I flew to Juneau, Alaska, right after my second year of College – thinking I had this cool job leading tours of the Capitol Building. The recruiters knew about my deafness, and we agreed I would receive questions and comments during the tours through my assistive technology. They knew about my racial status – I checked the box for African American on the application.
There was just one thing they didn’t know until I arrived at the Capitol. When I walked in for orientation this morning, the manager pulled me aside. The manager’s cramped office feels suffocating. We sit across from each other with our knees almost touching. My back straightens as I prepare to speak. “Are you telling me to leave because I’m blind?”
“No. It’s because you’re from California. These jobs are supposed to go to Alaskan residents.” My stomach drops. I sit there, speechless, — Turning the page — until the shock shifts to injustice. “The paperwork showed that I’m from California. We even did the interview over the phone because I don’t live here. You’ve known that for weeks. Why did you hire me if the position was only for Alaskans?”
“We made a mistake. I’m sorry. ” Outside, a light rain drizzles over Juneau. The cold seeps through my coat, feeding the fear rising in the pit of my stomach.
No one will hire me.
Gordon has a job working for a tour company. His sister works for another tour company. His brother supervises a summer youth program. Gordon’s father leads wilderness and wildlife photography tours. A family friend, also staying at the house works with at, with at-risk youth. Laurie, Gordon’s mom, teaches music. Everyone has a job except me. Laurie rescues me from the Capitol Building, denouncing their dismissal the whole drive home. “You’ll find a better job, Haben. Juneau has lots of summer jobs.” I nod, too dejected to speak.
— Turning the page —
When we arrive at the cozy house in the woods, I head straight to the computer. Craigslist has numerous job openings— Laurie was right. After the government, the tourism industry is the second largest employer in Juneau. Over a million tourists visit each summer for the city’s spectacular scenery, abundance of wildlife, and majestic Mendenhall Glacier. Many employers turn to the Lower 48 to fill their summer openings. Of course, the ads don’t mention Juneau’s persistent precipitation.
Over the next weeks, I send out dozens of applications, focusing on those that match my strengths in public speaking. Since helping to build a school in Mali, I’ve logged numerous hours speaking to audiences big and small. My experience impressed the Capitol Building recruiters enough to choose me over Alaskans, at least until I walked in with a white cane. The applications lead to interviews, the interviews lead to rejections. Back on Craigslist, I broaden my search, responding to ads that seek people with strong reading, writing, or analytical skills. The pattern continues: submit an application, brave an interview,
— Turning the page —
then face a rejection. I change my strategy, responding to nearly all of the ads: shelving gift stores, baking cakes, folding laundry in hotels. Rejection. Rejection. Rejection. Disability professionals warned me: work hard or you’ll never find employment. Around seventy percent of blind people are unemployed. I studied hard in school, graduating high school as valedictorian. I spent the summer sharpening my independence skills at the Louisiana Center for the Blind.
My college GPA is excellent. I even have volunteer work experience on my résumé. The seventy percent unemployment rate still managed to claim me, leaving me jobless in Jobville, Alaska. When you do everything right and society stomps on you, over and over, it creates a piercing, gut-twisting pain. It causes you to question the conventional wisdom that a person who works hard will always overcome obstacles. Gordon offers encouragement, but I don’t want to hear it. He drummed up Alaska as the land of long summer days, where the sun doesn’t set until 10 p.m. He promised that I’d find a summer job here. Instead, I find employment discrimination. Blindness is just the lack of sight, but people inflate the disability to an absurd degree.
They assume incompetence, intellectual challenges, and an inability to contribute with alternative techniques. This is decades of cultural stories perpetuating the idea that people with disabilities are inferior to the nondisabled. Wherever I go, regardless of how hard I work, I keep encountering ableism.
Laurie bakes chocolate macaroons. The alluring aroma of warm chocolate pulls me away from the computer— just for a spell. While everyone else is at work, she invites me on a hike along the waterfalls of the steep Perseverance Trail. Feeling the sun on my face, as I breathe in the smells of a mountain creek rushing through grass and trees helps me forget that I’m an unemployed failure— possibly forever.
Then Laurie recommends me to her friend Rachel, the manager of a local gym. Rachel reviews my résumé, interviews me, and hires me as a part time front desk clerk. On our tour of the gym, Rachel teaches me how to use the machines, clean up the changing rooms, and manage the cash register. My white cane doesn’t faze her at all. Whether I use sight or non-visual technique matters less than whether I get the job done.
One day a woman walks up to the front desk. “Hi, I’m trying to use a treadmill but it’s not working.” “I’ll take a look. Which one?” I follow her to a row of treadmills. She stops by the second machine. Setting my cane down, I step up to the machine and press the on button. Nothing. I try the other buttons on the panel. Nothing. Using both hands, I search the machine from top to bottom. Along the base I find a switch. When I click it, the treadmill whirrs to life. “Oh my God, thank you! That was amazing! I didn’t even see that switch,” she says. My lips turn up in a playful grin. “I didn’t see it either.” We laugh, a cathartic, soul-healing laugh. Sometimes tactile techniques beat visual techniques. Some day the world will learn that people with disabilities are talented too.