I’ll begin with a reminder that this article is written specifically from the perspective of an individual with an obvious physical disability, who self-identifies by nature and choice as an individual with a disability. Not everyone who has a disability is readily identifiable as a disabled person, for myriad different reasons. For example, their disability may not be physical, visually recognizable, or they may choose to obscure or deny the conditions and precepts of their disability. This is their choice, and they are free to make it. However, an argument will be made in this writing that it is personally and professionally detrimental to either attempt to or successfully hide a disability from an employer or colleague.
Introductions and Interviews:
These days, an individual seeking to join a new professional environment, as an employer or an employee, most likely introduces him or herself digitally via e-mail or social media. I use a power wheelchair, and I had to consider whether to prominently feature this element of my daily life with my publicly projected professional persona. I’ve realized through experience that not only would it be pointless to try to hide the fact that I have a physical disability that is accommodated through the use of assistive technology, it would harm my career prospects, as well as my ability to connect with people in general.
Self-confidence, comfortable familiarity, and direct authority are the foundation of perceived and confirmed professional quality. If it came as a surprise to someone with a job offer that I am a person with a disability, all that would enter their mind as motivation for this obscurity is that I was afraid, anxious, or ashamed of who I am and doubtful about what I could accomplish and offer as a professional prospect. This is especially true in my case, because as soon as I roll through a doorway, I’m recognized and identified as a person with a disability. This is why I chose a picture of myself seated in my wheelchair as the image heading my LinkedIn profile.
It is a point of personal pride to identify myself as a person with a disability and as a member of the disability community, but it’s also a measure of professional pragmatism; if I tried to hide who I was, to keep my disability a secret, what would that say within the professional realm about my trustworthiness, my preparedness to present and conduct myself as someone who is eager to be who they are, and excited about where they could be headed? Employers aren’t fans of liabilities, and if I’m someone who can’t readily express who I am and convince other people of that confidence and potential, then I likely represent a professional liability.
Demonstrating Authority as a Professional with a Disability:
For most of my life, wherever I went and whomever I was with, I was the only person within that context who obviously had a disability. Within my experience, this hasn’t changed and likely won’t change as I continue to progress as a professional. It can be a tense, fraught, frustrating, and obnoxious experience to be a minority of one within a professional environment. In many meetings, I’ve been the first person that a professional peer has met and interacted with that they were aware of as being a person with a disability. At its weakest, yet still endlessly irritating, this devolves into a series of gratingly unfunny wheelchair jokes: “Don’t break the speed limit in the hallway!” “You’re a really good driver! Can you parallel park with that thing?” When I was younger, I’d force very unconvincing laughter and change the conversation at the speed of light. These days, I costume my contempt with a half-smile, and say nothing. The stretching awkward silence that yawns out in response to these “jokes” is usually an effective response. Make no mistake, even these mild examples are insulting, insensitive, patronizing, and possibly damaging to my reputation and the reputation of the organization I’m actively representing, but I’ve learned to pick my battles.
How do I prove I belong somewhere? I prove I belong by being there. Presence is an underrated factor of authority, and if I put myself in a context where I can showcase my strengths directly, that gives me a persuasive, professional advantage. How do I prove to someone that I deserve to do what I’m being paid to do? If an individual (not an environment or a culture) presents the challenge to my professional authority, I let the person doubting my ability and my quality judge what I can do based on the content of my production, especially if they personally supervise my work. Righteous outrage and speechifying have their place and purpose, but oftentimes the most effective consolidator of professional authority is the presentation of consistently clean, factual, punctual, and excellent work, that, through its undeniable self-evidence, is the best justification.
How do I recognize when my place and power are being unfairly challenged, and what can be done about it? There have been times when neither my outlook and methods, nor my proven production and results have been enough to demonstrate my authority as a professional with a disability. I’ve faced discrimination in the workplace because I’m a person with a disability, and there’s no perfect resolution to that eventuality. In the short term, whatever the professional prospect was or could have been goes away, and in the long-term, I despaired over the progressiveness of society in general, as well as my specific ability to realize and control my place and purpose within a professional environment. As I mentioned earlier in this piece, however, doubt and anxiety will never precede success in any situation.
Legal recourse is certainly a viable option, and depending on the situation, can be simply appropriate or the only necessary response to discrimination, but it bears in mind what pursuing that option can cost. I speak not only in terms of heavy impacts absorbed by a bank account, but the social and cultural consequences inherent in pursuing litigation in the face of discrimination. For example, the person or organization perpetrating the suspected discrimination could spread the word within that particular job sector, or within the professional community in general. This can lead to the totalitarian sacrifice of reputation, connection, access, and earning ability. In essence, then, I can take a company to court, argue my case, confirm a conviction in my favor, and end up with nothing but empty pockets and no options for my trouble. Discrimination is real, prevalent, and needs to be exposed, accounted for, and hopefully eliminated, but pursuing that course of action demands open eyes, a resolved mind, and full recognition of the resultant personal and professional consequences.
Socially navigating a professional environment as a person with a disability is a tricky situation. Succeeding within this context demands self-acceptance, honesty, motivation, preparation, pride, and pragmatism. A prevailing professional with a disability recognizes the value of compromise, but not at the expense of basic respect and earned authority; there will be challenges from people who have never dealt personally or professionally with a person who has a disability, and it is possible to answer these challenges to prove that a professional with a disability belongs in the workplace, can produce quality work, and will fight for their rights if they must.