Dear Job Seeker:
If you are reading this note, chances are you are a motivated and thoughtful person with a disability. I know that you are because you have taken an important first step to look for a job despite this world of new and unusual realities, with a pandemic, layoffs, new virtual workplaces and unprecedented uncertainty. You have joined the 70 percent of working-age people with disabilities who know they want to work and bring their strengths and skills to the right employers. Moreover, you have made the conscious decision to gather the right resources and do it. That takes incredible strength and planning, disability or not. You should feel good about that.
This guide is being published on the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a landmark civil rights legislation. Still, there are many gaps and hurdles that job seekers with disabilities must overcome. Thus, many of these pages will equip you with the practical tools for your search. Before we get to these tools though, there are a few steps that will prepare you for success in your journey.
First, look at your own self-care. It is important to make sure, to the extent possible, that you have a plan to eat and sleep well, and to arrange to have your physical and psychological health be as strong as possible in this time of adversity. You will want to follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to stay healthy during COVID-19.
You can think of a job search as selling your skills and talent to a potential employer. Taking good care of yourself is the most important way to protect and polish the merchandise.
If you do not have access to enough food to eat, you should know that this is fairly common and many Californians with disabilities are eligible for CalFresh. This program will provide you a stipend every month to shop at the grocery store, or to order food online to be delivered to your home. In fact, you may be eligible even if you receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Also, if you receive SSI or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), you may be eligible for Medi-Cal, which is high-quality medical insurance available at no or low cost to Californians with disabilities earning below a certain amount. If you had a job and lost it, you are likely eligible for unemployment payments.
Now, lest you think that applying for these benefits is somehow contrary to your job search, I offer you this: society benefits when you find a job. We get your talent and your contributions as another working member of society. These programs exist to make sure you have the support you need to get that in place, and I encourage you to think of them as no less a part of your job search than the vocational or educational programs listed in the rest of the guide.
Because the job market is challenging and it realistically could take some time to find a job, you may want to do what you can to cut your housing costs. This may mean moving in with a friend or family member or bringing in a roommate.
Next, I encourage you to do a little bit of an exploration of yourself. First, what do you want? What are you looking for out of this job search? A particular wage? A particular lifestyle? A particular set of accomplishments? Would success look or feel more like, for example, owning your own business; a high-paying job in the corporate sector; changing the world through nonprofit work; or the lifestyle of steady part-time work with ample time left over for family and social pursuits?
Come up with some goals, which may be as narrow as a specific job or as broad as a salary range for which you would be willing to accept any job for which you are qualified. There are resources in this guide, like internship and shadowing programs, that can help you answer some of these questions.
At the same time, I want to encourage you to think of yourself as a person of incalculable value, a great find that the right employer is just waiting to choose for the job. With that firmly in mind, think of your resume as your main self-advertisement. While the “Job Search Preparation Toolkit” section will give you some tips and tricks to make the document stronger, covering the right material is a million times more important than using the perfect word. Make sure the readers (your potential employers) sees you as their next great hire.
To ensure this, you absolutely must lay out your qualifications and showcase them in terms of what you have to offer their business or organization. Your resume also should be proofread by people who can provide feedback both in terms of your skills and experience and in terms of grammar, editing and formatting.
Depending on where you are in your life, you may not yet have a list of internships or jobs to include on your resume, but you have skills, energy, imagination and drive. Think of the things you have done in your life that illustrate these and let those be the basis of your resume. While there are services in this guide that will help with actual resume construction, keeping this perspective in mind will not only give you a stronger resume but also will help you to remember how valuable you are in the inevitable challenge of searching for work right now.
Next, gather your team. You are not in this alone. You have teachers, current and/or former coworkers, parents, family, friends and all their friends. You may have contacts through a faith-based or civic organization. While none of them can lead your personal job search, each can help. Some will provide encouragement, and others will provide ideas and job leads. Some will provide references. You should identify those upfront so they have time to think about what they want to say about you. All these contacts are potential ways to connect the employers or jobs you identify. The “Job Search Preparation Toolkit” includes practical tips on how to grow that team, but keep in mind that you have been growing it all your life.
LinkedIn is a great place to post your resume. The site provides free videos that will walk you through creating a good LinkedIn profile. But LinkedIn is also, even more importantly, a way to know who can help you connect. Right now, search out everyone you know, whether you met them once in a grocery store or you have known them all your life. Send a request reminding them where you met. Most will accept. Then, anytime there is a job or organization at which you want a connection, search for their staff on LinkedIn. It is possible someone you connected with will know someone there. Research shows that people are willing to make introductions in that way even if they barely know you. They feel good knowing that they have an opportunity to help. Give them an opportunity.
Then look at your network, human and digital. Who might be a good person with whom to practice interviewing? Who is great at reviewing a cover letter? Find those people now, not when you need them. Ask them if they would be willing to help. Then, when you get that wonderful opportunity, you already know whom to approach.
The rest of this guide will give you step-by-step pathways that you can take based on when you decide you want to take hold of your job-seeking process. A note: the pathways might make it look a little bit mechanical – just do these things and you will get a job. Sadly, while there might be exceptions, generally that is not how it works. This is a tough job market and a lot of people are looking for work. Thus, there will be setbacks, there will be challenges and, frankly, it would not be unusual for there to be a few tears. You should expect these because they are normal during what is an unprecedented moment in history.
At those down moments, make sure that you know who can provide your mental health support. Then, think about who on your team would be a good sounding board. Finally, reread this letter. Update and review that list of strengths, and spend a few minutes remembering that you are going to be an incredible employee. Then pick yourself up (metaphorically or physically), put yourself together, and go back to one of the pathways below.
As someone who uses a wheelchair, I know what you are going through. There will be challenging days, but you can do this!
Director of RespectAbility California
RespectAbility is a nonprofit organization that fights stigmas and advances opportunities so people with disabilities can fully participate in all aspects of community. For more information see www.RespectAbility.org.
Matan A. Koch is the Director of RespectAbility California and Jewish Leadership at RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for and with people with disabilities. A wheelchair user himself, Koch is a longtime leader in disability advocacy. A graduate of Yale College and the Harvard Law School, Koch began his career as in the private sector and was recognized as a “Rising Star” by New York SuperLawyers. He was a Senate-confirmed appointee to the National Council on Disability from 2011 to 2014. Based in Los Angeles, he is a full-time advocate for people with disabilities.