I was born with spina bifida – I wear leg braces, and I stand 4 feet, 8 inches tall.
I grew up surrounded by support. I wanted to be a ballerina, and my parents got me a leotard. I fell in love with horses, and my family gave me opportunities to interact with them. When I lost my balance, they encouraged me to get right back up and keep going. And I was able to.
Maybe I couldn't do literally everything, but I could do everything I needed to. And I was OK. They didn't home in on the sports that didn't come as easily, making me practice until I mastered basketball or figure skating. I was just right the way I was.
Then the media came in, with its positive message of “You can be anything you want to be!” How encouraging! No matter what I want to be, literally anything, I am guaranteed to succeed if I just try hard enough. What a wonderful idea.
If only it were that simple.
I have succeeded. In so many areas, I have. I can walk. I can talk. I can cook. I can use a computer and play the piano. In a thousand areas, large and small, I can determine what I need and how to obtain it. “Kaya-kong” means “I can do it” in Filipino. And I can.
But it's not that simple. I can do... what, exactly? Succeed at life? What does that even look like? Well, it looks like having a job I enjoy and can do well, partnered with an employer who likes me, and making enough money to support myself. I would be able to do that. Sure I would.
If only an employer would hire me. Because being able to work is only half the battle. To work, you have to be hired.
Many interviews after my last day working seasonally at Target, I feel like I am finally asking the right questions. But ... to whom do I ask them?
The world told me I could do anything. And LSSI (the employment preparedness program offered by Lutheran Social Services) told me they would get me a job. WorkOne told me they would get me a job. And Sky Point is currently attempting to help me get a job. But I feel like what I have are cheerleaders who remind me to keep researching and to keep an eye on what pops up on Indeed.com.
I can do that on my own, thanks. I'm grateful for my cheerleaders, but I need someone who can vouch for me; who can look the prospective employer in the eye and tell them that if they don't hire me for a job I'm perfectly qualified for, they may well be committing discrimination.
We tell kids with disabilities that they can do anything. All through their childhoods and teenage years, they hear these positive messages. And they walk or wheel out into the bright light of adulthood ... and find that no one will give them a job. What a slap in the face. Was everything our parents, teachers, physical and occupational therapists and all the other loving, supportive adults in our lives told us simply wrong? If we can do anything we set our minds to, why do employers refuse to give us jobs?
And if I can do anything if I just want it badly enough, just try hard enough, why did an entire summer behind the wheel taking driver's training have to end in my mature decision to quit beating a dead horse? Why did the sister seven years younger than I am achieve this milestone first? How is that fair? What did I do wrong? Why doesn't determination work? Why, at 25 years old, am I still struggling to find my way toward independence?
The question is what needs to change. It's not the young people who are putting their hearts and souls into preparing themselves to be the greatest employees of their generation. It's society. We need to stop dousing children with vague, misleading messages of “encouragement” only to withhold the things they've worked so hard to get. Instead of telling them that they can be anything, we should tell them that whatever it is that they love, from rodeo to spaceflight science, they can make it part of their lives. And there is something that everyone can master; each of us has a unique contribution to make to this world.
How does it make sense that people with special needs have to work harder to become fully prepared for employment, and then are not given jobs they could clearly do? How does it make sense that so many services are only available to children? Disabilities do not disappear when a person reaches 21.
I have found that if there is a crack I can fall through, I will. It's as if my demographic doesn't exist, or is so small as to be invisible. I don't fit any mold – even organizations aimed at breaking down barriers to employment can't fully help me. They can't make me taller. And they can't instantaneously change the attitudes that make hiring managers look at me and see a child.
I'll admit that I'm part of an unrecognized demographic, one that is just emerging. A generation ago, a much larger proportion of the disabled population was kept safely at home; not given the opportunity to receive a full education and pursue their passions. A generation before that, they were hidden away, and a few generations before that, they may have gone to live in residential care – not that it would have met their needs very effectively. My generation is the first to really be able to see what it can do – to insist upon maximizing our education and pursuing work we love.
I can't wait to see what the future brings for my demographic. We will be the best employers thus far because we will evaluate applicants only on the actual work they do, not on details such as stature, braces, communication devices or prostheses.
That's why I believe prospective employees might be better served if interviews were performed entirely over the phone, with companies only meeting their new employees after the hiring was complete. That would take physical appearance out of the equation. The first two weeks of work should also be considered a trial period, from both the perspective of the employer and the new employee.
Maybe employers are afraid of me. I can understand that; maybe they look at me and assume I will need too much help for me to be an effective employee, or that I will get hurt on the job. But the thing is, I understand my own needs and limitations, and I will both look after my own needs and keep myself safe. I understand and appreciate their wish to keep me and other people with special needs safe, but it's easy to take this altruistic desire too far. They may have vulnerabilities other people don't, but people with disabilities are some of the toughest people, and best employees, you can find. They have had to work harder than your average Joe to get where they are, and they know the meaning of determination and dedication. Many deal with daily pain. But they know how to push through. And they know how to communicate their needs. It is “kind” to not want to put a person who uses a wheelchair into a situation that might be dangerous. But if he is in a wheelchair because he is a veteran of the Marine Corps, maybe he's the one you want keeping you safe.
So, to employers: We can do it. Step back and let us work. Because that is what we want to do. Work. All we need you to do is let us.
And to the world: We are here. We have always been here. And we always will be. It's simply that you can see us now. Greetings. Let's be friends. And let's make the future a better place for the next generation of employees and employers.
Kyah Merritt is a Fort Wayne resident.