During my journey of advocacy, I’ve met a lot of amazing people. Terri Thrower is one of those people. In the two years I’ve know Terri, I’ve found she has a great passion for creating opportunities for others to share their voice. Her perspective of living life with a disability is so unique and refreshing that I invited her to share the story with you, As we continue to celebrate National Disability Employment Month, learn how Terri’s journey to employment helped mold her into the strong advocate she is today.
I am a proud disabled and blind woman, but I didn’t always identify or embrace disability. At age 2, I was diagnosed with a disabling condition known today as Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA). In the 55 years since, this autoimmune disease has caused joint damage, chronic pain, fatigue, inflammatory eye disease and glaucoma, along with other “fun” things like osteoporosis.
In honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), I’ve been recalling my employment journey. One key thing to note: JIA kept interrupting said journey. I’ve had more than my fair share of surgeries, including joint replacements and metal implants to repair broken bones. So, if this job history sounds a bit disjointed, it is—pun intended.
Before I landed on my first career as a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor (VRC), I worked a few jobs that were totally unsuitable for my body. Jobs I had, such as stocking shelves for retail stores, cleaning tables and toilets at Wendy’s, and selling toilet bowl cleaner door-to door left me in so much pain I could not move. I was only at Wendy’s for three days but recovering from that took more than a month and a lot of steroids. You get the picture: these jobs were crappy.
My first gig as a VRC was in 1988, straight out of Wright State’s Rehabilitation Counseling program. An internship with the Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation (BVR) led to a full-time job there. This kind of work involves helping people with disabilities to obtain or maintain employment, providing career guidance, training, and job placement services, among others. Everything just fell into place for this job and being a prior BVR client didn’t hurt.
During my five years with BVR, I met with employers on behalf of my clients, especially during NDEAM. Although potential employers were interested in hiring people with disabilities, many were anxious about it. Some hiring managers worried about liability, the cost of reasonable accommodations, and training, but I could usually quell their fears about costs. When they wanted to know why they should hire a disabled worker over any other though, I fell short. Everything I understood about being disabled meant mitigating limitations to fit into the rest of society. If you could “overcome” disability somehow, you could fit.
Fast forward to 1996. I’m living in Atlanta and job-hunting to no avail. For nearly two years, and for the first time, I couldn’t get a job in my career field, or anywhere else. I started to suspect discrimination but couldn’t prove it. That was before I became legally blind, and when that occurred in January of ’96, I put my job search on hold. Meanwhile, the Paralympics were in town, and I was drawn to the festivities of disability sports. The games I saw were impressive, but the Paralympic Congress made an impact. This three-day “conference” featured talks, and performances on disability culture. Disability culture was a perspective, or worldview, drawn from the lived experiences of being disabled. It was also community, shared knowledge, and something to celebrate. The activists, scholars, artists, and dancers claimed it as identity and embraced it for their creative expressions. It was the catalyst that helped me accept my disabled body, and my own experiences.
My career in rehabilitation counseling, however, was coming to an end. My last job as a VRC, at the Department of Services for the Blind in Seattle, helped me realize that what I had seen in Atlanta could not be unseen; disabled people were valuable members of society. I realized that my job—helping my clients fit into a world that wasn’t built for them—was no longer fulfilling. What I really wanted to do was change the world. Or, if nothing else, I wanted to be part of improving it for disabled people.
In the last 20 years, I’ve been pursuing this goal. I completed my Ph.D. in Disability Studies, focusing my work on disability culture. Along the way I presented on the topic, taught medical students about it, and helped produce several disability culture festivals and events. Disability can teach us how to live and thrive in ingenious ways. As disabled people, we embrace interdependence and connectedness. We understand uncertainty and we know how to adapt. Our value lies in our participation in society and culture. But to do that, we need to continue to fight for better access. In the meantime, employers who have hired people with disabilities understand our value. We are dedicated, determined, resourceful, and flexible employees. What disabled people can contribute to the workforce, the arts, culture, research, science, and everything in between is unlimited. When we have the opportunities to contribute, that’s how we change the world. Not just for those with disabilities—for the better.