Working with a disability is difficult, not impossible. Many people with any number of disabilities can–and do–have jobs and flourish doing so. This series of articles will highlight individuals with disabilities who are in the workforce. Elizabeth Ewart is a dear, dear friend of mine. We’ve known each other since we were six years old, and went to summer camp together every summer. I’m so proud of her and everything she’s accomplished, and am excited for you to get to know her as well.
- Tell me a bit about yourself, what you enjoy doing in your free time, and your disability.
I’m an “extroverted introvert,” so I enjoy spending time with friends, but savor my alone time. I’m a Potterhead and a Whovian and although I’ve never played D&D I am interested in trying it. I love reading or listening to audiobooks (both fiction and nonfiction) and enjoy crafts like crocheting or diamond painting. I’m also a news and political junkie.
I have spinal muscular atrophy, or SMA. It means that I can’t walk and that my arms are very weak. It is a progressive disease, so there are some things that I can’t do now that I used to be able to do easily. Until recently, there were no approved treatments for it, so I knew that someday I would be even weaker than I am now. Luckily, I have hope now that this isn’t the case; time will tell. Even though my disability plays a big role in who I am, I am so much more than SMA. I’m a hard worker, a reliable friend, and speak sarcasm as a second language.
- What do you do for a living?
I am an analyst. Basically I read reports and synthesize them into something meaningful for the customer.
- Why did you choose that job or career?
It is just something I fell in to. My college encouraged everyone to have internship experience and because of my disability, going to Washington, D.C. for a semester was going to be too hard. They also advertised one that focused on analysis and it sounded interesting. Once I actually tried the work I was in love! It’s like trying to assemble a puzzle but not knowing what the picture is supposed to be, only having some of the pieces, and having pieces from another puzzle mixed in.
- What do you love about your job and what do you find difficult?
I love the work itself and the people. We do important things, and knowing that my work has significant meaning is an incredible experience. I also work with great people who challenge me to better myself professionally, sometimes shoving me out of my comfort zone because they see that I am capable even though I do not. Knowing that they have my back is an amazing feeling.
- What’s your favourite memory of your career so far? What are you most proud of?
This is tough… I’ve had papers read by and have briefed people high on the “food chain” but that’s only happened a few times. It’s a great reminder that my work has impact. In the day-to-day I love mentoring new people in my office. I’ve been there for three years and I love passing on the knowledge I’ve gained. Whether it is advice about how to handle a situation, word something, or reviewing their papers, I really enjoy that aspect of the job. I recently started working on a new project that is different than what I typically focus on, so I’m excited to see what the end result will be.
- Did you go to college? Where did you go?
Yes, I went to Cedarville University and studied political science. I lived on campus in an accessible room.
- What kinds of accommodations did your college give you, both in and out of class?
I lived in the accessible room that had a ceiling lift and roll in shower. In class I had extra time for tests and could type my essay tests instead of writing them. I also had classmates that helped me get things in and out of my backpack and help with getting my coat on and off. There were a few times where my wheelchair was broken or I was injured and couldn’t attend classes and my professors were very understanding with attendance and due dates.
- What was job hunting like? Do you think your disability had any affect on your job hunt?
I knew where my “dream job” was so I applied there and waited. In the meantime I volunteered where I had done my internship. Eventually that company hired me, knowing that the ultimate goal was for me to end up at the “dream” place. I eventually started there less than a year after graduation. My disability kept me from moving to DC, so it definitely narrowed my scope. In hindsight, I’m really glad I stayed local. I’m a Midwest gal through-and-through. City life may have been fun for a year or so, but the traffic and cost of living would have driven me away sooner or later.
- What accommodations does your workplace provide?
I have a smaller keyboard and an arrangement for an aide (that I’ve hired) to come in at lunch. My coworkers help with minor things like filling up my water cup, getting me a cup of coffee if I need an afternoon pick me up, or picking up things that I drop. I try to not burden any one person or interrupt their work so as to not be too disruptive.
- What are some things that make your job difficult, in relation to your disability?
The bureaucracy and the asbestos. Most of the building is surprisingly accessible given the age, but I asked that they move one door opener button and a badge scanner. By the time we got through all the red tape to approve the work, they’d found asbestos in that part of the building. So now we can’t do any construction until that is resolved. Luckily I don’t need to get through that specific door very often, and if I do I can find a work around.
- What advice would you give to someone with a disability who wants to go into your field?
Be patient but persistent. Go to school, get work experience, and keep your resume full. I found that the biggest hurdle was getting my internship location to let me volunteer before I went through the training. They admitted after the fact that they were worried about what to do with me. After the first week though they were so glad they gave me a chance. I did great work for them, and helped make a difference in the local community. After that, no one doubted that I’d be able to handle the work. Also, once you’re in the workplace, don’t be afraid to make sure that things are accessible. I eventually realized that I wouldn’t be the only one to benefit from moving the door button and badge scanner, so I started pushing harder. Also, we are adding on to our building in the next few years and I’ve been speaking up at every opportunity to advocate for accessibility beyond what is required by law. Hopefully it pays off!