This guest post is from writer and activist Cara Liebowitz. Smart, sharp and funny, she blogs at That Crazy Crippled Chick and recently started an internship at Disability Project Empower. It's a nonprofit aimed at offering young people with disabilities job training and mentoring. As you may know, the most recently tracked unemployment rate for people with disability in the U.S. is 12.5 percent—nearly double that of people without a disability.
When I was being interviewed for my current internship, my future boss mentioned something that surprised him. “I’m a little surprised that someone with a Master’s degree is applying for this internship.” he commented. I was embarrassed. “I couldn’t find anything else.” I mumbled.
That was a hard admission to make. After all, I was 23 years old, with a bachelor’s degree in Education, a Master’s in Disability Studies, and a resume consisting of a laundry list of speaking gigs and published works. Isn’t that supposed to be the magic formula? We’re told that if we go to college and have a polished resume, we will achieve the modern American Dream of a good paying job, the family, the white picket fence, the whole nine yards.
Except it wasn’t working like that for me. In high school, I listened jealously as my peers secured the sort of minimum wage jobs that are typical for teenagers—retail, food service, lifeguarding. I knew that there was no way I’d have the coordination to fold clothes, work a cash register, or make sandwiches. (As I’m writing this, I’m reminded of a friend from high school who worked at Baskin- Robbins, and a disturbing image comes into my head of ice cream flying across the room if I attempted to do that job.) And though I’m a decent swimmer, the thought of me trying to save someone else is simultaneously hilarious and horrifying.
I didn’t earn a cent of my own money until after college, when I began blogging professionally. And it wasn’t until I began receiving SSI benefits a year ago that I was getting a steady income for the first time in my life. I was in my 20s and learning how to write a check, pay my credit card bill, and use an ATM. I felt ashamed and immature. What good was all the work I’d put in during college and grad school if I’d just become a stereotype, relying on government benefits for the rest of my life?
It was this desire for employment and independence that led me to uproot my entire life and move to Washington DC this summer for two months. I’m interning with two great organizations, 2Gether-International and RespectAbility, working to make sure youth with disabilities have as many opportunities as their peers—and that includes employment. I’m working on a great program with 2Gether-International that will allow youth with disabilities to pitch their own advocacy projects, and in the process, gain valuable employable skills like crowdfunding, networking, and team management.
The program, Disability Project Empower, will give youth with disabilities valuable skills that they can use in any employment setting, whether that’s a traditional office setting, self-employment, or a combination; check it out. We recently raised enough money to run the first five projects.
I’m extraordinarily lucky to have parents who have supported me in all my efforts. To their credit, they barely blinked an eye when I told them I wanted to move to DC for a summer, just told me to do the research and they’d help me out when the time came. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for them to let their youngest daughter, who is multiply disabled, move four hours away for two months. (It probably helped that I had gone away to college, so they were somewhat used to the idea of me being on my own.) Here are some tips for parents of kids with disabilities to enable independence, so that someday they’ll strike out on their own, like I have.
Teach them how to use public transportation.
I can’t stress this enough. So many youth with disabilities that are around my age just have their parents drive them everywhere, and they’ve never learned how to use trains, buses, cabs, or anything. For me, it helped that my family and I took the Long Island Railroad into Manhattan often when I was growing up, because my grandma lives there. When I was ready to do it on my own, it was familiar. Now, I take public buses and trains everywhere, and now that I’m in DC, it’s even easier, since all the Metro stations are equipped with elevators. I can’t tell you how thrilling it is to know that I can get anywhere I want to go. Obviously, it’s harder if you live in a rural area, but if public transportation in your area is accessible, give it a shot! Most areas also have segregated door to door paratransit for people with disabilities. It’s not ideal, but paratransit can be useful in limited circumstances.
Use all the technology.
It’s so much easier to get places now than when I was growing up. I use Google Maps to plan out the steps needed to get where I’m going, and Apple Maps to give me walking directions once I get there. Transit apps allow me to see when the next bus or train is coming and what stop I need to get off at. And technology allows me to keep in touch with my parents as well. If my mom is particularly nervous, she’ll ask me to text me at various steps in my journey (when I’m on the train, when I’m off the train, when I’m at work…). That way, she knows where I am and can be assured that I’ve gotten where I’m going.
Teach life skills early.
I’ll never forget getting to college my freshman year and realizing I had no idea how to do my laundry. Luckily, my roommate was kind enough to show me how to sort my laundry and use the machines. Even if you don’t think your children have the physical or cognitive ability to do certain things, teach them anyway—before they need to do it on their own. Make any adaptations you need, and think outside of the box. For instance, instead of pouring detergent, which could be a disaster, I use detergent sheets.
Most of all….
Take baby steps.
When I first started taking the train into the city by myself, my mom would drive me to the train, wait with me on the platform until the train came, and then a friend would meet me at Penn Station and take the subway with me. When I went to the mall, my mom would go with me and we’d pick a place and a time to meet after we were done shopping on our own. Slowly, as we all got more confident, my parents allowed me to do more things on my own. Now I take the train and the subway by myself, and I go to the mall on the bus on my own. It’s a process that took years, but it paid off.
Independence and employment aren’t easy when you have a disability, but with the right tools, everyone can be productive citizens. Big thanks to Ellen for having me write a guest post! I can’t wait to see how independent Max is when he gets to be my age!
Disability Project Empower recently reached its crowdfunded startup goal (yeah!) and is still accepting donations here.