Harris: People With Disabilities Need More Access Points to Employment
FSACentral is proud to once again celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month by featuring people with disabilities who are out in the workforce.
Whitney Harris has been executive director of FAAST for two months. Previously, she held the position of comptroller at the agency and has also worked for the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
Name: Whitney Harris
Hometown: Originally from Gulf Breeze, currently living in Tallahassee
Employer: FAAST (Florida Alliance for Assistive Services and Technology)
Position: Executive Director
Length of time at current job: Two months as Executive Director; formerly comptroller for three years
What is the best advice or encouragement you’d give to a fellow self-advocate about accessing or keeping employment?
Do the work, do it well, and if you can, ask for more. Hard work does not go unnoticed.
What advice would you give employers about hiring a person with a disability?
Be like Nike and just do it! The hardest part about hiring people who have disabilities is making sure they are in your applicant pool. Ensure that they are by making sure where you post your job openings is accessible. You can also go directly to the agencies and organizations that specialize in helping people who have disabilities find jobs, like Vocational Rehabilitation, CareerSource, and Centers for Independent Living.
What’s the most significant employment-related challenge you face as a person with a disability?
I don’t face this challenge anymore, but when I first entered the workforce after college, I questioned if I was good enough. I worked as hard as my peers, got excellent work reviews but was not gaining the additional responsibilities that my peers had earned. Time and time again, I was getting passed over for opportunities that my non-disabled friends were getting. As the only person at my office who had a disability, I believed it had to be because I was disabled that I was not being offered additional tasks. Once I left that organization, it took a while before I believed in my abilities and learned that I should have spoken up for myself instead of accepting my work quality wasn’t good enough.
How should we be advocating for better employment opportunities and practices in Florida?
We need to stop viewing disability as the reason people are not getting or keeping jobs and start viewing the reason as an access problem. I believe in universal design, meaning that an environment's design and composition are accessible to all people. Think about the movie "Zootopia." All the animals had access to public transportation and worked in all kinds of employment types. Why? Because they had access. If employers are only having people who don't have disabilities apply for their jobs, they need to be questioning why. Why are our offices so filled with people who don't have disabilities? People who have disabilities are looking for jobs, so why aren't they working in your office? We need to be asking ourselves these questions so we can better understand and correct access barriers.
Which agency was the most helpful to you in accessing and maintaining employment?
A lot of organizations have touched my life and improved my employment journey. If I had to pick just one, I would say Vocational Rehabilitation (VR). VR connected me with the Florida Youth Leadership Forum, The Able Trust, and The Florida Youth Council. Each of these groups helped expand my leadership skills and my professional network, which helped me find new employment opportunities and build on my professional skillset.
In your opinion, how does employing a person with a disability help their quality of life?
The same way it does when employing a person who doesn't have a disability! Disability isn't a defining characteristic that means we aren't worthy of the same quality of life as people who don't have disabilities. We want to earn income and contribute to society through meaningful employment, just like people who do not currently identify as disabled do.
FSACentral would like to thank Harris for her time and thoughtful answers.