The Harsh Realities of Being an Employee with a Disability: Knowing Your Rights and Advocating for Yourself – Sarah Kim

“Thank you for coming in for the interview. We’ll be in touch.” Ever since graduating from Columbia Journalism School in May 2018, I’ve heard a variation of that more than a dozen times, often accompanied by a sympathetic smile. I’ve seen all the discouraging statistics, including that people with disabilities make up less than one percent of those who work in the media. As for the overall employment-population ratio for persons with a disability, it’s 19.1%, compared to the ratio for those without a disability, at 65.9%.

Regardless, I hoped that I would beat the odds.

My cerebral palsy affects my mobility and speech. I walk with a noticeable limp and abnormal gait, but I always get myself to wherever I need to be. I make sure my speech gets understood, whether through repeating myself many times or writing things down. Although as a reporter whose most basic form of communication can present itself to be a struggle, I try my best to make the listener’s job as easy as possible.

I’ve pushed through biases that teachers and professors have laid on me and graduated from Barnard College with honors. Afterwards, I embarked on an intensive 10-month master’s program in journalism. In the world of academia, I was a shining star. In the real world, not so much.

Job applications have become depressingly predictable. Just reading the preview line saying “Thank you for your application. Unfortunately…,” I already know I didn’t get the position. Eventually, I’d look up the person who did receive the offer, and notice we have the same qualifications—sometimes I’d have more experience than they do. After going through this again and again, I’ve become suspicious: Is there space in newsrooms for journalists with disabilities? For folks like me? In the overall job market?

For as long as I can remember, I dreamed of being a breaking news reporter. Chasing politicians and lawmakers for quotes and always being on the run was extremely attractive to me. I grew up with the mindset of, if I give something all of my efforts, then I’d eventually achieve it. I wasn’t prepared for the fact that my disability would be more of a problem for other people than it ever has been for me.

Although under Title I of the ADA, an employer cannot discriminate against a candidate if their disability prevents them from performing duties that are not essential to the job requirement. Employees must be qualified to adequately perform the duties of the job, regardless of whether you need a reasonable accommodation, to be covered by the ADA. This also means that you must fulfill the requirements for the position — education, experience, skills, etc.

Reasonable accommodations may include:

  • Flexible or modified work schedules
  • Adjustment of training materials and employee policies
  • Providing new or modifying existing equipment
  • Making the workplace more accessible by people with disabilities
  • Job restructuring
  • Reassignment to another position
  • Providing interpreters

 

Many online job applications nowadays have an optional section where you can disclose your disability, along with your race and ethnicity, gender, and veteran status. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the applicant can choose not to disclose information about a disability or medical impairment in the application process. However, if reasonable accommodations are needed during the pre-application, application, interview, or pre-employment assessment process, then you may need to disclose the information.

In my case, I frequently made it to the interview and the pre-employment assessment (many journalism and editorial jobs require the applicant to complete a writing assessment). After weeks of anxiously waiting, I’d receive the dreaded rejection email. It is almost impossible to pinpoint if the employers were biased or discriminatory against my disability, so that’s not enough a bring upon a lawsuit or complaint. However, as I’ve been seeing a clear pattern in receiving rejection emails — especially ones that state “we cannot move forward with your application,” and not “we’ve decided to move forward with a more qualified candidate,” — my suspicions arise.

Eventually, I’ve learned the best way to approach the whole process is to be transparent about my disability right from when I get invited to an interview. I am straightforward with the recruiter about my disability, particularly about my speech impediment. If I am confident and secure about my ability to perform the job, then that energy transcends to the employer.

People with disabilities have a broad range of talents and skills; it’s a disservice to the overall economy and society for them not even to be given the chance to showcase and contribute their abilities. Employers should focus on the qualifications of the disabled candidate, and not prematurely worry about the accommodations or adaptations needed.

As for me, it has been about two years since I graduated from journalism school, and I have yet to land a full-time job or internship. Instead of wallowing in my sorrows, I’ve fully embraced the freelancer’s lifestyle. Editors are much more likely to give me a chance when I’m behind the computer screen. Right now, I’m a permanent freelance contributor for the Diversity and Inclusion section at Forbes, and I occasionally write for publications like Teen Vogue, Healthline/Greatist and Glamour. I’ve also recently landed two book deals.

Along the way, I’ve picked up some unexpected, but still valuable, opportunities, such as assistant producing a BBC Radio 4 show, writing for Martha Stewart Weddings, publishing long-form magazine pieces, and blogging about fashion and wellness for a startup publication. In this freelance space, my disability is unseen, and all I have to show is my work. I can control how much of my disability is shown, or not shown.

I haven’t given up my dream of working alongside other reporters at a mainstream media outlet, just yet. But if there’s one lesson that living with a disability has taught me, it’s that I often will not get to a destination on a straight path, either literally or figuratively.