Florida Self- Advocacy Central is pleased to once again celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month by featuring people with disabilities who are out in the workforce.
Name: Shari Wilson M. Ed., JD candidate
Hometown: Tampa, Florida
Employer: University of South Florida; previously at Self-Reliance as an independent living coordinator and youth educator for 10 years.
Position: Americans with Disabilities Act Coordinator
Length of time at current job: 9 months
Wilson has a bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences and a master’s degree in education with a specialty in curriculum and instruction from the University of South Florida. Originally setting her sights on medical school and studying pediatrics, Shari found her passion in an unexpected field where she is flourishing today. She taught science in middle and high school before transitioning to the nonprofit sector. She is also currently in law school at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Riverview where she will graduate in April. She hopes to use her law degree to assist individuals with disabilities in fighting for their rights.
What is the best advice or encouragement you’d give to a fellow self-advocate about accessing or keeping employment?
First, you are entitled to employment. You have every right like anyone else to obtain, maintain, and keep employment. Don’t think that a disability, whatever it is, is a reason for you not to have a job. Try to create communication between not only your employer but employees. People are willing to help you if you just open your mouth. A closed mouth doesn’t get fed right? People sometimes don’t know how to help even though they want to, so communicate to people, and definitely your employer. In order for the individual to maintain the employment, the employer needs to know how they can best help you. If you need some sort of accommodation, that needs to be communicated. You have every right to be at the table -- just keep an open line of communication.
What advice would you give employers about hiring a person with a disability?
I would explain the benefits of hiring someone with a disability. If anything, productivity increases and there’s definitely a benefit or reward to hiring someone with a disability. Explain to employers what they are going to get out of hiring this individual -- educate employers so that their perception of disability is better informed as far as what an individual can do. I think that applies to everyone involved in helping someone obtain employment.
What’s the most significant employment-related challenge you face as a person with a disability?
I don’t find a challenge because I feel like I’ve established certain ground rules and had that conversation with the employers beforehand; even during the interview, the conversation was had early on. It’s important to develop that relationship early on and feel comfortable enough with the employer to let them know what your needs are, what your accommodations are going to be. Sometimes things structurally are out of sorts but they (my employers) have been very accommodating and they were able to bring in the right desk, which is the right height, and move things around in the office so that I can reach certain things.
Sometimes people see someone with a disability and feel like the individual isn't capable of doing the job. I think that means that the person with the disability has to work harder to prove their worth or prove they are capable of doing their specific job or task. I haven’t experienced that here, but I have experienced that in the past. The biggest challenge is the perception that we aren’t capable of doing things. Just because we have a disability doesn’t mean we’re starting behind the eight ball, if that makes any sense.
How should we be advocating for better employment opportunities and practices in Florida?
It's all about education in order to get more competitive employment. We need to let the employers know we can do more than entry level positions. Training and educational workshops need to be given to the more competitive businesses. Also, education to the employment offices and specialists is needed. Even agencies that help people with disabilities find jobs should be better informed that there’s more out there than lower-level entry kinds of jobs. We need to educate agencies across the board. Someone once said, “each one, teach one.” You need to start high but also reach those at the grassroots level.
Which agency was the most helpful to you in accessing and maintaining employment?
I’m not going to isolate anyone but I will say that agencies that are helpful in general for individuals, and agencies I've used in the past to help my clients and myself, include Vocational Rehab (VR) first and foremost, Florida Alliance for Assistive Services and Technology (FAAST), and Self-Reliance, CIL, although I am sure I am leaving others out.
In your opinion, how does employing a person with a disability help their quality of life?
An individual with a disability who's employed has increased self-worth and self-esteem. It gives them responsibility and something to look forward to. They are learning life skills of time management and are building their social skills by learning how to dress for a job and how to communicate. They are also learning how to budget money and contribute to their household, their life, and overall independence. You also have the feeling of knowing you accomplished something which means so much.
FSACentral would like to thank Shari for her time and thoughtful answers.