The Minnesota Council on Disability continues to celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). Poppy Sundquist, an advocate from Saint Paul, shares a perspective on disability and employment. Poppy writes about finding on-the-job adaptations that work, dealing with transportation challenges, and being your own advocate.
Guest blog post follows. Post lightly edited.
There is a time when people begin to figure out what they are passionate about what can lead to a career they love. Simple right? Not always for those with a disability. When forging the path to employment, it can be more of a challenge. There is the balance of what is possible and what we want for ourselves. What I share here is not everyone’s perspective nor is it everyone’s experience regarding employment and being a disabled person. But what rings true is the value in hiring individuals with disabilities. And truly seeing real representation in the workforce.
I work as a Teaching Assistant for Saint Paul Public Schools. This is my 23rd year, and I’m very proud to say that. Hopefully my math is accurate. As you may have heard or seen on the news, education is a challenge for various reasons. Now factor in having a physical disability like mine: spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy. Which means all four major parts of my body are affected by cerebral palsy to some degree. It affects motor skills, balance, and muscle movement. It can greatly differ from person to person. Intelligence and cognition are not affected by this disability necessarily. That is a general assumption when meeting someone with cerebral palsy that still goes on today.
For myself, I chose to consider what am actually physically capable of, including moving, lifting, tools use, energy use, and energy depletion. The right side of my body has the most physical challenges, with varying degrees of grip, strength, general movement in upper and lower body, and mobility.
If I am not able to use the traditional tool or do something in the traditional manner, I need to figure out what adaption or what tools are available for making it possible. For example, depending on the situation I don’t always manually cut something out but I would use a cutting board. Another example I cannot take credit for is an amazing one. A colleague that I worked with, who was our music teacher at one of the schools I worked at in my career, Mary had multiple sclerosis; and she had an amazing support team of educators, family, and friends that would help her move her materials when things needed to be switched in or out.
Finding tools and adaptions that work for you is very helpful. I find it helpful to ask questions if you have an occupational therapist and a physical therapist at all points of your life. I have begun this process from the very beginning of my life. Because I was curious about what was available and curious to find out what will work. Some things were successful, some things were epic fails. But it gave me information about what ways work best for me. And I’m so grateful for each and every one of them.
Knowing what collaborative supports you need at your job can be a great help. For example, a job coach, specific start times because of health needs and/or personal care, and support moving heavy items.
On a daily basis for my job, I rely on a para transit service, Metro Mobility, a division of Public Transportation. For those who do not know, you have to physically qualify under an array of disabilities and apply for an application through verification of your doctor(s). Then be classified and approved.
Now that the sidewalks are increasingly poor and have not been repaired, in many cases for quite some time, I rely on a specific pick-up time to be at work with an appointment time to ensure that I will not be late. Which requires me to get up extremely early in the morning – earlier than most people ever want to get up. It’s before 6 AM. For safety reasons, I will not give exact specifics. Luckily, I am very much an early person! I get to work an hour and a half before the official start time of my day. This is required of me to be very organized and at the ready if they come a little bit early or late. I generally set my ride a bit earlier than needed to help with not feeling stressed or worried about being late.
There is another thing that I have to factor in, and it will vary from person to person who has cerebral palsy. On average, statistically, it can take 3 to 5 times longer for a person to do something versus someone of standard health. Yes, there are things they do at “regular standard speed,” but generally things do take me a little bit more time.
For me physical fitness has always been a passion besides education. Along with disability justice and so much more. Being as strong and as flexible has helped me be very capable at doing my job and making it easier for me to do it. This option may not be applicable for everyone, and it will also look differently for everyone and how they do it for themselves.
As all of us know who live here in Minnesota, weather can vary from day to day. Winter creates barriers due to money budget, time constraint for plowing, and knowledge about accessibility. It does impact my ability to get to where I am going as quickly as possible. If there’s a time that I choose or need to walk in the snow because the sidewalk was not either plowed properly or shoveled properly, I might entirely have to take a route that is absolutely out of my way causing lateness. This also can be impacted by using the para transit service I mentioned, Metro Mobility, as well. If a location, business or personal, is not plowed or shoveled properly, the person who uses the service has to be sent back to their home.
I have chosen to use public transportation and the para transit transportation option because it financially suits me best. I financially cannot afford having a car and everything that goes into the responsibility of having a car. I have a small network of amazing friends who have cars, and I use their support as needed.
Before I close, I would like to say you are your best advocate. So, build those skills and knowledge and how to advocate for yourself. Take the time to know what you’re good at, what you’re not good at. Know what your rights are as a person, a disabled person, in whatever particular place you live. Advocate for your needs during your job interview. Advocate for your needs in your workplace. Unfortunately, sometimes it has to be on a daily basis. Make the uncomfortable comfortable or the unknown known.
What I would like employers to do and know is: know your responsibilities in the ADA law and responsibilities of employers. Take the initiative and find out what your employee may need and ask them directly and respectfully. Because having an equitable and accessible space of employment creates actual representation in the workforce. We need more of that because there is not enough representation in my field or where it is important.