Editor’s note: This was originally published on the Disability.gov blog.
If you asked me about my future career plans when I was younger, I would have told you I wanted to be a sociology professor. This was my goal because as a person with a disability, albeit a disability that may be hard to detect, I often felt like an outsider and found it easier to analyze social dynamics rather than actually participate in social life. Thus, I majored in the study of human interaction. Following college, I applied to graduate schools to continue my career pursuits, submitting a personal statement that described how I had overcome a visual impairment and become a better person because of it. However, since I graduated in December and had to wait to begin graduate school the next fall, I followed my best friend to Washington, D.C., to intern for our hometown Congressman in the interim.
Even though my Capitol Hill intern coordinator didn’t know what to do with me (I struggled to complete visual-centric tasks such as preparing binders for members of Congress), I still felt like Cinderella walking through the marble hallways of the House of Representatives amidst such well-known, powerful people. I enjoyed it so much that after returning home to Texas and beginning my graduate program, I often dreamed of returning to the nation’s capital and assuming my destiny as a person who would change the world, making it a more equitable place for people with disabilities and other marginalized groups. Upon completion of my master’s degree, I took off to D.C. for a second internship in my Congressman’s office and began my search for a “real job.”
One day during my first week back in D.C., I went to a restaurant after work with my friends and had the opportunity to talk with a staffer who worked in a different member’s office. He said he would be leaving his job soon and that I should apply for it, so I did. A month later, I started the entry-level Hill staffer job, quickly learning that I would either sink or swim. I essentially had to wear three hats: performing constituent services duties like flag and tour requests, managing and responding to all of the congressman’s mail, and supervising student interns. These were no easy tasks; the pay was low and the hours were long. But, I developed several transferable skill sets during the course of my time on the Hill, and felt ready to transition to a more complex role, hopefully in the field of disability advocacy.
I began applying for jobs at research firms, hospitals, non-profits, federal agencies … anywhere I thought I could use my graduate education in social science research and my tenure on the Hill. Most of those applications were never acknowledged. Some human resources departments sent me an automated message explaining that I was “found to be not among the most highly-qualified.” And, the one interview I was able to get started with the interviewer stating that I was not actually being considered for the position for which I had applied. The months I spent applying for dozens and dozens of jobs began to make me feel discouraged.
Then one day, a friend forwarded me an email about an effort the federal government was undertaking to hire talented people with disabilities. There was a contact person listed at the bottom of the email, so I reached out to her and included my resume. As a person with a disability herself, the woman I contacted showed me a great deal of compassion and connected me with many influential people in the disability community. The people I met began floating my resume throughout their workplaces, and within a few months, I was invited for an interview at my target agency, the Office of Disability Employment Policy at the U.S. Department of Labor. I was overjoyed and encouraged, and soon after was offered a job developing policy to eradicate barriers to employment for people with disabilities. Now THAT is a custom-made job. It is my hope that young people with disabilities who are, or soon will be, job searching will encounter fewer barriers to employment as a result of the work ODEP is doing every day.
As I am writing this guest blog, I have been at ODEP for three and a half months and am honored to have the opportunity to work to ensure better employment outcomes for my community. I would not be here today if it weren’t for a series of people who partnered with me in my job search, and I am so grateful to everyone who helped me along the way. I was so impressed by the solidarity demonstrated by the disability community in D.C. with regard to helping one another achieve employment goals. There is strength in numbers, and if we apply that principle to all areas of our lives, there is no limit to what we can achieve as a community.
Lindsey Teel is a policy adviser in the Office of Disability Employment Policy at the U.S. Department of Labor.