We’ve talked about the application form and the interview, and now it’s time to bring up public service agencies whose job it is to help people with disabilities find jobs. I’ll share my own experience with Washington’s Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, and I invite you to tell your own stories about using agencies in your state (or wherever you are in the world).
I’m in the environmental engineering service industry, where there is a limited number of firms I can apply to, and many “pipelines” exist where people migrate from one company to another. For example, when I was at Parametrix, a disproportionate number of employees came from Hart-Crowser. You get jobs based on who you know, and if one person goes to another company, they’re likely to recruit and recommend their friends.
There is also a thing called an “opportunity hire,” which consists mostly of semi-retired people wanting to work part-time to continue sharing their expertise. Having recently helped build a 175-foot Ferris wheel, I figured I’d be snapped up as an opportunity hire very quickly. Opportunity hires write their own tickets—they are in the best position to negotiate hours, working conditions, and benefits, because they are free of the trappings of a conventional contract. They don’t need the job, but the company needs their expertise and name-dropping cred. I decided to pass myself off as an opportunity hire. You don’t use those words, of course, but it’s easy to imply.
I queried every company I knew, and discovered several I didn’t. Nobody was interested. My existing contract work wasn’t enough to pay the bills, so I was looking for a second gig, either inside or outside my industry. My physiatrist (long-term trauma care specialist) recommended I try the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation.
DVR shares a building with Department of Social and Health Services. You sign in and wait with people waiting for food, child care and housing assistance. These agencies all have the Beige Lobby of the Damned in common. Clients wait in shameful silence punctuated by crying babies and bored, fractious children. At a few minutes past the hour, the DVR clients were herded into a classroom for orientation.
I saw a few walking aids in the room, no wheelchairs and no one with evident developmental disability. One woman had a prosthetic arm. Most of the people looked like me—people with invisible disabilities. I hope they had better luck with the agency than I did. Our orientation consisted mainly of a lecture on how we would not have success with the agency unless we really wanted a job. They didn’t explain what they meant by that, and I realized later that it meant we had to be willing to accept whatever minimum-wage, zero-mental-challenge hell they proposed we try.
My next visit to DVR was for my intake interview and testing. I explained my issues to my counselor, who didn’t seem able to wrap her head around what chronic pain meant (can it be that uncommon?). I explained my arm and spinal issues, and how I would need to change activities at least every 2 hours or my pain would become too severe to respond to medication and I’d have to go home. After our interview, she had me take an interest test called the WOWI—World of Work Inventory. This assesses your job interests so they can place you in a job you’ll enjoy. The WOWI was not adapted to disability, so I wasn’t sure how to answer questions like “Would you rather hang draperies or plant vegetables?” Worst of all, the test required over 500 mouse clicks, which is hell on my reattached hand. I almost gave up an hour in, but I was more than half done so I switched hands and stuck it out. I went to the office on my way out and said my hand was going to be useless for days now, and I didn’t think it was a good use of my time, given that I’m 54 years old, I’ve already had several careers, and I didn’t need a test to tell me what I’m going to enjoy doing or be good at.
When I returned for my assessment, the counselor had only one job idea for me—cashier at the Dollar Store. Listening in on other clients, I got the idea that they were trying to place everyone there that week. I asked her how that fit with any of my physical abilities or my experience. Exasperated, she asked what I expected from the agency. I said I expected to be guided to a variety of jobs that could be done from home. She said they didn’t do that; their objective was to get disabled people out of their homes. I said, “I thought your objective was to help disabled people make a living.” I asked if they could write a cover letter for my queries of companies in my field, saying that I had a disability for EEO purposes (that’s a big deal in my field, firms must demonstrate hiring of women, minorities, and people with disabilities to secure government contracts), and they were working with me for job placement. I figured any indication that the state was watching might keep my queries from being ignored. DVR does not do that either.
My counselor asked me to interview people working in the field I want to work in and fill out standard forms about what they do in a day. I told her I already know what they do, because it’s what I do, and I know they’re way too busy to talk to me. They work by the billable hour, and indulging my request was not billable, which meant I would be asking my colleagues to work pro bono. Doing this would hurt my standing in my field; it would reduce me to the level of a high school student researching careers, and I refused. The counselor closed my file for “non-cooperation.”
What it comes down to is, DVR is not equipped to help professionals or people with chronic pain issues. They may be of use to people with “conventional” disabilities who have not worked before and want to try it, or people who need state funding for adapted equipment, like speech-to-type software. That is about it. I felt patronized and victim-blamed. Next week I’ll talk about something they could have told me, but did not.
Have any of you tried to use a government agency to get work? How did it go for you? Tell us about it.