Handling Physical Disabilities in College & the Workplace

By: Whitney

College students, especially those leaving home for the first time, experience a whole lot of new things—new school, new friends, new interests—and many firsts. Like many students, I felt uncertainty, anxiety, and excitement about these things. One area of uncertainty for me was how to handle my physical disability as an adult. I had additional questions about jobs such as: How physically demanding they would be? Would employers be hesitant to hire me or underestimate me? After some time, I decided I needed to acknowledge my Cerebral Palsy (CP) related uncertainties and find ways to address them. I can’t speak for everyone with a physical disability nor everyone with CP. How I want to address the impact of CP in my adult life is a process I am still figuring out and I wanted to share my journey with you all up to this point.

Overview of Cerebral Palsy
Cerebral Palsy is really an umbrella term describing a group of conditions that affect balance, movement of the body, and muscle coordination resulting from damage to the brain (specifically motor areas). It is not genetic and is said to be not progressive (United Cerebral Palsy, 2010 as cited in Whidden, 2013). However, as the body changes throughout life, I have also noticed changes in my experiences with CP. Additionally, because the brain is exceedingly complex, and people are unique, everyone with CP experiences it differently, yet some of our experiences may be similar.

I have had CP since birth, a mild form that makes my leg muscles tighter than average. I have a touchy sense of balance and needed the support of a walker to get around until partway through elementary school when I had a surgery to improve my muscle tone. In middle school, I started having muscle spasms in my legs that started to make things more difficult. These get worse with high—levels of stress, nervousness, or if I need to stand still for long periods of time.

Four Areas I’ve Worked On

Self-advocation
In my journey to learn how to handle concerns related to my disability in the workplace, one of the best tools I have is self-advocation. The best way to learn how to self-advocate is to do it. Sometimes I wouldn’t go after opportunities that appealed to me because I was uncertain about if I would be physically able to handle them. I have learned that uncertainty is part of it. For me, self-advocation means question asking. When I feel uncertainty, I pinpoint the specific reasons I feel uncertain and find out what information I can related to those issues by asking questions. After getting more information, I can then evaluate an opportunity more accurately. If it still interests me after that, then I go for it, asking for accommodations if necessary. The National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability has useful tips about self-advocacy.

Self-advocation, while empowering, can also be tiring. One important thing to note is that being a self-advocate doesn’t mean handling things alone. It’s helpful to have people around to help too! Which brings me to my next point.

Handling physical disabilities in the college and the workplace

Community
In most situations, I am the only person I know who has CP. Sometimes it’s easy to feel like the I’m only one dealing with these concerns. Finding a community of trustworthy people, who are dealing with similar things has been helpful for me, and can be found in many ways. On campus, getting involved with Disability Resources is one way. I have found community by joining Facebook groups specifically related to CP. People of many ages and many experiences with CP are part of these groups and I have gotten to read posts about some of their experiences in life and in the workplace and some CP related questions they have.

In relation to the workforce, community can also mean seeking out stories of individuals with any disability in the workforce and learning about what jobs they are doing and how they handled entry into and daily activities of the workforce. This summer I got to hear a little bit about an elementary school teacher who was also blind and her approach to her job. To hear of other individuals living with disabilities doing work in a human services job (a field related closely to my interests) was encouraging. It reminded me that there are multiple great ways to do a job and be effective.

Accommodation
Figuring out reasonable accommodations and having conversations about them is an area I’m still trying to figure out. Frankly, sometimes I don’t know what I’m going to need, especially before I’ve started the work. Sometimes I know that something presents a problem for me but am not sure how to solve it. Sometimes I am hesitant at asking for accommodation because I’m afraid of being underestimated. I have recently discovered JAN (the Job Accommodation Network). Which lists possible workplace accommodations for many different disabilities (physical and otherwise) as well as questions employers could ask to help pinpoint what accommodations may be helpful (I think they are questions I could ask myself as well). One of the suggestions for CP was a sit stand stool a lightweight foldable stool I could carry around with me for when I need to sit. Something I hadn’t considered using in the workplace before but could be extremely helpful for me.

Self-disclosure
For some people, the disability they live with is readily apparent to others and for some, it’s not. I’m in a grey area where people can see something different about me but don’t necessarily know straight away about the disability. Self-disclosure then becomes a question. If I want to self-disclose and when to do it. My self-disclosure choices have changed throughout the years. I have always remained very open about disability and my life but choose to self-disclose significantly less often these days than I did when I was in middle school and high school. In college, I have re-evaluated when I want to self-disclose and chose not to tell people about it unless they respectfully asked. In job situations, I have also only disclosed when I came across something I thought I would need accommodation for. I have sometimes disclosed in applications, during interviews, on the job, and for some positions, I haven’t disclosed at all.

Current Thoughts
Everyone has so many unique skills and perspectives to offer in life, including the workforce. My experiences with CP have given me many opportunities for creative problem solving, finding a new way to accomplish tasks, and practice adaptability. Disability is one aspect of my life and making decisions about how I want to approach this part of my life has given me more confidence. These decisions are not set in stone and can always be revisited as my needs and ideas change.

