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: Olivia Babis
Hometown: Lakeland, Florida
Employer: Disability Rights Florida
Position: Public Policy Analyst
Length of time at current job: 8 months
What is the best advice or encouragement you’d give to a fellow self-advocate about accessing or keeping employment?
I’ve met other people with disabilities that are hesitant or shy about talking about job accommodations. I don’t think people should be scared to voice their needs. That’s how you advocate for yourself and the people who are coming behind you. There's a misconception that accommodations are costly, hard to do, or difficult. The more the employee is able to sit down with the supervisor and say "this is what I need, this is how we can work together to solve those problems and make those accommodations," the more employers are going to be willing to hire people with disabilities. Employers are going to see it’s not a big issue. Employees are voicing their needs and employers don’t need to play guessing games to figure out what accommodations are needed. Employers are seeing it’s not really difficult to make these accommodations.
Advocating for these needs helps you to be productive at work. Employees aren’t going to fall behind on tasks or miss work because they don’t have the accommodations they need. Accommodations help us to be better employees and they help educate employers on the needs of the disability community. I would advise self-advocates not to be hesitant about asking for the accommodations you need.
(Second), it can be very discouraging searching for employment and not getting hired. Networking is very important, as well as volunteering if someone is new to the workforce, to build those relationships. That can oftentimes lead to employment because people can see how capable people with disabilities are and the ideas they have, the creativity they apply to other life skills and to assisting other people in some capacity.
What advice would you give employers about hiring a person with a disability?
There have been numerous studies dating back to World War I regarding injured veterans that come back from war and weren’t really given job opportunities. They’ve studied their job performance versus someone we refer to as able-bodied, or that doesn’t have a disability. They’ve always found people with disabilities tend to apply more creativity to their positions and tend to be more efficient workers. I think a lot of that has to do with the nature of disability and adapting to the world. Unfortunately, and this is negative for the disability community, but a positive for the work environment, a lot of people with disabilities that have been job searching for years and finally gain access to employment want to make sure they hold on to that job. As a result, they don’t take as much time off and are willing to work more overtime when it’s offered. There’s that feeling that you have something to prove. The disability community has a lot to contribute, and studies have shown we can work in a broader environment.
A lot of employers assume accommodations are expensive. Most of the time they aren’t. Employers receive tax breaks for some of them. Some accommodations are just a matter of rearranging furniture in the office, or little tasks that don’t cost anything. I think there are a lot of misconceptions about the capabilities of the disability community, the accommodations we need, and the cost associated with them.
What’s the most significant employment-related challenge you face as a person with a disability?
My disability is visible so people can look at me and tell immediately that I have a disability. People tend to pre-judge my abilities so, when I’ve been job searching, I’ll have a phone interview. I’ll make it into the next round of candidates where you’re in the top five and then you have to go in for an in-person interview. There’s always that look, anybody with a visible disability knows that look. It’s very hard to describe what that look looks like but, there’s a face people make, and you can tell I’m not going to get called back for this, or they’re going to say they found a candidate that’s a better fit.Therefore, the biggest challenge for me is to get through the interview process and get the position to prove I’m capable of doing the job. It’s always been the biggest challenge. I don’t really need a lot of accommodations at work, but people assume I do.
How should we be advocating for better employment opportunities and practices in Florida?
Most programs that assist people with disabilities in finding employment tend to focus on minimum wage positions. They’re not really advocating for career advancement for people with disabilities. I have a degree, I have work experience and they look at me and say "well, there’s nothing we can do for you (but) if you want to work (in retail) for minimum wage, we can help you out." That is underestimating our community. We have people with years of work experience, or that have education, degrees, and professional certificates and they’re not looking to us as those types of workers.
I think there’s a lack of making use of discovery programs, where they’re not just assessing people on their ability, their math skills or how well they write. I think that rules out a lot of employment opportunities for people. They aren’t finding out what their interests are, what other skills they might have, what creativity they might have. Most people with disabilities tend to be very creative . . . we’re always looking for creative solutions around us and they’re (agencies) not thinking of our ability to apply that to the work force. I think that’s a huge underestimation of people with disabilities. There are people with intellectual disabilities that are very creative. There are a lot of career opportunities that are being ruled out for this community.
Which agency was the most helpful to you in accessing and maintaining employment?
Most of the time agencies haven’t been particularly helpful for me. However, Voc Rehab has been helpful. I received a modification for my car when I moved . . . because of jobs, making sure that my living environment was accessible and accommodating for me. There have been a couple of times they assisted after I’ve gotten employment if there needed to be an accommodation for work. As far as accessing employment, they’ve never been particularly helpful. It’s something I’ve always had to do on my own. As far as maintaining employment, they’ve provided assistive technology, and those things have been helpful.
In your opinion, how does employing a person with a disability help their quality of life?
We always hear people say -- and it’s one of my least-favorite stereotypes of the disability community, my biggest pet peeve ever -- "it’s not about the money." It is about the money. People with disabilities have bills too. We don’t get to live rent free, we have to keep our lights on, and feed ourselves like everyone else. We want to be productive, we want to contribute to society, we want to pay taxes. We don’t want to live with our families until we’re 40 or 50 years old. We want our independence and ability to care for ourselves. People don’t like being poor, they want to be able to go out and do the things they want to do.
From a money-making aspect working allows people to expand their lives a little. You can get out more, go shopping, go see movies, participate in the community more when you have the funds to do so. It provides a sense of purpose in doing something. Most people want to be doing something active in their lives and employment provides that opportunity. They also like earning a paycheck. That’s important for the disability community as well, feeling like they’re valued, contributing members of society.
FSACentral would like to thank Olivia for her time and thoughtful answers.