Gaining Employment when Disabled
By Steven C. Ibbotson, PhD
Having been born with a congenital heart defect combined with a spinal scoliosis, it was obvious early in life the way I earned a living would have to be work with limited physical expectations. Careers in the trades, trucking, even working part-time in a grocery store would simply not fit my physical body. Overall, that was fine for me as I was fortunate to have a sharp mind and afforded every opportunity to obtain an excellent education, through high school, university, and then into graduate studies. I am both proud and grateful to have completed a PhD in Educational Leadership.
However, just over two years ago when I was laid off from my administrative position at a K-12 school, I realized once again that my limited mobility meant limited employability. As I began looking in the newspapers for employment opportunities, the jobs ranged from assistant at the hardware store/lumber yard to farm labour to skilled tradespersons. Similarly online job openings were primarily either far from home or required physical work. It’s not that any of these jobs were “beneath” me, but it would have been pointless to apply since I was not physically capable of doing them. While I’m all for employers being expected to make accommodations for those with physical disabilities, you cannot really expect a company to hire a tradesperson who cannot lift more than 10 kg.
Initial discouragement led to increasing frustration. Perhaps even more frustrating was seeing the wages being paid for such physical labor. Positions for which I was reasonably qualified and able to apply for paid 75% (at best) of the physically demanding jobs.
I did gain one interview for a position that fit my career skills and passions and felt it went well, but the organization chose another candidate. (Note: I recently heard him speaking at a meeting and there was no shame in “losing” to him. ) Six months ago, I was privileged to get a phone call inviting me to work for a local real estate agent as his administrative assistant. Yes, a secretary with a PhD! However, it has been an opportunity to work (necessary for any man), provide for my family, and has no physical expectations beyond my body’s minimal capabilities. I have also learned to apply my skills to a new area, and even learned some new skills. In addition, I’ve picked up some sessional teaching for the local college I was employed with from 1996-2007, though certainly not in area of teaching preference. Yet the two jobs fit together reasonably nicely in a schedule and keep me connected to the educational environment.
Another factor in the employment search related to my limited mobility is the consideration of moving to another location. While on the one hand, I want to be open to any career opportunity that arises fitting my skills and abilities, the truth is the extra considerations needed for someone with physical limitations has to be considered when relocating for employment. Currently, I can drive my power wheelchair, even on cold winters days, to both my part-time positions. The distance from home to work is less than 10 minutes. Thus, our family does not require a second vehicle.
Similarly, other social networks and resources are available that would not be there – or at least would take time to learn and develop – to assist in the day-to-day living assistance required for a person with a disability, especially a mobility limitation.
Nonetheless, I continue to search for a full-time position, especially one that pays slightly more than the two part-time jobs together and would be permanent (ie year round) employment. By the same token, I am not willing to sacrifice the established support structures in place for myself and my family simply so I can have a “good job.” Research continues to show that “I spent too much time at work” is the biggest regret of people, especially men, at the end of life. So, I will count my physical limitations as a fortunate reminder to keep focused on the truly important things in life and – even with mobility limitations – see where my career aspirations go.