For all my uncertainties about having these conversations within the workplace or during college, all the people I have ever talked to have been respectful and willing to help me.

Of Possible Interest:

Read Whitney’s other posts

Photo Source: Unsplash | Felix Plakolb

Mental Health Conditions and Workplace Accommodations

By: Alissa (Disability Specialist & Guest Author)

Editor’s Note: Today’s post continues the year-long collaboration we are doing with the Disability Resources office on the UMD Campus.

Today on the blog, we are going to talk about three more common mental health conditions and what might be some reasonable workplace accommodations for each of those. Did you know that approximately 61.5 million Americans, one in four adults, experience a mental health impairment in a given year (National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2013)? One in seventeen individuals lives with a serious mental health impairment, such as schizophrenia, major depression, or bipolar disorder (National Institute of Mental Health, 2013). We see many different kinds of mental health conditions working in disability and higher education, but a majority of the conditions we primarily work with would be students with anxiety, depression, and/or different mood disorders.

There are a number of different functional areas that these conditions can impact such as concentration, attendance, focus, organization, memory, sleep, stress, handling emotions, fatigue, and coworker interactions just to name a few. The next few pieces of information are found on the Job Accommodation Network website and include many of those different areas that people with mental health conditions could be impacted in and what accommodations would help to reduce those barriers if need be.

Mental Health Reasonable Accommodation Ideas:

Concentration:

  • Reduce distractions in the work area:
    • Provide space enclosures, sound absorption panels, or a private office
    • Allow for use of white noise or environmental sound machines
    • Allow the employee to listen to soothing music
    • Plan for uninterrupted work time
  • Increase natural lighting or provide full spectrum lighting
  • Allow flexible work environment:
    • Flexible scheduling
    • Modified break schedule
    • Work from home/Flexi-place
  • Divide large assignments into smaller tasks and goals

Memory:

  • Provide written as well as verbal instructions
  • Provide written checklists
  • Use a wall calendar
  • Use a daily or weekly task list
  • Provide verbal prompts and reminders
  • Use electronic organizers, handheld devices, and /or apps
  • Provide a mentor for daily guidance
  • Provide reminders of important deadlines via e-mails, memos, and weekly supervision

Organization:

  • Use daily, weekly, and monthly task lists
  • Use calendar with automated reminders to highlight meetings and deadlines
  • Use electronic organizers, mobile devices, and/or apps
  • Divide large assignments into smaller tasks and goals

Time Management / Completing Tasks:

  • Make daily TO-DO lists and check items off as they are completed
  • Provide organizational tools such as electronic schedulers, recorders, software organizers, calendars, watches, and apps
  • Divide large assignments into smaller tasks and steps
  • Schedule weekly meetings with supervisor, manager, or mentor to determine if goals are being met

Stress / Emotions:

  • Encourage use of stress management techniques to deal with frustration
  • Allow the presence of a support animal
  • Allow telephone calls during work hours to doctors and others for needed support
  • Use a mentor or supervisor to alert the employee when his/her behavior is becoming unprofessional or inappropriate
  • Assign a supervisor, manager, or mentor to answer the employee’s questions
  • Restructure job to include only essential functions during times of stress
  • Refer to counseling, employee assistance programs (EAP)
  • Provide backup coverage for when the employee needs to take breaks
  • Allow flexible work environment

Panic Attacks:

  • Allow the employee to take a break and go to a place where s/he feels comfortable to use relaxation techniques or contact a support person
  • Identify and remove environmental triggers such as particular smells or noises
  • Allow the presence of a support animal

Sleep Disturbances:

  • Allow for a flexible start time
  • Combine regularly scheduled short breaks into one longer break
  • Provide a place for the employee to sleep during break
  • Allow the employee to work one consistent schedule
  • Provide a device such as a Doze Alert or other alarms to keep the employee alert
  • Increase natural lighting or provide full spectrum lighting

Fatigue:

  • Allow flexible work environment:
  • Provide a goal-oriented workload
  • Reduce or eliminate physical exertion and workplace stress
  • Implement ergonomic workstation design

Attendance:

  • Allow flexible work environment:
  • Provide straight shift or permanent schedule
  • Allow the employee to make up the time missed
  • Modify attendance policy
    • Example: count one occurrence for all PTSD-related absences

Coworker Interaction:

  • Encourage the employee to walk away from frustrating situations and confrontations
  • Allow the employee to work from home part-time
  • Provide partitions or closed doors to allow for privacy
  • Provide disability awareness training to coworkers and supervisors

All in all, it is good rule of thumb to remember that people with mental health conditions or disabilities are just as capable of completing  tasks and doing an amazing job at whatever they may be working on – as there sometimes is stigma around these conditions due to lack of understanding, judgment, and being uneducated on the topic of mental health. If you are curious about learning more there are many great resources available to you on the NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) website and Active Minds website about mental health conditions. Education, awareness, and understanding are key. We must not be afraid to talk openly about these conditions and encourage others to share their awesome stories. We all have something to say, so don’t be afraid to just simply listen.

Also read: #BulldogOnTheJob: Bri (she talks about experience with depression and anxiety and the impact those illnesses have on her professional life)

Read our other Disabilites in the Workplace posts.