Editor’s Note: We all have challenges that we have to face in life, but for people with disabilities—visible or invisible—it can be a constant burden to prove to potential employers and coworkers alike that they are just as hard-working and capable as their able-bodied peers. (The current unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 10.4 percent, almost twice as high as the rate for people without disabilities, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.) Every day this week, you’ll meet incredible women whose disabilities haven’t defined them—in fact, their resilience and strength have propelled them past Triathlon finish lines, onto The Huffington Post, and even into the Chicago Mayor’s office. What we hope will come of this? Not only more acceptance and understanding in the workplace—but also for you to know that you can do and be anything you want. And whatever you fear might hold you back? It doesn’t make you weak—you’re stronger for having gone through it.
Name: Liz Davis
City: Sterling, Illinois
Job: Web catalogue administrator
Ask most people what their hobbies are, and they’ll tell you cooking, or maybe hiking, or reading a good book. All noble ways to spend your time, until you hear Liz Davis answer the question. “I did two Triathlons this summer! And I have another race coming up that’s local for once, and I’m hoping this small 5K will really raise awareness about racing wheelchairs—I’m excited for it,” she told us. Davis, 25, was born with caudal regression syndrome, a congenital disorder that causes abnormal development of the spine, leaving her in a wheelchair. Yet, she’s more active than most able-bodied people on this planet—not only competing in Triathlons, but over the weekend, she headed to Maine to try out for the USA Women’s Sled Hockey Team. (Wish her luck by tweeting her, @handstandliz!) And as a web graphic designer, she recently participated in a hackathon, put on by Motorola and ADA25 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act. (See her in action here!) But enough of us talking—we’ll hand the mic over to the real star here:
Levo: You have a kick-ass job in tech. Tell us about it.
Liz Davis: I work on promotional products for a company called Halo Branded Solutions. We mainly work with large, corporate clients—ACS, for example. We do all of their branding as well as the kits they send out for events. When they have large programs, they get a web store so their clients can order from it. I build those web stores, maintain those web stores, and troubleshoot them if needed.
When did you first realize that you wanted to go into web design?
LD: I think I was in high school. I knew that I was good at art, and I wanted to be completely independent even though I am disabled. I considered studying history and archeology in college, but I ultimately went with graphic design because I had much more of a knack for it, and I knew it would help me achieve my goal of being independent, because all I needed was a computer. And I was good with computers!
What was it like to apply for this first job out of college?
LD: I was born with my disability, I use a wheelchair, but I’ve always had the attitude, “I can figure out how to do it, even if it’s not apparent at first.” That’s just how I was brought up and how I’ve always lived. But I’ll admit, when I was graduating, I was a bit nervous. I thought, What manager is going to want to take someone who is disabled? What if they think it’s a lot of work? What if they think I need special accommodations? You know, they don’t really prepare you for all of those questions in college. If you go through the State Department’s rehabilitation program, they will help you find a job, but it’s not a super robust system. They throw you leads, and you have to pursue them on your own. Sometimes they will offer incentives to employers—when I applied to Halo, my case worker told the company that they would pay for my training, which encompassed the first six weeks.
Then, when I got my interview, I thought back to this one time in college, during a portfolio class. Our professor, who I know well, told us, “You know, if you have a disability, you don’t have to reveal it in an interview.” And I remember kind of chuckling (I have a sense of humor about my disability), and I raised my hand to the teacher and just said, “What if….they can tell?” And he just burst out laughing, and was like, “I don’t know, Liz, I don’t know.” I find that sometimes, at least for me, it’s better to be straight-forward. At least that’s what I did with Halo. During the interview, I basically said, “This is who I am. I will do my absolute best. I can do this job. There might be times when I have to miss work, but this is something that I can do my best at and you won’t regret hiring me.”
That is such a good speech!
