee on Aging.
My time in the senator's office was spiced with many extraordinary moments. I felt as though 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 became one of the few people I know who has actually been inside North Korea.
Blind college students often ask me what they can do to increase their chances of finding a fulfilling and well-paying job. Although there is no one-size-fits-all secret to success, I believe that there are a few things blind people can do to enhance their chances of finding the job that's right for them.
Courage (a.k.a. Acting Is Believing)
Okay, we're all tired of hearing that we're courageous every time we do the simplest task. However, it does take courage to put ourselves into unfamiliar situations where we're not certain how we'll be perceived or whether we'll be welcome. Prejudice and discrimination are very real, and nobody likes to feel underestimated, ignored, or rejected. Understandably, we sometimes shy away from situations that might trigger these unpleasant feelings. Yet if we avoid situations that carry the risk of rejection, we rob ourselves of many marvelous opportunities. We also fail to experience the sense of strength and courage that comes from facing our fears.
Applying for a job, internship, or volunteer position carries the potential for unfair rejection. However, if you constantly pass up opportunities for fear that you'll be treated unfairly, you ensure that you'll never be hired.
This lesson came sharply into focus for me a few days ago when I attended a conference of the Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation. The director of human resources at one of the branch offices told me that he would 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, and no one with a disability ever applies. Furthermore, he explained, Mitsubishi often has booths at college job fairs across the country. He rarely sees students with visible disabilities at these job fairs. In complete earnestness he asked me a probing question. If so many qualified people with disabilities are unemployed, why does he never run into them at job fairs or through the main channels where Mitsubishi recruits?
I thought carefully about his question. I believe one answer 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 listserv of the National Association of Blind Students (NABS) or into the Braille Monitor. Obviously employers who post job announcements in NFB publications are open to hiring blind people.
Seeking out jobs on Monster or Craigslist is much more risky, since the possibility of discrimination is strong. We reason that the employer probably won't hire us anyway, and 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. However, only a tiny percentage of job openings will ever be posted in blindness-related publications. To make ourselves available for the widest array of job opportunities, we have to get out of our comfort zones. The courage it takes to apply for a job will serve us well once we enter the workforce.
I remember when I started leading Kansas constituents on tours of the U.S. Capitol. I was terrified! I wasn't afraid I would get my guests lost or that I'd forget key information about the Capitol's history and artwork. I was nervous about how our constituents would perceive me. Would any of them ask for a different tour guide? Would the tour be awkward and uncomfortable as our guests tried to pretend that my blindness didn't exist?
Conducting tours helped me learn a lesson that has stood me in good stead ever since. Acting is believing! I felt apprehensive, but I didn't have to act like it. 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 leading tours for years. I made no attempt to hide my blindness, but I didn't make a big production of it, either. The tour went very well.
After a few weeks of playing the role, I became a confident tour guide in reality. Within a month, possible reactions to my blindness never crossed my mind as I went out to greet our guests.
As a blind person in an integrated workforce, you'll need to venture outside your comfort zone fairly often. You'll have to look at your apprehension and deal with it to keep it from stopping you.
Have Faith in the Work Blind Activists Have Done
While it's true that discrimination is still an ugly reality, we need to acknowledge that we are making progress. Society is becoming more and more aware that people with disabilities are employable.
I learned this lesson on my first day in Senator Brownback's office. I started as an intern, and I was extremely nervous. I was afraid that no one in the office would entrust me with substantial work. I worried that I would have to work very hard to raise people's expectations. However, on my 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, the assistant asked me to go down to the Senate Printing and Graphics Office. I was to retrieve a chart that Senator Brownback needed for an upcoming speech on the Senate floor.
Our office was on the third floor of the Hart Senate Office Building. Printing and Graphics was in the basement of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. I'd only been on the job for about two hours, and I had no idea how I'd get where I needed to go. Still, I was not about to tell my boss 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 retrieved the chart. My heart soared when I realized that my supervisors had higher expectations of me than I had of myself. It was a really good feeling--one we as blind people don't get to have often enough!
During the first few weeks of my internship I wasn't always greeted with high expectations. Sometimes the reactions of others were very painful. A few days into my internship I approached a legislative assistant and asked if I could help him with anything. He thanked me but told me he had nothing for me to do. A minute later he walked into the "intern pit" and declared, "I need an intern!" I was devastated. He'd seen me walking around the office and helping other staffers with various tasks. How could this guy fail to trust me?
Not long after this incident I was hired full-time as a staff assistant. One day this same staffer sent an e-mail to several women in the office asking if one of us might be free on Saturday night to babysit his children. I was thrilled that this staffer, who didn't trust me to run an errand for him when I first came into the office, had included me on the message. He now had enough belief in my abilities that he was willing to entrust me with his children. Although I had no real desire to spend my Saturday night babysitting, I seized this opportunity to strengthen his awareness of my capability. I took the job and began a warm friendship with the staffer and his family.
Blind and otherwise disabled activists have worked hard for the passage of laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act that protect our civil rights. 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 paving the way for you!
You Gotta Have Skills!
Regardless of how hard you work to venture outside your comfort zone and how far the disability rights movement has paved your way, when the rubber meets the road, you gotta have skills. If you land a job and can't work as efficiently as your colleagues, you probably won't last very long. Even if you do keep the job, you're unlikely to advance within your company or organization.
My job required many different skill sets. I needed to do effective research using online and print media. I needed to use the computer to write letters and memos and to communicate with colleagues, constituents, and other stakeholders. I needed to be able to travel independently to meetings on and off Capitol Hill. I needed to be able to take concise notes in meetings with constituents and lobbyists. I also needed ways to access the information on the handouts and reports that constituents and lobbyists gave to me.
On a more abstract level, I needed to be able to walk into a meeting and put people at ease. When I started to attend meetings on my own, one of my biggest fears was that people wouldn't take me seriously. I remember the first time I walked into a meeting with ten school superintendents and school board presidents, all very distinguished people in their forties, fifties, and sixties. Each of them had 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, in addition to my computer skills and ability to do research, people skills were crucial in my job. 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. I had to explain what technology I needed and where the office could procure it. I had to tell my supervisors how I would handle the huge amount of mail that came across my desk, give tours of the Capitol Building, and shepherd VIP constituents wherever they needed to go. Most of the other staffers believed I could do these things, but they had no idea how. It was my responsibility to figure out ways to get things done and to communicate any needs I had to the appropriate people.
All blind job-seekers must 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? What will you do when your boss dumps a stack of papers on your desk and tells you he needs a report by tomorrow? How will you travel to meetings at unfamiliar destinations when you have little advance notice? Do you get along with people and relate to them easily? Are you currently able to advocate effectively for yourself without calling on your parents or the Office of Disabled Student Services? How will you explain your abilities and needs to your colleagues, supervisors, and clients in a way that is clear and confident rather than defensive or confrontational?
You might acquire your skills through a training center, through a home-based rehabilitation program, or from family and friends. You might use visual techniques for some tasks and nonvisual methods for others. Whatever your particular situation, you need to make sure you are capable of handling the day-to-day grind of a typical workplace.
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, nothing is more fulfilling than having a job you love.
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