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A sixth sense for discrimination

by Jenny Carlton

ONE ADAPTIVE SKI PROGRAM, ONE non-profit organization offering recreational and social opportunities for disabled people, another nonprofit offering adventure trips: All three serve disabled people. But that's not why I'm writing about them.

I'm writing about them because I was turned down for jobs at all three places -- due, I think, to my disability.

I graduated from college two years ago.. I was happy with my degree. For a time, I traveled in a foreign country -- alone there, I guess I'd forgotten the feeling and the knowledge of the word "limitations." I felt for the first time in my life that anything was possible, whether I had a physical disability or not.

It occurred to me that my disability could actually be considered a positive. I'd be good at working with other folks like me, I thought.

I looked forward to working. I knew we were in a bad economy, and I didn't expect a dream job right after college. But I thought I was prepared and ready.

I was ready, but very naďve. I didn't realize how hard it was going to be. Truth be told, I seemed to have forgotten that I had a disability -- a crucial factor that employers might find important.

Yet my voice gave it away: I have mild cerebral palsy; my voice is the most noticeable aspect of my disability.

I have learned in my short life that, in our society, having a disability equals being defective. In the employment world, that translates to being considered not qualified, or not given the benefit of the doubt.

I was raised in an able-bodied environment and was pretty much mainstreamed all my life. I never belonged to special social groups nor had any friends who were disabled. Things started to change during my college years when, for the first time, I wanted to be around and interact with others like myself. I accepted being different and almost took pride in it.

But even at that, I was still trying to prove to non-disabled people that I wasnąt different, that I was capable of achieving certain things. Having contact with others like myself, I thought, would somehow interfere with or diminish whatever I was doing. I wanted people to treat me with respect and look past my cerebral palsy.

For awhile I worked at a residential camp for visually impaired people. The clients included children and adults with a wide range of disabilities. It was a great experience for me personally and professionally.

It occurred to me that my disability could actually be considered a positive. I'd be good at working with other folks like me, I thought. I had come to the realization that working in a disability-related field was right for me -- but the realization hadn't come easily. For a long time I had fought the idea of seeking a job that would involve me with others with disabilities. Though I knew I had a disability, I didn't want to associate with disabled people. The only explanation for this was fear.

When I realized this and got beyond it, I began to look for jobs in adaptive recreation and travel.

I soon found out that these organizations do not always welcome applicants with disabilities -- even though they serve disabled people.

When I began looking for work, I decided to tell people on the phone, up front, that I have cerebral palsy, so there is no confusion. I debated this for awhile., at first figuring "it's none of their damn business" . But I came to realize there's no getting around it. So I just tell them.

One woman at the organization where I'd applied left me a message asking me to call her back. I did, and left her a message. That was the end of that: I never received a call back.

At another organization, I spoke to a woman who was obviously a little more than uncomfortable. She asked me -- twice -- if I was who I said I was. I sensed she was disappointed. I never heard from them again, either.

But with both these rejections, I reacted with calm acknowledgement. When I told my mom, I told her matter-of-factly, and she responded by giving me an "I know" sympathy smile.

I was ready to put it behind me -- I thought -- until the third incident.

I applied for an internship at an adaptive ski program at a well-known resort in Colorado, and received an immediate email response from the woman doing the hiring , telling me she received my application. In the email she mentioned setting a possible date to talk further about the position. . A week later, she sent me another email telling me to call her so we could talk.

I was excited and hopeful. I knew that they were looking for interns; I had some valuable experiences working with disabled people. I was hopeful because she seemed very interested in talking with me.

When I began talking, her enthusiasm disappeared.

But when I began talking with her, the enthusiasm I had read in her email disappeared.

As she started to ask me questions, I mentioned to her again that I have mild cerebral palsy. Her reaction was silence.

She could not provide housing for me, nor any accommodations, she said -- although the group's website indicated that they would provide both. Still, we set up an interview for the following week.

But she never called.

On the day of the interview, I tried calling her several times, but got her message machine. I couldn't leave a message because the machine said it was full. It was full for the rest of the day, too.

True, she might have had an emergency. But she never contacted me again -- nor did anyone else from her office.

This was the woman who had emailed me quite consistently -- before we had talked.

How do I really know that this woman who never called me back wasn't simply busy? I can only say, "I just do." People who are disabled have experienced discrimination and prejudice so often that we can tell when it's happened. It's like a sixth sense. Nobody can tell me otherwise.

Organizations which have no problem making money off of us seem to have a problem hiring someone who is disabled -- or at least giving us the opportunity to prove ourselves.

I had many of the qualifications they were looking for, but it didn't come in the "right" package.

I'm disappointed in the organizations' behavior, but I also blame the individuals I encountered in all three experiences. Those I came in contact with, from receptionists to secretaries to human resource staffers, could not or would not look beyond my disability. They couldnąt see past it. My uneven speech patterns got in the way of allowing them to see me as a possible candidate.

I didnąt realize these so called "professionals" would act that way. If they cannot handle working with people like me, then they really need to get out of the line of work they are in.

I also blame myself. I respected these organizations. I assumed they would act according to their mission statement. I guess I was wrong.

I still wonder if I should have demanded an explanation from the woman at the adaptive ski program. Should I have prepared to do battle and to go all out to press my case?. Yet I realized that as much satisfaction I would get from cornering her, it would not have been enough for me. It might have felt good to challenge her. But after that particular incident, all I wanted to do was to move on.

On the other hand, I desperately want to believe what goes around comes around.

Posted April 6, 2005

Jenny Carlton lives in northeastern Ohio where she is collaborating on LifeIsFull.com, a lifestyle web magazine for people with disabilities.

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