"I would say one of the best parts of having a disability is that it can be your greatest superpower."
What advice would you give to a job seeker who was struggling in their job search?
"My number one advice to any job seeker with a disability is never give up. This phrase is a very powerful one and something I live by. I have been told that I will never go to college, I will be in a nursing home and I will never succeed in a competitive job. Well, I received my Master's degree, I own a condo across from Millennium Park and I have been employed by a fortune 500 company for the last five years.
People will always tell you that you cannot do something. My advice is to make that 'something' into your number one strength and prove them wrong. It felt very good sending my high school teacher a copy of my Graduate thesis with a little note saying that, 'I proved you wrong.' Always believe in yourself and know that the possibilities are endless. All you need is the will to succeed."
How has work changed your life?
" Work has changed my life completely… when I go home and wake up to smell the roses I know that I have a sense of purpose. This sense of purpose has really helped me live the life that I want to live in the community."
What did you find most helpful in your job search?
"I think one of the keys to a positive job search is having valuable experience even if that is not what you are currently doing. You need to chase your dreams and find ways you can engage in activities that can get you that dream job. This could mean participating in clubs or organizations, networking with other professionals and keeping in touch with the contacts that you have. For example, I have accepted an offer from the State of Wisconsin as a VR Counselor and will be moving at the end of the month. This could not be possible without my VR contacts from Hines VA, Helping Hands and the Lighthouse. I have always maintained a professional relationship with them even to this day and it paid off in a big way as these contacts could be references in the future. I would always recommend networking to anyone even if it is attending happy hour socials in your apartment building you just never know who you will meet.
I also think internships help- a company that may not have the funds to hire an individual may take them on as an intern and those contacts can last a lifetime. If I ask my good friend Eric for a reference later on down the road he will remember me because I did an internship with him."
Was there anything specific tied to your disability that created challenges during your job search? If so, how did you overcome those challenges (specific tools/strategies/accommodations/etc.)?
"One of the key challenges for me is that I am a person diagnosed with a mild case of Tourette syndrome. Since my current job involves public relations, it can be hard to explain this to employers. I believe the key to managing this situation is an understanding employer and someone who understands that these symptoms are based on a medical condition and NOT reminiscent of your personality. I think that is the key to minimizing the tics and allowing people with disabilities to be successful in the workplace. Accommodations are one thing, but you really need to understand disability and the fact that every individual is different. Since Tourette's has a psychosocial component to it- many times understanding the manifestation of the disability and encouraging people to do the best possible job without worrying too much about the words that may come out of their mouth can help increase productivity and self-confidence.
When I go out there I know that my Tourette's and low vision automatically poses as my negative, but I always try to make them into my strengths. I have never received a bad review on my presentation style and I have presented from all the way to the CEO of the Fortune 500 Company where I work to Senators and Governors. I was reading an interesting book the other day written by one of my favorite wrestlers, AJ Lee, a woman diagnosed with bipolar. In the novel she discusses how bipolar disorder became her number one strength and it is 'her superhero'. I would say one of the best parts of having a disability is that it can be your greatest superpower. I think our disability can be our superpower and it is all about overcoming obstacles. "
What do you think are the most significant challenges for job seekers who have disabilities?
"I think it is the understanding of inclusion and diversity. Many times I feel that employers can read from a textbook on what the ADA is, but they do not understand its purpose connected to meaningful employment. Disability is the beauty of diversity in this country and I believe inclusion and diversity is not just about finding the right employee, but understanding the employee's story and empowering them to be successful. The employment of persons with disabilities is still not at the rate it should be as 70 percent of folks are still not employed. We need to start promoting inclusion and diversity not because it is the law, but rather the right thing to do.
I believe VR agencies should start thinking outside of the box and promote employment and inclusion/diversity to Managed Care companies etc. A wheel chair user who wants to be an actuary should be encouraged to do so and employers should be encouraged to think outside of the box. I still remember when I was an undergrad at UIC, I applied to be a research assistant in the Cognitive Psychology lab and the hiring manager told me 'I am not sure what you could do based on your disability.' That semester I received a 100 percent in that instructor's course and he went up to me after class asking me if I was still interested in his lab. My response was, 'I am not sure what I could do based on my disability.' Had this instructor been educated about disability- the response would have been different, I am sure."
What would you tell an employer who was considering diversifying their workforce through a disability specific recruitment and outreach effort?
"I would tell the employer to 'lead on' and not only hire and retain persons with disabilities, but find ways to make them successful. Many times employees with disabilities need coaching or training to succeed on the job and my advice is not to give up on them. Hiring people with disabilities is a good first start, but I think you need to also have an understanding of disability that can help accommodate their needs.
Once you have some understanding of an individual's disability, I think it can lead to greater productivity for the employee and organization. It is understandable that in many cases employees may not want to disclose their disability. However, in the case that they are open about it, I feel they should be given the option to educate others and raise awareness."
Think back to when you were in school; did your teacher's or support team do anything specific that inspired your vocational goals?
"During open house at my school, Ms. C., the head of the department told parents that, 'this program is for individuals with disabilities and people who the system believes cannot be successful.' However, her number one goal was to make 50% of the students in the program 'college bound'. She believed in each of us. Fifteen years later, 25/40 students enrolled in the program obtained their undergraduate degrees and hold positions within the government, hospitals and school districts. It is a strong testament to the values of the IEP team and the instructors involved in the program.
Every year when I am asked to give a guest lecture at the High School, my key message to instructors and students alike is 'never give up' and always believe in yourself and your students. My second message to instructors is 'embrace the right to fail' because it can lead to success later on down the road."
What did your parents/caregiver do to help you succeed?
"When anyone asks me 'how have you been able to succeed at such a young age with a disability?' I always say that the number one reason is my parents. My parents are my super power and without them I do not know what I will be able to accomplish. When something fails, my parents help me devise a different game plan. During high school my parents never missed an IEP team. They were always actively involved in any activities I would engage in and always treated me as an individual not a disabled person. My parents are still involved in my life in so many ways- from driving me to work related events, counseling me when I get frustrated and helping me explore different career options. My parents have driven from Wisconsin to Washington to help me in my career goals.
When there were others who put me down as a kid, my parents encouraged me to rise above the hate and prove them wrong. I can recall one example in particular where my dad was sitting in a IEP meeting and my guidance counselor asked him 'what are Rak's plans after High School?', my dad responded by saying that 'I want him to go to a four year university'. While the instructors laughed and said 'Seriously?' my dad responded with two words I will never forget- 'Watch him'. At that time there was 1/100 chances I can be successful in college, but my dad believed and so did I.
A few years later, I received acceptance letters from the University of IL at Chicago, the Illinois Institute of Technology and St Xavier University. The kid who was the wild card proved them wrong and it was all because someone believed in me. My dad and mom continue to remain a strong support system and they 'complete me'."