Rethinking Equality: National Disability Employment Awareness Month—Part 2

By Benetech, posted on

The summer when I was 14, I got fired from my first volunteer job. I worked at a local vet/pet groomer, helping bathe and care for the animals. I worked hard, got along well with my coworkers and conducted myself as professionally as any middle schooler could. Why, then, did I get fired? It was because over time, the company managers learned that I was blind. Without knowing me or seeing how I performed, they decided that it wasn’t safe for a blind person to work at their company and asked me not to come back.

Of course, I was devastated. Nevertheless, there wasn’t much that a 14-year-old volunteer could do in that situation. The only thing I could do was to be more determined than ever to compete in the world of future employment alongside workers without disabilities.

Today that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m proud to say that I have worked for Benetech’s Global Literacy Program for 6 years and that other Benetech staff members have full confidence in my abilities. I wear many hats in my job. I primarily focus my time on Bookshare customer support, which means that I’m on the phone much of the day, answering people’s questions about how to sign up for Bookshare or download their books. When I’m not on the phone, I beta test new Benetech software and web features to ensure they are accessible to everyone. I also proofread new books before they are added to the Bookshare collection and made available to our members. Lastly, I do Bookshare member outreach by representing Benetech at various state and national conferences.

While I love my job, I know that nothing about how I work is particularly amazing. We have other individuals on our team who do Bookshare support, proofreading, or conference travel. What people find fascinating about my work is that I do it effectively, even though I’ve been legally blind since birth due to several eye conditions, including congenital glaucoma.

Since October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), I was asked to write a blog post about my experiences working for Benetech. Before I began writing, I considered the official theme for this year’s NDEAM, “Because We Are Equal to the Task.” To me, this statement implies that we’re not expected to be equal to the task and, therefore, that if we are doing equal work, then we’re special and must share our inspiring stories with the world. But, frankly, while I like to think I’m phenomenal for many reasons, I’m sure that accomplishing the same tasks that sighted people accomplish isn’t one of those reasons.

I don’t wish to be anyone’s inspiring story just because I happen to be blind and successfully perform regular life tasks. If I do so, I’d feel I negate the message of equality that I try to send out to the world. If I’m equal–which I know I am–then why do I need to highlight my everyday work as a shining example of just how equal I am? And if I highlight my work as remarkably equal, won’t I perpetuate misconceptions about how hard it is to do equal work as a disabled person? Moreover, will I be promoting the type of mindset that caused an uninformed manager in Michigan to fire a 14-year-old girl just because she couldn’t use her eyes to do her work?

It’s true that the techniques I use to perform tasks as a blind worker are different from those that my sighted colleagues use, but they are not better or worse techniques. I have software on my computer called JAWS for Windows that reads the computer screen to me. I have a regular iPhone 4S that has a built in screen reader called VoiceOver that enables me to do my email and web browsing when I’m on the go. I also use an electronic Braille display to take notes on my iPhone during meetings or to review notes when I’m giving presentations. I travel around offices, hotels and airports independently, using a long white cane.

Although my techniques are different, they alone don’t make my work miraculous. To me, what makes my work at Benetech great is that I genuinely care about Bookshare, our members and Benetech’s commitment to global literacy and to using technology for social good. Yet, this level of passion and commitment isn’t unique to me, for many of my nondisabled coworkers share it as well.

I believe I’m good at my job and I’d imagine that my sighted coworkers would agree with my self-assessment. But, as I’ve already said, that fact alone is not what makes my job amazing. The thing that makes my employment experience at Benetech so fulfilling is that I’m part of a vibrant, dedicated and brilliant team consisting of both disabled and nondisabled folks who truly believe in the work we do and who strive each day to make the world a little better than it was the day before. And, in the end, I think that’s what all of us—disabled or not—want from our jobs.

Read Part 1 in our National Disability Employment Awareness Month blog series: “Life in the Deaf-Blind Lane.”