I was healthy until I was nine. Then, in the fifth grade, I was diagnosed with a rare heart condition and placed on the organ transplant waiting list for a new heart. Needless to say, I was despondent. But one day my mother walked into the ICU with a gift for me: A portable radio. Within minutes of putting on my new headphones, music became my escape. During those lonely nights in the hospital, I would lie awake lip-synching to Destiny’s Child’s Survivor:
“I’m a survivor. I’m not gon’ give up. I’m not gon’ stop. I gon’ work harder. I’m a survivor. I’m gonna make it. I will survive. Keep on survivin’.”
This music took me from being a sick and helpless little girl to an empowered woman who stared death in the face. And I did survive. I received a heart transplant and, five hours later, a kidney transplant from the same donor.
My second chance at life came with a few conditions. I cheated death only to be met with a lifetime of disabilities. Very few people expected me to succeed.
But I put on my headphones.
Today, as a 26-year-old employee and activist, I use Beyoncé’s music as motivation to make the workforce more diverse and to combat the discrimination and exclusion that so many people with physical and mental disabilities face.
Beyoncé may not be a wheelchair user, but she sure did have to overcome prejudice as a Black woman in order to become one of the world’s most powerful recording artists. Her inimitable music reminds me never to give up when met with inequality and challenges.
Our fight for disability rights is your fight, too, so I encourage all hiring managers and professionals to advocate for inclusive hiring. It’s simple. Just use these lyrics as your guide:
The reality is that a number of businesses aren’t trying hard enough to be inclusive. Even if your company has a diversity program, it may fail to address all marginalized groups, including those with disabilities. Recent research demonstrates that hiring people with disabilities not only increases diversity, but also leads to higher retention rates, increased productivity, boosts in employee morale, and reduction in the cost of training and workman’s compensation. Bottom line: When you fail to hire us, you’re hurting your business as well.
Make sure you have the right accommodations in place to make everyone feel welcome and comfortable in your workplace. One way to do this is to hire accommodations professionals. They are familiar with laws and regulations surrounding employees with disabilities, and they will teach staff the dos and don’ts (like asking inappropriate interview questions or treating accommodations as preferential when, in fact, they’re based on need).
Contrary to popular belief, many disabled people don’t wake up wishing they could walk, feeling as though they are flawed, waiting for a cure, or praying to be healed. That’s why we ask you to view us as your equals. I don’t want to hear how proud you are of me for having a job while being in a wheelchair. I don’t want to be your inspiration porn or morning motivation to thank God you’re not me, as if my condition is a curse or the result of bad karma.
Unfortunately, statistics confirm that we haven’t been given a fair chance in employment: 65 percent of employable people with disabilities are unemployed. This is not because we are unable to contribute, but rather, because our potential often goes untapped. However, those living with physical limitations can do anything. They can code, launch their own media companies, manage projects, become software engineers, free a thousand slaves and even be the leader of the free world if given the opportunity. Those with intellectual disabilities can also contribute to the workforce in big ways. They can be doctors, lawyers, influential activists, video game designers, and much more.
Some of the world’s greatest leaders had disabilities. President Franklin Roosevelt was in a wheelchair. Harriet Tubman had epilepsy. Helen Keller, Beethoven, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, George Washington, Tom Cruise, Woodrow Wilson, and Marlee Matlin all have or had disabilities. Feminist artist Frida Kahlo and civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hammer both survived polio. Hammer coined the iconic phrase, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Many of us in the disabled world are chomping at the bit to make history.
Believe it or not, it’s completely legal to pay people with disabilities less than minimum wage, according to the Department of Labor. It’s a sad, sick reality. Don’t participate in keeping people with disabilities living below the poverty line. Pay them what they’re worth and what you would pay an able-bodied employee doing the same job.
There is a common misconception that hiring employees with disabilities costs more. Though
disabled workers may require workplace accommodations, more than three-quarters of these accommodations cost less than $500, which is in line with hiring able-bodied employees. Many accommodations, such as telework, increased workplace flexibility, and other minor rearrangements come completely free of charge. It’s not a burden, and it’s not something for which anyone should be expected to apologize/
Often, it feels as if the disabled community has been alone in our fight for jobs, equal pay, and equal employment opportunities. Progressive Americans vociferously demand intersectionality when it comes to race, gender, and social class, but not so much in terms of disability rights. Stop making this mistake. Choose to be an ally. If you witness workplace discrimination, speak up and report it (you can do it anonymously if you fear retaliation). Encourage the inclusion of people with disabilities in your office’s diversity hiring programs. Most importantly, trade in your sympathy for empathy and understanding. We need your support to level the playing field so we can move from having a high unemployment rate to becoming CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.
If you ask me, disabled people are some of the strongest individuals in the world and not because “we’ve overcome so much that we inspire you.” Just like Beyoncé, absolutely nothing will stop my hustle. I’ll never stop fighting for my community and, before I die, I will give my all and change the world for people with disabilities in the process. Let’s make a mark together.
Image courtesy of Noemi Nuñez