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No one said it would be easy, but life can be so much richer when you focus on the “half-full” part of the barrel, always striving to be an optimist, even when you just want to cry.
But when you’re a recent graduate searching for a job that will accommodate your wheelchair and your service dog, the half-empty part is difficult not to notice.
When I was eight months old, I almost died from viral meningitis, the kind that can kill you in just 24 hours. My tiny body lay in intensive care, with powerful medications being administered through an IV right into my brain. I would have a seizure eight to 10 times a day, with alarms sounding that sent staff running to help restart my breathing.
Then, I had a massive seizure that left me clinically dead for almost 22 minutes. Doctors were finally able to get a heartbeat, but the “experts” said that massive brain damage had occurred, and that the odds of intellectual capacity varied somewhere between vegetable and Grade 6. But the experts were wrong.
With hard work (it look me five years to learn how to hold a pencil), the support of family, teachers, friends and the community at large, I finished public school. And then (to the amazement of everyone) high school. With the wind in my sails, I decided to tackle my life-long dream – in 2011, after eight years of perseverance, guts and determination, I earned my Bachelor of Business Administration degree at Capilano University, electric wheelchair, service dog and all.
Nothing was simple. I had to take HandyDart transportation to and from school every day. Classroom access was always a challenge, exam-taking meant arranging for typing versus handwriting, and other students often complained about preferential treatment. Then there was my service dog’s snoring in class, which often created a stir.
In spite of this, and the fact that micro- and macroeconomics almost brought me to my knees, I was successful.
Crossing the stage in my wheelchair to get my degree was one of the proudest moments of my life (and even Hudson, my service dog, was given a medal to put on his collar.)
I thought I was well-equipped for the working world, with an incredibly strong work ethic and positive attitude, plus years of experience tutoring other special-needs students at Capilano University and volunteering with Destination ImagiNation.
I was fortunate at first, landing a nine-month contract in an accessible office after graduation through an old acquaintance from school. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. My responsibilities included administrative work and assisting with the human-resources practices of the organization.
I started every day with a smile, and did everything humanly possible to show that a person with a disability could be a major contributor.
One of my first lessons in the working world was the importance and value of a positive attitude. I took on every task, whether it was making coffee for a meeting or doing something complex, with the same zeal and energy.
Most people don’t realize that, for a person in my circumstances, a “real” job is an affirmation that I belong, that I can contribute and that I am normal.
When my contract ended, I was told by several of the leadership team that I had dramatically changed the mood and culture of the office through my example.
Regrettably, after that I came to realize the real challenge that lay ahead.
All recent graduates today know how hard it is to get a good full-time job. A tough economy, lack of experience, an oversupply of candidates and cautious employers all make for a difficult road ahead.
You can imagine, when I arrive with a myriad of other applicants, the reactions I get when I ask: Is the office wheelchair-accessible? Is the building ramped? Is there a door opener to get into the building? Will your handicapped washroom accommodate an electric wheelchair? Is anyone allergic to dogs?
I recently applied for a Disability Services Coordinator position at one of our community colleges. If you can believe it, they weren’t ready to accommodate my special needs as part of the interview process, which spoke volumes about their diversity readiness.
Now, I get up every day as if I was going to work and spend three to four hours combing the Web, reading the newspaper for job opportunities, writing introductory letters, sending out resumes, making phone calls to see if I can be interviewed, all the while trying to maintain a positive attitude.
But to be honest, I do get incredibly frustrated. I continually ask myself whether or not to mention in these letters that I am disabled, because I know that stating that fact will most likely push me to the bottom of the list.
Employers need to remember that, assuming the job responsibilities are in sync with their abilities, a person with a disability will be an outstanding contributor to their organization, for we have much to prove and we will work our butts off to achieve success.
I have had many people tell me I would be an outstanding new hire, but I must face the reality that my disability will have a big impact on my getting a job.
So, new graduates – don’t complain. You don’t realize just how fortunate you really are.
Rebekah Garriock lives in Vancouver