When I work with my students in the Bender Leadership Academy programs, one of the key things I try to instill in them is the importance for people with disabilities to be independent. Many who have heard me speak know that my motto, when it comes to disability inclusion and employment, is Paychecks Not PityTM. For young people with disabilities, it is crucial to develop a strong sense of independence. People with disabilities face both physical and attitudinal barriers to inclusion and employment throughout their lives due to ignorance, stigma and fear. To be able to overcome these barriers that are placed on them by our society, and globally, young people with disabilities need to believe in their own self-worth, fight limitations placed on them by others, and be equipped to make their own life choices.

For the last 25+ years, I have been on a crusade to break down the barriers that prevent people with disabilities from being included in the workforce. I have served on local and national boards for multiple disability focused organizations, advised colleges and universities, spoken nationally about employment of people with disabilities, and represented the US on trips arranged through the State Department to multiple countries globally. I have been involved in evolving the American workforce to reach a new level of inclusion that is focused on a person’s talent and not on their disability. I have seen many individual successes of candidates I have placed thriving in the workforce; yet all of these years later, I still encounter so many situations where someone decides for a person with a disability what they can’t do.

A friend of mine labelled this tendency to decide for someone else that an opportunity wasn’t good for them the ‘adult filter’ and that phrase has stuck with me ever since. I can’t tell you how many times I have had candidates who have had to fight to have their own voice be heard at school, at home and in society. When someone decides for a person with a disability that they can’t do something, it takes away their independence, their choice and limits their opportunities to find success.

For example, I have had people with disabilities who have turned down job offers because a family member or trusted advisor has told them to do so because ‘it would be too hard for them.’ I have had parents of people with disabilities come to my office, angry, because their child with a disability wanted to move into their own apartment or to another location for a job. I have also interviewed many candidates that have told me that they were told not to take certain classes because they either wouldn’t be able to successfully learn the course material or get jobs in that field because they have a disability. What I try to tell the people with a disability and their parents or advisors is that they should set the bar higher for what success looks like for a person with a disability. What people who hold their child or loved one with a disability back are missing when they limit their child’s options is that they are preventing that person from reaching their true potential. Most people don’t understand that this is another form of pity. When adults do things that prevent a person with a disability from gaining independence and treat them as a child instead of empowering them or teaching them to make decisions, it leads to failure and ends opportunities.

Over the years, I have placed many people with disabilities into very competitive career fields, including STEM careers with prominent companies or federal agencies. The common thread with those who are successful is not disability related, as I have hired people with all types of disabilities over the years, it is related to their hard work to learn and gain competencies in their chosen field, a personal drive to be successful, and the belief that they can achieve their professional goals.

When I teach my Bender Leadership Academy students, I tell them not to let anyone put limitations on their future. I encourage them to take initiative and begin to show those around them that they are capable and possess a strong will. Young people still in high school or college can do this by taking responsibility for their commitments at school and home, rather than relying on others to make things happen for them. Parents and family members can be supportive of their loved ones with a disability by giving them the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them in order to grow. We need to empower young people with disabilities to be able to make difficult choices and accept consequences, instead of trying to be their shield. We have so much potential for our opportunity for our youth with disabilities, that we cannot allow fear, ignorance, or pity to prevent them from becoming their best version of themselves.

I encourage everyone who has a chance to influence a young person with a disability to raise the bar and end the adult filter. Take a step away from the “can’t” mentality and focus instead on widening possibilities. I have seen what people with disabilities can do when they are given the tools and opportunity to be successful. And when they are not successful, at least they were given the same opportunity to try as their non-disabled peers. Even during times of failure, there are successes… knowledge gained, strength increased, and a renewed commitment to face the next challenge in life. We should never take that away from someone else.

For people with disabilities, I encourage you to take charge and be heard. Fight for your independence by showing everyone, no matter who is holding you back, of the success you are capable of. I believe in you! I know you can make a difference in this world! And in the words of Justin Dart, the father of the disability rights movement, “Lead on! Lead on! Lead on!”

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