LD: As long as you either put humor behind it or put honesty behind it, I find that that really helps. I remember the first couple months I was still kind of worried. In the back of my mind I’d always wonder things like, Is my boss going to be OK with me leaving early? One day I was sick and just had to be like, “I need to leave now, I’ll make up the time later but I have to go.” And my boss said something back to me that I hadn’t thought of before. He told me, “Everybody misses work. Even the healthiest person on the planet misses work because of kids, or because they have other things going on. You’re not the only one who has to miss work.” The funny thing is, I never thought of that! I thought that I was going to be the only one out. No, everybody misses work. That’s how life is.
It sounds like you have a very smart, human boss. What’s your advice for people with disabilities who confront judgement or discrimination in the workplace?
LD: I’ve never had a straight up confrontation with anyone, but I’ve seen some looks or attitudes like, Oh, she’s not here sometimes…why are we being so flexible? And it’s really a communication issue. I’m not going to tell my boss every single thing that’s wrong with me. It’s about building trust to where, if I say I have to go, I really have to go. I’m not just saying it so I can go home and chill out. The problem is if you get a manager who doesn’t trust you, but that’s not exclusively a disability problem. Both able-bodied and disabled people can experience managers who aren’t trusting, and you know, if it were me, I would probably just quit. I would just say, You aren’t worth my time.
What progress do you think needs to be made in terms of treating those with a disability equally in the workplace?
LD: I think we need to normalize the fact that disabled people can work. Many people assume having a disability means you can’t work and just sit at home, but with technology and everything around us constantly improving, the attitudes are changing. I personally think adaptive sports are going to change that attitude. I play sled hockey, and in the last year or so that sport has become much more popular because of the Special Olympics. I’ve talked to many people at work who say they love watching the Paralympics more than the Olympics because of the stories. And I’ve had a lot of people tell me it’s changed their attitude about what people can and can’t do. Sports is something everyone can get behind, and it’s helped change the general attitudes toward people with disabilities because most of those people are in wheelchairs, or maybe they have cerebral palsy, there’s of course a whole range of disabilities, but they’re all competing and doing high-level athletics just like regular Olympians. Within the workplace, all we can do is create an environment of acceptance, which again, comes with communication and trust.
What would your advice be for college seniors with disabilities who are nervous about applying for jobs?
LD: Well, hopefully by now your State rehabilitation office has contacted you, because if you have an IEP, which is a special education program in high school, usually most states will transition you into a post-high school program in college to help you find a job. If you don’t have that yet, you should look into it. Also, Access Living centers usually help people find residency that’s accessible and can also point you in the direction of job searches. In Chicago, for example, Access Living does a variety of things like that. But I would also say, you’re not as weird as you think you are. If you show that you want to do a certain job, that you’re motivated, that you can do it, you can get that job.
What accomplishment are you most proud of so far?
LD: I’m always proud of my hockey. I’m even trying out for the USA Women’s Sled Hockey Team! And that I was able to get a job in my field a lot quicker than a lot of my classmates. People always talk about how you may not necessarily get a job in your desired field right away, but I was able to get a nice job out of college.
Who are your mentors, and what have they taught you?
LD: Karen Tamley, the Commissioner for the Chicago Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. She is the first person I met who has the same disability as I have, and I met her when I was 23. She showed me how much is out there for people with disabilities—all these sports programs, wheelchair dancing, there’s everything you can think of! And for me, coming from a small town of 15,000 people, it just blew my mind. She introduced me to foot hockey through the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association. The program director kept bugging me to play hockey for a year, but it was a two-hour drive one way. I finally started going last October, and so now during the season I drive up there every Sunday.
What do you see for yourself in the future? What are your goals?
LD: I want to start my own web design business. I’ve kind of started it on and off—I do freelance work on top of my job. And a big goal of mine is to be completely self-sufficient. I am now but I still live at home because it’s convenient; my job is five minutes away. Maybe more schooling too, because I really love education. There are so many choices it’s hard to decide!
Photos Courtesy of Liz Davis