By Tim Doran
Why did I start Bachelor’s in Disability (BiD)? The simple answer was that I thought I could start an inspirational speaking career. However, the answer became something more than that down the line so let’s start there.
I have a form of Cerebral Palsy (CP). When you have CP, every task can take up to four times the amount of effort. Because of my CP as well as a slight emotional disability*, I don’t handle stress too well. The only meaningful job I could come up with was motivational speaking. I thought BiD would give me the platform to eventually do it; and it still could.
My original plan was to produce a film about disability after college. I did a survey as research to come up with stories to use in the film. That provided my first Aha! moment: Disability is as diverse as any other group of people. There is no common thread. I had people who completed my survey with Spina Bifida as well as folks that had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
As I have morphed BiD from a film to a non-profit, it has shifted focus many times. However, it has educated me on why BiD is needed (some reasons of which I only processed while writing this article). Most people with disabilities I’ve talked to have multiple disabilities, and each has their own unique challenges and needs.
My emotional disability affects me tons more than my physical disability. STRESS… nobody really deals with it well. It would not be stressful if we did yet it is especially difficult for me. I never outgrew the tantrum stage.
Anything that ‘excites’ me can be extreme. When I get ‘set off’, it's like my common sense gets turned off and I can't access it. There’s almost no warning. In the last few years I have started to identify times where the circumstances are ‘perfect’ for for tantrums, which allows me to take the steps to prevent one from happening.
The real problem with adolescent and adult tantrums is that things get violent very quickly. I’ve flipped tables, broken many things (including more monitors then I care to admit), thrown punches (not remembering that with CP I can’t really punch well) and have made threats at my folks who can easily overpower me. A tantrum like this would end with my dad immobilizing me until I stopped. For any potential future employers reading this, these only happen at home now.
At the age of 30 now, I seem to finally be getting them reined in; that’s been the real disabling factor in my life. Stressful situations come up in everyday life. Most of us haven’t dealt with adult tantrums, however, disabilities get magnified under pressure. And a common bullet I’ve seen on job descriptions is “Must be able to work under pressure.” If that is one of the requirements for a job posting, then you know that it’s in the front of the employer’s head when they interview someone.
Disabilities like my tantrums are what are known as hidden or invisible disabilities. As I’ve worked with my team at BiD, I’ve seen how these hidden disabilities affect us. Since we are a disability awareness organization, we’ve had the benefit of trusting each other enough to tell each other why we aren’t replying for days. In this world we live in, there’s no trust or benefit of the doubt in the workplace. The employer isn't just seeing someone who has autism. They are thinking “this person could freak out if the fire alarm goes off” because that is the stereotypical view of autistic people that he has pictured in his head.
The truth is that some Autistic people do have trouble with loud noises. Some people who use mobility aids such as walkers or wheelchairs may also have mental illnesses as well. However, that is not a fair assumption. I walk with a walker and also have a slight speech issue. I also went to a public school and have a Bachelor's Degree in Film and Animation. You can’t judge a book by its cover.
So what’s the real purpose behind BiD?
Because of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA), employers can’t ask disability related questions at job interviews. Don’t get me wrong, that is good in a lot of cases, especially where invisible disabilities are concerned or if the job interviewee doesn’t want to disclose their disability. Unfortunately, I personally think that it has done more harm than good. Employers have become scared of disabilities. If employers can’t ask a person with no arms how they use a computer, they aren't going to go through the entire hiring process without worrying about the accommodations that they’ll need to provide. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) makes it illegal to discriminate against those with disabilities including the workforce. However, there isn't a great way to enforce that.
I just saw the movie First of Class (2008). It is based on the true story of Brad Cohen, who was born with Tourette syndrome. According to the Mayo Clinic, Tourette syndrome is “a disorder that involves repetitive movements or unwanted sounds (tics) that can't be easily controlled.” For Brad, Tourette's made him yell out noises a lot. Brad wanted to be a teacher, and was very open to talking to school administrators about it, despite knowing that by law, they could not ask him about it. He still was shown the door several times until he found a school that would hire him. However, he found that talking about it right off the bat was best.
Many of us are very afraid of being up front about our disabilities, especially with people who we want to impress and/or don’t know. Plus, a stressful situation, like an interview, can heighten the symptoms or side effects of our disabilities. If a principal wasn't able to talk to Brad about how he’d get kids to respect him, how is the principal to know that Brad is capable of that?
That’s where BiD comes in. I want to create a place where employers can ask the questions they have about applicants’ disabilities in a non-judgmental way. My vision would be to have a forum where employers could get answers to their questions anonymously through a huge network of people with disabilities. And in turn, the person answering could also have their identity be kept anonymous if they wished. The goal of this forum would be to minimize the fear factor employers have towards those with disabilities.
This may be a multi-year goal. However, my ultimate dream is to see people with disabilities hired for higher level jobs. There are tons of us with disabilities who have a lot to add. It’s time for the United States to tap into the knowledge that we can offer.