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Career Options

by Meg Evans

Young people entering the workforce often have to sort through a lot of career suggestions. Autistics and others with developmental disabilities may be advised to start a small business, on the assumption that it would be easier than finding a conventional job. Rather than commit to hiring a new employee who lacks experience, a company may be more willing to give tasks to an independent contractor. I have occasionally seen the word “charity” used in this context.

Of course, neither hiring an employee nor doing business with a contractor is a matter of charity. Both are straightforward business transactions—an exchange of money for services. Hiring an employee requires more investment, though, and generally is seen as a more substantial relationship than contracting out work. Managers have to be convinced of a job applicant’s long-term value to the company before they’ll hire the applicant. Historically, that calculation often has been influenced by society’s attitudes about the relative value of certain kinds of people.

I am old enough to remember when some folks thought it was an act of charity to hire a woman or a person of color. When I was a student looking for work experience to put on my resume 30 years ago, I applied for an internship at a radio station. Upon arriving bright and early for the interview, I found myself greeted by a tirade to the effect that women had no business trying to become radio personalities. Nobody wanted to hear a woman’s voice when they turned on the radio, the manager declared. Why, the very idea was absurd.

When I told him that I wasn’t interested in being a deejay and just wanted to learn about advertising and the radio business (which was true), he became much friendlier and gave me some work composing ads. So I ended up with a useful entry on my resume after all; but it’s fair to say that although I learned a few things about advertising, the experience I gained with regard to workplace bias had more impact.

Although it would be easy to dismiss such attitudes as nothing more than irrational prejudices, they often have reflected social reality with some degree of accuracy. Back when people considered it normal to hear only male voices on the radio, they might have been uncomfortable listening to a female announcer. A radio station might indeed have lost audience share and advertising revenue if it hired a woman—or a man who spoke with a noticeable ethnic accent, or who had a foreign name and wasn’t willing to change it, or who sounded like he might be gay.

Until civil rights boycotts and equal employment opportunity laws changed the equation, managers in all industries routinely rejected applicants based on what kinds of people they believed the company’s customers didn’t want to see or hear. For those who couldn’t get on a payroll because of prejudice, self-employment in a service business—for example, working as a cleaning lady—was a common way to make a living.

This history shows why some young people with developmental disabilities have been advised to start their own business or to work for companies that specialize in “charitably” employing their kind. The subtext of this advice is that employers never would hire them for conventional jobs on an equal-opportunity basis. After all, customers surely would be uncomfortable dealing with employees whose voices sounded unusual, or who made less eye contact than might be expected, or who had nervous tics such as hand-flapping. To expect that such people could just be hired like anyone else would be absurd—wouldn’t it?

When we consider how much the landscape of our society has changed, almost a half-century after the passage of the federal Civil Rights Act, we can see that cultural expectations are much more fluid and easily shifted than they might appear. It’s true that people are likely to be uncomfortable when they have to get used to something new, such as diversity in the workforce. But they do get used to it, and quickly. Nowadays, a woman on the radio is just another announcer. Companies that wouldn’t have hired an openly gay applicant a generation ago are providing health insurance and other benefits to the partners of their gay employees. Bilingual workers often are hired because of their language skills, rather than being rejected for speaking with an accent. The United States now has an African-American president, as well as a female Secretary of State who was a serious contender for the presidency herself.

More progress still needs to be made toward ending disability discrimination, of course; but we’re on the right track there, as well. The 2008 amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act, along with their implementing regulations in 2011, greatly expanded legal protections against discrimination in the workplace. Federal agencies are actively seeking to hire workers with disabilities, and some private-sector employers have developed affirmative action plans.

As with other groups of people, the simple fact of integration—that is, being seen and heard in the workplace on a regular basis—leads to social acceptance. It’s human nature to define normality in terms of whatever we see regularly. When we interact with people who have various disabilities as we go about our everyday business, we come to look upon disability as a natural part of the human experience, and the artificial divide between “the normal” and “the disabled” vanishes.

For those who genuinely want to be self-employed because of a passion for the work, it’s a perfectly valid choice. But if you are a young person just getting started in the workforce, please don’t let anyone convince you that there are no other options but self-employment and “charitable” segregated employment. It’s not true that you could never be hired for a regular job. Yes, prejudice and discrimination still exist; but they are not the only reality. Even if you’ve had a few job interviews that went poorly, it doesn’t mean all employers have the same outdated attitudes, and it certainly doesn’t mean you are less capable or worthy than others. Consider it a learning experience and move on.

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