Joanna Simmons was passionate about working as far back as she can remember. In fact, the strongest memory she has of her 16th birthday is feeling excited that she was old enough to get a part time job and a pay check. This feeling didn’t diminish even after being diagnosed with severe juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, a condition that affects approximately 50,000 young people in the United States.
While attending college, Joanna went to work for the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) as a Human Resources Intern. She recalled interviewing an older man for a bus driver position who was discouraged after experiencing a lot of rejection during his job search. “I know you won’t hire me because you think I’m too old,” the man said.
Joanna made sure she looked at his skills and qualifications and not his age. Because she did, he ended up getting the job. “I was glad I gave him a chance and didn’t prejudge him,” she said. Soon, Joanna would need the same consideration from others.
While interning at the CTA, Joanna’s disability became severe. She had to quit and endure a series of painful surgeries including a left knee replacement and partial bone replacement above and below the knee. Her long rehabilitation process included learning to use a wheel chair.
Having a severe disability intensified rather than diminished Joanna’s already strong drive to work. As soon as she could, she began searching for a permanent job. One of the things she did was post her resume on AbilityLinks.org, a job opportunity website for persons with disabilities and inclusive employers.
She also took advantage of the Website’s live person customer support by getting in touch with Janice Duvall, an AbilityLinks Information and Referral Counselor. After reviewing her resume, Janice had a series of phone meetings with Joanna and started giving her leads and advice on how to cope with some difficult job interviews.
Joanna told Janice about her experience with distracted interviewers who didn’t look into her eyes or at her face but gazed down at her wheel chair. “I would cough to get their attention and think to myself, look at me. Look at my skills. Not the chair.”
One of the pieces of advice Janice gave Joanna was to apply to the Social Security Administration because they had a push on to hire qualified individuals with disabilities as an alternative to paying them benefits. While attending a job fair a short time latter, Joanna remembered the advice and visited the Social Security booth to speak with a recruiter.
After a series of interviews, Joanna was successfully hired as a Social Security Claims Authorizer. Her duties include interviewing Social Security recipients to confirm their identity and eligibility status, a job she has held for the past 14 months, and one that she thinks is important.
Sometimes people get upset with her because she has to ask them personal questions to prove they are who they say they are, she says. "I don’t take it personally or take it home with me, even when I get yelled at. I like helping eligible people continue receiving benefits but when that’s not the case, the money is not wasted.”
Joanna is grateful that AbilityLinks has been there as a resource for her and has some simple advice for other AbilityLinks job seekers. “Don’t give up. Be persistent.”