ADA Information for:
Find your ADA Center
Losing Mobility and Gaining a Work Life
January 31, 2015
Source: NY Times
I always cringe a little when I hear people say that affirmative action does not work or is not fair. That is because I know I would not be where I am today without it. I also know that very few people see the issue from the same perspective that I do.
As a young black male from Brownsville in Brooklyn, I was extremely athletic. I played baseball, touch football and basketball. I even took ballet classes with the Eliot Feld ballet school in a special program for disadvantaged city youth. I dreamed of being Gregory Hines.
Growing up in the 1970s, I also had an addiction — video games and pinball — and I desperately craved quarters. I never knew my father, and my mother was often on welfare or working an exhausting temporary job. Feeding my addiction was on me.
I got my first paying gig at the age of 10, bagging groceries at a Key Food on Avenue B and Sixth Street in Manhattan through the father of a schoolmate who managed the store. (We had moved to the Lower East Side after a fire forced us out of our apartment in Brooklyn.) That summer I worked daily shifts, roughly four hours each, for tips. On a good day I brought home $3. On a great day, $5. I was supposed to share a percentage with my mother, but I often shortchanged her.
It became a major source of pride for me, this “pay for labor” thing, and it instilled a work ethic I would never lose. Not even after I was shot in the back while walking home one night. The police never did find my shooter, and the bullet, still lodged near my spine today, paralyzed me for life from the waist down at the age of 13. I spent six months in the hospital trying to recover. My arms were so weak I could barely lift them over my head. I had to learn to do everything all over again.
In high school, I watched as many of my able-bodied friends juggled school and part-time jobs. By this time I had gained considerable upper-body strength. However, as someone who was paralyzed, I never imagined that any employers in their right minds would hire me.
I was fiercely independent and darted around the city in my wheelchair with no assistance, but who would hire a cripple when you could have a “regular” kid? I was not going to deliver pizzas or wash cars or stand behind a counter and ring people up on a cash register. I assumed I would just collect a disability check well into my adulthood. Maybe if I got lucky I would score a computer job down the line.
In the spring of my junior year in high school, a guidance counselor told me about a government-sponsored program that placed high school students with disabilities in work positions for the summer. She encouraged me to apply. I would make minimum wage, of course, but it promised to be more worthwhile than hanging out watching TV, so I signed up.
That June I nervously started my first placement, at a dermatology office at Bellevue Hospital, a bus ride from where my family now lived in Chelsea. Monday through Friday, 9 to 5, I sorted dermatology slides, answered phones and ran materials to and from Bellevue and the neighboring N.Y.U. medical center. I loved it. Someone depended on me to show up. I never took a sick day that summer.
That job gave me a powerful sense of purpose and belonging. I became friendly with many of the staff members there, like nurses, doctors and lab technicians.
Another high school student, a Puerto Rican girl from Harlem who worked in outpatient check-in, became a dear friend. On breaks we would visit one another and flirt. Every payday Friday, she and I would go out to lunch at our favorite pizza place on Second Avenue.
I fell in love with her. But that is a whole other story. The point is that Working — with a capital W — filled me with such confidence and increased my self-esteem in such immeasurable ways that I could feel comfortable falling for a beautiful able-bodied girl.
My boss at Bellevue was Rachel, a middle-aged doctor, who talked to me as if I were an adult. She set the bar impossibly high for all of my future bosses. She was humorous and laid-back, but was also conscientious and well respected by her peers. I remember thinking that if I ever got to be a boss, I would strive to be like her.
On my last day there before having to return to school for my senior year, Rachel took me out to lunch at a popular Indian restaurant. She told me she often took new interns there. I felt special, important, appreciated. She said she would miss me and that if I wanted to return, there would be a job there for me next summer. I nodded, thinking that was exactly what I wanted. But that next summer the program gave me a different placement at the Bobst Library at N.Y.U. in the heart of Greenwich Village, placing bar codes in books.
Though the mood and responsibilities were different, the pride and sense of self-worth were the same. It gave me great satisfaction to get out of the house by 8 every morning knowing I would not be back until nightfall because I had a job. I had to be someplace where my knowledge and expertise were needed.
Even the drug dealers in my neighborhood respected me. I knew this because my building had three steps to the entrance, and every morning and night one of those dealers helped me up or down the steps. The one I was closest to would see me in the morning and say: “Gotta get Jerry to the office.”
It has been nearly 30 years since I rolled into that Bellevue lobby, a skinny kid with a Richard Pryor Afro in a clunky wheelchair. With the exception of a few tiny breaks, I have not stopped working since. I have been a customer service representative, a case manager for homeless youth, an actor in commercials and films and a production manager and writer for a theater company, among other things. Once I even dressed up as a cow and passed out fliers in Times Square to promote a new Ben & Jerry store. And I always have that pride — that feeling that I am a contributing member of society. I matter.
My belief is that the people who are against affirmative action must lack an empathy gene. Oh, if they could only roll a mile in my wheelchair. The unemployment rates for people with disabilities worldwide are mind-numbingly high. I know because I have traveled to over two dozen countries and met these people, as a tour guide leader for those with disabilities. The main reason the jobless rate is so high for people with disabilities is that they are not given an equal chance in the mainstream work world.
Employers bring their own baggage and ill-conceived preconceptions about my tribe. The Americans with Disabilities Act and similar laws notwithstanding, some employers are unwilling to make certain changes to an office space that would make life for a worker with a disability more comfortable and productive. I had several jobs where the floor on the building I worked in did not have a wheelchair-accessible bathroom; at one job I even had to go across the street to a different office building to use a bathroom that did not belong to my company. This little trip was a bonus in the summer, but was dreadful in the winter.
The sad truth is that sometimes employers need a forceful nudge to make them do the right thing. That is just the harsh reality. I got really lucky. But luck should not have to be a part of the equation.
Link: Go to website for News Source