Challenged But Not Disabled

It's tough breaking into the job market when you're physically challenged. However, with planning and persistence you can overcome barriers to your success.

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Since graduating from william paterson University a year ago, Howard Jenkins, a 26-year old communications major from Newark, New Jersey, hasn’t had much luck landing a job that will place him on the career track of his dreams. In fact, he hasn’t been able to get any decent full-time job so far.

Although his job search hasn’t been much different from that of thousand of recent graduates, Jenkins believes that his disability — a mild case of cerebral palsy — may be blocking his way. Cerebral palsy, which affects some half a million Americans, is a motion disorder caused by brain damage that often results in poor muscle control or coordination, muscle spasms, speech problems and other complications.

“When people [employers] find out that I have a disability, they turn away,” says Jenkins. “They try to be nice about it and say that they’re not hiring right now, but the message I get is that [they feel] it would be a waste of time hiring me.”

This thinking set in last March, when Jenkins ventured into a temp agency and filled out an application for employment. According to him, a worker gawked at his crutch and said, “We’ll see what we can do, but I don’t think that we can find anything for you.” Jenkins was so certain his handicap was a sticking point that he never called the agency back. Nor did the agency call him. Although he continues looking for a decent entry-level position in his field, he can’t shake the feeling the he’s not really wanted.

Jenkins’ experience is familiar to thousands of African Americans with disabilities who feel they are barred from good jobs for reasons beyond their control. The most recent Census numbers tend to support this belief. According to 1994-95 U.S. Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation data (the latest numbers available), there are approximately 4.2 million disabled blacks in America, only 28.3% of whom are employed full time. The white disabled population numbers more than 22 million, and nearly half of that group is employed full time. Our search for subjects to profile for this story — conducted with the help of organizations such as the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities in Washington, D.C. — yielded relatively few black people with disabilities employed in professional jobs within the private sector.

Monica Robinson, 40, president and founder of African Americans with Disabilities Inc., based in Pittsburgh, is certain that racism plays a major role in keeping African Americans with disabilities locked out of the job market or relegated to marginal positions.

A paraplegic, she says she was discouraged by her state’s Office of Vocational Rehabilitation from seeking a four-year degree in communications/journalism, on the grounds that her two-year associate’s degree in court stenography was “all she needed to be employable.”

“If you’re disabled, this office will pay for the education you need to find a job. Although, somehow for us, they often assume the minimum is good enough,” says Robinson. “And they tend to steer us

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